Turkey’s general election upset: the rise of the AKP interrupted

The new political kids on the block celebrate. Osman Orsal/Reuters

The general election that took place on June 7 was no doubt one of the most critical in modern Turkish history.

For a significant part of the electorate, the election represented a chance to put a stop to the increasingly authoritarian, religiously conservative, and unabashedly neo-liberal grip of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) over the country.

At stake was the future of Turkey as a liberal democracy.

Of particular concern was the prospect of the AKP securing enough seats in the parliament to be able to push for a constitutional change that would bestow President Tayyip Erdoğan with a more powerful executive presidency.

The results are not good news for the AKP. They may have received the largest share of the votes — 40.85% — but they failed to secure enough seats to have a majority and to make the constitutional amendment for a more powerful presidency.

So how can the results be explained and why do they matter? What do they mean for the future of AKP in Turkish politics and, more generally, what do they say about the future of democracy in Turkey?

A winning streak between 2002 and 2014

In 2002, in the first-ever general election it participated in, the AKP got 34% of the popular vote and became the first party to govern Turkey without a coalition since 1991.

This was a huge success for a party that had been founded just over a year before as a democratic, conservative but non-confessional challenge to establishment Turkish politics.

The party’s electoral success continued in the 2007 general election (46.6% of the popular vote) and in 2011 (almost 50%). In August 2014, in the first-ever direct election of the Turkish president, Erdogan, the leader of the AKP, won with almost 52%.

The electoral popularity of the AKP was unprecedented but not all that surprising to those who follow Turkish politics closely.

The 1990s in Turkey — often referred to as the “lost decade” — were defined by poor economic performance and unstable coalition governments.

Into this dispiriting situation, the AKP emerged not as an Islamist but a center-right party eager to carry on a reformist, democratic, pro-growth policy agenda.

In a relatively short amount of time, the party managed to build a wide coalition of supporters from citizens who had grown estranged from the inward-looking, pro-military and nationalist policies that had dominated Turkish politics for so long.

Political and economic developments of the years following the AKP’s coming to power only enhanced their popularity.

The real gross domestic product (GDP) of Turkey (or GDP at constant prices) rose by 64% between 2002 and 2012, and real GDP per capita by 43%.

During the first few years of its government, the party seemed to be enthusiastically promoting Turkey’s bid for EU accession. Turkey had applied for a membership in the European Community back in 1987 and – after many years of lobbying – was finally granted candidacy in 1999. Ever since its foundation, Turkish political elites had wanted to position Turkey as a part of Europe: the AKP’s dynamic involvement in this process was widely welcome.

The political power of the military, whose intervention in parliamentary and executive affairs had been a mainstay of Turkish politics (there were three military coups between 1960 and 1980), was being curtailed.

And although it later proved to be a rather inept plan lacking specificity and real effort, talks of a “Kurdish opening” gave hope to Kurdish citizens and liberal segments of the electorate that the long-festering sore of Kurdish insurgency in the east of the country would finally be addressed.

The AKP also rolled out a set of popular social policies. It extended the level of free medical services for the poor. It also provided cash transfers for the poor, single women, and the disabled.

Happier days for Tayyip Erdogan in Davos. World Economic Forum, swiss-image.ch/Photo by Andy Mettler, CC BY-SA

Abroad, Prime Minister and then President Tayyip Erdogan was embraced as the architect of a new Turkey that set an example for the larger Middle East with its success in combining Islam, democracy and a thriving free-market economy.

The authoritarian turn

In the past few years especially, however, the AKP and its captain Erdogan – now the president of Turkey, residing in a 1,100-room presidential palace which cost over US$600 million to build – openly embraced a more narrow view of democracy.

Erdogan appeared to think that having the support of 50% of the electorate gave him and his party the mandate to push ahead with an increasingly conservative agenda.

Moreover, this electoral authoritarianism has taken on a noticeably Islamic character.

From launching education reforms meant to raise “pious generations” to the active promotion of traditional family-based lifestyles, from placing restrictions on alcohol consumption to advocating for a ban on abortions, AKP and Erdogan made it clear that they meant business when it came to legislating their religious values.

According to a Freedom House report, as of 2014 Turkey had already become a case of “modern authoritarianism.”

