A Rewrite for Erdogan

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had hoped that a big win in Sunday’s elections would grant him the mandate to rewrite the constitution for the purpose of creating a more powerful presidency — tailor-made for Tayyip Erdogan, of course.

Instead, Turkish voters took a blue pencil to history and rewrote Erdogan’s ambitions.

Not only did his ruling AKP party not receive the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to change the constitution, it took only 40.8 percent of the vote, according to preliminary counts, down from 49.8 percent in the last parliamentary election in 2011.

For the first time since the AKP came to power almost 13 years ago, it will have to seek a coalition with one of the smaller parties. Either that or go to early elections.

As much as the outcome has frustrated Erdogan, it has thrilled his opponents. Kurds were dancing in the streets. It was the first time that the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) attained the 10 percent threshold required to enter parliament, with initial results at around 13 percent. It was a milestone in the long struggle for recognition and rights in Turkey.

HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas hailed the election — which saw a turnout of 86 percent — as a bright day for democracy. “The discussion of an executive presidency and dictatorship have come to an end in Turkey,” he told a news conference in Istanbul.

But if it is clear what will not be, it is entirely unclear what will be, in Turkey.

In an ironic comedown, Erdogan, who has been accused of sowing divisiveness in the country by persecuting his political opponents, was calling for coalition unity on Monday. He said that the inconclusive election results mean that no party can govern alone.

On that he is right. However, the statements of other party leaders indicated the distinct possibility that AKP will not be able to govern in partnership with anybody else, either.

Kurdish party spokesman Haluk Koc said that a coalition with the AKP was not an option. The right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), regarded until now as a likely coalition partner, sounded similarly uncooperative. Its leader, Devlet Bahceli, said that Erdogan should look elsewhere for partners and that early elections might be unavoidable. The law allows for new elections after 45 days if a coalition is not formed.

Thus, uncertainty was a big winner at the polls. It recalls the difficult period of the 1990s, when Turkey was beleaguered by short-lived coalition governments, economic instability and military coups. Indeed, the new political uncertainty caused Turkey’s currency, the lira, to sink to a record low against the dollar in after-hours trading.

It is also uncertain how much of a turning point this election will be. Turkey may have veered away from one-party, one-man rule. But does it put the country on a path away from the Islamic dominance that Erdogan has represented and back toward a more secular polity?

Observers in Turkey are saying that the success of the HDP reached beyond its Kurdish constituency, tapping into a reservoir of disillusionment and disgust among center-left and secularist elements as well.

Everyone expects that the HDP will be a force in parliament on behalf of the two-year-old peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has engaged in armed insurrection since 1984.

Not that that would be a departure from current policy. It was Erdogan’s own government that entered into negotiations with the Kurds. With the accession of the HDP to parliament, though, there is hope that movement toward a final peace agreement can be accelerated and the violence ended for good.

The election is also good news for Turkey’s neighbors. As Erdogan’s grip on internal power has loosened, so, too, his propensity for regional bullying may diminish.

“Turkey’s foreign policy will be less driven by the AKP’s ambitions, which is basically driven by a foreign policy vision to make Turkey a regional player at any cost,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute.

“The outcome of the election will take Turkey’s anti-Assad policy down a notch. The government will not be able to drive its agenda single-handedly anymore,” he added.

Although policy toward Israel did not figure prominently in the post-election analyses, the humbling of Erdogan could spell an end to the maniacal hostility to Israel that has so poisoned bilateral relations.

A Turkish people who are tired of being bullied by their leader may also be tired of his unnecessary and destructive attitude toward Israel, which was for so many years a friend and ally.

For us, it is much too early for dancing in the streets, but there is reason to be hopeful.