The Turkish general election in June 2015 was a milestone in Turkish politics with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) losing its majority in an election for the first time effectively scuttling President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ambitions to have an executive presidency. Despite the seemingly-spectacular loss by the AKP, the AKP’s position remains incredibly powerful.
If you look at the AKP’s political support in terms of votes rather than seats, the AKP did not suffer a major defeat. They gained 16% more votes than the main opposition and received six and a half percent more votes than in their ground-breaking 2002 election (which resulted in a 367-seat supermajority for the party). Despite this, the AKP is seen to have suffered a defeat for two main reasons. Firstly, the party had set itself hopelessly high standards due to its previous successful results and its ambitions to implement constitutional changes for the Presidency. Secondly, the electoral victory of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) was seen as a failure for the AKP as support for the HDP came at the expense of the AKP. Regardless of this failure to achieve a majority however, the AKP will remain in power as the leading party in government, as an anti-AKP coalition is impossible.
Since negotiations began on the 15th of July, the HDP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) both dropped out of talks with the AKP, leaving only three scenarios: a grand coalition with the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), a minority AKP government (18 seats short of a majority) or new snap elections in November. Although initially seen as unlikely, an AKP-CHP coalition is certainly possible, and this option is heavily favoured by the Turkish business community, as new snap elections will increase uncertainty for the rest of 2015. If the CHP were to ever enter into government however, it would severely curtail the powers of the President and his authoritarian policies. The CHP is a long-standing Kemalist and secular party that has become a European-style social democratic party in recent years under its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. The CHP has emphasised that if it were ever to enter a coalition, they would push to safeguard personal rights and freedoms and would stress the limits of presidential authority under the constitution, leading to the elimination of the covert budget allocated to Erdoğan. Even more troublesome for the AKP is the fact that the CHP would push for media freedom (the CHP would like control of the public broadcaster, TRT, which has been pro-AKP), the fight against corruption and the return to a peaceful foreign policy.
Apart from the Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, President Erdoğan has played a leading role in this post-election landscape. Although he is expected to be officially neutral in party politics due to his status as President, he has been anything but non-partisan during and after the elections. Erdoğan feels threatened by the prospect of a coalition with another party, especially the CHP, as they have indicated a willingness to work with the Prime Minister, but they worry about Erdoğan’s intervention in governmental affairs and would like to rein him in. Erdoğan has warned all parties to keep his status out of the coalition negotiations and said he would object to any deal that would dismantle his dream projects such as Istanbul’s third airport and the third bridge in Istanbul. Erdoğan’s fears are amplified by the fact that his office does not have any significant constitutional power, indeed, he has less power constitutionally now than when he was Prime Minister. His power comes solely from his influence within the governing party, so his influence in the Turkish government can collapse even whilst he is President if a coalition were to ever be formed.
Because of the threat the opposition parties pose to Erdoğan, he has worked towards calling new snap elections in November in a bid to regain the AKP’s majority and to put his proposed constitutional changes back on the agenda. His eagerness for a new snap election is demonstrated by how he waited several weeks to ask the AKP leader to form a government as he wanted voters to see the chaos of political uncertainty and bickering among parties. The thinking is that the uncertainty and instability created by the elections will make some voters, who had decided to “punish” the AKP, change their minds in a snap election and vote again for the governing party. Erdoğan’s ambition to call new elections is putting him on a potential collision course with his Prime Minister, Davutoğlu. Davutoğlu is willing to form a stable coalition government and negotiate with the main opposition, but Erdoğan’s hatred of sharing power will lead him to object to any compromise Davutoğlu makes to the CHP.
Because of the AKP’s intense affiliation with Erdoğan, they are the only party that has the ability to call new elections if they want, which works to their advantage. The outcome of a new election in November however, is unclear. Although it is the hope of the AKP that the HDP’s electoral performance was a peculiarity and unlikely to be repeated again (many ethnic Turks cast tactical votes for the HDP to prevent an AKP majority), there is nothing that indicates that the AKP will get a better result this time around than in the June election. The AKP leadership has been trying to get other parties to agree on lowering the election threshold to 5-7% and would like to implement this amendment before a potential snap election to ensure that the AKP would have more parties to choose from to form a coalition if they were unable to regain their majority again.
The very idea of a new election is also undesirable to many as it would mean another six months without stable government in a time of increasing instability in the country. Turkey is facing an economic downturn, with the Lira depreciating more than 40% against the dollar over the last year, unemployment at 10% and GDP growth stagnating at 3%. The instability in neighbouring Syria and Iraq is also a pressing concern for Turkey’s government, with the need to find accommodation and integration for around two million Syrian refugees in the country and the rising threat of ISIS, which recently engaged Turkish forces at the border. These issues require bold and decisive policies such as closing the border with Syria or regularly conducting aerial bombings in northern Syria, policies that should not be taken under a caretaker minority government.
The AKP’s model for Turkey has stood firm for many years, and has only now been seriously questioned. Erdoğan made Turkey into a regional power in the Middle East and embraced regulatory neo-liberalism to propel the country’s economy, but these policies are now starting to show their cracks. Another election this year will add even more uncertainty as to whether the model will survive, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the AKP’s enduring appeal among voters.