Turkish political parties are a numerous and colorful lot, but the four major parties currently represented in parliament will be the only real contenders in the June 7 legislative elections. According to official figures released March 31, no fewer than 97 parties are active today. The leaders of the Sept. 12, 1980, military coup had outlawed all political parties after taking over, so the parties today were all founded in the years since the coup. The 13-year rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has seen a real boom in parties, with 57 new ones established since 2002.
Some newcomers stand out in name and platform. The Electronic Democracy Party, or e-Party, for instance, advocates unrestricted Internet access, a serious issue in a country where the authorities often block or attempt to block websites, including giants like Twitter. The Turkish Party of the Unemployed and Laborers supports factory strikes and demonstrations by the unemployed. It has recently organized a campaign against the construction of the country's first nuclear power plant. The Women’s Party, as its name suggests, consists of women. Its members are campaigning for a transition from a “men’s democracy” to a real democracy. People with disabilities have created the Unimpeded Life Party and the Unimpeded Turkey Party to advocate for their rights.
While the above parties campaign for the rights of specific social groups, most Turkish parties are Islamist, nationalist or leftist movements. The Justice and Truth Party, for instance, operates under the slogan “Islam is the solution” and describes itself as a “neo-Ottoman movement.” Also standing out in the Islamist camp is the Free Cause Party, widely viewed as a political offshoot of Turkey’s Hezbollah, an Islamist group with a violent past (and unrelated to its Lebanese namesake).
The crowded nationalist camp includes the Great Turanist Movement and the Motherland and Independence Party. There are also a number of socialist parties as well as pro-Kurdish groups, including the Kurdistan Freedom Party. There is even a Gezi Party, inspired by the mass anti-government protests that erupted at Istanbul’s Gezi Park in June 2013.
Most of the parties, with headquarters and provincial offices in various cities, hold regular conventions and organize campaigns. Yet, they do not contest elections — their raison d’etre — because of the 10% threshold required to enter parliament. Only a few parties have managed to win more than 10% of the vote in the past 13 years. Thus, the threshold condemns dozens of parties to being only “token parties.”
Would those parties have made it into parliament if the threshold did not exist? A polling company has provided an answer. In a survey conducted ahead of the 2011 general elections, respondents were asked which party they would have voted for if the threshold did not exist. The results indicated that the Islamist Felicity Party would have won six seats in the 550-member parliament. This means that a lower threshold would not affect which party rules the country, but it would allow more parties to be represented in parliament.
In some places, the existence of 97 political parties could be interpreted as the sign of a strong democracy. In Turkey, however, it is just the opposite. The threshold bars most parties from parliament, forcing even their leaders to vote for other candidates. A lower threshold or no threshold could have led to a colorful, democratic feast, with almost all the parties contesting elections and lawmakers representing women and the jobless and Internet campaigners exclusively. The threshold system, however, reduces those parties to mere associations or nongovernmental groups, making Turkey a virtual graveyard of political parties.
In addition to the threshold, there are other factors keeping small parties from contesting elections. Under the law, parties are required to be institutionally organized in at least 41 of Turkey’s 81 provinces and meet certain criteria for numbers of members. For parties created by people with disabilities, for instance, meeting those conditions is virtually impossible, given the maximum number of people with disabilities organized across the country. Currently, only parties officially represented in parliament receive financial assistance from the state for organizational activities and electioneering. The AKP and the two largest opposition forces, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), received a total of 531 million Turkish lira ($200 million) for this year’s elections. While the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP) has representatives in parliament, they were elected as independents. This year, for the first time, HDP parliamentary candidates are running on the party ticket and aiming to surpass the 10% threshold.
In short, although 97 parties are currently active in Turkey, the June 7 elections will be a race between four parties: the ruling AKP, the social democratic main opposition CHP, the nationalist MHP and the HDP. The remaining 93 parties — deprived of financial assistance and held back by the seemingly insurmountable threshold and other restrictions — appear destined to practice politics only in the streets and in cyberspace.
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