Make no mistake: Turkey’s 76 million people, 86 percent of whom cast votes in the national parliamentary election Sunday, delivered a stunning rebuke to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist who has dominated Turkish politics as prime minister and now president for the past 13 years. Turkish voters ended his government’s 13-year majority rule – and perhaps his effort to consolidate even more personal power -- by giving his Justice and Development Party, the AKP, less than 41 percent of the vote, about half of what the party won in the last general election in 2011.
Erdogan and other party officials tried to emphasize the positive. In remarks after Turkish polls closed, Erdogan stressed that the AKP had gotten more votes than any other party. No one else had a mandate to govern, he said, vowing to continue trying to shift Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Erdogan has argued that such a shift would produce more efficient government, but critics say a presidential system would lead to even more autocratic rule.
The perceived victor in Sunday’s contest was Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic, 42-year old Kurdish lawyer who heads the Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP. Under Demirtas’s stewardship, the HDP, has been transformed from a group fighting mainly for Kurdish rights into a mainstream liberal party that has championed greater rights for women, gays, and other minorities.
On Sunday, the pro-Kurdish party got over 12 percent of the vote, almost three points more than the ten percent threshold needed for his party to enter parliament for the first time. But the exuberant victory chants and fireworks throughout Sunday night in Diyarbakir, the Kurdish stronghold in southeastern Turkey, could prove premature.
Yes, there is much to celebrate in Turkey’s elections. “The elections were conducted in an exemplary fashion,” said Steve Forbes, the American financier who appeared with Doug Schoen, a pollster who has advised Bill Clinton and Michael Bloomberg, Rand Beers, a former national security council staff member in five Democratic and Republican administrations, and me on a panel that was sponsored by the Turkish government in New York to discuss the outcome of the election.
Francis J. Ricciardone, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey who now heads the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, agreed, saying that the evolving “strength of Turkish democracy, its institutions of democracy and its civil society” were all encouraging. Fraud-free, well-conducted elections were anything but normal south and east of Turkey, he said. The election monitoring by foreign and private Turkish groups, he added, also reflected the “health of Turkish society.”
But several analysts said that it was unclear whether Turkey’s political parties would be able to form a coalition government. Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish expert and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted that the opposition spokesmen have said that their parties would not form a coalition with Erdogan’s AKP. If no government gets a vote of confidence in the Parliament forty-five days after the election, new elections must be called.
Steven A. Cook, an expert on Turkey at the Council on Foreign Relations, warned that Erdogan could be “setting things up for a snap election.” He also noted that during the 1990’s Turkey’s coalition governments were weak and characterized by internal feuding which contributed to the economic crisis in 2001 that helped bring the AKP and Erdogan to power. So the elections were not necessary “all good news,” he said.
What seems clear is that supporters of Demirtas’s H.D.P. and the other minority parties registered a protest vote against Erdogan. While he still enjoys strong support among religious conservatives and among what Elmira Bayrasli called the country’s “black Turks,” the poor underclass in the Anatolian heartland, tens of thousands of whom his government brought into the middle class during its tenure, Turkey’s slowing economic growth contributed to his election woes.
Critics also took aim at what critics called his “neo-Ottoman” political discourse, his repression of the media and perceived desire for absolute power. Liberals and secular Turks were particularly angered by his ferocious crackdown in 2013 on protests against government’s plans to raze Gezi Park, one of the last large open spaces in the congested city, and replace it with a mall. Also unpopular was his crackdown on the followers of a former ally, the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose members Erdogan accused of orchestrating a corruption investigation against him.
While few analysts think that the AKP’s diminished power will result in radical shifts in Turkish foreign policy, the new popularity of pro-Kurdish Demirtas’s HDP, could reignite efforts to grant greater rights to Turkey’s Kurds.
Paradoxically, the AKP is widely credited with having done more than any Turkish party to resolve the Kurdish insurgency which raged for three decades in southeastern Turkey. But talks with the Kurdish radical faction, the P.K.K., recently stalled. A coalition government, should it be formed, might also be less intent on spending energy and resources to oust President Bashir Assad of Syria, one of Erdogan’s key foreign policy priorities.
Washington has been quietly unhappy with Turkey’s alleged habit of letting extremist Islamists travel back and forth across the border to join the Islamic State and fight Assad’s Iranian-backed regime. Turkey has taken in nearly two million Syrian refugees, whose care and feeding have been an enormous financial burden as well controversial.
Most analysts, however, predict that Turkey will continue to play a vital role in the region’s politics and various wars and crises. “There is no chance of a solution in the region that does not involve Turkey,” said Rand Beers, the former senior national security official.