by Derek Davison
When Turkish voters went to the polls in June, they dealt the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a serious electoral setback, voting the party out of the sole parliamentary majority that it had held since 2002 and leaving Turkey with no majority party. After attempts at forming a coalition government failed over the summer, Erdogan scheduled snap elections for November 1 to resolve the deadlock.
Those snap elections paid off in a big way for Erdogan and the AKP. The party increased its share of the vote nearly nine points from June (when it won 40.9% of the vote) to November (roughly 49.5%) and regained 59 seats, giving it 317 seats in Turkey’s 550-seat Grand National Assembly.
The AKP’s performance significantly exceeded even the rosiest (from the AKP’s perspective) pre-election polling. For much of the summer and into the fall, polls suggested that the AKP might see slight gains in the snap elections but the end result would still be a hung parliament. A number of factors explain the change in the AKP’s fortunes and the fact that such a large portion of the electorate appears to have broken for the party relatively late in the electoral process
Turkey has suffered through a violent summer and early fall. The government has blamed two major terrorist attacks, in Suruc in July and in Ankara in October, on the Islamic State. A series of smaller, more targeted attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have killed over 150 Turkish soldiers and police officers since July. The PKK contends that those attacks were carried out in self-defense, following a government crackdown in the aftermath of the Suruc bombing, but the violence nevertheless undeniably had an impact on Turkey’s electorate. In that context, voters (particularly from the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, which lost the most votes of all four of Turkey’s major parties between June and November) appear to have looked to an AKP majority as the country’s best hope for ending the violence and stabilizing the country.
Speaking to a Wilson Center audience on November 4, Turkey analyst Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said simply that, “Turks decided to pick the stability of a single-party government.”
Erdogan and the AKP changed their message to reflect these popular concerns. One of the biggest issues in June’s vote was Erdogan’s plan to change Turkey’s constitution to increase the power of his presidential office. Voters resoundingly rejected this plan, as June’s results show. In contrast, in the campaigning for Sunday’s snap elections Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the AKP’s parliamentary leader, focused their message on stability and security. Although opposition parties sought to blame all that recent instability and violence on the AKP, Erdogan and Davutoglu were able to convince voters that the loss of the AKP’s majority left Turkey in disarray and that only a restoration of that majority could restore order.
Erdogan and Davutoglu also sought to portray the largely Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whose surprising success in June was the single biggest reason why the AKP lost the majority in those elections, as an arm of the PKK. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas rejected that linkage, but his calls for both the PKK and the government to stop fighting and resume peace talks went ignored. Demirtas’s inability to rein in the PKK made him and the HDP appear ineffectual, and appears to have driven some Kurdish voters away from HDP, with some going back to the AKP (which had consistently done well among religious Kurdish voters until June).
Additionally, the HDP and other opposition parties failed the test of governance. SETA Foundation analyst Kilic Bugra Kanat told the Wilson Center that the “constant failure of the opposition [parties]” to show that they could be a governing alternative to the AKP also contributed to the AKP’s gains. He suggested that the opposition parties’ failure to elect a unifying figure as speaker of the Grand National Assembly after the June vote may have signaled to voters that they were incapable of handling the heavy work of governing. The parties’ failure to negotiate the terms of a coalition government with the AKP similarly may have damaged their popular image. The biggest failure would be the MHP’s, as it was the AKP’s most natural coalition partner, yet it ruled out participating in a coalition very early on. On top of this, as Council on Foreign Relations fellow Steven A. Cook noted, Erdogan undoubtedly “manipulated the political system” to forestall the possibility of a coalition and to force these snap elections.
What Happens Next?
Erdogan’s desire to remake Turkey’s constitution to increase the powers of the president has clearly not diminished. On Wednesday, one of his aides told reporters that Turkey’s current constitution has “lost its essence” and that changing Turkey’s parliamentary system to a presidential one would enable the country to “jump up a league.” But despite the AKP’s big victory in the snap elections, the party is still 50 seats shy of the 367 votes it would need to amend the constitution, and 13 seats shy of the 330 votes it needs to call for a national referendum on constitutional changes. Although the AKP is certainly closer to achieving Erdogan’s constitutional aims than it was in June, it’s not clear how Erdogan plans to bridge that final gap. Nor is it clear whether Davutoglu will be willing to subordinate his authority as prime minister to Erdogan moving forward, though Davutoglu may not have much of a choice. Although Davutoglu has considerable governmental authority as prime minister, in an inter-AKP contest of wills with Erdogan, the party’s founder and totem, he would almost certainly lose.
Erdogan has governed Turkey in an increasingly authoritarian way over the past few years. His government has, among other things, suppressed protesters, drastically restricted press freedoms, limited access to social media, and blocked corruption investigations. June’s election was a sign that Erdogan’s authoritarianism was beginning to wear on the Turkish public. But with the AKP’s majority restored, Erdogan now has no reason to moderate his behavior. If, somehow, the AKP is able to win enough votes in parliament to amend the constitution and increase Erdogan’s official power to match his de facto power as the country’s (and the AKP’s) most dominant figure, then Turkey’s slide toward authoritarianism may even gain speed.
That authoritarian tendency may have greatest impact on issues of war and peace. The uncomfortable fact with respect to the resumption of fighting between Ankara and the Kurds, which seems to have played such a large role in the outcome of the snap elections, is that Erdogan caused much of it, and may have done so for purely political reasons. Despite the fact that the PKK has now ended the one-month unilateral ceasefire that it put in place leading up to Sunday’s vote, the power to end this latest round of violence largely rests with Erdogan. He could take the occasion of his party’s big win to calm the violence, ease the crackdown, and restart negotiations with the PKK. So far, however, there’s no sign that he plans to do this.
Erdogan pledged just before the election that Turkey will act to stop any effort by the PKK-allied Kurds in northern Syria to establish an autonomous polity, even if it means striking Kurds who are working with Turkey’s NATO ally, the United States. Any strikes on Syria’s Kurds will only exacerbate Ankara’s problems with Turkey’s Kurds. On the other hand, Erdogan appears to be participating in diplomatic efforts aimed at ending Syria’s civil war, a step that may be essential to easing Turkey’s tensions with its own Kurdish population.
Finally, Erdogan and the AKP face perhaps their greatest challenge in the Turkish economy, which suffers from waning confidence and mounting private debt. The Turkish lira is weakening and economic growth is slow, raising the possibility of “stagflation.” AKP’s victory means that it can take this economic challenge head-on, but it also means that AKP will fully own the results. There are also early signs that the economic debate may be opening fissures within the AKP, between those (including Erdogan) who would like to see Turkey’s central bank relax interest rates to boost growth, and those who oppose such “populist” steps.
The November 1 snap elections ended a politically tumultuous few months both for Turkey and for the AKP. However, despite the AKP’s campaign rhetoric, it is not at all clear that the restoration of its parliamentary majority can actually bring Turkey the stability that so much of its electorate wants.