In any democratic country in the world, a political party which falls just a couple of seats short of majority in a parliamentary election, but still emerging as the single largest party, will be considered a creditable performer. Now, what if that party was also fighting anti-incumbency of 13 years? It should make its performance all the more impressive. Yet, for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader and the country’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, such a performance was no consolation. Although the party won 258 seats in the 550-member house, winning 40.8 per cent of the votes falling short of simple majority by just 18 seats, the elections held on June 7 is considered to be a bitter defeat for the AKP and for Erdogan personally.
When he came to power in 2002 as prime minister, Erdogan had brought to Turkey a new paradigm of national inclusion. He brought a break from several decades of Kemalism—the rigid secular principles of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal, which considered wearing a hijab a crime—implemented fanatically by the military and the ruling elite. It lorded over the millions of moderately religious in the countryside, but excluded them from the levers of decision making. Erdogan, the son of working class parents from rural Turkey changed all that.
He enfranchised the middle class and the poor in a meaningful way and accepted Islamism as a way of life. Moreover, he stamped out the fanatical orthodoxy of secularism and brought the military under civilian control, making routine coups a thing of past. He initiated liberal economic reforms, which saw the Turkish economy doubling in size in a decade. Erdogan also revisited the traditional policy of suppressing the Kurdish minority of Turkey. In fact, under Erdogan, Turkey appeared to be well on course of a European Union membership.
Yet, over the years, as the AKP kept on increasing its majority in the parliament, Erdogan started turning increasingly authoritarian. It was as if he decided that democracy was only about winning elections. Soon, protests were banned and protesters were dealt with harshly, while corruption among the ruling elite grew. Erdogan also became increasingly hostile towards the press. Reporters Without Borders say Turkey is the world’s largest prison for journalists, while Freedom House has changed its description of Turkish media from “partly free” to “not free.”
His handling of the Gezi Park riots in 2013, which resulted from popular protest against Erdogan’s plans to replace the park with a shopping mall and a monument to Turkey’s Ottoman past, was a disaster. His brutal response resulted in the death of 11 protesters, while thousands were wounded. This was followed by the corruption scandal in December 2013 in which three of his ministers were forced to resign. The ministers took responsibility for their sons’ actions. But when the prosecutor opened investigations against Erdogan’s son, he was removed from his post. A large number of investigators across the country, too, were targeted.
After ruling Turkey as prime minister for more than a decade, Erdogan decided to run for presidency although Turkey being a parliamentary democracy, the actual power is concentrated in the office of the PM. However, Erdogan has plans to change the profile of the office of the president. After he took over, Erdogan announced that he won’t maintain the traditional neutrality of the office of the president and would pursue his political agenda and be part of the day-to-day governance of Turkey. In fact, the government of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is dominated by Erdogan loyalists. Already, Erdogan has started chairing routine cabinet meetings replacing the prime minister and has appointed presidential advisers to key departments, who now seem to enjoy a profile higher than cabinet ministers. His influence was visible in the AKP’s list of candidates for the parliamentary elections.
Erdogan needed a two-thirds majority in the parliament (367 seats) to make the necessary constitutional amendments to make Turkey a presidential republic. He was readying the “Enabling Act”, which would have concentrated unprecedented powers in the hands of the president, to be passed by the new parliament. At the beginning of the campaign, Erdogan had asked the voters to give the AKP 400 seats so that he could make the changes he wanted. So, the parliamentary elections were also a referendum on the new system of governance proposed by Erdogan. However, the Turkish voters said a resounding no to the proposed reforms with the AKP losing 9 per cent of its votes and 69 of its seats compared with the last elections.
The AKP, which had always ruled without a coalition partner is now searching for a party to help it form a government. Erdogan, however, is still exploring options to arrange a majority, which could help him push through his constitutional changes. “The people gave us a message to build the constitution through consensus and negotiation,” said Erdogan. Three other parties—the centre left Republican People’s Party (CHP), the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP)—which managed to cross the threshold of 10 per cent of votes to win seats, have so far not been willing to support the AKP. If a coalition cannot be forged in 45 days, the president can call another election.
Living in his $600 million palace with a thousand rooms, Erdogan seems to be losing touch with ground reality. The once popular leader of the Turks is facing the biggest challenge of his political career. However, all is not lost for him as the AKP still commands a great deal of support. Moreover, the opposition is also not very effective or united. The main opposition HDP has only 12 per cent of the votes and about 80 seats in the parliament. With a course correction by Erdogan and the AKP, it remains the best bet for the future of Turkey.