When Turkey’s Head of State Needs a Booster Seat

Supporters cheer Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he addresses an election rally in Ankara, Turkey, June 5, 2015.  (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
Supporters cheer Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he addresses an election rally in Ankara, Turkey, June 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

Turkey’s electorate sent a clear message. The balance of power has shifted and the president’s ideologically-loaded, inflammatory
rhetoric and his “scare, divide and rule” strategy has led to deep divisions in Turkish society — and, in some cases, to violence.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dream of a new constitution and an all-powerful presidency came to an abrupt end when the Turks took to the polls on June 7 in an election that was widely regarded as a referendum not only on the next national parliament but on the future of Turkey, with the country on the verge of slipping from democracy back towards autocracy.

Ever since the formation of a new state in 1923 from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has been embroiled in a struggle between secular and Islamist forces over the separation between the political and religious realm. Over the years, Erdogan, who once enjoyed broad political support, has become ever more authoritarian and aggressive in his pursuit of an Islamist agenda.

As a symbol of the “new Turkey,” he built himself a $615 million palace on the outskirts of Ankara, 30 times the size of the White House, which draws architectural inspiration from Ottoman and Seljuk heritage. Moreover, just one week before the parliamentary election, at the rally on the occasion of the 562nd anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople, he declared: “Conquest is Mecca, conquest is Saladin, it’s to hoist the Islamic flag over Jerusalem again; conquest is the heritage of Mehmed II and conquest means forcing Turkey back on its feet.”

But Turkey’s electorate sent a clear message. The balance of power has shifted and the president’s ideologically-loaded, inflammatory rhetoric and his “scare, divide and rule” strategy has led to deep divisions in Turkish society and, in some cases, to violence. Although the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, emerged as the strongest party for the fourth election in a row, it suffered a significant loss in support with less than a 41 percent vote share, losing about 9 percent to a combination of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Erdogan had hoped for a three-fifths majority which would have translated into a minimum of 330 seats in the lower house for him to call a referendum on the constitution — a “Putinization” away from a parliamentary to a presidential system. But with 258 seats, the AKP fell well short of even winning a simple majority and, for the first time in 13 years, has to rely on a coalition partner to form a government.

This time, no horn-honking celebrations broke out outside the AKP headquarters in Ankara and the cheering, drum-beating and flag-waving loyalist crowd from previous elections was nowhere to be seen. Conversely, thousands of jubilant Kurds took to the streets in Diyarbakir Province in south-eastern Turkey. The HDP primarily represents the large Kurdish community, but also comprises numerous left-wing movements which had previously stood as independents, but joined the HDP to reach the steep 10 percent threshold for entering parliament. By winning 12 percent of the votes, the HDP takes 80 seats in the new house and thus denies the AKP its majority. Selahattin Demirtas, a former human rights lawyer and leader of the HDP, exclaimed: “As of this hour, the debate about the presidency, the debate about dictatorship, is over. Turkey narrowly averted a disaster.”

The decisive loss for Erdogan and the AKP was clearly a major win for women, Kurds, Yazidis, Alevis, Armenians and other minorities, but it should not obscure the many challenges that lie ahead. The outcome of the election has produced a complex political landscape, and Turkey is likely to enter a turbulent period of uncertainties and instabilities, similar to the pre-AKP era when the country suffered from notoriously unstable coalition governments.

There are several potential scenarios for what might happen next. Taking 258 seats in parliament, the AKP could seek to form a minority government with the support of at least one of the other parties. This outcome, however, would make another election in the next year or so a strong possibility.

A weak AKP-led coalition in partnership with the far-right, nationalist MHP is another possible outcome. The MHP retained its status as the third-largest group in parliament and the AKP and MHP are known to have worked together in the past — for instance, in their joint effort to lift the ban on headscarves in public universities. Although the MHP’s Deputy Chairman, Oktay Vural, said on Sunday that “it would be wrong to make an assessment about a coalition” at this stage, his party is understood to be in direct contact with the AKP leadership. Given the MHP’s militantly anti-Kurdish agenda, the HDP’s victory could ultimately result in the formation of a new government which is more hostile to the Kurdish cause than the previous one and put the peace process in grave jeopardy. In addition, the HDP has released a statement ruling out any coalition with the AKP and a coalition which involves both the MHP and HDP together with the second-largest group, the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), is thought to be all but impossible.

Under Turkey’s constitution, the president can call for another election if no party is able to form a government within six weeks of the election, and the Turks could be forced to go to the polls again sometime in the next three months.

Whoever comes out on top in the battle for power faces serious economic and political challenges.

The economic boom is over. The Turkish lira dropped to a record low against the dollar in after-hours trading. Growth rates are only a third of what they used to be during the golden years a decade ago, and Turkey faces record youth unemployment. Roughly 30 percent of the 12 million Turks under 24 are out of work. There is far too little produced in the country that focuses on the construction industry, and foreign investment has drastically declined, not least because of the geo-political situation in Turkey’s neighboring countries.

Across the southern border, the Islamic State (IS) is building its caliphate and waves of refugees have poured into Turkey, putting further strain on the already struggling economy. Turkey is home to almost 2 million Syrian refugees, more than any other state. Additionally, Erdogan’s government has faced stark criticism over its lack of commitment to the fight against IS. The U.S.-led coalition has tried in vain to convince Turkey to allow the use of its air bases to carry out strikes against the jihadists and to do more to block the so-called jihad highway into Syria.

The election result is unlikely to have a major impact on Israel-Turkey relations in the short term, but a weakened AKP government could work in Israel’s favor in the long term and put a brake on the downward spiral in relations between the two countries. For now, Erdogan remains the dominant political player, and will shape Turkey’s foreign policy to a significant degree. However, it will be harder for him to ignore the voices of opposition parties like the CHP and HDP which, in the past, have criticized his hostile attitude towards Israel. Former Israeli President Shimon Peres, speaking at the 15th Annual Herzliya Conference, expressed cautious optimism: “I am happy about what happened in Turkey — Erdogan wanted to turn Turkey into Iran, and there is no room for two Irans in the Middle East.”

The jury is still out on the ramifications of Sunday’s election, but one thing is clear: the Turks have chosen an uncertain future over the relative, if authoritarian, stability provided by the AKP for over a decade. That, in itself, shows just what an unpopular and polarizing figure Erdogan has become.