Erdogan’s triumph and Turkey's future

Turkey's president is confirmed once more as the master of Turkish politics. Now he faces his greatest challenge.

Dimitar Bechev Nathalie Tocci
4 November 2015

Demotix/Jonathan Raa. All rights reserved.Love him or hate him but Recep Tayyip Erdogan has yet again demonstrated his supreme talent as a political operator. In the elections of 1 November 2015, his Justice & Development Party (AKP) obtained a majority in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly, winning 49.4% of the vote - an increase from 40.9% (and 4.5 million voters) from the inconclusive election of 7 June. The AKP is now able to form a cabinet alone. Turkey is more or less in the same position as before the June vote: a powerful, directly elected president driven by limitless ambition in control of the legislature.

What has changed is that he is now in receipt of a powerful new mandate. Formally a non-political figure, Erdogan in practice can direct the policies of the council of ministers. In effect, Turkey has transitioned to presidential rule, even if the AKP is thirteen seats short of the super-majority of 330 MPs required to call a referendum on any constitutional change.

The turmoil and polarisation of recent months in Turkey have played into Erdogan’s hands. The renewed war with the PKK and the hideous bomb-attack in Ankara on 10 October have given credence to an AKP campaign which promised citizens stability and security through single-party rule. As in the lead-up to the 2011 polls, the government’s confrontation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) paid off. Two million voters chose to defect from the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which saw its share slashed from 16.3% to 11.9%, and the number of its seats drop by half. 

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) haemorrhaged support as well. It finished fourth with 10.7%, down from 13.1% in June. Most of the votes lost were in the south-east, where socially conservative Kurds alienated from the PKK as Turkey's southeast descended into war and fighting spread to urban centres like Cizre, reversed their short-lived embrace of the HDP and cast their ballot for the AKP. The HDP may have again proved that the 10% threshold is not an obstacle, but it suffered from being portrayed by the government as a mere extension of the “terrorist organisation”, that is the PKK. Its small consolation prize is that its fifty-nine MPs will give the HDP a larger representation in the forthcoming parliament than the MHP.

It is striking too that the main opposition force, the People’s Republican Party (CHP), cannot escape its bystander role in Turkish politics. Stuck in its own electoral ghetto of 25%, it is simply unable to mount a credible challenge to the AKP. Both the HDP and MHP make the news for a very simple reason: they can rival and take votes from the AKP despite being less than one third of the AKP’s size. Even with its quarter of the electorate, that is not the case with the CHP. 

The Turkish president has wind in his sails. The single-party government that will emerge is a good signal to international investors. The Turkish lira is up 3% against the dollar after plummeting by 25% over the course of the year. The Istanbul Stock Exchange jumped 5% on 2 November.  At least in the short term, financial markets – the only credible check on Erdogan alongside the ballot-box – are moving in the right direction. Of course, that might change quickly, especially if the new government's short-term political calculations lead to bungled economic policies or there is interference from the presidential palace. The composition of the next cabinet, and the balance between Erdogan loyalists and technocrats, are key signals to watch. There is also the position of prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who has been given a much needed boost by the solid election result. He now has an opportunity to carve out a niche for himself, though this may not entail a challenge to Erdogan as hoped by some observers.

The healing test

The larger challenge now for Erdogan and the AKP, now they have regained the political upper hand, is to pull the country away from the brink. By far the greatest test is that of relaunching the Kurdish peace process. After 1 November, the president has nothing to gain if the fighting continues. However, de-escalation can be brought about in different ways. Erdogan can opt to restart the Kurdish process by reaching out exclusively to Abdullah Öcalan and the PKK, or also to the HDP. While an agreement between two strong men – Erdogan and “Serok (Leader) Apo” – can no doubt bring back stability, only reconciliation embedded within parliamentary politics can engender an indispensable broader process of political change.

Restarting the Kurdish process will also strengthen Erdogan’s hand in the region. Ankara is in retreat in Syria. Russia’s intervention has ruled out the establishment of a no-fly zone, to Turkey’s dismay. The Islamic State (IS) has turned from an undercover ally into a formidable challenge for Turkey’s internal stability. It is indeed ironic that as prime minister, Davutoglu, the architect of the "zero-problems" policy, should be waging a war on several fronts – against Assad, PKK/PYD and IS. A return to the domestic negotiation table at home will no doubt improve Turkey’s standing abroad, as an initial round of talks are conducted in Vienna aimed at ending the carnage in Syria.

Erdogan has proved to be the unquestioned master of Turkish politics. The spotlight is on him now to start healing the country’s toxic divisions and sow the seeds of reform and reconciliation.

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