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The Presidental Election in Turkey: Winners and Losers

hirsizNote from LeftEast: Somewhat belatedly, we are presenting you with an analysis of the Turkish Presidential Election of August 10, 2014 produced by Turkey’s Movement for Permanent Revolution (SHD). The statement expresses the group’s strong support for Selahattin Demirtaş of the Peoples’ Democracy Party, who polled 9.6% in the election, and also critically assesses the prospects for future cooperation between this traditionally pro-Kurdish party and the labor and socialist camps of the country as a whole.  Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won the election with 52% of the vote, becoming Turkey’s first directly elected President or more literally “Head of Republic” (Cumhurbaşkanı), and has since resumed his promises to transform the state into a presidential republic, concentrating power in the executive branch for the first time since the administration of Kenan Evren, leader of the military coup of 12 September 1980.  In second place came Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, career theologian and former director of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, a UN-affiliated association representing predominantly Muslim countries, with 38% of the vote.  Surprisingly for some, Ihsanoğlu ran on a join ticket with support from the traditionally secularist and center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) as well as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a traditionally right-wing party with strong ties to the ideology of Turkish-Islamic Synthesis (Türk-Islam Sentezi), but which has had to redefine itself in the face of stiff ideological competition from Erdoğan’s AKP.  Selahattin Demirtaş’s 9.6% showing greatly increased the vote share of his party, whose capacity to bring together pro-Kurdish and more broadly working-class politics resonated with many voters, not only in the predominantly Kurdish parts of the country.  Readers should note that the role tatilciler ve boykotçular (“vacationers and boycotters”) played in this very low-turnout election has been much discussed and debated in Turkey since August 10.  Intra-party dissent during the phase of candidate-selection exposed the dissatisfaction of many secular/center-left CHP voters with their party’s choice of candidate.  While some of these voters may have gone over to Demirtaş, those of a more nationalist complexion seem to have stayed home.


With the election victory of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on August 10th, Turkey enters a new period. After 12 years as Prime Minister, the newly elected President will attempt to implement a presidential regime. But the election has another winner, Selahattin Demirtaş, the candidate of the leftist and pro-Kurdish alliance HDP, who won 1,200,000 more votes than in the local elections in March of this year. This time he gained the support of both Kurds in Eastern Turkey and also leftists in the West. This dual support is evident from the rise of his vote share to 9% in Istanbul, and 8% in Izmir. Demirtaş doubled HDP’s vote in these two cities and Ankara. His share of the vote nationally reached almost 10%. At the same time, the joint candidate of the main opposition parties, the republican center-left CHP and the Nationalist MHP, Ekmelledin İhsanoğlu, was the clear loser of the elections with 38.5%. A few more observations:

  • Demirtaş managed to address Turkish working-class voters and leftist activists beyond the Kurdish national movement’s natural voters. During the election campaign, Demirtaş  targeted primarily Erdoğan, not making the same mistake as Sırrı Süreyya Önder, the HDP candidate for Istanbul mayor in the local elections in March, who reserved his attacks for the CHP.  That choice enabled some traditional CHP voters unhappy about İhsanoğlu to turn to Demirtaş.

  • Demirtaş’s success cannot be understood solely on the basis of the increase in the vote.  Without voting for him, many voters (especially from the republican CHP) felt sympathetic to the politics he represented. The key to this is leftist discourse.

  • Demirtaş upset the balance of the bipolar AKP v. CHP/MHP model. That’s why, even though Erdoğan won this election, it pointed to his limits. Although in the run-up to the election, all the administrative resources of the state, from public TV channels to municipal workers, were deployed in his campaign, Erdoğan couldn’t increase his support significantly compared to previous elections.

  • Much depends on whether the HDP will be able to sustain the principled leftist line it took during this election. In the framework of undercover deals between the jailed PKK leader Öcalan and Erdoğan, through which the Kurdish peace process has been moving, the HDP’s capacity to be a principled leftist opposition is not guaranteed. Its working-class voters should be aware of this.

  • The increase of votes in Kurdish cities in this election compared to local elections reflects the protest mood of the people from the HDP’s municipalities, who are no longer satisfied with the AKP’s constant promises of a peace process.

  • While Demirtaş turns leftward and thereby makes gains, CHP keeps gettting defeated while shifting to the right through its growing proximity to the MHP, the Gülenist movement, US foreign policy, and TUSAID (the main Turkish industrial and business association).

  • Many MHP voters in Central and Eastern Anatolia abandoned their party’s candidate in favor of Erdoğan. In those regions, Erdoğan’s vote in those areas rose to 60-70 and in some cases even 80%. The joint-candidate tactic of the CHP and MHP proved a failure.

  • The turnout at elections was 74%, which is the lowest rate of any election in the last 12 years: this despite the fact that voting in Turkey is obligatory, non-voters being subject to a fine.  The reason why Erdoğan was able to win in the first round is precisely this low participation rate. The main reason for the low participation rates of the regions where the CHP is very strong is the refusal of many CHP voters to cut short their holiday and show up at their polling station. This is an indication not only of their petit bourgeois conformism but also of their unwillingness to recognize İhsanoğlu (an Islamic theologian and former Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) as one of their own.

  • As Erdoğan tries to implement a presidential system with himself at the top, it is important to build an independent socialist alternative to counter his increasingly dictatorial tendencies. This is an emergency situation not only for the prospects of revolution and socialism, but also for the dangers that the working class will face.

  • General elections come and go, and political struggle does not end with them. Wallowing in resignation after the loss won’t help the Turkish left break the blockade in which it currently finds itself.

Original published in

Translated  by Tilbe Akan.