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Turkey’s new parliament: 50 shades of nationalism, conservatism

Turkey has ended up with the most nationalist and conservative parliament in its modern history, and where women, LGBT groups will face an uphill battle.
Turkey election

Turkey’s new parliament after the May 14 elections may look more diverse and colorful, featuring members from 18 parties, but nationalist and conservative forces, scattered on either side of the aisle, have gained an unprecedented weight in the legislature.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faces a May 28 runoff in the presidential race after garnering 49.5% of the vote in the first round, has based his entire campaign on narratives of national survival and security. To flatter national pride, he has showcased energy, infrastructure and military equipment projects, drawing a vision of a “grand Turkey.” 

To villainize the opposition and scare the electorate, Team Erdogan has painted visions of resurging terrorism, coups, Western interventions and the country’s partition, accusing opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu of links to terrorist groups. By so doing, he has sought to minimize the political price he pays for the economic crisis bruising Turkey, the huge devastation of the February earthquakes and mounting allegations of corruption in government ranks.

Stamping Erdogan's policies

If Erdogan gets re-elected, he can count on a 322-seat majority in the 600-member parliament to pass legislation. Nevertheless, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) saw its seats drop to 267 from 295 in the previous elections, while his main ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), increased its seats to 50 from 49, according to the preliminary results. Among the newcomers who entered parliament as part of Erdogan’s People's Alliance, the Islamist New Welfare Party (YRP) clinched five seats, while the Free Cause Party (Huda-Par), a Kurdish Islamist group, got four seats. Erdogan’s alliance fell short of the supermajority of 360 seats that is required to change the constitution. For any such amendments, it will have to co-opt opposition members.

The opposition’s six-party Nation Alliance, which campaigned on ending the executive presidency system and restoring the parliamentarian one, won 213 seats. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) increased its seats to 169 from 146 in the 2018 elections, while its largest ally, the nationalist Good Party, increased its seats by one to 44. Yet the number of CHP lawmakers drops to 130 after the deduction of seats won by smaller parties whose candidates ran on the CHP ticket. Among them are the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) and the Future Party, both led by former Erdogan associates, which got 14 and 10 seats, respectively, and the Islamist Felicity Party, which got 10 seats.

The Kurdish-led Labor and Freedom Alliance won 66 seats. Its largest component, the People's Democratic Party (HDP), ran under the banner of the Green Left Party — a precaution against any last-minute court decision to ban the party, which is on trial for alleged links to armed Kurdish militants. The party secured 62 seats, while its ally, the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP), got the remaining four.

Due to a combination of factors, the HDP saw its vote decline. The party has lost organizational strength amid a crackdown that landed up to 10,000 of its members behind bars. Also, the threshold to enter parliament was lowered to 7% from 10% last year, which, according to observers, caused the HDP to lose some non-Kurdish voters who would previously back the party to help it clear the 10% threshold. The TIP’s decision to run on its own ticket in many areas is seen as another cause of lost electoral synergy. Former HDP voters are believed to have gravitated mainly to the CHP, both in western Turkey and in the predominantly Kurdish southeast. For the first time in two decades, a CHP candidate was elected in Diyarbakir, the HDP’s main stronghold. Kurdish voters disenchanted with the AKP, meanwhile, gravitated to the AKP’s allies, according to pundits.

As for Turkey in general, Erdogan’s nationalist discourse appears to have invigorated the MHP, which had appeared to struggle with the 7% threshold in opinion polls a few months ago. The MHP got 10% of the vote — a sign that it managed to lure back some supporters who had turned to the Good Party, the nationalist member of the opposition bloc.

Essentially, the results show an increased nationalist-Islamist orientation among the working class and low-income groups in both urban and rural areas. Though battered by Turkey’s economic turmoil, those masses chose to back Erdogan’s conservative alliance. The social democratic CHP failed to shrug off its image as the party of the well-off, and its Islamist-rooted allies — DEVA, Future and Felicity — failed to capitalize on the AKP’s eroding appeal. The HDP secured solid Kurdish support for Kilicdaroglu in the presidential vote, but that collaboration pushed “concerned nationalists” to back the other opposition contender, Sinan Ogan, dividing the anti-Erdogan vote. Kilicdaroglu mustered 44.9% of the vote, while Ogan, a popular nationalist figure, garnered some 5%, backed by the newly founded far-right Victory Party, whose main pledge is to send Syrian refugees and other migrants back.

Most nationalist and conservative parliament

In sum, the country has ended up with the most nationalist and conservative parliament since modern Turkey was established a century ago. Nationalist and conservative parties on either side of the aisle hold more than 400 seats. Women won 121 seats, the largest number thus far, but in another landmark, candidates who openly target women’s rights made it to Parliament inside Erdogan’s alliance.

The YRP, for instance, aims to prevent Turkey’s return to the Istanbul Convention on protecting women’s rights, tackle “LGBTQ perversion” and defeat those who oppose Quranic education for children as young as 4.

Huda-Par is arguably the most controversial newcomer, being the offshoot of Hizbullah, a militant Kurdish group unrelated to its Lebanese namesake, which is held responsible for dozens of killings in the 1990s, including of Islamists opposed to its radical views. The party promotes a new constitution in line with Islamist values, protecting the family against “pervert” lifestyles, amending Turkey’s own law on preventing violence against women, curbing the alimony rights of divorced women, pensions for women who stay in wedlock for 25 years and an end to the compulsory co-education system.

Huda-Par might moderate its tone under AKP pressure, for its agenda has irked some wings of the AKP, including female members. Still, defenders of women’s, children’s and LGBTQ rights face an uphill battle in the new parliament.

The pressure of rising nationalism will be an even more defining factor. With Ogan’s supporters now the key in the presidential race, both sides are under pressure to turn up nationalist pledges. During the campaign, Kilicdaroglu carefully balanced his rhetoric to keep his nationalist allies without estranging the Kurds. Now Ogan expects him to toughen his nationalist tone and shun the HDP in return for his support in the runoff. This, however, could alienate the Kurds.

Either way, nationalists have grown stronger in parliament, being key partners in both Erdogan’s and Kilicdaroglu’s alliances. Had they contested the elections as a united bloc, they would have become the second-largest force in parliament after the AKP. In a viral tweet after the May 14 vote, Tugrul Turkes, a prominent nationalist figure who joined the AKP in 2015, declared that “Turkish nationalism is the only true winner of the elections.” It could become the country’s largest political force in the next elections, he continued, if the scattered nationalist groups come together.

According to journalist Hakki Ozdal, who closely follows the political scene, the election results herald widening avenues for nationalists in politics and the bureaucracy, which could leave Erdogan’s government under further pressure if he gets reelected. The relatively small number of votes garnered by Ogan and the Victory Party are just the tip of the iceberg, boding gloomy prospects for the Kurds, Syrian refugees and other migrants in the country, Ozdal argued. As for women’s rights, the YRP and Huda-Par could fail to push their agendas, but Turkey’s return to the Istanbul Convention remains a pipe dream, he told Al-Monitor.

In terms of foreign policy, the new parliament would only strengthen Erdogan’s hand in any new military interventions against Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq, as well as moves to expand Turkish influence in the Caucasus.

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