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Erdoğan is down, but no one in Turkey is counting him out (+video)

President Erdoğan resurfaced Thursday, four days after his ambitions to garner more power were set back in Turkish parliamentary elections. What the voters were saying.

In the weeks leading up to Turkey’s historic election, no political figure was more visible than President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In a seemingly endless succession of publicly televised events, Mr. Erdoğan stumped for his vision of a “new Turkey” – one ruled by his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), headed by an all-powerful president.

On June 7, that vision collapsed: For the first time in more than a decade, the AKP lost its governing majority, and for the first time since the hotly contested campaign kicked off, the president was conspicuously absent from the airwaves.

A subdued Erdoğan resurfaced on Turkish airwaves Thursday – three days and 22 hours since his last public appearance.

“Everyone must respect the will of the people,” he said, eschewing the partisan rhetoric he had embraced in the run-up to the vote. “I call on all parties to think with calm and take responsibility for the future of the country.”

That future is now up in the air, as the AKP and the three main opposition parties enter a difficult period of negotiations to form a coalition government and avoid a fresh round of elections. The true winner will not emerge until there is a new government, but most analysts agree that Erdoğan, who sought to transform Turkey’s parliamentary system into a government headed by an executive presidency, is the losing party.

“For Erdoğan, this is a major defeat,” says Henri Barkey, a Turkey specialist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. “The AKP is not defeated and remains the biggest party, but the majority of the electorate clearly said that they don’t want Erdoğan as an executive president. For him, that’s a big loss.”

After winning nearly 50 percent of the vote in the 2011 elections, the AKP on Sunday secured about 41 percent. What’s behind the unexpected change in Turkey’s political landscape?

Here are three main factors:

The Kurdish peace process

The Kurds are poised to enter parliament for the first time in history, after exceeding the 10 percent parliamentary threshold and securing more than 13 percent of the vote. It did so under the banner of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which ran on a liberal platform that embraced equal rights for the country’s disenfranchised minorities.

As prime minister, Erdoğan initially won the support of many Kurdish voters. He was praised for his efforts to help initiate a peace process aimed at ending more than three decades of war with Kurdish separatist guerrillas.

But that process has stalled, and many Kurds have grown suspicious of Erdoğan’s intentions following Ankara's perceived inaction during the siege of Kobane, just across Turkey's southern border in Syria, and Erdoğan’s recent remarks denying the existence of a “Kurdish problem” in Turkey.

“We had so much hope for a better future under Erdoğan, but it became clear that his talk of peace process was just a mask in order to secure our vote,” says Berivan Ucra, a 26-year-old pharmaceutical student in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir. “I switched my vote to the HDP in this election because I believe they will bring justice and freedom for the Kurdish people.”

Like Ms. Ucra, many Kurdish AKP supporters switched their votes for the HDP, hoping for a settled peace between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But the ruling party also lost support from some right-wing nationalist voters, who blamed the AKP for giving too many concessions to the Kurds and ended up voting for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Erdoğan's push for power

The three-time prime minister and now president is widely considered to be Turkey’s most powerful modern politician, but many analysts say his party’s demise is largely attributed to Erdoğan’s push for greater power.

“The fact that all three opposition parties ran campaigns that were focused on rejecting the consolidation of power under a presidential system is telling,” says Nate Schenkkan, a Turkey expert at Freedom House in Washington, D.C. “There’s nothing else these parties agree on except that the presidential system needed to be stopped.”

A presidential system could lead to a further erosion of democratic freedoms in Turkey, says Erhan Arslan, a political science student in Istanbul.

“What scares me is that Erdoğan has made our judiciary less independent, he has gone after journalists and people who protest the government,” says Mr. Arslan, who voted for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). “In the current system, the checks and balances do not work properly already, so a presidential system would have made it worse.”

Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior Human Rights Watch researcher based in Istanbul, believes Sunday’s election results are a sign that voters are rejecting Erdoğan’s increasingly repressive rule.

“Sunday was certainly a vote against increasing authoritarianism, against the idea of a presidential system and it that sense, it was a vote against Erdoğan,” says Ms. Sinclair-Webb. “It was a vote for a more pluralist, more inclusive Turkey.”

A sluggish economy

Under Erdoğan and his AKP government, Turkey underwent a period of rapid economic growth, which helped to pull millions of its citizens out of poverty.

But sluggish growth and high unemployment hurt the AKP at the polls, argues Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a research organization.

“I think the AKP lost the argument that they are the party of economic stability,” says Mr. Unluhisarcikli. “People know that their purchasing power has been declining lately. And in the absence of economic growth and prosperity, corruption becomes an important issue for voters.”

That sentiment is echoed by Fadi Hakura, Turkey expert at London-based Chatham House, a think tank.

“The key issue for voters is not democracy and human rights but rather the state of the economy,” he says. “If the economy was booming and people were living well, then identity politics, Kurdish nationalism, and governance wouldn’t drive as many votes.”

An uncertain future

Experts say the uncertainty about forming a new government makes it difficult to predict how the elections may affect Turkey going forward. Some say the vote will usher in a more democratic period that will see Erdoğan’s ambitions tamed.

“It is a watershed moment for Turkey,” says Human Rights Watch’s Sinclair-Webb. “It shows that people, particularly the youth, bought into rules of the game in a parliamentary democracy — a system where voters really can speak at the polls, where the national will means the vote of the people.”

But Lehigh’s Mr. Barkey disagrees, saying the vote may have eroded Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions, but not his vast grip on power.

“Is this an indication of some fundamental shift away from authoritarianism? Absolutely not,” says Barkey. “The idea that democracy is here — no way. Some Turks shifted to the HDP for one reason only, which is to stop Erdoğan, but these people are not necessarily democrats.”

“There’s a rush to celebrate the return of democracy, but people forget that Erdoğan has a formidable machine in place that controls much of the bureaucracy and the press,” adds Barkey.

It also remains to be seen whether Erdoğan will abandon his quest for an executive presidency.

“I think he has still not given up his vision of transforming Turkey to presidential system,” says Bulent Aliriza of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “He has to make a tactical retreat to consolidate his forces in order to push for it again.”

Erdoğan’s next actions will depend on how he interprets the results of the vote.

“He is pragmatic and tends to respond to opinion polls, so in that sense I think Erdoğan will step back for some time,” says Ceren Kenar, a columnist for the Turkish daily Turkiye. “This doesn’t mean that he is retreating from his presidential bid forever. I think he still has this agenda and will see whether there will be a more favorable time when he can introduce the idea again.”

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