The AKP’s Big Comeback- Turkey Turns Back Time

The AKP has gained the absolute majority in Turkey’s recent snap elections, allowing it to continue to rule without a coalition partner. Deep rifts within Turkish society, however, remain. A take on the elections by Kristian Brakel, hbs-office director in Istanbul.

In order to give voters more time, the Turkish government had decided to delay turning back the clock for daylight saving time until after the elections. Whether the additional hour made really a decisive difference remains in question. But with a voter turnout of 84.2 percent, significantly more Turks cast their vote than in the previous election in June (an increase of roughly 2 million people).

For supporters of the opposition parties CHP and HDP, turning back the clock took on a very different meaning on election night. When the first post-election projections were released, opposition supporters could barely hide their disappointment. Their mood did not improve throughout the night, as the AKP’s astonishingly high gains remained rather stable. Even though the official results will only be released approximately two weeks from now, the AKP has undoubtedly re-gained its majority with over 49.3 percent of the vote (317 seats). The CHP only managed to improve their voting share by a slight margin (from 24.9 to 25.4 percent, 134 seats), suggesting that it has reached its voters potential despite having implemented significant internal reforms.

The parliament remains fairly diverse, although less so than it would have been had the June election results been upheld. Instead of 97 women, 75 women parliamentarians will now be represented in the chamber (AKP: 32/ 317, CHP: 21/ 134, HDP: 19/ 54, MHP: 3/ 40).

Surprise victory for the AKP

This election outcome has surprised everyone, including the AKP itself, which had decided on the night prior to the elections not to organize a big party. Apparently the AKP was itself baffled by how well its strategy based on military polarization and demonization of its political enemies would fare. Although its ratings had improved in the weeks following the bombing in Ankara in early October, most pollsters and analysts estimated a maximum gain of 2-3 percent. An outcome so close to the AKP’s best ever result in the 2011 parliamentary elections certainly did not seem to be in the cards this time around (in 2011, the AKP gained 49.8 percent of the vote).

Last Minute Voters

How and why all polls got it so wrong remains an open question. It is obvious, however, that many voters decided last minute to cast their vote for the AKP. The party benefited from several factors:

  1. A higher voter turnout inside as well as outside of the country (plus 200,000/ 32,000 additional registered voters compared to June 2015). Many AKP supporters, who had stayed home in the June elections, knew they could tip the scale this time around. 
  2. Swing voters who had voted for the ultra-nationalist MHP in June wanted to “punish” the party for its refusal to enter coalition talks with the AKP despite the fact that large parts of the party members had been in favor. Many swing voters also rewarded the AKP for its harsh military stance against the Kurds.
  3. The AKP gained votes that had previously gone to small right and Islamist parties, such as Saadet.
  4. Conservative Kurds, who had voted for the HDP in June due to the AKP’s flaky stance on the peace process, now returned to the AKP.

The progressive Kurdish HDP lost roughly 1 million votes in comparison to the June elections, most of which went to the AKP. Even in the de-facto Kurdish capital Diyarbakir, the AKP managed to reach 21.4 percent of the votes. The HDP leadership argued with good reason that it had barely been able to campaign due to the attacks on them and the party structure more generally. In addition, the flare-up of violence in Turkey’s southeast further weakened the HDP’s position.

Stabile but not democratic

A combination of several factors can explain the recent election outcome. The opposition’s inability to coordinate their actions due to the MHP’s refusal to cooperate certainly played a role. Furthermore, many voters, including conservative Kurds, decided they preferred a stable if undemocratic AKP government to an unstable coalition that would risk throwing Turkey back into civil war. By stirring the Kurdish conflict and inciting societal polarization, the AKP managed to frame this election as a watershed moment for the country’s stability. In addition, the difficult economic situation has imposed a heavy burden on Turkish households. The Turkish Lira decreased considerably in value since June and has only started to recover since the recent snap elections.

Many Turkish citizens hold vivid memories of the unstable years under the last coalition government prior to the AKP’s majority rule. The security situation, which had deteriorated immensely as a consequence of the renewed conflict with the PKK, increased concerns of further destabilization in light of the wars in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood. Not only loyal AKP voters followed the government’s narrative blaming the PKK for the flare-up of violence. For many voters, the HDP did not go far enough in distancing itself from the PKK and calling for an end to all violence.

The fact that violent actions by the PKK-youth have reached Turkish cities and that civil society has been widely affected due to the ruthless response by Turkish security forces led many Kurdish citizens to ultimately cast their vote for the AKP.

Attempts at restarting the peace process

The fact that Prime Minister Davutoğlu mentioned in his victory speech that he wants to restart the peace process despite keeping a strong hand in fighting terrorism suggests that the AKP has catered to nationalistic sentiments during the its election campaign mainly for tactical reasons. Simply restarting the peace process, which came to a halt this summer, will be difficult given that the AKP’s election campaign has burned many bridges. Moreover, regional factors now hinder the peace process, particularly a strengthened PKK in Syria and Iraq. The AKP will eventually face a choice as to whether it wants to ultimately tie down nationalistic former MHP voters or conservative Kurds. Should it decide in favor of the former, chances for restarting the peace process will be very slim.

AKP: The Party of Ordinary People

European observers have a hard time understanding how the AKP has managed to win this landslide victory despite its political blunders of the past years. Many fail to see that the AKP is not only much better organized than all the other parties, but that it also has enormous financial resources and state-run patronage networks at its disposal. It also still manages most successfully to overcome traditional cleavages within Turkish society. Though the AKP’s ability to bridge divides within Turkish society has considerably weakened over the past years, it continues to benefit from the image of being the party of ordinary people. The HDP has been trying to capitalize on this image as well, but its Kurdish identity prevents many Turkish citizens to even consider voting for them. The stigma concerning the alleged non-Muslim identity of its supporters still runs deep.

Challenges for the upcoming years: Wars, Refugees and Unemployment

After a taxing campaign marathon, Turkey now has the chance to restore calm - at least in the short term. But many critical issues, such as the refugee crisis, the wars in Iraq and Syria, and rising unemployment will continue to pose daunting challenges for the country. Reforming Turkey’s economic policy- a step desperately needed in order to avoid falling into the „middle income trap“- will be particularly difficult for the AKP to implement given the negative impact this would have on its own patronage network.  

More room to maneuver might exist with regard to Turkey’s foreign policy, given that many of the AKP’s leading figures such as Prime Minister Davutoğlu understand that Turkey’s highly ideological foreign policy has left the country isolated. Whether Davutoğlu, who has become a second center of power within the AKP, can win this battle depends on his willingness to risk a power struggle with Erdoğan. So far he has chosen not to.

The AKP’s signature project- constitutional reform- remains on the table for now. Even though the party has avoided placing constitutional reform at the center of its campaign this time around, the party leadership has clarified that it still intends to go forward with its reform plans. The AKP failed to achieve the necessary three-fifths majority (330 seats) for changing the constitution in combination with a referendum by 13 seats. The two-thirds majority (367 seats) necessary for changing the constitution without a referendum is even further away. Whether the AKP is willing to make broad-enough concessions to the opposition to gain their support on the constitutional reform remains to be seen.

Despite the solid victory for the AKP, the divides within Turkey’s society remain stark. Many swing voters made a pragmatic choice in voting for the AKP. The AKP will only be able to overcome the deep cleavages within Turkish society if it makes a sincere and sustained attempt to reach out to the opposition. Conciliatory words by the Prime Minister seem to point in that direction. Whether the AKP and its President are ready to bolster these words with a radical change in policy remains doubtful.