If the rulers in a traditional authoritarian system openly and violently suppress freedoms, the rulers of the modern authoritarianism, the report notes, use more subtle, but ultimately more effective techniques:

“Central to modern authoritarian strategy is the capture of institutions that undergird political pluralism. The goal is to dominate not only the executive and legislative branches, but also the media, the judiciary, civil society, the economy, and the security force.”

Indeed, as the report notes, under the AKP government, the past few years saw a notable intensification of these techniques, including:

“jailing reporters (Turkey leads the world in the number of imprisoned journalists), pressuring independent publishers to sell their holdings to government cronies, and threatening media owners with reprisals if critical journalists are not silenced.”

The city park that proved a lightening rod

In June 2013, the government cracked down on what started as a peaceful protest by mostly well-educated, non-political, middle-class youth against plans to erect yet another shopping mall in one of the few remaining green areas in Istanbul.

The attempt to protect Gezi Park was initially a popular reaction to the juggernaut of a construction boom that rarely consulted local residents.

Once the police used disproportionate force to clear out the protestors, opposition spread. If people had initially gone to Taksim Square to protect the people’s park against privatization, they stayed to show the government what a people’s democracy looks like.

And this wasn’t the only protest in June 2013. Fleshstorm, CC BY-SA

The government dismissed the protests as the work of an international and national conspiracy backed by the financial lobby, the US and Israel. An estimated 2.5 million citizens participated in the protests.

The Gezi protests tarnished the legitimacy of Erdogan’s government, and things were only made worse for the AKP by the corruption scandal involving the sons of three cabinet ministers and several businessmen, as well as Erdogan himself and his son.

Against this backdrop, the results of the recent election should not come as a big surprise. But the vote was not just a negative verdict on the AKP; it was also a positive boost for the opposition parties.

The success of the opposition parties

Not as much orange as the AKP would have liked. Basak Kus, Author provided

The 2015 general election has ended the single party rule of the AKP and put the opposition parties at the center of the Turkish politics.

Most significantly, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP - founded in 2012), representing a coalition of Kurdish voters and left-wing liberals, entered parliament for the first time with 13% of the votes and 80 seats. Their campaign emphasized pluralism and the rights of minorities and oppressed groups. Erdogan’s attempts to denigrate the HDP by calling it a party of gays and atheists failed.

Reasons to be cheerful: the co-leaders of the HDP. Murad Sezer/Reuters

The country’s oldest party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), won 25% and 132 seats. More importantly, perhaps, the CHP played a skillful role in the campaign by respectfully engaging with the HDP during the campaign and signaled its support for HDP’s passing the electoral threshold.

By all signs, the CHP is undergoing a significant transformation. The battle between the more pro-military, exclusively secular, and nationalistic wing of the party and the more liberal and pluralist side seems to have tilted in favor of the latter. During its campaign, the party highlighted social justice issues such as poverty and debt and quit its dogmatic stance on a variety of religious and ethnic issues. It also began to show interest in engaging Washington in policy conversations.

What lies ahead?

Turkey may still be AKP land, with the party having won the largest share of votes in 59 Turkish cities, but if one looks at the parliament, it is a different, much more variegated picture.

There are many challenges ahead. What would a coalition government look like? Opposition leaders have not shown a willingness to enter a coalition with the AKP. Indeed, the leader of the MHP has already called for holding early elections.

Yet, there is so much to be hopeful about. The election results ended one-party rule and put an end to Erdogan’s bid for absolute power. The HDP’s entering parliament is particularly meaningful. During the campaign, the HDP gave voice not only to Kurds, but also to gays and women: 40% of the new HDP members of parliament are women.

The results are also important for the future of Turkey’s foreign relations.

A politically stable Turkey is critical to regional stability.

Over the past few years, observers from the US and EU have raised concerns regarding the increasing tide of authoritarianism and threat to civil liberties. The actions of the Turkish government at home undermined its democratic credentials abroad.

Indeed, the Turkish government’s religious agenda was believed to have spilled over to its foreign policy. This view solidified particularly after the Syrian crisis, leading to questions about the “Sunnification” of Turkish foreign policy.

A more democratic rule, and a political leader who is open to dialogue and committed to a secular foreign policy, will benefit not only the citizens of Turkey, but also allies of the country in building coalitions to tackle the ever more challenging situation in the Middle East.

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