The time is ripe for a showdown. Cracks have started appearing in the behemoth erected by the AK party in Turkey. A pesky and charismatic ‘David’ in the form of Selahattin Demirtaş is aiming to dent the electoral majority of AK Party, (the ‘Goliath’) in general elections slated to take place on 7th June. Mr. Demirtaş, a human rights lawyer, and his party represent the largest ethnic minority in Turkey—the Kurds. Since the resolution of First World War, Kurds have sought political rights in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. His left-wing pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has struck all the right notes since emerging to prominence during last year’s presidential elections in August. On the campaign trail, Mr. Demirtaş carefully avoided any talk of Kurdish separatism and instead focussed on the need for reforms in the size of government, individual rights for all Turkish citizens and bringing an end to systemic discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and the LGBT community.

The traditional ‘major’ parties in Turkey include the right-wing Justice and Development (AK) party founded by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and currently led by Ahmet Davutoğlu. Mr. Erdoğan—a former mayor of Istanbul—served as Prime Minister of Turkey for twelve years (2002-2014) before getting elected as President. Mr. Davutoğlu, a Professor of International Relations and Turkey’s Foreign Minister for five years (2009-14) is the current Prime Minister of Turkey. AK party has traditionally been challenged in the political arena by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), a Kemalist and social-democratic party. CHP claims to represent the ideology espoused by founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It is the oldest political party in Turkey, established in 1919 as a resistance movement and later transforming itself into a proper political party. CHP is currently headed by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, a former civil servant and Deputy Chairman of the Socialist International. Another major party in the fray is the far-right Turkish nationalist party, the Nationalist Movement party (MHP). In the 2011 general elections, AK party won 312 out of 550 seats while CHP won 125 and MHP won 50. 

For the last twelve years, AK party has ruled Turkey, winning seven consecutive general, local and presidential elections, in addition to two referendums. Their track record on economic progress is remarkable while their efforts to restrain the coup-ready Turkish military have attracted voters. Chinks in its armour started with the Gezi Protests of 2013 when protests erupted in Istanbul’s central district in reaction to government’s plan to replace a public park with a shopping mall. In the aftermath of the protests and increased pressure of the government due to corruption charges, the Erdoğan government parted ways with its Islamist allies, the Hizmet Movement led by a Sufi preacher named Fethullah Gülen. Members of the Hizmet movement in police, judiciary, military and academia were forcibly removed from their jobs. In December 2014, Turkish police arrested more than two dozen senior journalists and media executives connected with the Gülen movement on various charges.

AK party government’s record regarding freedom of speech is abysmal and hundreds of journalists have been jailed in Turkey over absurd charges. Mr. Erdoğan and his ministers have invoked all sorts of conspiracy theories to dismiss genuine criticism directed at the autocratic regime. This antipathy towards dissenting voices has turned petty at times. Recently, a former New York Times bureau chief was due to be awarded honorary citizenship of the city of Gaziantep due to his coverage of ancient roman mosaics in the city. When he landed in Turkey for receiving this honor, the award was cancelled on the direct order of President Erdoğan because of a recent article critical of Herr President. Can Dunder, chief editor of daily Cumhuriyet is being hounded by the government for the crime of ‘publishing a report on arms movement on the Turkish-Syrian border’. He may even be tried for attempted treason. In an address on 3rd June, President Erdoğan alleged that ‘Journalists, Armenians and Gays are representatives of sedition’.

Turkish Foreign Policy under AK party for the last three years has been a disaster. Following the Arab Spring, Turkey has supported the ouster of Hosni Mobarak in Egypt, Bashar al Assad in Syria and has aligned with Islamic State (IS) against Kurds. Potential IS recruits have been using Turkey as a safe launching pad. Currently, Turkey has no ambassadors in Egypt, Israel, Libya and Syria. The façade of being the most stable country in the Middle East is eroding.

Economic growth of the last decade is fading fast, with unemployment levels rising. The lira has sunk by almost 40% against the Dollar in the past two years. Mega projects such as the ‘third airport’ for Istanbul, a ‘third bridge’ and High-Speed (Hizli) train connecting Ankara and Istanbul have been started. A baroque presidential palace has been constructed for Mr. Erdoğan.

In the last few weeks, HDP offices have been attacked in various parts of the country and AK party officials have directed their vitriol towards the new party. If HDP gains more than 10% votes in the general elections, they can block any efforts at a constitutional amendment by the AK party to move the country towards a presidential system. It would be foolish to predict anything but an AK party majority in the upcoming elections, but HDP is likely to spoil the party. Change comes slowly to Turkish politics and the addition of HDP to the political dynamic is likely to be a breath of fresh air.