Those who were hoping that a coalition of opposition parties would deny Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) a parliamentary majority in Sunday’s elections were left disappointed.
The conservative religious AKP secured 42% of the parliamentary vote – more than enough to hold on to a majority with its right-wing coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Erdoğan himself had an even better showing, comfortably winning the Presidency with 52.5% in the first round of voting – something of a surprise to those who had been expecting his main challenger Muharrem İnce of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) to force a second round. The recently-established centre-right İYİ (Good) Party failed to deliver enough votes to secure a place in Parliament.
The conditions under which opposition candidates were forced to campaign were hardly ideal. Originally scheduled for November 2019, Erdoğan announced in mid-April that elections would be held 18 months earlier than planned, leaving opposing parties little time to devise their campaigns. The ruling AKP has a tight grip on the media and government institutions, and the country has been under a state of emergency since the failed coup attempt of July 2016 — over 107,000 have lost their jobs and more than 50,000 citizens have been jailed. In addition to hundreds of journalists, the imprisoned include members of the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – its leader Selahattin Demirtaș ran his entire Presidential campaign from jail. Nevertheless, the party managed to cross the 10% threshold needed to enter parliament, confirming the strong level of support the party has in the Kurdish-majority regions of southeast Turkey.
Erdoğan’s victory paves the way for him to further tighten his grip on power. Following last year’s controversial Constitutional Referendum, Turkey moved from a parliamentary to a presidential system in which the holder of the Office of President has broad powers to appoint vice-presidents, ministers and judges, dissolve parliament, issue executive decrees, and impose a state of emergency. Erdoğan’s re-election means that he is set to occupy the office through to 2023 – giving him free reign to exercise the increasing powers that he has extended to himself since first becoming Prime Minister in 2003.
The latest election results ensure that Turkey will continue to remain deeply divided between AKP loyalists and those who see Erdoğan’s victory as a further indicator of Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism. Despite a downturn in the economy, the weakened Turkish lira, and a state of emergency, the AKP is still popular with a significant portion of the population who have benefitted from large infrastructure programmes and are drawn to Erdoğan’s populist rhetoric and strongman persona. The grip of the state over the media ensures that the AKP’s narrative of a Turkey threatened by internal and external enemies dominates – Erdoğan has not hesitated to use the powers of the state to suppress opposition groups by shutting down their institutions and branding their leaders as terrorists. His strategy of closing media organisations that fail to tow the government line, and imprisoning journalists and human rights activists, has led to an ever-shrinking space for political dissent. Among those who have been most affected are Kurdish nationalists and the followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Erdoğan has accused of being behind the 2016 coup attempt. Members of both groups have felt the full force of state repression in recent years – inside Turkey but also extending transnationally into the diaspora.
One group which may benefit somewhat from the election results are portions of the more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Erdoğan has been quick to use the refugee issue to his political advantage both domestically and internationally. He successfully leveraged the refugee population to secure multi-billion-Euro aid packages from the European Union in 2015 and 2016. At home, he has in the past pushed for citizenship and further integration of Syrians — which some opposition groups have viewed as cynical attempts to shift the country’s demographic balance in a way that would further extend the AKP’s conservative-religious support base. This means that the refugee issue has become politicised and associated with Erdoğan – indeed several opposition parties openly campaigned to return refugees to Syria in the lead up to Sunday’s vote. In this sense, Erdoğan’s populism has differed from the type of rhetoric we have seen in Europe and the United States in that his primary targets have not been immigrants, but rather domestic opposition groups and Western powers.
It remains to be seen how the AKP’s latest victory will feed into Turkey’s increasingly tense relations with NATO and Europe. Some European leaders have expressed concern about the deteriorating human rights situation in Turkey, as well as with the ways in which Turkey has attempted to insert itself into the domestic politics of some European states via its diaspora. To date, however, a realpolitik logic has continued to prevail, with British Prime Minister Theresa May rolling out the red carpet for Erdoğan’s recent state visit to the UK, and the EU and Turkey appearing set to continue their cooperation on refugee and migration issues for the foreseeable future. The main outcome of Sunday’s elections in Turkey would therefore seem to be a further consolidation of existing political trends – both domestically and internationally: a result that will provide little encouragement to anyone concerned about the current direction of Turkish – and international — politics.