The primaries signal the winner already

The primaries for the run-up to national elections on 12 June will be over on Monday evening when the parties registered to compete in upcoming elections submit the official list of nominees to the Supreme Election Board (YSK) as required by law.

The number of candidates for the primaries in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has already exceeded the 10,000 mark, a strong sign that democracy is very much at work in Turkey. We also see the candidates represent a more colorful picture in this election cycle than ever before, including hopefuls from non-Muslim communities and the Roma people as well.

Of course, the leadership in all parties, big and small, will weigh heavily in determining the final list to be submitted to the YSK simply because of the huge leverage provided to the position of chairman by the Political Parties Law in this country. Nevertheless, the general outlook in constituencies and the profile of candidates and where they stand on issues will have some impact on the selection process. This is especially true for the mainstream parties that want to appeal to a larger pool of the electorate nationwide. They know very well that controversial names with bad track records will cost them votes at the ballot box.

The AK Party, for example, runs surveys carried out in the candidates’ respective hometowns, and party members vote on the list of nominees to see who receives the most votes for the available slots in that district. Though the result is not binding on the party leadership, it gives a measurable indication to determine who are the most respected by party loyalists. This makes sense because you need activists to canvas neighborhoods and push the get-out-to-vote campaign to convince undecided voters. On top of that, the AK Party later polls all registered voters in that district via phone to determine who are the most popular and likely to appeal to a larger audience.

This process is supplemented with a face-to-face interview with all candidates at party headquarters run by independent panels of three to four persons, composed of higher-ups in the AK Party, which eliminates more than 4,000 candidates from the initial pool of applicants. The surveys at the district level as well as responses from the candidates during the interview help shape the secondary list to be submitted to a more rigorous screening by another panel of higher-ups, this time composed of big shots in the AK Party.

The final provisional list has already been submitted to Prime Minister and AK Party Chairman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He will decide on the definitive list for submission to the YSK with the help of deputies whom he implicitly trusts. In addition to this comprehensive screening process, the chairman of the party can fill available slots by nominating people directly. These are most likely powerful, high-profile candidates the chairman thinks would garner more votes for the party nationwide.

The CHP, on the other hand, is having a hard time compiling the list of nominees because of a limited number of available seats based on the share of votes the CHP is expected to get in the June 12 election. The party is already divided between reformists who support change to broaden the support of voters, and conservatives who want to stick to the old failed policies. Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu is expected to dump two-thirds of the current deputies to make room for incoming contenders. This has created tension among the ranks, and it seems all hell will break loose when the final list is announced on Monday.

Contrary to a pledge by Kiliçdaroğlu at the party’s 2010 convention, the CHP did not have primaries in all districts nationwide. Instead the party ran preliminary surveys in only 29 provinces out of 81 to determine the popular candidates. The party leadership has already communicated to their local branches that the first three candidates in 16 metropolitan electoral districts will be nominated by the central administration.

Another thorny issue for the CHP is the final status of Ergenekon suspects who applied for candidacy to avoid going to prison for terrorism activities by obtaining parliamentary immunity. Many party members are openly questioning the selection of these controversial names, saying their candidacy would greatly harm the party. They are hoping the Party Assembly, the final body to decide on the fate of candidates before sending a list to the YSK, might veto these applicants. But there is a bypass mechanism available to Kiliçdaroğlu.

To ensure the Ergenekon suspects that he recommends for nomination are not vetoed by the Party Assembly, Kılıçdaroğlu might propose that deputy lists will not be read out loud one by one but rather presented as bloc lists. This way, the Party Assembly will not be able to veto names or change the order of candidates. This would likely create a revolt within the CHP and push the party into further disarray on the eve of elections.

The second opposition party that stands to lose big in the upcoming elections is the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). According to public surveys, the MHP is barely hovering at the threshold level of 10 percent and risks being left out of Parliament completely. For the primaries, the party leadership did conduct surveys using an online system which was open for a vote by only a centrally selected list of party loyalists. It did not poll the voters to see whom the popular candidates are that will run on the MHP ticket. That means the party administration will determine the names from the Turkish capital.

Overall, it looks like the AK Party is better positioned to garner interest from as many diverse groups as possible across the political spectrum on the eve of the election campaign period. The ruling party realized that bitter feelings in constituencies might harm the candidates if and when the names were imposed by party headquarters. They need to win every potential seat that is up for grabs on election day to secure a strong mandate to overhaul the military-written 1982 Constitution, a pledge they promise to do right after the election.

Judging from the lack of diligence, due care and intense intra-party fighting simmering underneath in the primaries, one may easily conclude that the CHP and MHP might have already given up on the idea of getting enough votes to form a government alone or jointly to challenge the ruling AK Party in this election.

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