Turkey’s Right Rises Again

President Erdoğan has won a major electoral victory. Now, he must decide whether to continue his strategy of confrontation or move to ease tensions in a polarized country.

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP celebrate the election outcome in Istanbul on November 1, 2015. (AP/Hussein Malla)
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP celebrate the election outcome in Istanbul on November 1, 2015. (AP/Hussein Malla)

The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, won back an outright majority in the Turkish parliament on November 1 with a sweeping and unexpected victory in the country’s repeat parliamentary election. The AKP, which draws much of its support from Turkey’s working class and religious conservatives, won 49.4 percent of the overall vote. This will likely translate to 316 seats in the 550-member parliament—enough to form a single-party government but short of the 330 seats needed to put constitutional changes to a nationwide referendum, a longtime goal of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Sunday’s election marked a stunning turnaround from the June 7, 2015, parliamentary election, in which the AKP lost the outright majority it had held since 2002. In the June election, Turkish voters seemed to deal President Erdoğan—the former prime minister and driving force behind the AKP and Turkish politics generally—a strong rebuke, rejecting his campaign to rewrite the constitution and convert the country to a strong presidential system with himself at the helm. The June contest also saw the primarily Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, clear the 10 percent threshold for entry into parliament for the first time and expand its support beyond its traditional base. The HDP won 80 seats, many of which it wrested from AKP control in the predominantly Kurdish southeast.

The June setback and the rise of the HDP added to a litany of troubles threatening the AKP’s political dominance, including a slowing economy; a refugee crisis spawned by the war in Syria; and an increasing terrorist threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, highlighted by devastating suicide bombings in Suruҫ and Ankara. Facing these political challenges to his control, President Erdoğan maneuvered the country toward another election; a combination of Erdoğan’s sabotage and opposition intransigence sunk talks to form a coalition government and brought Turkey back to the polls on Sunday.

As president, Erdoğan was required to give the top vote-getter in the June election—the AKP—a mandate to form a government and to allow the party 45 days to do so. However, the AKP failed to negotiate a coalition, and President Erdoğan, rather than handing the mandate to the second highest vote-getter and main opposition party, exercised his presidential prerogative to call for a snap, or repeat, election in the hope of securing single-party control. His decision marked the first time a president has exercised this prerogative in the Republic of Turkey’s history.

A strategy of confrontation is vindicated

In the run-up to the repeat election over the past five months, the AKP pivoted hard toward Turkey’s nationalist right and presented itself as the only bulwark against regional instability and the uncertainty of coalition government. President Erdoğan’s party also stepped up its rhetorical attacks against the mostly Kurdish HDP, which it sought to tie to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK—a militant Kurdish nationalist group that has waged a long, intermittent insurgency against the Turkish state and is labeled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union. Beyond the rhetoric, the AKP government responded aggressively to the murder of two Turkish police officers in a July 2015 attack claimed by the PKK, using the provocation to bomb PKK camps in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq, ending an uneasy two-year ceasefire, which had been largely upheld by both sides, and reopening a cycle of violence that has long plagued the southeast.

The Turkish military campaign against the PKK was accompanied by a crackdown against the wider Kurdish political movement: Authorities moved to block Kurdish-language news sites; President Erdoğan called for the removal of parliamentary immunity from prosecution for HDP parliamentarians elected in the June election; and pro-AKP mobs repeatedly attacked HDP offices across the country. Many observers believed the campaign against the Kurds was as much about securing Turkish nationalist support in the new election and blocking the HDP’s path toward becoming a progressive party with national appeal as it was about containing the PKK terrorist threat. The resumption of the PKK conflict also carried other political benefits for Erdoğan, who was able to play the role of a strong military leader, appealing to Turks who fear instability and a return to internecine violence. The renewed fighting also shifted the election toward issues of national security and terrorism, allowing the AKP to avoid discussing the fragile economy or engaging with economic policies—including a popular minimum-wage proposal—suggested by the opposition.

The results of the November 1 elections, in which millions of right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, voters shifted en masse to support the AKP, seem to have vindicated President Erdoğan’s strategy of confrontation with political opponents—particularly Kurds. The AKP has now consolidated most of the Turkish right under its banner and likely ensured another four years of single-party rule.

Was the election free and fair?

The election’s conduct was a mixed bag. There was no serious violence on election day, and fears of ISIS attacks on polling stations did not materialize. The PKK respected the unilateral ceasefire the group had declared several weeks before the election. No accusations of systemic fraud have emerged, and the civil society monitoring group Oy ve Ötesi, whose name translates to “Vote and Beyond,” mobilized tens of thousands of election observers to monitor ballot boxes.

