Turkey’s governing party swept to an historic landslide election win on June 12, but failed to gain enough parliamentary seats to rewrite the constitution without help from its opponents.
Victory for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has made Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the first Turkish premier since 1957 to win a third consecutive term. The ruling party defied expectations by increasing its share of the total vote to 49.9 percent, and gaining around 5 million new voters.
“It’s indisputable,” commented leading political analyst Soli Ozel. “This is a hell of a victory for the ruling party.”
But the result left almost all the main parties with cause for both celebration and commiseration.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), rejuvenated under the leadership of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, won 25.9 percent of the vote; a five-percent increase on its 2007 performance, but still lower than some had hoped. It gained 23 new parliamentary seats.
The second opposition party, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), appeared to shrug off a sex tape scandal that toppled 10 of its leading politicians weeks before the poll, but its 13 percent of the vote ranks lower than its finish in the previous election. It lost 18 seats.
As expected, Kurdish-backed independents made big gains in the southeast, where many are disillusioned with the AKP’s stalled promises of pro-Kurdish reforms. The 36 such candidates who won seats are expected to form a faction to promote Kurdish rights.
But while increasing its share of votes, the ruling AKP returned to power with a reduced parliamentary majority of 326 seats, 15 fewer than it had held previously in Turkey’s 550-member parliament.
The tally leaves the party four seats short of the 330 seats that would have given it the super-majority required for Erdoğan to replace by referendum the country’s 1982 constitution, drafted by the military following a coup d’état.
Many suspect that Erdoğan, ineligible under election rules to run for a fourth term as prime minister, intends to create a reinforced French or Russian-style presidency that he himself would occupy.
Before the poll, some speculated the AKP might win 367 seats, enough to change the constitution without a referendum, but greater relative gains by the Kurds and CHP cut into the ruling party’s win. The gains the AKP made were largely at the expense of parties already lying below Turkey’s 10-percent threshold for entering parliament.
During a June 12 victory speech from the balcony of his party headquarters in Ankara, Erdoğan acknowledged he would need to work with his opponents to rewrite the constitution. “The people . . . have given us a message that the new constitution should be made through compromise, consultation and negotiation . . . We will not close our doors, but instead go to the opposition.”
In recent months, the prime minister has been accused of polarizing the country, and his government has faced charges of creeping authoritarianism. More journalists are now imprisoned in Turkey than in any other country in the world, and strict new Internet filters will come into force later this summer.
Following his victory, Erdoğan moved to allay concerns about his democratic intentions. “No one should doubt that protecting the lifestyle, faith and values of both those who voted and did not vote for us will be a matter of honour for me,” he said.
But similar rhetoric followed the AKP’s last election victory, prompting many to question whether the prime minister’s style of government will actually change. In the lead-up to the election, he had said that, while during his first and second terms in power he was an “apprentice,” then a “foreman,” a third term would make him a “master.”
“My hunch is that the prime minister will want to push through exactly what he wants as far as the constitution is concerned,” said Ozel, who believes it will not be difficult for the AKP to find the extra four MPs to support its plan of rewriting the constitution.
“Unless the prime minister makes a 180-degree turn from his campaign rhetoric, we’re going to end up with a very strong chief executive who controls both the legislature and the judiciary . . . On issues of press freedom and freedom of speech, it’s going to get tougher.”
But Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, takes heart from the improved showing of the CHP, which had long languished in political irrelevance under its previous head, Deniz Baykal, who was felled last year by a sex scandal.
“Finally, we are having a serious opposition,” Aktar said. “It’s good news.” The big question now, he believes, is whether Erdoğan will hold good to his pledge to work more inclusively within Turkey’s polarized political spectrum.
He argues that the overall outcome of the elections gives Turkey’s politicians a chance to work collectively and to bridge their differences. “This result can give the space for depolarization,” he said.
Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.