Turkey Vote Positions Erdogan as Powerful Leader of Divided People

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People wave flags and hold a portrait of Erdogan in Ankara, November 2, 2015.Credit: Reuters

For Turkey's 78 million citizens, Election Day was a tense day of waiting, arrests and attacks, possible improprieties at polling stations, and a total election boycott in a small town in the southeast part of the country. Even after the polls closed on Sunday and the counting of the votes started, the tension did not ease up.

Will the Kurdish party make it into the Grand National Assembly, or will it be left out this time? Will the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan receive the 330 seats needed to constitute a majority in that parliamentary body? Will the party, also known as AKP, win enough votes to garner the 400-seat minimum it needs to be able to change the constitution and to grant Erdogan the powers he seeks without a referendum?

Will the president launch a campaign to take revenge on his opponents, as has been common in the Turkish political tradition over the past few decades? And what can supporters of human rights expect from the new regime, which will apparently have no fear of the political opposition for at least the next four years?

The leadership of AKP and Erdogan did not open bottles of Champagne last night only because they are, in the main, observant Muslims – but they had quite a lot of good reasons to do so. Erdogan’s gamble to call for new elections succeeded beyond all the forecasts.

Turkey's President Erdogan greeting supporters on Monday, Nov. 2, 2015, the day after the vote in Turkey in which his AKP party swept back into power.Credit: AP

If the almost-final returns are accurate, they show that his party won at least 10 percent more of the vote than in the previous election, held on June 7, and that AKP could ultimately receive over half of the votes. Such a high level of support will allow Erdogan to establish a one-party government without any need for a coalition. The question is whether this will enable him to move forward with his plan to make his role into that of a powerful, executive president, similar to that in the United States.

It is not yet possible to determine the number and distribution of seats in the parliament – that will happen only after the final results are in, in another week and a half. One question is whether the pro-Kurdish party has succeeded in passing the electoral threshold of 10 percent (for now it seems as if it has).

The complex system of allocating seats in Turkey may make it possible for the AKP to win more than half the 550 seats in the parliament, and even to reach 330. If this is the final result, the party will be allowed to alter the constitution, pending a public referendum. However, if the AKP wins a minimum of 367 seats there would be no need for a referendum. This is just what Erdogan is hoping for.

Some of the victory of the AKP can be attributed to the recent tragic events in the country, including frequent terror attacks carried out by the Kurdish workers' party and other such incidents, attributed to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Those include the suicide bombing in Suruc in July that killed 33, and the attack last month in Ankara that killed over 100.

Framing Turkey's entire Kurdish population as enemies and terrorists contributed in part to the drop in support for the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party at the polls, from a previous 13 percent to about 10 percent.

In addition, many former supporters of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which lost over 4 percent of its voters, apparently preferred to give their votes to Erdogan, who presented himself as more of an anti-Kurdish fighter than MHP leader Devlet Bahseli.

As in other countries fighting wars against terrorism, Turkish citizens seem to have come out in support of a leader who combines combative rhetoric with military action, even though this combination is not new and does not in any way guarantee quiet or security.

The political strength the AKP has now won, in contrast to the pre-election polls in recent weeks which predicted a 42-43 percent share of the vote, herald a number of good things, but also quite a few threats.

Good news for business

For the Turkish economy, which has lately shown signs of a downturn with the unprecedented plunge in the value of the lira, an unemployment rate of over 9.5 percent and a dramatic fall in tourism revenues – the vote bodes well.

Both Turkish and foreign investors put off any investments in the past five months, and even froze planned projects until it becomes clear what government will be formed. When Erdogan decided not to go for a coalition government after the June vote, and instead to establish an interim government and call new elections – there was a fear that the political instability would last for a long time. But Turkey, which has had experience with coalition governments in the past that brought it to the verge of bankruptcy, did not want to gamble this time.

Now the business community, both inside and outside of the country, can breathe more easily. Erdogan and his AKP are identified among Turkey's citizens as having been behind the economic prosperity from 2002 through 2012, which lead to high economic growth, an improved standard of living, the reduction of foreign debt and a stable banking system.

These results, if they can be preserved, should also satisfy Turkey’s strategic partners, such as the United States, the European Union and its new ally Saudi Arabia. These countries can rest easier for now in terms of the agreements and alliances they have made with Ankara, including an accord relating to military cooperation against ISIS, signed in July, as well as the more recent agreement to slow the flow of refugees from Turkey to Europe.

Different election results, which would have demanded the formation of a coalition government (or another round of voting, as some surveys predicted), could have disrupted these agreements with the West and interfered with the military and diplomatic steps the United States is trying to advance in the region, in particular in Syria.

But alongside this sigh of relief from local businesses and the international community, many groups in Turkey view the victory of the AKP as bitter news.

The first on this list is the media, which have been under a serious attack in recent years that has become even worse during this and the previous election campaigns. Dozens of journalists have been arrested and tried. One major media empire has to all intents and purposes been confiscated and nationalized, some may meet the same fate and other such organizations have had to shut down. A number of papers that did not toe Erdogan’s line are now expected to pay after his victory.

Bad news for legal system

Moreover, Erdogan, who has not hesitated to attack the country's judiciary and legal establishment when it ruled against his views, is now expected to shake it up further – and not just by the firings and replacement of many workers that he spearheaded in the past two years, when the system exposed massive corruption scandals that involved government ministers and, apparently, his own family.

Now it seems the president is intent on making major changes in the constitution and will not give up his desire for devising new ways of making government appointments that guarantee positions to his supporters.

If Erdogan wins a clear parliamentary majority, many constitutional changes are on the way, such as giving the president broader powers. Erdogan wants to be a sort of American-style president: appointing ministers (with or without consent of the prime minister), becoming commander in chief of the military, and even possibly winning the right to dissolve the parliament.

In practice, the powers he has today are already quite far-reaching, especially after having a supportive parliament at his side for the last 13 years as prime minister and then president.

But it seems that Erdogan wants even more: to change the historic character of Turkey, which is still defined by the constitution as a secular state that follows the principles laid out by Kemal Ataturk. The secular and liberal parts of society, as well as religious groups who do not aspire to change the nonreligious nature of Turkey, are fearful of a revolution that would fuse religion and state.

In practice a number of such steps have already been taken in this direction, such as a ban on selling alcohol to young people and a prohibition against serving alcohol on internal flights of Turkish Airlines. Moreover, Turkish women are now allowed to appear in public places wearing head coverings, and Erdogan keeps preaching that his citizens should have more children.

But the process of formalizing the status of religion in Turkey involves much more than all that, and could also affect educational curricula and even granting sharia law a more important, or even supreme, role in Turkish law.

If before the June elections it was said that Turkey was standing at a crossroads, then today it seems there is no longer a crossroad but a single, clear road ahead: that of a presidential regime with strong powers that represents only half the population, without any option to replace it in the foreseeable future.

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