On 10 August 2014, in the first popular election of the Turkish President in the history of the Republic, Prime Minister and Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected in the first round with 51.79 percent of the vote. The other candidates, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the joint candidate of the Republican People’s Party (RPP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), garnered 38.44 percent while Selahattin Demirtaş, candidate for the Kurdish Democracy Party of Peoples (HDP), secured 9.78 percent. Voter turnout (74.12 percent) was considerably lower than in all recent parliamentary elections and also much lower than the almost 90 percent registered in the most recent local elections of 30 March 2014. Moreover, turnout was also lower than expected among Turkish citizens living abroad who for the first time had the opportunity to vote from third countries. Thus, according to unofficial figures, among the almost 3 million Turks living abroad, only about 232,000 voted, in addition to another 270,000 who voted at the border gates.
Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party. Sahan Nuhoglu/Demotix. All rights reserved. Various explanations were offered for the low turnout. One was the timing of the elections. It was argued that many summer holidaymakers did not bother to return from their vacations and that many seasonal workers also apparently did not vote. Secondly, many CHP and MHP voters who were seemingly unhappy about the choice of their joint candidate İhsanoğlu, demonstrated their displeasure by choosing not to vote. Thirdly, many leading pre-election surveys showed Erdoğan to be a sure winner with about 56-58 percent of the vote, a margin that may have discouraged a number of potential opposition voters to vote.
Another much debated aspect of the elections was that as Prime Minister, Erdoğan could use government resources and facilities freely in his campaign, while the campaigns for the two opposition candidates were poorly financed. Furthermore, the state-owned Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) heavily concentrated on the Erdoğan campaign, granting almost no room to the opposition candidates.
Opinions vary as to the meaning of the election results. No doubt, Erdoğan and the pro-government media presented it as a smashing victory. In fact, however, it was a less impressive victory than they had predicted or desired. A slightly higher turnout would probably have carried the elections to the second (run-off) round. In a run-off between Erdoğan and İhsanoğlu, however, Erdoğan would be a clear winner, since he would have got a majority of the Kurdish votes that went to Demirtaş in the first round. Indeed, a post-election poll showed that in the event of a run-off, 62.3 percent of Demirtaş’s votes would go to Erdoğan and only 8.7 percent to İhsanoğlu, with 29 percent not likely to vote at all. This shows the dilemma of Kurdish voters. Even though they did not fully trust Erdoğan, they still saw him as their best (and only) chance for a peaceful solution to Turkey’s decade old conflict with its Kurdish minority.
Much debate has also been going on within the opposition camp, especially within the CHP. Many CHP figures belonging to the ultra-Kemalist wing of the party expressed discontent with İhsanoğlu’s candidacy, a highly respected nonpartisan figure with an academic and diplomatic background and conservative center-right leanings, choosing to boycott the campaign and election. On the other hand, some leftist CHP voters apparently voted for Demirtaş rather than for İhsanoğlu finding him too conservative for their liking. Thus, it is estimated that some 8.4 percent of those who voted for the CHP in the 30 March local elections voted for Demirtaş in the presidential elections. An even more surprising shift took place among the MHP voters. According to the same post-election poll, 15.9 percent of them voted for Erdoğan. These survey findings are also supported by quantitative analysis of voting data. Thus, the total CHP-MHP vote in the 30 March elections was 43 percent (27.8 percent for the former and 15.2 percent for the latter), whereas their joint candidate in the presidential elections received only 38.44 percent, indicating a rather significant defection from both parties. The government as well as many independent observers portrayed this as a humiliating defeat for the collaboration strategy of the two parties. On the other hand, in an alliance between two parties with highly different ideologies and political histories, defections are unavoidable.
Despite all these adverse circumstances, the collaboration of these two parties (and twelve other minor parties) in defense of the rule of law and of democratic standards is in itself a significant event that bodes well for the future of Turkish democracy.
