Dispatch

A Body Blow for Turkey’s Ruling Party

In a surprising result, President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has failed to win a majority in parliament. But can the opposition capitalize?

Young supporters of pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) hold Kurdish flags as they celebrate the results of the legislative election, in Diyarbakir on June 7, 2015. The HDP easily surpassed the 10 percent barrier needed to send MPs to parliament. Under Turkey's proportional representation system, this means the Turkey's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) will need to form a coalition for the first time since it first came to power in 2002. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC        (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Young supporters of pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) hold Kurdish flags as they celebrate the results of the legislative election, in Diyarbakir on June 7, 2015. The HDP easily surpassed the 10 percent barrier needed to send MPs to parliament. Under Turkey's proportional representation system, this means the Turkey's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) will need to form a coalition for the first time since it first came to power in 2002. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — And just like that, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s status as the uncontested dominant figure of Turkish politics is over. In a stunning election result on June 7, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) saw a sharp decline in votes, losing its majority in parliament for the first time since it rose to power 13 years ago.

Outside the headquarters of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which will become the first Kurdish party to enter parliament in the history of the Turkish republic, thousands of supporters launched an impromptu and ecstatic party, shooting fireworks and lighting flares until the air smelled like gunpowder. The crowd chanted in support of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and cursed Erdogan as a “murderer” — blaming him for the wave of violence that targeted the opposition party in the days leading up to the vote.

At the back of the crowd, Ayse Budak soaked in a victory that came after years of struggle. “If we had wings, we would fly away,” she said. “That’s how happy we are.”

Just two days earlier, Budak said, she was despondent when an HDP rally in Diyarbakir was targeted by a twin bomb attack, killing four people. Like many residents of this southeastern city in the country’s Kurdish heartland, she wondered whether the state would allow the Kurds to enter parliament. “When we suffered pains, it only made us stronger,” she said.

While the mood in Diyarbakir — where the HDP won roughly 80 percent of the votes, shattering party leaders’ most optimistic predictions — was ebullient Sunday evening, the sharp decline of the AKP may have actually made their job more difficult. The ruling party won roughly 255 seats, 21 seats short of the majority necessary to govern. While nothing is yet clear regarding coalition formation, its most likely partner is the right-wing National Movement Party (MHP), which is more hostile to the peace process with the Kurds than the current government.

The other possibility is that Turks may be soon heading back to the polls. A senior AKP official told Reuters that the party may not form a coalition, and “we expect a minority government and an early election.”

Whatever the case, it is clear that the ruling party’s campaign, which was at times marked by a paranoid style that raised the specter of international conspiracies to weaken Turkey, underwhelmed many voters. The party captured roughly 18 million votes, some 3 million fewer than it won in the last general election.

AKP leaders have argued that an array of “lobbies” are aligned against them and bolstering the campaigns of their rivals. The claims have at times played off anti-Semitic tropes.

“There’s an economic lobby in the world, which is under the hand of the Jewish lobby, and these are the ones who want the AKP to fall,” Muhammed Akar, chairman of the AKP’s Diyarbakir branch, told Foreign Policy. “Not only the Jewish lobby, there is another movement — the Crusaders. Because the AKP government is the voice of the Muslims in Turkey, and all the world.”

Akar framed the AKP’s push to amend the constitution to create a strong executive presidency, which Erdogan has strongly backed, as necessary to defeat these international conspiracies. He blamed the bomb attack on these lobbies, saying it was a provocation aimed at weakening the country.

“Who is going to lose from this?” he said. “It’s the AK Party. So it’s someone who wants to show the AKP is responsible for this — the chaos and economic lobbies who want the AKP to fall.”

HDP leaders, however, played off growing distrust at Erdogan’s efforts to centralize power in his own hands, warning that the president was aiming to build a dictatorship. “I can imagine that he has something in his head like the presidential system in Syria or Saddam in Iraq,” HDP candidate Ziya Pir told FP.

But while Erdogan’s rivals won a ringing victory tonight, the HDP risks becoming akin to Wile E. Coyote after he finally catches the Road Runner — unsure what to do next. The party successfully extended its support beyond that of a narrow Kurdish interests party, winning the votes of enough secular, middle-class Turks to push it above the threshold to enter parliament. But this relationship of mutual convenience is only possible if the ceasefire between Kurdish guerrillas and the state remains in place — and a coalition government between the AKP and the right-wing MHP could potentially stall the peace process, threatening a renewal of violence.

The AKP still remains far and away the largest party — and Turkey’s only truly national party, able to command votes in every corner of the country. Prime Minister and party leader Ahmet Davutoglu was quick to remind supporters of this fact in a rousing post-election speech: “This election has once again showed that the AK Party is the backbone of Turkey,” he said. “Nobody should make a victory out of an election loss … the AK Party is the winner.”

The rules of the Turkish electoral system mean that the AKP’s relatively underwhelming allocation of seats in the next parliament could be reversed in a future election with only a small shift in the vote totals. The country has a 10 percent threshold for parties to enter parliament — the seats that would have been won by parties falling below that line are redistributed to the larger parties. A three percent decline in the HDP’s support, for example, would force it out of parliament, and mean that many of its roughly 80 seats would be reallocated to the AKP — putting Erdogan well within range of his hoped for supermajority of 330 seats.

For most of Erdogan’s rivals, however, these are problems for another day. Sitting outside a polling station in Diyarbakir’s old city, Naciye Topdemir was simply soaking in the startling possibility of a new Turkey. The grandmother, who put her age at 75 or 76-years-old, had lost five “martyrs” in her family to the Kurds’ long war with the state; a son and daughter were currently in the mountains with the PKK.

“My hair become [sic] white before I ever in my life saw such things,” she said. “We don’t want [to] fight any more, we want peace.”

Photo credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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