Monday, 23 May 2011

The Bahçeli Tapes and Turkey's Electoral Maths

First it was the Republican Peoples Party (CHP). Now it's the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) which is falling prey to a sex-tape scandal which is rocking Turkish politics, just weeks before national elections.

The MHP tapes, which were leaked anonymously online, show high-ranking officials from the right-wing party in a variety of compromising situations with young women. To date, ten senior MHP members have resigned over the scandal.

It echoes a similar scandal last year, when a videotape was released showing the septuagenarian CHP leader Deniz Baykal apparently having an affair with a CHP deputy. Baykal subsequently resigned and his successor, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has weighed into the latest scandal, joining the MHP's leader Devlet Bahçeli in blaming the ruling AKP for leaking the tapes.

The government has angrily denied the claims, and leading AKP figures have joined the chorus of criticism surrounding the tapes' publication, arguing that underhand surveillance had no place in politics. But the willingness of Prime Minister Erdogan to turn the accusation around, suggesting that Kılıçdaroğlu himself was responsible for the Baykal tape and that the CHP and MHP had formed a 'gang alliance', suggests that the AKP is using the tapes for political advantage, regardless of who released it.

In any case, the MHP is haemorraghing officials and support and is likely to fall below the 10% vote threshold for entry into Parliament. In this case the electoral maths becomes complex and critical. MHP voters would have their second choices distributed amongst the other parties, which may allow the AKP to reach the hallowed 367-seat supermajority. This would remove the need for a referendum to rewrite the constitution, imposed after the military coup of 1980 - a vital task, it is widely agreed, but one that rings alarm bells among those who detect a creeping authoritarianism in Erdogan's aggressive populism.

So the fate of the constitution, and by extension Turkish democracy itself, can (without too much exaggeration) said to rest on the second choice votes of nationalist MHP voters. Which way will they lean? Zaman columnist Yavuz Baydar argues that some MHP voters are more likely to turn to the AKP, but that others, particularly in Western Anatolia, may support the CHP. In 2007, both provinces in which the MHP came out top saw the AKP placed in second place.

This scenario would be ideal for the government, but the 'revamped' CHP under Kılıçdaroğlu may be a more appealing option for MHP voters, even though to date Kılıçdaroğlu has yet to offer a coherent platform beyond more democracy/peace/prosperity.

Given the rapidly shifting political landscape, it would be rash to make any predictions. It's not impossible that Bahçeli may actually resign as MHP leader, as demanded by the leakers of the tapes, which would almost certainly cause the party to implode. In any case, the chances are that the MHP will not make it into Parliament, leaving this as a two-horse race between Erdogan and Kılıçdaroğlu, and who can offer more concessions to the MHP's nationalist, right-wing core voters. Expect some strident nationalism on offer from both the AKP and the CHP in the weeks ahead.

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