This weekend’s election results in Turkey were a surprise to the vast majority of Turkish pollsters and pundits, myself included. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won nearly 50 percent of the popular vote. The party can now form a single-party government, even if it doesn’t have the supermajority necessary to remake the Turkish constitution. What happened?
Now I see clearly
As with much in life, the result does make sense in hindsight. Prior to the June 7 election, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP leadership had supported a Kurdish peace process, in part in the hope of gaining Kurdish votes. In that election, however, not only did the AKP fail to win new Kurdish votes, but support for the Nationalist Action Party (MHP)—a far-right Turkish nationalist party—swelled, apparently out of frustration among nationalist Turks with the AKP-led peace process with the Kurds. In other words, the AKP had the worst of both worlds.
Erdoğan and the AKP leadership, recognizing the political problem this posed for them, allowed the peace process to collapse amid mounting instability driven by the Syrian civil war. This, combined with disillusionment with the MHP leadership due to their perceived unwillingness to form a coalition government, drove about two million MHP voters to the AKP this weekend. The exodus shows, in a sense, what close substitutes the two parties can be among a more nationalist voting bloc.
The controlled chaos that resulted from the collapse of the peace process—combined with the escalating refugee crisis, the fear of ISIS attacks, and the struggling economy—helped the government politically. Voters evidently recalled that it had been the AKP that brought the country out of the very tough times of the 1990s.
In contrast, the opposition parties seem to lack leadership and appear to promise only internal squabbles and indecisiveness. Craving security and stability, voters have now turned to the one party that appears to have the strength to provide it. In that sense, Erdoğan’s nationalist gambit—which was actually a well-conceived series of political maneuvers—worked. Even some one million conservative Kurdish voters returned to the AKP.
These voters perhaps did not notice the irony that the government had also engineered the instability they feared. In part, this success derives from government’s control over the media. These elections may have been free, in the sense that Turkish voters can cast a ballot for the candidates they want. But they were not fair. The state maintained tight control over traditional and social media alike. Freedom House and the Committee to Protect Journalists, among others, have cast doubt on Turkey’s press freedom credentials. Real opposition voices are difficult for media publish or voters to see on television. Thus, for example, Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the most charismatic opposition politician in Turkey, had essentially no air time during the campaign.
Not all bad news
There are some important upsides to the election results. For one, HDP again passed the 10 percent threshold to remain in parliament. That will help mitigate—though hardly erase—the polarization that grips the country, and will hopefully make government reconsider its abandonment of the Kurdish peace process.
More significantly, the AKP does not have what it needs to convert Turkey’s government structure into a presidential system, which would be a bad move for the country. The election results will undoubtedly revitalize Erdoğan’s push for a presidential regime in Turkey. But that requires changing the constitution, and the AKP did not achieve the supermajority that it would need to do that on its own.
Critically, changing to a presidential system will require some support from the opposition and even more importantly popular support via a referendum. As political strategists around the world have learned, people tend not to vote on the actual referendum item, per se, but based on more general opinions of their leadership. So to win a referendum on the presidential system, Erdoğan and his AKP colleagues would need to show improvements in the economy, in the security situation, on the Kurdish issue, on Syrian refugees, and on national stability more generally. Instability in Turkey, particularly the renewal of violence in the Kurdish region, will deter investment and deepen the economic slump throughout the country.
With its new majority, AKP leaders are now in a position of strength to negotiate with the HDP over Kurdish issues. The refugee crisis also means the government also has more leverage with the EU. If it chooses to use its strength to reach positive agreements on those fronts, the outcomes could be very good for the Turkish people.
To actually win a referendum on the presidential system, Erdoğan would have to work to depolarize his country. While the presidential system itself would not be good for Turkey, the process of getting there might be.