Turkish voters disrupt Erdogan's plans

Prospect of instability in Turkey rises as its political parties jockey to form coalitions

Turkish voters disrupt Erdogan's plans

In choosing a parliament without a majority party, Turkish voters have curtailed the ambitions of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to claim new powers in an election hailed as a triumph of the Turkish democracy.


Yet even as Erdogan’s opponents celebrated their gains on Monday, the result raised the prospect of instability in Turkey, as its political parties jockey to form coalitions. At stake, analysts said, is the stalled peace process with Turkey’s Kurdish minority, which is opposed by the far-right party that could play a crucial role in forming a new government, and the country’s already shaky economy.

Underscoring the fears of political turmoil ahead, the Turkish lira tumbled in value on Monday, at one point reaching a record low of 2.81 to the dollar, and the country’s stock market tumbled. Erdogan remains powerful, with a loyal bureaucracy built up over a decade and a term that stretches to 2019. But he now may face the prospect of a prime minister from a party other than his own, perhaps the most troublesome possibility and one that could lead to political gridlock and a power struggle between Erdogan and the parliament.

Together, the three main opposition parties have enough seats in parliament to form a governing coalition, and the leaders of all three have said they would balk at joining any government led by Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Even so, many analysts discounted this, saying that some sort of coalition is likely to emerge, one that would include a weakened AKP and that would no longer be able to rule single-handedly. The most likely coalition, analysts said, is one between the AKP and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP.

Such a coalition could imperil the progress Turkey has made in recent years in advancing the rights of minorities, especially among the Kurds. Erdogan ended decades of guerrilla warfare by pushing a peace process with Kurdish insurgents, even though it has stalled in recent months. A deal with the nationalists, given their opposition to any concessions to the Kurds, would probably halt that process and raise the possibility of renewed violence.

There is always the chance that the parties will fail to form a government over the next 45 days, which would give Erdogan the option of calling for new elections. But the opposition parties’ expressed reluctance to join a coalition with the AKP may just be posturing, some experts say, and they are manoeuvring to extract the best possible deal.

“There will be some political instability, but that is part of the rules of the game,” said Sinan Ulgen, the chairman of the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, a research institution in Istanbul. “But fundamentally, I don’t think this will be a protracted period of instability, essentially because the opposition parties are hungry for power.”

As Turks faced an uncertain political future, many on Monday also celebrated what amounted to a stunning outcome to the elections: the first major electoral setback for their powerful president.

Many Turkish voters, including some longstanding supporters of Erdogan, seemed finally to have had enough of their president’s abrasive style. Erdogan followed a familiar script throughout the election campaign, using the language of Islam to whip up support among his religious base and denouncing critical voices as enemies of the state. His most ardent supporters lauded him as a figure almost as consequential as the Prophet Muhammad himself, deepening many Turks’ sense that a personality cult had enveloped their president.

Model of democracy
Erdogan did not appear in public on Monday, allowing the country to divert its eyes from its president for a day, even as it was left to wonder whether his dominance of Turkish public life was coming to an end. In a short statement issued by his office, Erdogan struck a conciliatory tone that, notably, expressed respect for the democratic process.


“Our nation’s opinion is above everything else,” he said. “I believe the results, which do not give the opportunity to any party to form a single-party government, will be assessed healthily and realistically by every party.” In the earlier years of Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey’s economy boomed, its religious masses were empowered, minority rights improved and the country took important steps toward joining the European Union.

Turkey was held up by Western leaders, including President Barack Obama, as a model of democracy in the Islamic world that Arab countries in the grip of turmoil could look to for guidance.

But the Arab Spring revolutions dimmed Turkey’s star. Several countries where Turkey tried to shape events, like Syria and Libya, collapsed into civil war, and the Islamist president it supported in Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, was overthrown by the military.
Meanwhile, the country’s domestic politics turned increasingly unstable, with mass protests and a corruption scandal touching high-level officials, while Erdogan’s power grew and grew.

Turkey came to be seen not as an example to emulate but as a cautionary tale. For some, the election on Sunday was an affirmation that Turkey still had a flourishing democratic culture despite the troubles of recent years.“This is a triumph for democracy,” said Kerem Oktem, a professor of southern European studies and modern Turkey at the University of Graz in Austria, and the author of “Angry Nation: Turkey Since 1989.”

“Turks don’t do revolutions,” Oktem said.

Erdogan’s party was defeated largely because the secular Turks, environmentalists, women and urban intellectuals – the crowd that dominated the anti-government protests in 2013 – rallied to the side of the People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, a largely Kurdish bloc. The party was once defined solely by its push for Kurdish rights, but in this election it was able to expand its constituency enough to clear the legal threshold, 10 per cent of the vote, to qualify for representation in parliament.

By winning nearly 13 per cent on Sunday, the party exceeded expectations, and was the main reason the AKP lost its legislative majority. For all of that, Erdogan remains president and will still be able to wield considerable power because of the network of relationships he has built up after a decade as prime minister and then president.

“He will be dominant,” said Soli Ozel, a columnist and academic in Istanbul. But he overplayed his hand in the election, Ozel said, and now, “whether he will be able to determine events, I doubt it.”

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