MEI's Turkish Election Watch series, a weekly update on the latest developments about Turkey's upcoming presidential and parliamentary vote, will run until the conclusion of the elections in May.

Kiliçdaroğlu and the carpet

Perhaps the biggest tempest in a teapot this week was the attempt by Justice and Development Party (AKP)-affiliated media — which, as it turns out, is about 90% of the broadcast media in Turkey — to manufacture outrage over Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu stepping on a prayer rug while wearing shoes. Kiliçdaroğlu, like everyone else in Turkey over the age of two, knows that you are not supposed to wear shoes at home or in a mosque. As it turns out, everyone at the event in question was wearing shoes, it was a public iftar dinner, and the carpet, while “prayer rug style,” was clearly not being used for prayer at the time. Under normal circumstances, this would not merit a second thought, but the government is desperate to shift the focus of the election from the country’s economic woes to the more familiar territory of culture wars. The “carpet incident” serves as a reminder for the AKP’s base that Kiliçdaroğlu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) has a secularist tradition and that Kiliçdaroğlu is not a Sunni Muslim at all, but rather an Alevi — for many devout Sunnis little better than a heretic. In the end, Kiliçdaroğlu apologized and the country will move on to new manufactured outrages soon.

Erdoğan on the campaign trail: Talking tough to the Americans, again

For his part, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now regularly making campaign stops, particularly focusing on regions that were hard hit by the earthquake. He is promising massive infrastructure projects, especially large-scale housing developments for those left homeless by the earthquake, all to be produced within a year. During some of his campaign stops, Erdoğan has been literally handing out money to local children — the effect is meant to recall grandfatherly generosity. In another perennial component of the AKP’s electoral strategy, Erdoğan has picked a fight with U.S. Ambassador Jeff Flake over the latter’s meeting with opposition leaders in late March. Turkey would, Erdoğan promised, “teach the U.S. a lesson” for meddling in Turkish elections.

Attacks on opposition parties

Violence against opposition parties — especially the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — is a regular part of Turkish political life. It is therefore no surprise, but disturbing nonetheless, that the frequency of such attacks has intensified. Shots were fired near the CHP headquarters in Istanbul, just days after a shot was fired at a Good (İyi) Party office in another part of Istanbul. A campaign office for the Green Left Party was also vandalized this week. One person was detained, and then released, in the attack on the İyi Party office; no other arrests have been made. At current levels, this violence is about on par with other recent elections (and, as in the past, the targets are always from the opposition). Nonetheless, because the ruling coalition seems to be suffering from a popularity deficit, concerns about the potential for escalation, either before or immediately after the election, are particularly acute.

Coalition politics and the parliamentary elections

Perhaps the most important electoral news of the past week has been within the electoral coalitions competing for parliament. Because these elections take place in each of the 87 electoral districts through proportional representation (the so-called D’Hondt System), and because the AKP has enjoyed the advantage of mapping out the electoral districts, it is generally assumed that the ruling coalition would enjoy a significant advantage in the parliamentary vote. Things became a little more complicated for the AKP last week, however, when its long-time coalition partner, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), decided that it would contest the parliamentary elections under its own name, rather than as part of the coalition. That will make it harder for the AKP’s coalition to win an outright majority. On the other hand, it will also help to ensure that loyalists to MHP Chair Devlet Bahçeli win parliamentary seats and make it easier for the party define itself outside of its relationship with the AKP. For its part, the opposition coalition seems to be holding firm; the İyi Party has already agreed to coordinate its candidacies, running together where it is advantageous for the opposition, and running separately where it gives them a greater chance of winning. Now the four smaller parties in the “Table of Six” opposition coalition have also agreed to run under the CHP banner; if elected, their members would resign after the elections to take seats under their own party affiliations.

In what is likely a weird historical footnote, the Democratic Left Party (DSP) announced on Friday, April 7, that it was joining Erdoğan’s electoral coalition. This follows a pattern in recent weeks of the AKP allying itself with a series of fringe parties to bolster its electoral chances. The DSP is marginal even by the standards of fringe parties, but there is a certain irony in its inclusion in an AKP-dominated coalition. The DSP was originally founded by Bülent Ecevit, one of the luminaries of the secular left in the pre-AKP era. In the immediate aftermath of the 1980 coup, the party served as a sort of placeholder for the CHP, which Ecevit had previously led, after it was banned by the military. Its inclusion in the AKP-MHP coalition suggests how far the party has strayed from its roots and also, perhaps, the ways in which, as in the 1970s, unwieldy coalitions of convenience seem to be holding sway over Turkish politics once again.


Howard Eissenstat is a non-resident scholar with MEI's Turkey Program and an associate professor of history at St. Lawrence University, where he teaches courses on Middle East history and politics.

Photo by Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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