The results of Turkey’s elections did not surprise. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won an impressive victory garnering 50 percent of the vote, a first for the party. The other big victor was the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) which succeeded in winning many more seats than anyone expected despite tremendous odds. The only disappointment was the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which fell short of its own expectations and hopes engendered by its brand new leadership.
Three issues dominated the elections. The first, not unlike other countries, is the proverbial pocketbook, or more simply the country’s economic conditions. The message the elections sent was that the AKP’s performance on the economy was satisfactory and there was no need for a change. Second, this election was as much about Erdogan as it was about the AKP. He dominates the Turkish political scene like no other politician in Turkish history. Third, the knowledge that after the election an effort to amend the Turkish constitution—imposed on Turkey in 1982 by a military junta—would be launched played a major role. In his victory speech, Erdogan reiterated his determination and promise to begin work on such a document.
In addition to the AKP, three other parties will be represented in parliament. The CHP won 26 percent of the vote and 135 seats out of a total of 550. The ultra-nationalist National Action Party (MHP) received 13 percent of the vote and 53 seats. Finally, the BDP, which did not contest the elections nationally but ran independent candidates, will end up with 36 parliamentarians.
Analyzing the Results
This is the third straight victory for the AKP and Erdogan, a record for any party and leader since the 1950s. Moreover, the AKP increased its vote in every election. This election was also about the consolidation of civilian supremacy over the military; perhaps for the first time in recent memory, no one expressed any concern about the preference of the officers.
Despite the AKP’s lopsided victory, the results augur well for Turkey. In a paradoxical way, these results will have settled the political picture. The fact that the AKP won 50 percent of the vote will put to rest the canard prevalent among many in the secular opposition that the AKP was a minority party whose dominance was simply the result of the quirky nature of the Turkish electoral system. There should be no question that the AKP is the most dominant party in Turkey and the main opposition party has a long way to go to challenge it.
On the other hand, the AKP fell short of the requisite number of seats it needed to change the constitution on its own. It needed 367 to do it on its own or 330 to send a draft to the electorate for a referendum. It only received 326. This will force the AKP to be far more accommodating as Erdogan suggested in his own victory speech. Its failure to cross those critical numbers will also relieve many in the opposition who feared a period of unchecked AKP dominance.
Almost everyone agrees that Turkey is in need of a new constitution. The current 1982 document is a straightjacket for Turkish democracy. It limits the rights of individuals and privileges the state at the expense of the citizen. It is also the main impediment to the resolution of the Kurdish question, Turkey’s most important problem. The new constitution should be Turkey’s last. It needs to be flexible, protective of citizen rights, and mindful of the Kurds’ civil and cultural rights.
Erdogan, however, has had another goal in mind: the transformation of the Turkish parliamentary system into a French-style presidential system. He had already announced that this was to be his last parliamentary contest. While it is no secret that he wants to be president when the mandate of the current occupant, Abdullah Gül, ends, he also desired for that position to encompass greater powers. Although this election demonstrates that there is little that stands in his way to winning a national election to become president, he will find it much more difficult to introduce a presidential system. Nevertheless, he is on course to becoming the first popularly elected president of Turkey.
The other winner in the election is the pro-Kurdish BDP, which successfully managed to widen its appeal by incorporating members of the Turkish left and Kurdish politicians who had been hostile to BDP’s politics. BDP faced terrible odds because Turkish electoral rules require a party to win at least 10 percent of the national vote to make it into parliament. As a result, it had to circumvent the system by running a slate of independent candidates, which required the party to devise a careful electoral strategy. It managed to increase its number of seats from 21 to 36. In Diyarbakir, BDP candidates got 400,000 votes and won six seats, whereas the AKP received five seats with only 200 votes. Without the 10 percent threshold, BDP would have probably gotten as many as 50 seats. In other words, BDP is stronger than the number of seats it will control in the new parliament.
BDP’s greatest success, however, lies in the fact that it has earned the right to claim that it is the representative of Turkish Kurds. Among its parliamentary representatives will be some formidable personalities such as Leyla Zana, who spent 10 years in jail for speaking in Kurdish in parliament in the 1990s. This means that the AKP and Erdogan will have to include the BDP in its efforts to begin solving the Kurdish question. Moreover, BDP’s performance is also a sign that the Kurdish voter wants a political solution. The days of the armed struggle are coming to an end and the importance of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) will start to wane. BDP will push hard for a new constitution and, paradoxically, might even emerge as an AKP ally when it comes to reforms.
