Erdogan’s Big Night

The Turkish president's party defied the polls, guaranteeing its political dominance for years to come.


ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party is once again firmly in control of Turkish politics after winning an unexpected landslide victory in a snap election on Sunday.

Millions of voters flocked back to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), almost five months after stripping it of its parliamentary majority in a June poll that ushered in political gridlock and some of the worst violence the country has seen in two decades. The Islamist-rooted party secured 49.4 percent of the votes, a nine-point upswing from its June result and enough to deliver it 316 seats in Turkey’s 550-seat parliament.

Erdogan described the results as a validation of the AKP’s hardline stance against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a guerilla movement whose war against the state has escalated dangerously in the past four months.

“National will has favored stability on Nov. 1,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul on Monday. “Our nation … communicated in a clear manner that pressure, threats, and bloodshed cannot co-exist with democracy, national will, law, and development.”

The vote came after a summer of fruitless wrangling to form a coalition government, during which the country’s long-running Kurdish insurgency claimed hundreds of lives after the collapse of peace talks in June, and the country experienced the deadliest act of terrorism in its modern history, when the Islamic State launched twin suicide attacks on an Ankara peace rally, killing 102 people.

The AKP’s sweeping victory blindsided pollsters and pundits focused on the race. The conventional wisdom was that Turkish voters — sharply polarized by Erdogan’s increasingly combative rule — would deliver another hung parliament. An average of recent polls had placed AKP support at 42 percent — a slight rise on its June 7 showing of 40.9 per cent, but not enough to win it back control of parliament.

However as-yet unconfirmed electoral data suggest that the AKP, which first won power in 2002, attracted around 4.5 million more voters than in June.

“This result confirms that the Turkish electorate values stability and political predictability a lot more than freedom of the press, human rights, and corruption,” said Suat Kiniklioglu, a former AKP parliamentarian-turned critic, and executive director of the Center for Strategic Communication, an Ankara-based think tank.

“The voters made a very rough but rational calculation that the chaos Turkey has seen in the past months will not be solved by a coalition government.”

The vote brought an end to a cycle of elections in which Turks have gone to the polls four times in just over 18 months, sealing Erdogan’s and the AKP’s hold on power at least until the next presidential election in 2019.

“We don’t have any scheduled elections for 4 years and I don’t think it will be possible to form any kind of effective opposition to the AKP in that period,” said Soli Ozel, a Turkish political commentator and professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.

He predicted that the two largest opposition groups, the People’s Republican Party (CHP), whose share of the vote remained steady at 25 percent, and the National Action Party (MHP), whose share dropped from 16 percent to 12 percent, would face internal crises as a result of the defeat.

“The MHP imploded and the CHP’s stagnation has become impossible to maintain,” Ozel said. “I think both of those parties will look inward.”

The AKP, meanwhile, managed to win over both nationalist and Kurdish voters — two groups normally at odds with each other. By hardening its position against the separatist PKK, which renewed its guerilla campaign against the state in July, the AKP cut deep into the support of its ultra-nationalist rival, the MHP. While the MHP refused to co-operate in any coalition government, the AKP co-opted the right-wing party’s message by vowing to take the harshest line against the Kurdish guerrilla movement, which both Turkey and the United States has declared a terrorist organization.

At the same time, the AKP also expanded its support among Kurdish voters. Many conservative Kurds who abandoned the AKP in June in favor of the Kurdish-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) switched back. In Diyarbakir Province, the largest region in the Kurdish majority southeast, the governing party saw its votes increase roughly 7.5 percent, largely at the expense of the HDP.

Backed by a pliant state media, the AKP sought to portray the pro-Kurdish party as a front for the PKK, blaming it for the upsurge in violence. The AKP also mopped up significant votes from smaller Islamist and right-wing groups. The HDP, however, managed to just barely clear the 10 percent threshold for inclusion in parliament, winning 59 seats.

But while Erdogan had much to celebrate in the vote’s aftermath, the AKP fell short of a 330-seat super majority that would have allowed it to fulfill Erdogan’s ambition of putting to referendum a new constitution that would grant him boosted powers.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu vowed to press for cross-party support for the drafting a new constitution, to replace the current charter written under the guidance of a military junta in 1982.

“It is obvious that the current system does not meet Turkey’s needs. This shirt is too tight for this country,” he said in a post-election victory speech on Sunday night.

AKP officials described the potential change as a necessary step to strengthen Turkish democracy — not as a move to enhance the power of Erdogan himself.

“We want to fix the constitution because it dates from the coup era and is not democratic,” said Markar Esayan, an AKP member of parliament. “Our presidential project is about that, not any other reason. We want to create a democratic and effective constitutional system.”

For the AKP’s opponents, however, Erdogan’s dream of a strong presidency has become emblematic of what they see as the AKP’s broader authoritarian swerve in recent years.

Since Erdogan was elected president last August, prosecutors have brought scores of cases against journalists, politicians, and civilians on charges of “insulting the president.”

Last week, two opposition newspapers and television stations affiliated with Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric and arch-foe of Erdogan, were raided by police, taken over, and transformed overnight into pro-government outlets after a judge appointed an AKP-linked trustee to oversee their parent company.

“Not since the days of the 1980 military coup have there been such dramatic moves to close down and prevent scrutiny of power,” wrote Human Rights Watch’s Turkey researcher Emma Sinclair-Webb in a briefing condemning the seizure.

Analysts are now debating whether the government will press ahead with its harassment of opposition media or ease up, given that its hold on power is more secure.

“My instincts tell me that Erdogan will try to push further on some actors who he feels have wronged him, in particular the Gulenists,” said Kiniklioglu.

“But for others there may not be a need for it. Even last night you could see immediately that the Dogan group [a large media conglomerate critical of the government] was very cautious in its coverage and was adjusting to the new situation.”

With their external rivals vanquished for the time being, internal tensions among top AKP officials could also re-emerge. In the lead up to the election, former AKP grandees had expressed misgivings about Erdogan’s growing hold over the party. “We were a party of ‘us’,” Bulent Arinc, a co-founder of the party and former deputy prime minister, complained in September, “but now we are a party of ‘me.’”

At the center of any potential fracture of Turkey’s ruling party lies the relationship between Erdogan and the man he elevated to prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu.

“Now that there’s no more threat to their rule we may see more tension between them,” added Kiniklioglu. “Now that Davutoglu feels more emboldened and legitimate as a party leader I think we will see a tug of war between him and Erdogan.”

Photo credit: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Clarification, Nov. 2, 2015: In the Nov. 1 election, the National Action Party (MHP) garnered 11.9 percent of the votes, which has been rounded up to 12 percent. A previous version of this article had rounded this number down to 11 percent.

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