But the election was also held in a climate of widespread fear and media control by the AKP government, which severely limited voters’ access to information. The offices of the widely read Hürriyet newspaper were twice attacked by mobs shouting pro-AKP slogans and led by an AKP parliamentarian. Hürriyet columnist Ahmet Hakan was beaten outside his home in an attack applauded by pro-government figures. Two television stations and two newspapers critical of the government—Kanaltürk TV, Bugün TV, Millet, and Bugün—were raided and seized by police the week before the election. The state broadcaster, TRT, devoted 59 hours to President Erdoğan and the AKP; 5 hours to the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP; 70 minutes to the MHP; and 18 minutes to the HDP.

Perhaps most importantly, in the Kurdish regions of southeastern Turkey, the election campaign took place in an atmosphere of near civil war, with frequent curfews and street battles between police and Kurdish youth tied to the PKK. Hundreds of HDP activists were arrested or detained, and police confiscated HDP campaign leaflets. Opposition candidates—particularly from the HDP—were often prevented from campaigning in areas deemed special security zones as a result of the renewed fighting with the PKK.

In the context of these abuses and the well-documented pressure on critical press outlets, the Turkish election should be characterized as mostly free but deeply unfair.

Prospects for de-escalation

The big postelection question is whether the AKP can deliver on its campaign promise of stability and peace. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu promised to be a leader for all Turkish citizens in his victory speech, but the polarization of the past two years—particularly the alienation of many Kurds as the peace process has faltered—will be difficult to reverse.

The AKP will face competing pressures: a political impulse to continue cracking down on dissent, particularly Kurdish dissent, and an economic imperative to ease tensions. On the one hand, President Erdoğan and the AKP gained 9 percent of the nationwide vote over just five months by appealing to conservative, Turkish nationalist voters; the government will feel pressure to secure this new voting bloc by continuing the fight against the PKK and the crackdown on the HDP. The bombing of PKK positions in northern Iraq by Turkish jets the day after the election may indicate as much. Such a path would perpetuate fighting in Turkey’s southeast region as the AKP works to root out PKK insurgents and improve the government’s negotiating position in any eventual peace talks. This course is also very risky; it could alienate a new generation of Kurdish youth and could bring retaliatory PKK attacks in major Turkish cities. Indeed, the question of whether anyone can control the armed Kurdish youth groups operating in some southeastern cities remains open—and any serious accusations of electoral fraud could spark Kurdish and leftist protests.

On the other hand, Turkey’s economy has slowed markedly over the past three years, and the fighting in the southeast is yet another drag on growth. A spillover of the conflict with the PKK into major western cities such as Istanbul or İzmir would devastate the Turkish economy, particularly the crucial tourism sector. Ironically, Turkey’s slowing economy may prove a political saving grace; with the election won, the AKP’s main concern will be improving the economic situation, which could lead it to reduce tensions and return to the negotiating table with the PKK.

What does this mean for U.S.-Turkish relations?

The short answer is not very much. Western leaders have always disliked President Erdoğan’s crackdown on the press and AKP critics and have been troubled by the strategy of confrontation with the Kurds. The United States, however, has not elevated the issue beyond U.S. State Department expressions of concern due to the other items on the agenda, such as the need for Turkish cooperation in Syria and in combatting ISIS. American officials have also worried that any intervention in Turkish politics could backfire, allowing Erdoğan to point to foreign interference as a means to rally his base.

This U.S. approach will likely continue: The U.S. government has to work with the AKP, but it does not have to like Erdoğan’s political tactics. The election result could take on greater importance for U.S.-Turkish relations if the AKP government—calculating that its move against the Kurds, both the HDP and the PKK, has been vindicated—continues the domestic crackdown or moves forcefully against U.S.-backed Kurdish militias—the People’s Protection Units, or YPG—in Syria. Turkish officials have long decried U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds and have repeatedly threatened military force if the YPG expands into areas the Turkish government considers off-limits. Indeed, the Turkish air force launched two air strikes on the YPG last week, raising the prospect of another disagreement between Washington and Ankara over their Syria policies and approaches to Kurdish groups.

On the other hand, with the election over, the AKP could move to ease tensions with the Kurds and tone down the alarming anti-Western rhetoric used to whip up the base during the campaign, perhaps improving relations with Washington in the process. Certainly, many Western governments are desperate for hopeful signs from Turkey in the face of the Syrian tragedy and resulting refugee crisis. There is some renewed hope for a resolution of the long-standing Cyprus dispute, which the AKP could use to burnish its international reputation. The November 1 vote means that all of these issues, for better or for worse, are once again in President Erdoğan’s hands.

Max Hoffman is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow at the Center.

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Max Hoffman

Former Senior Director

Michael Werz

Senior Fellow