Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gambled that his Justice and Development Party (AKP) could not lose a second consecutive parliamentary election. He reasoned that the Turkish people prefer strong government and the stability that it promised in troubled times. He was right. AKP won a sweeping victory in the election on Sunday. The president, who is supposed to be above parties, will now use this win to press for the consolidation of power in his hands. There is a danger that such a move will instead deepen Turkey’s divisions.
Five months ago, Turkish voters repudiated the AKP, which had been in power since 2002, by denying it a majority in parliamentary elections. The party won just 40 percent and lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years. After that vote, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu could not produce a coalition government that could win a majority. That impasse obliged the prime minister to ask the president to call a new election.
Erdogan obliged; many believe that the president wanted — and perhaps encouraged — Davutoglu to fail in those negotiations so that another ballot would be required. Those suspicions are borne from Erdogan’s desire to rewrite Turkey’s constitution to create a United States-style executive that would have considerably greater power and allow him to rule more efficiently. It was the prospect of such an outcome that prompted many Turks to turn to other parties in last summer’s vote.
Between the two elections, the situation in Turkey has deteriorated quite considerably. The truce between Ankara and Kurdish separatists collapsed and clashes between government soldiers and rebel forces have resulted in hundreds of deaths. Ankara has been sucked into the civil war in Syria, first backing rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad and then turning against the Islamic State forces. There has been blowback. A pair of suicide bombings at a peace rally in the country’s capital last month killed over 100 people: most observers believe that Islamic State extremists were responsible.
Erdogan and the AKP have used the violence to demand support, warning that only they stand between Turkey and chaos. That argument apparently convinced many voters. In Sunday’s ballot, the AKP won more than 49 percent of the votes and should claim 316 seats in the 550-seat Parliament, a comfortable majority. Turnout was a convincing 87 percent among the 54 million people eligible to vote.
While the main opposition party, the secular CHP, slightly increased its support to top 25 percent, the biggest losers in the ballot were the nationalist MHP party, whose tally fell from 16 percent to 12 percent, and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, which dropped from 13 percent to nearly 11 percent, still enough to cross the 10 percent threshold required for representation in the legislature. HDP leaders protested the election conditions, arguing they were forced to cancel rallies and could not get television airtime amid a government effort to smear them as the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization in Turkey and elsewhere.
After the election, Prime Minister Davutoglu called for national reconciliation after a sometimes incendiary campaign. He tried to assuage concerns about the future of Turkish reform, promising support for personal freedoms and called for broad-based support for the constitutional reforms the party has advanced. He expressed determination to fight Kurdish rebels but was less clear-cut about his commitment to the shattered peace process.
Erdogan was equally pleased by the outcome, calling the results a vote for “stability and trust.” If there is a dark side to the ballot for him, it is that he did not win the supermajority he needs to assure passage of his reforms by Parliament.
If the president and the AKP are serious about wanting to bring stability to Turkey, then they will not make those reforms a priority. They are extremely divisive within the country. All Turks who harbor suspicions toward Erdogan — and there are many who are alarmed by his thin skin, intolerance of criticism and readiness to use the instruments of that state against any who challenge him — see them as facilitating the absolute exercise of power.
Instead, the president and the government should focus on the causes of renewed violence in Turkey. The temptation is to tar all Kurds with the brush of separatist ambitions, a policy that will antagonize a potentially powerful force for stability within Turkey. Ankara must better respond to Kurdish calls for responsibility and greater autonomy within the Turkish state, and abandon “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” mentality that prompted Ankara to back the Islamic State group in Syria as long as it fought Kurdish forces there and in Iraq. That relationship was destined to collapse — after all the Islamic State seeks a new caliphate in the Middle East and the government in Turkey is, by the Islamic State standards, an apostate.
The new government will face other challenges, most notably bridging the divide between secularists and Islamists, keeping the military out of politics if the secular foundation of the state appears to be threatened, and finally, getting the economy in order. That is enough to keep it busy without a constitutional reform that is sure to antagonize as many Turks as it alienates.
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