Surprises in the Turkish speaker’s election

A near-identical race for the Turkish speaker took place in 1999 – and the enigmatic Devlet Bahçeli was there then as well
İsmet Yılmaz (AK Party), Deniz Baykal (CHP), Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu (MHP), Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat (HDP)

A near-identical race for the Turkish speaker took place in 1999 – and the enigmatic Devlet Bahçeli was there then as well

Think of this picture: an inconclusive election result produces several possible coalition combinations. The first business of the new parliament – the election for speaker – is seen as a crucial first test of voting patterns in the new chamber.

The kingmaker is the leader of Turkey’s nationalist party, the MHP. But Devlet Bahçeli cuts an obstinate figure, suspicious of all the party leaders and stubbornly unwilling to cut a deal.

Sound familiar? It should, and not just because this is the scenario following this month’s Turkish general election: almost exactly the same thing happened sixteen years ago.

State of the parties: 1999

The 1999 election delivered a five-party parliament. Two centre-right parties – Anavatan (in yellow) and the DYP (maroon) – held around 170 seats between them, while the Islamist FP (pink) was the third largest group.

The largest party was the centre-left DSP, but its leader Bülent Ecevit had few coalition options. The two small centre-right outfits were ideologically identical, but their leaders loathed one another and a coalition would have been unmanageable. The Islamists, meanwhile, were a toxic brand after being forced out of government by the military a few years previously.

1999 speaker voteOnly the nationalists, coming in a surprise but very solid second place, were viable partners..

But Mr Bahçeli was deeply reluctant, more interested in using his parliamentary phalanx to get his man elected speaker. He declared that votes for the MHP candidate would be a precondition for any coalition talks. Ecevit balked at the prospect.

Islamists steal the show

The first two rounds of the 1999 speaker election were pretty much like yesterday’s ballot in 2015: the parties all backed their own candidates, knowing none would secure the 367 votes needed.

But the third round saw some dramatic shifts. MPs from the isolated FP shifted their allegiances en masse to the centre-right Anavatan candidate, Yıldırım Akbulut, while other parties stuck to their guns.

The FP’s move elbowed out the DSP’s Uluç Gürkan and meant the fourth round run-off was held between two right-wing candidates. Mr Akbulut was the runaway winner, far outstripping Mr Bahçeli’s man.

Notably, the MHP’s defeat did not have the catastrophic implications for the future government that many feared. Within a fortnight Mr Bahçeli had agreed to join the DSP and Anavatan in a coalition. What’s more, when Mr Akbulut’s term ended two years later, his replacement was from the MHP.

Present lessons

1999 showed any party can swing the result of the speakership. It also showed there is little point trying to understand Mr Bahçeli’s motives.

2015 speaker voteThere are two possible outcomes in today’s voting. The first and likelier option will see voting taken to a fourth round, where the AK Party candidate İsmet Yılmaz will be pitted against another rival, probably the centre-left CHP’s candidate Deniz Baykal.

The votes of the smaller parties would hold sway here. We already know the pro-Kurdish HDP won’t back the AK Party candidate, which leaves the awkward Mr Bahçeli as kingmaker.

The MHP could back Mr Yılmaz and comfortably keep the speaker in AK Party hands for another term. It could back Mr Baykal, although Mr Bahçeli has bizarrely declared he will not support any candidate that receives HDP votes.

Prepare to be surprised

The nationalists could also abstain from voting entirely – a move that would hand the speakership to Mr Yılmaz.

But the second possibility is for voting to be concluded without the need for a fourth round. Remember 1999, when the Islamist FP unexpectedly ditched their own candidate to change the outcome of the race. An MHP surprise in today’s third round is not out of the question.

Round three is at 3pm this afternoon.

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