Bittersweet Turkish shocker

Bittersweet Turkish shocker

ERDOGEN'S PARTY RECLAIMS MAJORITY : Though it was the largest single party after June polls, the loss of parliamentary majority coincided with instabi

Bittersweet Turkish shocker
Democracies often throw up surprising results. The outcome of Turkey’s recent snap polls reinforces this trait. The critics and pundits failed in their prediction and may not appreciate the results, but public opinion helped President Recep Erdogan have the last laugh in the snap poll. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 316 seats in Turkey’s parliament, after losing majority control in the legislature in June for the first time since coming to power in 2003.

The AKP’s win this time was just as shocking as its loss five months ago. The difficulty of forming a coalition due to the uncompromising nature of both Erdogan and the opposition parties led to the re-election. The AKP took advantage of the prevailing instability and fashioned an aggressive nationalist campaign to script the win.

A relieved Erdogan, who founded the AKP in 2001, came out firing on all cylinders at the international media and commentators. “Is this your understanding of democracy? Now a party with some 50 per cent votes in Turkey has attained power… This should be respected by the whole world, but I have not seen such maturity.”

The recurring theme in the Islamic-leaning party’s pre-poll campaign and victory was stability – its hallmark during the last 12 years in power. Though it was the largest single party after the June polls, the loss of parliamentary majority coincided with upheaval and instability in the country.

A ceasefire with the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group in southeast Turkey, broke down in July, renewing conflict. This was followed by one of the biggest terrorist attacks in the country’s history in October, with IS-planted bombs killing about 100 people in Ankara.
The opposition parties now claim that the AKP frightened voters with premonitions of further violence and instability if it was not given a decisive mandate. While this was a factor, the AKP also played flexible politics amid a fractious opposition.

Keeping in mind the factors that may have contributed to its poor showing in the last poll, Erdogan’s party tweaked its electoral strategy for the repoll. The rhetoric about changing the parliamentary political system into a presidential one was absent from the party’s campaign and Erdogan refrained from direct electoral campaign, though he called the shots from behind the scenes (As president, he is theoretically above party politics, but had deliberately overlooked it in the past). 

Two other factors could have also contributed to the AKP’s victory. One, a split in the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), with the expelled leader and faction joining the AKP, and two, cancelling the law which prohibited the AKP candidates from contesting as MPs more than twice, which brought many popular figures from early retirement back into active politics.

Reaping what they sowed, the AKP garnered 50 per cent of all votes polled, up from 41 per cent in the June poll, which changed the momentum in its favour. On the other hand, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) received about 10 per cent of the vote share, which is 3 per cent less than last time. The vote share of the right-wing anti-Kurdish MHP fell from 16 to 12 per cent and the centrist and secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), the largest opposition party, retained its 25 per cent vote share.

With the results being as it were, what lies ahead? Analysing the implications of the last election results in a Deccan Herald column in June, I had argued that: “Amid the continuing uncertainty of a hung poll verdict in early June, the most important outcome could be a check, however limited, on Erdogan’s unabashed and authoritarian style of functioning.

“With the AKP losing parliamentary majority, Erdogan’s desire to pursue a ‘presidential system’ with a custom-made constitution is now harder to realise. The results also dampen Erdogan’s ‘megalomaniac’ drive to eclipse Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Modern Turkey, as the country’s greatest figure.”

Peace negotiations

The fact that the AKP managed to win a majority but fell short of a super majority of 330 seats to effect constitutional change could be viewed as a win-win result, unless AKP reneges, takes support of smaller parties and attempts far-reaching amendments. It is unclear, however, what AKP will do to revive an economy that has slowed after a decade of rapid growth.

Though unpredictability is Erdogan’s middle name, it is likely that he may temper Ankara’s domestic and foreign policies. Though the results may encourage the AKP government to crackdown on the Kurdish separatists, he may actually seek to repeat the 2013 policy of peace negotiations, without allowing the PKK to make any gains from the strengthening Kurdish groups in Syria (Ankara has warned military retaliation if the Syrian Kurds make advances that threaten Turkish stability).

In terms of foreign policy, Turkey – which currently hosts more than two million Syrian refugees – may play a critical role in helping Europe overcome the migration crisis. Ankara would also be more forthcoming in the fight against the IS, though it is unclear how this would gel or differ with the Russian strategy. While Russia is pro-Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, Turkey has demanded his ouster.

Among the most pleased by Erdogan’s victory are Syria’s “moderate jihadis”, who are fighting Bashar’s regime and the IS. They hope that Ankara, which has remained indifferent to the Syrian stalemate over the last five months, may now be ready to support them in the face of Russian action against them.

It has been observed that while events in Syria appear to be influenced by the United States and Russia, the third factor is Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This means that the Syria-Russia-Iran bloc would face more resistance than it did prior to the re-election.

(The writer is a Dubai-based political analyst, author and Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter)