A ‘Readjustment’ in Turkey

“Turkey every couple of decades veers towards an extreme, and then there is a readjustment,” veteran Turkey watcher and International Crisis Group spokesman Hugh Pope told me for years.

That readjustment came June 7, with Turkey’s parliamentary elections. After years of amassing more powers, the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority—and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lost his sense of invincibility.  For the first time since 2002, Turkey will have either a coalition or minority government.

The AKP still won the election, but only with 258 seats (40.8 percent of votes) in the 550-seat Parliament. In second place was the Republican People’s Party (CHP) with 132 seats (25 percent), followed by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) with eighty-one seats (16.5 percent), and finally the leftist People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—rooted in the Kurdish political movement—with 13 percent and seventy-nine seats.

When the polls opened, thunderstorm clouds hung over much of the country, menacing turnout and providing an easy metaphor for what many feared would be an election marred by violations. Turkey’s 2014 municipal elections had already been tainted by allegations of vote-rigging in Ankara, the capital. Only 43 percent of Turks in a recent poll believed the latest elections would be fair, down from 70 percent in 2007.

But by sunset on Election Day, it was clear that democracy had prevailed. No significant allegations of fraud occurred during voting or counting. A large-scale civil society movement, Oy ve Otesi, monitored and reported no major violations. Yet many problems had plagued the campaign, including violent attacks—mainly against HDP offices and staff—lack of equal media access for all parties, and poor transparency regarding campaign financing. The HDP was the target of at least seventy violent incidents, including an attack in Diyarbakir only thirty-six hours before polls opened, in which two bombs exploded, killing at least two people and injuring hundreds.

Even though this election marked the ninth won by the AKP since coming to power in 2002, the party has lost 9 percent of its seats since the 2011 polls. More significantly, the AKP no longer has a governing majority and will find it difficult to run the country on its own as it has for the past thirteen years.

Instead, the elections are a clear victory for the pro-Kurdish HDP, which passed the extremely elevated 10 percent threshold. In Diyarbakir, the country’s biggest Kurdish majority city, the HDP won ten seats, taking five away from the AKP’s previous six.  In southeastern Turkey, ethnic Kurds switched in droves from the AKP to the HDP, cutting the AKP’s support since the 2014 local polls in half in at least five districts. But the HDP also persuaded leftists in western regions that it represented all Turks. As the HDP’s 2014 Istanbul mayoral candidate, Sırrı Süreyya Önder, pointed out on election night, it gained the “votes of trust” of people who turned to the HDP in protest against the other alternatives. HDP now has the chance to prove in Parliament that it is not solely a Kurdish-issue party. Moreover, if it can defend a range of social democratic causes, its support is likely to grow among left-leaning non-Kurds who even this time voted for CHP out of uncertainty about the HDP’s ultimate aims.

The election’s other winners are women and minorities who won seats, often on the HDP’s ticket but also with other parties. They may still not constitute 30 percent of the country’s lawmakers, but the number of women elected rose from seventy-nine in the last elections to ninety-six. Three ethnic Armenians, the first since 1964, will take their seats in Parliament, along with one Yezidi and a Roma. Women and minorities have a newfound opportunity to change some of the discourse and issues brought forward in the legislature.

The vote was very much an indictment against Erdoğan’s style of governance, even though he still has another four years in office as President. Going against law and practice, Erdoğan crisscrossed the country for months, stumping for the AKP and a constitutional change to a strong presidential system. Since such a change requires 330 members of Parliament, a super-presidency is no longer on the table, at least for now. 

A leadership struggle within the AKP is now likely to explode into the open. Until handing over the presidency last August, Abdullah Gul was clearly positioning himself as the “good cop” compared to Erdoğan’s conservative and self-righteous figure. He has kept a low profile over the past months but astute political analysts like Cengiz Candar have been speculating for months the he is likely to return to political life.

Rumors have begun about the imminent resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who is also the official head of the AKP. Davutoğlu was never elected Prime Minister; rather, Erdoğan unceremonially handed him the reins of government in August 2014. The 2015 vote is a clear expression of lack of confidence in Davutoğlu’s leadership as well.

The AKP’s own internal rules against more than three terms in office means that several other party heavyweights no longer have a clear political future. This includes Parliament Speaker Cemil Cicek, Deputy Prime Ministers Ali Babacan and Bulent Arinc, and former Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay. Instead a new cohort of AKP “freshmen/women” will come in. Analysts have described them as “youngsters” with “absolute loyalty to Erdoğan.” While it is too early to know exactly who from the AKP list will gain seats, fourteen figures allegedly closely linked to Erdoğan, including his son-in-law, were candidates.

The CHP, which has been divided between more nationalistic and pro-EU style social democrats, is also likely to face strong internal tensions. Since taking over, party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has not managed to translate popular dissatisfaction with the AKP into any higher votes for his own party.  

But the biggest question is the coming days is how Turkey will form a government. The AKP hopes to press MPs from other parties to help it reach the 276 lawmakers needed for a majority. It may encourage some individuals to jump ship and join the AKP. An agreement between the AKP and the MHP cannot be discounted even if the MHP’s leader stated June 8 that he wouldn’t join such a coalition. The two parties could claim to represent 57 percent of the vote and share a common conservative and exclusionary political ideology against decentralization and significant concessions to the Kurdish political movement. Both the CHP and the HDP have repeatedly declared that they won’t coalesce with the AKP. A grand coalition between CHP, MHP, and HDP is hard to fathom, due to the ideological differences between the MHP and HDP. 

But if there is no government forty-five days after Erdoğan gives his Prime Minister the mandate to form one, new elections will be called to break the impasse. A new vote would be a loss of time, money, and energy for a country that urgently needs to address economic challenges, the Syrian conflict, the Kurdish peace process, constitutional reform, and the recent undermining of basic freedoms—not to mention responding quickly to progress being made in negotiations between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. Repeat elections will bring back still-fresh memories of the political instability and economic malaise of the 1990s, and will provide a good excuse for Erdoğan to once again rally against parliamentarianism in favor of a super-presidency.  Turkey’s currency, the lira, has already plunged to a record low against the dollar in the first hours of trading after the polls. In addition, new elections won’t guarantee  a better AKP result. 

The new Parliament’s diversity and a weaker government should not become an excuse for inaction. Some 86 percent of Turkey’s eligible voters went to the polls, giving the newly elected leaders huge legitimacy and imposing upon them high expectations. Many Turks clearly voted to replace the old divisive way of doing politics with dialogue and compromise. Even with a minority government in place, that Parliament could become that forum for debate and consensus-building that it has rarely been over the past years—and this election could prove to be a lasting victory for a new Turkey.

Sabine Freizer is a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and Transatlantic Relations Program.

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Image: "While no one doubts that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (above) will remain Turkey’s head of state, and that the AK Party he founded will remain in power, the country’s ride over the coming year will be a rough one," writes Ross Wilson, a Distinguished Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. (REUTERS/Edgard Garrido)