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Turkish Election Yields an Emboldened Erdoğan

By Elmira Bayrasli

It wasn’t supposed to be. Following a summer of violence, a two-front war in the southeast, a stalling economy, and a polarized society, a win for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey’s snap elections on Sunday seemed impossible. The party lost its majority in the first ballot in June. Its 13-year stronghold over Turkish politics seemed to be over. Polls confirmed that; all results showed the AKP having no more than 40 percent support.

The polls were wrong.

In a stunning upset, the AKP garnered 49.4 percent of the popular vote on Sunday – enough to allow it to rule as a single majority, with 316 of 550 seats in the Grand National Assembly.

What Happened?

The nationalist card

Though he started out with an inclusive message when he first became the AKP’s leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has adopted a narrow, nationalistic rhetoric. That has included lashing out against Turkey’s minorities, particularly the Kurds. While that position backfired on him in June, it worked on Sunday. The following two factors explain why.

Weak opposition

The AKP is one of the best-organized political parties in Turkish history. Its grassroots organization and get-out-the-vote mechanism has been a key reason for its success. Another is Turkey’s weak opposition. Lacking a coherent platform and overwhelmed with bad leadership, both the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) are disappointing. In June, when the MHP found itself in the position of kingmaker, the party’s leader Devlet Bahçeli rejected any talk of going into a coalition with the AKP. It was a mistake. In a growing environment of insecurity, one quarter of MHP voters flocked to the AKP. Support for the party declined from 16 percent to under 12 percent; it lost 40 seats in parliament. 

Fear

Insecurity ran rampant throughout Turkey this past summer. On July 20 a bomb went off at a cultural center in Suruç, a town in the south that borders Syria, killing 33, mainly peace activists. A week later Ankara announced that it would allow the U.S. to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) from its base in İncirlik – pulling Turkey into a war with the extremist group. Yet no sooner did that happen than the government in Ankara began bombing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets, re-igniting the country’s war with the Kurdish terrorist organization. The PKK became a big focus of the AKP campaign – as did tying the terrorist group to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). That tactic worked. A considerable percentage of Kurds who had voted for the HDP in June cast ballots for the AKP on Sunday.

With MHP and HDP voters defecting to the AKP, it became an easy win for the ruling party.

What Does it Mean?

It’s still unclear what an emboldened AKP with Tayyip Erdoğan at the helm means for Turkey. There are a number of issues and challenges before the government, including:

  • The economy
  • A refugee crisis
  • The Islamic State (and its insurgency in Turkey)
  • The Kurdish peace process
  • A polarized and bitterly divided nation
  • The Turkish constitution

Economics

Ironically, it has been the AKP’s sound management of the economy for the early part of its rule (2003-2010) that has catapulted Turkey into the G-20. Yet Turkey, like many emerging markets, has struggled to maintain growth for the past several years; the Turkish lira has dropped 25 percent this past year. Turkey desperately needs structural reforms to move the country away from an export-led economy to one based in services and advanced technology. This will require planning and patience. In the meantime, an increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan will spook investors; investors value not stability but the rule of law – a system in which institutions, not just individuals, govern.

Foreign policy: refugees and ISIS

Not much will change in Turkey’s foreign policy. The country will still have to grapple with 2.2 million refugees. It will have to battle ISIS, which has become an increasing threat in the country. What might change is Erdoğan’s tone toward the West. Because Washington and Europe rely on Turkey as a NATO ally and a bulwark of stability in a quite unstable region, they might have to contend with an emboldened Erdoğan pushing his preferences and exercising his heavy hand. We might see him resume his push for a no-fly zone in northern Syria. We are certain to see him clamp down on free speech and the media. It will be up to Washington and Brussels whether they call Erdoğan out on his authoritarian behavior.

The Kurds

The AKP and Erdoğan will have to decide how to proceed with the Kurdish issue. With a high number of Kurds backing the party, it might be wise to reach out to the Kurds and restart peace talks. The risk of that strategy, however, is alienating nationalist voters. What Erdoğan will chose remains to be seen.

The Turkish constitution

The AKP has already started to talk about changing the Turkish constitution. Where that discussion is most dangerous is in the party’s plan to move Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system. A presidential system in Turkey is dangerous because Turkey's institutions are so weak. There are few checks and balances, and under a presidential system there will be even fewer. Under a presidential system power would be concentrated in the hands of the executive, particularly in lawmaking.

Hope for the Future?

Turkey isn’t an easy place but there are pockets of hope.

Startups, a topic I closely follow, constitute one such pocket. Istanbul has become a vibrant technology hub.

Turkey’s Internet penetration rose from 43.1 percent in 2011 to 51 percent in 2014 – nearly 10 percent growth. According to Turk Telecom, Turkey’s main telecommunications provider, as of the second quarter of this year there are 72.2 million mobile phone subscribers in Turkey – a 92.9 penetration rate.

This expanding Internet and mobile phone penetration is one reason that Barbaros Özbugutu left his native Germany and relocated in Turkey to launch his financial tech startup, Iyzico. “Turkey has a young population and a growing economy,” Özbugutu told me. The country, he pointed out, is also a “bridge” between East and West, making it a prime location to be an entrepreneur or businessperson.

The growth of Turkey's middle class is another ray of light. The fact that so many turned out to vote - and are engaged in the political process - is something new and positive. It's going to be up to this new middle class and the many civil society organizations working in the country to step up activities and hold the government to account. It will be difficult, but still possible.

*****

*****

Elmira Bayrasli is author of From the Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places, the co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted, and a lecturer at New York University. She has lived in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina where she was the Chief Spokesperson for the OSCE Mission.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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