The regional distribution of party votes was almost a replica of the 30 March local elections, with the only notable difference represented by the shift of some MHP voters to Erdoğan. Once again, Turkey is divided into three regional as well as social blocs. The CHP-MHP alliance is the clear winner in Eastern Thrace and in the coastal provinces of the Aegean and Mediterranean regions, while the HDP candidate Demirtaş was the frontrunner in the Kurdish-dominated Southeast. The rest of the country, including Central and Eastern Anatolia and the Black Sea region, was solid AKP territory. This regional distribution also corresponds to a socio-economic and cultural cleavage in Turkish politics. The alliance (more precisely, the CHP) strongholds are the most modernized regions of the country, with a higher level of economic welfare, educational attainment, and a more secular way of life. The same cleavage is also observed within the three largest metropolitan centers, Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Within these centers, CHP strongholds are represented by the older, more established, coastal neighborhoods of better-educated, middle and high income residents with a distinctly secular way of life, while the AKP appeals to poorer neighborhoods of largely recent urban migrants who are more religiously conservative and less well-educated.
Both elections therefore confirm the sharply divided and largely compartmentalized nature of Turkish politics. Indeed, especially since the Gezi Park events of June 2013, Erdoğan and AKP spokesmen in general have increasingly used an exceedingly harsh and exclusionary rhetoric against the opposition, presumably with the aim of solidifying and mobilizing support among their own voters. Such polarization reached its peak in the 30 March and 10 August elections.
Despite all its controversial aspects, the presidential elections constitute a clear victory for Erdoğan and the AKP, which has established itself as the “predominant party” in Turkey with consecutive victories in parliamentary, local and presidential elections since 2002. Furthermore, it is the only truly national party with a significant level of support in all parts of the country, including the Kurdish-dominated Southeast. In none of the eleven geographical regions of Turkey, did Erdoğan’s vote fall below the 40 percent level. Even in the Southeastern region taken as a whole, Erdoğan secured 50.6 percent of the vote as opposed to 38.5 percent for the HDP candidate Demirtaş.
It is beyond the scope of this analysis to explain the reasons behind the transformation of the AKP from a moderate conservative democratic party to a populist one, with increasingly authoritarian leanings. One possible explanation is the greater self-confidence gained by the AKP’s successive electoral victories, each time with a larger share of votes. Another is the disappearance of the threat of the Turkish military’s intervention into politics, a scenario achieved during the AKP’s first two terms in power. A third explanation may be the growing sense of mission by the AKP leadership to make Turkey a leading country in the Islamic world through the development of some kind of a populist Muslim democracy.
Ahmet Davutoglu. Michael Gross/Flickr. Some rights reserved.This analysis suggests that the August 2014 presidential election is important not only for its own sake, but even more so for what it portends for the future of Turkish democracy. Erdoğan made it quite clear in his campaign that, if elected, he would not be a symbolic or ceremonial president (“a flower-pot president,” as he puts it), but an active one who will use his constitutional powers to the maximum. He and other party spokesmen also clearly indicated that if they obtain the necessary constitutional amendment majority in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, they will change the system of government into a semi-presidential or presidential one. Even more ominously, they did not hide their intention of also amending the constitution in order to create a more politically dependent and pliant judiciary.
At the moment the AKP is short of the minimum constitutional amendment majority of three-fifths of parliament. The level of support it received in March and August 2014 elections makes it highly unlikely that it will obtain such a majority in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, normally scheduled for June 2015, but which can be anticipated by a parliamentary resolution. In the meantime, Erdoğan will make the system function in a semi-presidential fashion not by de iure but by de facto means, namely by appointing a loyal prime minister – Ahmet Davutoğlu – and cabinet.
This means that the year ahead will be a period of extreme polarization, full of uncertainties and tensions. If the AKP eventually succeeds in changing the constitution in the direction it desires, these will probably be exacerbated further, moving Turkey one big step closer to what Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way have described as “competitive authoritarian regimes.”
A longer version of this article was first published as a Policy Brief in the framework of the ‘Global Turkey in Europe’ publication series, a project jointly run by the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome, the Istanbul Policy Center (IPC) and the Stiftung Mercator. Previous papers published in the series are freely available at the following link.
 Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, Competitive Authoritarianism. Hybrid Regimes After The Cold War, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010.