Analysis: New elections may loom as no clear winner emerges from Sunday’s vote
ISTANBUL — While many commentators will cast the results of Turkey’s general election on Sunday as heralding the end of an era, the outcome is, in fact, a moment of political uncertainty. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in power since 2002, has seen an end to its 13-year streak of election wins. While it remains the largest party in Turkey’s parliament, it no longer holds a majority of seats — it can only continue to rule as a minority government, or at the head of a coalition.
The AKP won some 258 seats out of a total of 550 — more than any other party — but the result is a major setback for both the party, and for the president. Though he was not contesting an election for seats in the legislature — and despite being constitutionally banned, as president, from having ties to any political parties — Erdogan campaigned hard for his former party. Erdogan wanted a huge new mandate for the AKP, over which he still holds great sway, so it could amend the constitution and create for him an “executive presidency.” That goal was one of the most controversial in the election, and now seems beyond reach.
Some will see the results as a sign that Erdogan had become a liability for the party. Certainly his ostentatious new palace, his crude use of religiosity and intolerant rhetoric, his undermining of the rule of law, and his insistence on overshadowing his former party alienated many erstwhile supporters. However, Erdogan was clearly only one of the factors that diminished support for the AKP. The party also lost votes because the economy is weak. Many one-time AKP voters apparently defected in protest over the government’s negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). At the same time, the AKP lost the greater part of its own Kurdish constituency, unhappy over the government’s own Kurdish policy.
The big winner of Sunday’s vote was the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Turkey’s constitution — designed by a military junta after the 1980 coup — requires a political party to get at least 10 percent of the national vote to enter parliament. Not only did the HDP pass the threshold, it blew the roof off expectations, taking more than 13 percent of the vote, and will enter parliament with some 80 seats (the primary reason the AKP was pushed to a minority position).
Another winner was the democratic process itself. With sky-high stakes, there was a pervasive dread the result would be rigged. Thousands of volunteers — from all parties and civil society — mobilized to guard the ballots and the tally. The results suggest that there was little, if any, interference.
The AKP needs a coalition partner. Realistically, the National Action Party (MHP), which took some 80 seats, is the best bet. But the terms of AKP-MHP partnership would be extremely difficult to hammer out: The MHP wants Erdogan to keep his distance, something hard for the AKP to promise. And the MHP is strongly opposed to the government’s negotiations with the PKK.
Any conceivable scenario — coalition, AKP minority government or opposition coalition — means two things. One, new elections should be expected sooner rather than later. (Also, if no government is formed within 45 days, elections could be called for the autumn.) Two, government negotiations with the PKK are going to be in a state of suspended animation.
But these are not the only reasons uncertainty has increased with the election results.
Tension within the AKP, mounting for years, has become more apparent. Will Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu continue as leader of the party? Will AKP co-founder, and former president Abdullah Gul return from the sidelines? Does this election setback shock the party into unifying or cracking?
At the very least, Sunday’s election result is likely to retire an unhelpful cliché, that of the “increasingly authoritarian Erdogan.” Though the Turkish president has certainly concentrated power, Turkey’s political dynamic was poorly understood outside the country. Many in the international press have too easily echoed the opposition PR trope of Erdogan as a would-be “sultan”, but now that Turkish democracy has proven its vitality and blocked Erdogan’s road, more difficult questions must be answered.
Will an effort emerge from within the AKP to contain Erdogan to his presidential palace? What does this election result mean for Erdogan’s fight with the followers of Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gulen? What happens to the massive network of power — formal and informal — that has grown-up around Erdogan? What, in short, will Erdogan do?
Even the winners face uncertainty. The HDP has emerged as a remarkable coalition, but remains inseparable from — and subordinate to — the PKK. Previous election results suggest that the HDP’s core of PKK-sympathizers represent about 7 percent of the national vote, not enough to enter parliament. The party passed the 10 percent barrier only with the support of Kurds who had defected from the AKP, strategic voters, and a diverse field of Turkish liberals, leftists, and democratic civil society actors. This non-PKK part of the HDP’s new constituency has little sympathy for the PKK or, especially, its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan. That this new constituency voted HDP anyway is a remarkable and highly significant indication of a shift in Turkish society. The HDP leadership has acknowledged both its new, broader constituency, and — though not quite the same thing — that the party benefitted on Sunday from “borrowed votes.” If the HDP chooses to serve its new constituency, one must wonder what PKK power-holders will do with their diminishing stature. Also, how, and to what degree, can the HDP retain its “borrowed votes”?
If Sunday’s election marked the close of something, the curtains are still down. It’s not clear how the next act is to begin.