June 8, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Erdogan’s Election Rejection

• How President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey reacts to his first electoral defeat—his name was not on a ballot but the election was most certainly about him—will have significant consequences for not just Turkish society but for crises in Syria, Iraq, and the spread of foreign fighters

• For the first time since taking power as prime minister in 2003, President Erdogan doesn’t have a majority government with which to wield power

• Also for the first time, the Kurds have official representation in Turkey’s National Assembly, easily surpassing the 10% national vote threshold needed; they will hold at least 78 seats in the parliament

• Falling short of the 276 seats needed for an outright majority, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) will either form a minority government or take a pass and watch as the opposition likely fails to form a government, leading to early elections after 45 days.


After 12 years of steadily increasing his power, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was just handed a stunning defeat. As Turkey’s prime minister between 2003 and 2014, Erdogan consolidated power while weakening his opposition. Upon assuming the presidency in 2014, Erdogan began maneuvering to amend the constitution in order to transform the Turkish political system from a parliamentary system into a presidential one—with himself, of course, as president. Yesterday’s election was a national rejection of his ambition, resulting in his Justice and Development Party (AKP) losing its majority status for the first time since 2002. The inevitable blame game has already started and will in no small measure reshape Turkish politics and more.

It is difficult to overstate the consequences and symbolism of the election results. Erdogan has moved the country away from secularism and towards a more Islamist-leaning society and government, a marked break from the founding of modern Turkey. The economic success of his earlier years has slowed in recent years, which has weakened his ability to hide his power grabs and manipulation of the judiciary, military, and other pillars of the government. While still the most popular and powerful political figure in the country, Erdogan is no longer seen as invulnerable.

Technically Erdogan is no longer the head of the AKP, since his position as president precludes such political dealings. The current prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, is the head of AKP and the architect of much of Turkey’s largely failed ‘Zero Problems’ foreign policy. In a speech following the election results, Davutoglu did not mention AKP’s failure to capture the needed 276 seats to maintain its majority, but focused on the fact AKP still has the most votes overall. Erdogan has not appeared or spoken publicly since the election; it remains to be seen if he will pin the blame on Davutoglu, archrival Fethullah Gulen, outside agitators, or a combination of all of the above. It is almost certain he will not take the blame himself.

As important as Erdogan's loss of power is the gaining of power for the first time by the country’s sizable Kurdish minority population. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won 78 seats, gaining 11.7% of the national vote; the Turkish system mandates that a party reach at least 10% nationwide in order to join the National Assembly. By running a campaign that focused on social and not ethnic issues, and tapping into the deepening current of anti-Erdogan sentiment, the HDP was able for the first time to gain enough non-Kurdish votes; voting for HDP was both a pro-Kurdish and anti-Erdogan vote. DHP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas proclaimed the election a victory for all underrepresented groups in Turkey, including women, workers, and the poor.

It remains to be seen if the AKP cobbles together a minority government. The second largest bloc of votes after AKP’s 41% was the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), with 25%; the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) gained 16%. Neither of these parties are natural fits for a coalition with AKP. By law, a government has to be formed within 45 days or Erdogan can call for early elections. Erdogan has shown a pattern of not backing down from setbacks. Either the AKP will form a minority government or it will step back and watch as the disparate opposition parties attempt to form one, which would likely lead to missing the 45-day deadline. Calling for early elections would be a drastic move, but Erdogan has recently embraced drastic moves. The political uncertainty has the potential to spill into social and economic tension if it becomes a weapon for parties and individuals to use against opponents.

All this matters far beyond the borders of Turkey. Turkey is central to any resolution to the Syrian civil war, and can play a huge role in Iraq as well. It is also a NATO member, and the most influential country in the region. The country has gone from the ‘zero problems’ with neighbors—once a pillar of Erdogan’s foreign policy—to problems with almost every neighbor. His rise, in many ways, mirrors that of of Russian President Vladimir Putin: the worrisome consolidation of power; the cult of personality that tolerates little dissent; the crackdown on  freedom of the press; and sharp anti-Western rhetoric. Like Putin, he has gone from prime minister to president, and has sought to manipulate both offices to increase his power. Yet unlike Putin, Erdogan has just been dealt a highly visible, symbolic, and actual political defeat. How he responds will in large measure determine much of Turkey’s near and long-term future, as well as the future of regional crises and challenges.


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