This was the first electoral test for Kemal Kilicdaroglu as leader of the opposition CHP party. CHP came in second with 26 percent of the vote and 135 seats. While, as expected, his party increased the number of parliamentarians and share of the vote, CHP failed to meet its own expectations of roughly 30 percent. Moreover, the party lost some coastal provinces that were traditionally CHP safe districts.
There is no question though that Kilicdaroglu injected a new dynamism and excitement among the party’s rank and file. But he committed a number of serious errors and inherited a party that has no tradition of retail politics, of going door to door, and addressing the concerns of the citizen. CHP has always run on the idea that it is the party of secularism representing the Turkish state and one founded by Turkey’s first leader Atatürk.
Kilicdaroglu undermined his chances by muddying his own message. On the one hand, his new CHP, purged of the old guard, articulated a new narrative of personal freedoms. On the other, by inviting a slew of candidates associated with the macabre Ergenekon case, where acting and retired officers as well as civilians are accused of trying to overthrow the constitutional regime, CHP alienated potential voters and some of its own rank and file.
Still Kilicdaroglu has an opportunity to change his party by taking part constructively in the constitutional change process. He can stake out a more liberal position forcing the AKP to follow his lead. This will require him to alter and develop his party’s discourse on the Kurdish issue.
The other party that did not fare well in the election was the MHP, which made it into parliament with 13 percent of the vote and 53 seats representing a decline compared to its performance in the 2007 elections. However, MHP leaders will take solace from the fact that some six weeks ago political pundits were ready to write its obituary, as its chances of crossing the 10 percent threshold were very much in doubt. Ironically, the release of a series of cassettes that depicted some of its candidates in compromising sexual situations had the unintended effect of perhaps salvaging the party from oblivion. Without a platform other than the defense of Turkish nationalism and opposition to Kurdish demands, the MHP benefited from the fact that the cassettes brought it back into the voters’ consciousness and, therefore, garnered more votes than it would otherwise have.
Despite its poor electoral showing, MHP’s presence in parliament is important at a time when the Kurdish question will be front and center. MHP’s otherwise unimaginative leader also has one accomplishment to date. He has successfully reined in the more violent elements in his party. Had MHP not made it into parliament, the possibility that these forces would take to the streets to provoke a Kurdish-Turkish conflict could not be dismissed.
What do elections mean for Turkish foreign policy?
In his post-election speech, Erdogan claimed that his party’s victory was also a victory for Sarajevo, Damascus, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Jerusalem, Gaza, and Lebanon. Fresh from its success, the AKP government will, as the prime minister promised in his speech, redouble its diplomatic efforts in the region.
Rhetoric aside, Turkey’s hitherto successful “no problems with neighbors” foreign policy is facing its most important challenge. The Arab Spring—especially as it manifested itself in Libya and Syria—has demonstrated the limitations of Turkey’s policy. In fact, this was a policy of “zero problems with regimes” and not with the peoples.
Syria, where Erdogan had established a close and personal relationship with Bashar Assad, has become a real disappointment. Turkish officials always put Syria forward as the showcase of their diplomacy. Yet, on the eve of the elections as refugees fleeing the assault of the Syrian army streamed into Turkish territory, Erdogan could no longer keep quiet and accused the Baath regime of committing atrocities. It appeared as if Erdogan had finally reached the conclusion that the government in Damascus is irredeemable.
On the commercial front, expanding export markets has always been at the forefront of its opening to the Middle East. But just as in Libya, where 25,000 Turkish workers and as much as 15 billion dollars in investments were at stake, the economic costs to Turkey of Syrian instability are likely to be significant.
Despite the diplomatic and economic concerns, the election will not alter the general thrust of Ankara’s foreign policy. The troubles in Syria and its uncertain future are too complex for Turkey to handle alone. Turkey will need to edge closer to its European and American allies. In Libya, Turkey at the outset had been reluctant to sign on to any joint diplomatic action. This time, however, it may be different.
What is really left of the previous Turkish policy is Iraq. Turkey remains strong in Iraq—Iraq is not centralized and has many more actors and outlets for participation, so Turkey does not run the risk of being associated with one set of personalities or one family. Moreover, Turkey has the Kurds who have emerged as staunchest allies on its side. Iraq is in many ways more of a challenge for Turkey, but at the same time it is a far more accurate test of its ability to effect a change through its foreign policy.
More broadly, however, Turkey will have to rethink, recalibrate, and rearticulate its “no problems with neighbors (or regimes)” policy and transform it into one that is mindful of the populations and build stronger linkages to them. This—just like its constitutional reforms—is unlikely to be easy and will require time and patience.