Erdogan wins big as Turks, amid instability, vote for the familiar

The president's party won enough parliamentary seats Sunday to rule without a coalition, but not enough to change the Constitution to strengthen the presidency.

Emrah Gurel/AP
A supporter of the Justice and Development Party, (AKP), holds a portrait of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as people celebrate outside the AKP headquarters, in Istanbul, Turkey, late Sunday, Nov. 1.

Capitalizing on an air of crisis and instability, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party has restored single-party rule less than a month after an attack that killed more than 100 people in the capital and nearly five months since an election delivered a hung parliament.

On Monday, Mr. Erdogan, who had called for Sunday’s snap elections after the failure of recent coalition talks, hailed the results, saying “the national will manifested itself on Nov. 1 in favor of stability.” 

In recent months, Turkey has enjoyed anything but stability, witnessing the collapse of a peace process with Kurdish PKK militants, Islamic State (IS) attacks on Turkish soil, and renewed radical leftist activity. In the predominantly Kurdish southeast, the Army responded to flare-ups of violence by imposing curfews.

Critics say the elections were held in an environment of fear – pointing to the heavy presence of security forces in Kurdish areas as well as a crackdown on dissident figures and opposition media in the days leading up to the vote.

Turkey analyst Aaron Stein says voters chose what was most familiar, and credits Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) with running a smart and targeted campaign. “They ran on a campaign of stability,” says Mr. Stein, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

The AKP clinched 49.1 percent of the vote, early tallies showed, up from 40.86 percent in the June 7 elections. That translates into 316 seats in a parliament of 550, enough for the AKP to govern alone but not enough to change the Constitution and create an executive presidency that would further empower Erdogan.

According to analysts, voter concerns over Erdogan’s plans to change the Constitution had contributed in June to the first-ever election of a pro-Kurdish party by pushing national party support over a 10-percent threshold. A key to the AKP’s success this time, Stein says, was a careful selection of candidates, a concerted effort to regain voters in swing states, and the decision to make Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, rather than Erdogan, the face of the campaign.

“The election solves Erdogan’s problems,” says Jonathan Friedman, a London-based Turkey analyst at Stroz Friedberg, a global risks consultancy. “The challenge now is how will he solve Turkey’s problems. This is a country with a low-level war in the southeast, a full-blown war on its borders, an economy going in the wrong direction, and social divides that are unsustainably deep.”

Focus on consolidating power

AKP gains exceeded even its own expectations. They were made at the expense of the Nationalist Movement Party and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, which has seen many politicians in its ranks arrested in recent months. The main opposition party – the Republican People’s Party – came second once again.

“The No. 1 governing priority will be what to do with this PKK peace process,” says Stein. “Do they go with the military option and clear the PKK from urban centers in the southeast, or do they reach out back to [PKK leader] Abdullah Ocalan and try to restart the peace process purportedly from a position of strength?”

Former Turkish lawmaker and chairman of the Center for Strategic Communications Suat Kiniklioglu concurs that addressing the Kurdish question will be the top priority once a new government is formed.

A major concern for many observers is whether Erdogan will capitalize on his party’s majority to push for an executive presidency, which would increase his powers. Some analysts say that this may now be unlikely and unnecessary. 

“The [AKP] seat tally was higher after 2011 elections and that wasn’t enough over the past four years to pass constitutional changes,” notes Mr. Friedman.

Erdogan’s focus, however, will remain on consolidating power. Friedman warns that if Turkey is unable to solve the security and economic problems it faces in the short term, Erdogan could lay the blame on parliament in order to build the case for an executive presidency.

Harsher stance on Islamic State

On the foreign policy front, analysts concur that Turkey’s policy on Syria will not change dramatically. While Erdogan has wanted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, his new willingness to allow Mr. Assad to remain in office for an interim period marks a rhetorical shift.

But Mr. Kiniklioglu expects to see a harder line against IS. Turkey has recently joined the battle with more energy after being criticized for turning a blind eye to jihadist movements into Syria through its territory. “The government now understands better that homegrown [Islamic State] cells can inflict great harm on Turkish targets,” he says.

Friedman says that while Turkey has carried out more arrests against IS sympathizers, the scale of the campaign is no match for the level of IS militants and sympathizers thought to be operating in Turkey. Likewise, efforts to sever IS supply lines from Turkey to Syria are hampered by the fear of weakening allied Sunni Islamist groups, something that would benefit Assad or Syrian Kurds, who are a bigger concern for Ankara. 

“Turkey seeks a solution that allows a crackdown on [Islamic State] without strengthening Assad or the Syrian Kurds,” he says. “It is going to be hard.”

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