Since all the way back in last August (and presumably well before that), when Tayyip Erdoğan gave up (or was term limited out of) his gig as Turkey’s Prime Minister and instead became that country’s first popularly elected president, he’s had big plans to make his mostly ceremonial office a lot less ceremonial and a lot more powerful. Those plans meant waiting for the 2015 parliamentary elections, where the popularity of Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) would bring them a substantial new majority. Hopefully, from Erdoğan’s perspective, that new majority would be large enough (2/3) to amend Turkey’s constitution and change the country’s government from a parliamentary system (albeit with a weak president) to a semi-presidential system with a strong presidency like you see in, say, Russia, where most power rests with the president but there is a prime minister-led cabinet that is appointed by the president out of the legislature.
So, it was that Turkish voters went to the polls on Sunday and decided that, hell yes, some big changes were needed in their government, and they chose to give Erdoğan and AKP…no majority at all.
When the smoke clears it looks like AKP will have about 258 seats in the new parliament, which is a plurality (they took around 40% of the popular vote), but is down from its current 327 seats. Turkey’s parliament has 550 seats, so AKP suddenly, and for the first time in over a decade, finds itself needing a coalition partner if it wants to keep governing, unless it prefers to form a minority government with an eye toward new elections in the very near future. At first it seemed likely that they would strike a deal with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, which looks to have won 82 seats, holds a diverse array of political views that run the gamut from “ultra-nationalist” to “neo-fascist,” and has a neat little “paramilitary youth wing” called the Grey Wolves. However, MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli may have saved AKP from itself by ruling that possibility out:
Turkey should hold an early election if the ruling AK Party is unable to agree a coalition with parliament’s two other opposition parties, the leader of Turkey’s opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) said on Monday.
“The first possibility for a coalition should be between the AKP and (pro-Kurdish) HDP. The second model can consist of AKP, (main opposition) CHP and HDP,” Devlet Bahçeli said.
“If all these scenarios fail, then early elections must be held.”
Neither of those coalitions seems as easy to cobble together as a right-wing AKP-MHP coalition would be. It’s possible that Bahçeli is negotiating here and that AKP can win him over, but man, if AKP is now in the position of courting neo-fascists to help it form a government, that’s not a good look. One thing that may block any attempt at forming a coalition is that both the MHP and CHP are insisting that Erdoğan reopen corruption investigations into former AKP ministers that may ultimately lead to deeper investigations into higher-level party figures, perhaps even Erdoğan himself. AKP would almost certainly prefer early elections to reopening those cases.
Electorates usually vote the way they do for many reasons, and it can be hard to tease out any one particular cause for a particular election result. Plenty of past AKP voters may have left the party out of concern for that whole constitutional amendment plan, but it’s equally likely that people abandoned AKP because it’s the incumbent party and Turkey’s economy kind of sucks at the moment (growth is way down and unemployment is way up). One thing, however, is for sure: Erdoğan’s dream of making himself a real
boy president with real powers is over, as even he is admitting. AKP winning a 2/3 parliamentary majority was probably always a longshot, considering its seat totals have declined in each national election since it first won a majority in 2002 (though never this sharply). There’s no way to know if voters really rejected Erdoğan’s constitutional plans or voted for other reasons, but the biggest bite out of AKP’s apple actually came courtesy of Turkish electoral law. According to Turkish law, as in most parliamentary systems, your party has to clear a certain minimum popular vote threshold before you’re allowed to hold any seats at all. Turkey’s minimum threshold has always been set unusually high, at 10%, mostly in an effort to keep any Kurdish parties from getting a place in the parliament. Well, wouldn’t you know, this time the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) picked up 13% of the popular vote, in part by broadening its appeal to left-minded voters who are angry about Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies and/or his lousy economy, and won itself 79 seats that would otherwise have been divvied up among AKP, MHP and AKP’s opposition, the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP). If HDP hadn’t cleared the threshold, AKP may well have won a parliamentary majority (though still nowhere near the 2/3 majority it wanted).
This raises the possibility that, in finally achieving major electoral success, the Kurds may have actually done their community material harm. How, you ask? Well, assume that Bahçeli’s statements really are just the start of the negotiating process and that AKP winds up beholden to MHP for forming a coalition. MHP has just the teensiest problem with non-Turkish minorities, which I realize is odd for a fascist party but bear with me, and particularly with the Kurds. If they wind up helping to govern the country, that’s probably not good for the Kurdish community.
For Erdoğan, this election means he has to keep using whatever presidential powers he does have, plus the force of his own personal authority, to keep himself relevant despite occupying an office that is meant by design and tradition to be mostly irrelevant. The problem is that the brash, overbearing actions he’s had to take as president in order to maintain that relevance may have contributed in some ways to AKP’s losses, as the public may be getting a little tired of Erdoğan’s imperious nature. Although it was HDP’s improved performance that really shook up the results of the election, AKP still saw its share of the national popular vote drop precipitously, so the party clearly has some of its own problems to try to rectify. And this could be a real problem for Turkey, given that it was AKP’s popular support that helped break Turkey’s cycle of coups and suspected coups perpetrated by its “deep state,” the military/judicial “government within the government” that has frequently acted to correct perceived excesses of Turkey’s democratic process. For all of Erdoğan’s illiberalism, and he’s plenty illiberal, he’s by necessity been waging a fight to root out the deep state and diminish its power, and that’s not a bad thing. However, if Erdoğan’s moment is over, then the deep state may be primed for a comeback.