The AKParty Wins Big, but at What Cost?
ANKARA—Most analysis on the recent elections needs to be written with a sense of humility as most commentators, including this author, were grossly wrong in their projections of the outcome. The Justice and Development Party (AKParty), against all expectations, gained a sweeping victory, winning 49.5 percent of the votes and 317 of the 550-seat parliament. But the cost of the social polarization that the AKParty fed to boost their vote may haunt them when it comes to governing.
The social democratic and main opposition Republican People’s Party, despite gaining widespread approval in the country and success at bridging societal divisions, could not increase their vote by even one percentage point over their results in the June election and got 25 percent. It seems as if this might be the glass ceiling for secular parties in an increasingly conservative Turkey.
As Machiavelli wrote centuries ago, Turks rally around their leader when they feel under threat, and they did so this time as well.
The Nationalist Action Party (MHP) suffered a serious defeat, losing three percentage points of their vote to the AKParty when compared to June’s results. The MHP got only 12 percent of the vote, not that far from the 10 percent threshold to have seats in parliament. MHP’s reluctance to cooperate with any of the other parties in the previous, very short-lived, parliament hurt it. But the AKParty also did a good job of drawing nationalist voters away from MHP by emphasizing the conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) was the rising star of the June election, but its star has now fallen somewhat. The HDP lost 2 percentage points to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKParty and got only 10.6 percent of the vote, dangerously close to the 10 percent threshold. The ending of the ceasefire between Turkey and PKK and the HDP’s reluctance to distance itself from the PKK (at least as perceived by many voters) played a major role in their decline at the polls.
There are two main factors behind the AKP’s 8.5 percent increase between June and November. First, while the June election was about whether the AKParty would gain a supermajority to change the constitution and the political system of the country, this election was just about whether the AKParty would gain a simple majority. While even the AKParty constituency is not particularly excited by the prospects of a system change, they were mobilized around the idea of a majority government in the hope that it would mean stability. Second, the country went into this election facing severe security concerns and a sense of national urgency created by the AKP propaganda machinery. As Machiavelli wrote centuries ago, Turks rally around their leader when they feel under threat, and they did so this time as well.
Polarization may work at the ballot box, but it also makes Turkey less governable at a time when the country is facing serious challenges
The AKParty has won this victory at the expense of shifting toward nationalism and identifying itself with the state, a further shift away from its founding principles and values. The pressure on media and the private sector has reached new levels during the last couple of months. One media group was essentially taken over by the government when the existing board members and top management were replaced by pro-government trustees. Another media group was attacked twice by politically motivated mobs led by a deputy of the AKParty, Abdurrahim Boynukalın. Another politically motivated mob severely beat a popular anchorman after he was threatened by a columnist in a pro-government newspaper.
Polarization may work at the ballot box, but it also makes Turkey less governable at a time when the country is facing serious challenges on economy, foreign policy, security, and domestic affairs. Gone are the days when Turkey grew between 5-9 percent annually; instead it has to contend with growth rates below 3.5 percent. Turkey, which claimed to be regional power whose consent would be needed for a leaf to fall from a tree in the Middle East, is now trying to adapt itself to the new realities in the Levant. Not only has the ceasefire with the PKK been broken, but the self-proclaimed Islamic State group has also started conducting deadly attacks in Turkey. The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey has passed 2 million, burdening Turkey’s socio-economic system and also poisoning relations with the EU.
The good news is that Ahmet Davutoğlu is starting his first term as elected prime minister with a strong mandate, which should give him self-confidence. Can he use this mandate to strengthen the rule of law, increase freedoms, and pursue corruption, not only in words but also in deeds? Can he bring the parties in the parliament together to draft a new constitution for Turkey? In short, can he become the leader Turkey needs? Less than a week after the major elections victory, all bets are open.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.