Talking Turkey: Making Sense of Turkey’s Elections

On Sunday, Turks headed to the polls and cast their ballots in one of the most exciting elections in recent memory. The results can be viewed here, thanks to wonderful techno-wizards at Anadolu Agency (Turkish state news). The outcome is still uncertain, with numerous analysts making predictions about yet announced deals between different parties. While we wait for these results to be announced, let’s briefly examine some of the most significant outcomes of the election.

The two largest takeaways from most analysts deal with the surprisingly strong showing from the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (Turkish: HDP) and the failure of the leading Justice and Development Party (Turkish: AKP) to obtain an outright majority. The latter is most surprising given the fact that the AKP has managed to achieve impressive majorities in every election since coming on the Turkish political scene in full force since 2002. The loss is doubly troubling to the AK Party leadership, as the party hoped to use elections to generate a supermajority that would allow them to amend the constitution and grant the president – currently Recep Tayyip Erdogan, former PM from AKP and Turkey’s star statesman – a significantly greater role in the country’s politics.

It is tempting to view these results as rolling back the tide of AKP’s recent success, but such analyses would be premature. AKP remains Turkey’s most popular political party by far and while they have not reaped the same electoral bounty that they had in the past, no other party comes close in terms of level of support. AKP has not faced a setback like Sunday’s since coming to power, but the party still maintains the same appeal that drove millions to vote for them in election after election – references to the country’s religious and conservative heritage with an emphasis on economic growth. While some of the recent gaffes associated with Erdogan could spell trouble if they continue in the future, Erdogan is a born politician and has surmounted greater odds in the past.

The real question for AKP moving forward is whether the party can continue to amass huge leads while facing parties that seem to have learned AK Party’s lessons regarding building a party base. For years, AKP succeeded by campaigning among the country’s interior residents and the religious. The development in their name is not just for show – Turkey has experienced impressive growth in recent history, thanks in no small part to AKP’s business friendly policies. HDP and CHP both campaigned on policies that would put more money in the pockets of the country’s working poor. Such policies acknowledge the successes that AKP has experienced in building electoral success. While HDP and CHP may fail to deliver on such promises – perhaps returning voters to AKP – should they succeed, AKP will have to continue to innovate, pursuing policies that speak directly to those who need economic development most.

HDP’s success is encouraging for those who seek greater Kurdish participation in Turkish politics. The party succeeded for the first time in passing the 10% threshold necessary to take seats in parliament, taking away sizable votes from AKP in the process due to the way the country allocates parliamentary seats. As mentioned, HDP also made efforts to make economic reforms a significant portion of their platform. Such victories signal success for Kurds in advancing their cause in a way that includes them within the future of Turkey. Still, Kurds have traditionally given substantial support to AKP. While the failure of Turkey to act decisively in the face of ISIS assault on the Kurdish town of Kobani may have tarnished AKP in the eyes of many Kurds, Kurdish votes are not guaranteed to any party, Kurdish or otherwise, and HDP will have to make good on their promise to deliver results to those – predominantly Kurds – who voted them into office. Moreover, Erdogan has made (incomplete) strides in trying to resolve the ever present Kurdish issue in Turkey and his status as a conservative Turk gives him influence over the population as a whole that HDP leaders lack. Moving forward in solving the Kurdish question will require HDP to work in concert with Turkish allies to find a solution that incorporates Kurds into the Turkish nation while allaying the fears of nationalist Turks.

The big question that remains is how AKP will govern moving forward. The three rival parties have all publicly ruled out entering into a coalition with AKP, raising the question of how they will gain the 18 votes necessary to form a majority government. Under Turkish law, new elections must be run in 45 days if no government emerges from an election. It seems unlikely now that a coalition could be reached but Aaron Stein has written a piece entertaining a number of different possibilities for the Atlantic Council here. So as to not steal too much of his thunder, I encourage you to read them, rather than have me recap them here. However, it suffices to say that AKP is in a difficult position, forcing it to either seek a coalition with the conservative MHP that limits AK Party’s ambitions in expanding presidential power, kick the ball to the remaining parties and charge them with forming a government, or simply call for early elections.

Either way, there is much to be seen as the electoral drama unfolds. Should the choice for early elections ultimately prevail, how HDP and MHP fare in subsequent elections will be a key test of their continued strength. Failure would indicate that Turkey’s electorate has not changed substantially since elections past, giving AKP a reason to breathe easy and regroup for future elections. On the other hand, should HDP and MHP continue their strong showing in future elections, AKP will have to seriously consider their previous successes and recent developments in effort to maintain strength going forward.

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