British and Turkish elections, similar results, different outcomes

British and Turkish elections, similar results, different outcomes

Ünal Çeviköz*
May 7 is the date of parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom. A month later, on June 7, Turkey will go through the same test. Being two Allies in NATO and with the U.K. supporting Turkish membership in the EU, the two countries seem to have several commonalities which bring them closer to each other, despite the fact they lie in the most eastern and the most western ends of Europe. For example, public opinion in both countries considers their own forthcoming elections to be “critical” and “of historic importance.” Yet, it is not the only common characteristic between the two elections. There are many other similarities and observers forecast that a “hung parliament” is probable in both countries as well. Forecasts may look similar, and perhaps even the results may look alike, but they will bring different outcomes.

The main contenders in U.K. politics in the forthcoming elections are the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrat Party (LibDem), the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Scottish National Party (SNP). The first two, the main political actors of British politics, seem to have similar support - namely some 33-35% of the votes. Who will get most of the votes and become the first party will be hard to guess until the vote is cast. The UKIP may get some 13% and the LibDem some 8%. The surprise effect comes from the SNP and their overwhelming ascent in Scotland, which will probably affect politics in Westminster for the next five years to come after the elections. They seem to have wiped away the traditional strength of the Labour Party in Scotland, a development which perhaps has a dear cost to the Labour Party, with the result of depriving them from winning the elections. The UKIP, on the other hand, is a crucial stakeholder with its strong appeal to the Conservative Party supporters, depriving them from winning the majority. The Liberal Democrats, in spite of their much depreciated position with probably more than half of their current seats lost, still remain as the key to the formation of a government in post-election circumstances.

British politics has gone through a vigorous election campaign focusing on many important policy issues for the last six months. The Labour Party and the SNP heavily criticized the economic austerity policy implemented by the current Conservative-LibDem coalition for the last five years, but coalition partners defended this to be their most significant success story as the GDP grows steadily in the U.K., making it the country in the EU to recover most rapidly from the financial crisis of 2008. The National Health Service and its restructuring has also been an issue of discussion during the election campaign. The most important issue after the elections will be, however, the “referendum on the future of the U.K. in the EU.” Prime Minister David Cameron, in order to calm down the Euroskeptics within his party as well as to discourage the conservative electorate  from shifting to the UKIP, had promised to hold a referendum in 2017 in order to ask the British public whether to remain in the EU or not. During his election campaign he did not change his position. Moreover, he even made the issue a priority to be included in the coalition protocol if the Conservative Party were to enter into one due to the result of the elections. The Labour Party, on the other hand, declared it loud and clear that they were against the referendum. Liberal Democrats have recently declared that the referendum issue did not present a “red line” had they been offered a coalition partnership, a pragmatic message to the Conservative Party to indicate their willingness to continue the current coalition government after the elections. Whether the coalition partners will still enjoy the necessary parliamentary majority after the elections however remains as a big question. Conservatives make it clear that they will not go to coalition with the UKIP; the SNP flirts with Labour to form a coalition, Labour finds it reasonable and “considers it as a possibility” to form a coalition government with the LibDems, a party which happens to be ideologically closest to their world view. A very complicated setting which makes it even harder to guess what the new U.K. government may look like for the next five years to come... In addition to coalition possibilities, a minority government or early elections are other scenarios which are being discussed.

British politics is not very familiar with coalition governments. Five years ago, when the elections of 2010 resulted with a hung parliament, it was considered a big surprise, as it had not happened in the U.K. since 1945 (a Labour minority government supported by Liberal Democrats in 1977 was not considered a formal coalition). Yet today, politicians in Great Britain are looking for coalition alternatives, even before the elections take place, with a view to offer a sustainable and stable political and economic environment to their people. Progressive and mature European democracies in fact consider coalition governments as more encompassing, reconciliatory and functional in today’s increasingly polarizing modern societies. 

Although the result of the June 7 parliamentary elections in Turkey might resemble a similar hung parliament like in Britain, the outcome could hardly look alike. First of all, Turkey is acutely discussing an issue which pertains to a systemic change, namely transformation of its exemplary parliamentary democracy much respected and envied by its neighbors in a wide geography from the Balkans to Central Asia, to a “presidential system” claimed to be unique, a system whose success is seriously questioned in the same geography, particularly in the post-Soviet republics if not in the Middle East. The economy, unemployment, Turkey’s diminishing GDP growth, decreasing foreign trade and increasing foreign debt are not priorities, at least not in the campaign of the ruling party. Therefore, no policies are put forth with the aim of dealing with those problems.

Secondly, the election campaign has been proceeding in the most awkward setting that could ever be observed in a parliamentary democracy, a setting where basic principles of the constitution are flatly ignored. Thirdly, the ruling party does not see any merit in coalition governments, declaring such a possibility as a nightmare scenario prone to chaos.

Although two-and-a-half million British tourists visit Turkey every year and Turks consider London as one of their favorite destinations, the two societies have different views on many issues and have difficulty understanding one another. Surprised about the unprecedented attempt to justify the so-called “presidential system” - desired so lustfully in Turkey - by looking to London, for example, The Guardian qualified the political system in Britain as “a constitutional monarchy in which the Queen is head of state but where the power to make and pass legislation lies with an elected parliament” in its Jan. 30 edition. The Guardian did not elaborate further, however, that the U.K. was the cradle of parliamentary democracy, the political system which is claimed to be “dysfunctional” after 90 years of implementation in Turkey. One cannot imagine how the U.K. press would react if the Queen had campaigned in favor of a British political party prior to the elections either. Nevertheless, we will see how politicians find solutions to their election results within the parameters of parliamentary democracy, one of the common characteristics of their political culture.

* Ünal Çeviköz is a retired ambassador and president of the Ankara Policy Centre