This week, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s interim prime minister and the head of the religiously conservative Justice and Development Party (the AK Party), scored an astounding victory at the polls, sweeping almost 50 percent of the vote.
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Few could have imagined that the not-so-charismatic professor turned politician would be able to salvage his party from its poor standing in the June election, when his party received 40.7 percent of the vote, ending the party’s three term, 13-year, sole-rule of the country.
As for the three other parties, the mostly secular main opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP) faired about the same as it did in June, receiving about 25 percent of the vote.
The real story of the night, however, was the sharp drop in support for the National Action Party (MHP), which fell over 4 points, coming in with only about 12 percent of the vote. The mostly Kurdish leftist party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (or HDP), which in June shocked all by crossing the ten-percent threshold with 13.7 percent of the vote, this time barely crossed it, with just under 11 percent of the vote. Needless to say, the election results came as a major blow to those voters of the CHP and the HDP, in addition to independent citizens, worried about Turkey’s future as a democracy.
Furthermore, the initial shock was compounded by the failure of the vast majority of polls to predict that the AKP would repeat its election victory of 2011; the slight upward turn in the pre-election polls turned out to be a major understatement. Indeed, for many in the opposition, the election results were literally a slap in the face. So what happened? How is it that within five months the country’s politics have returned to a very similar place to where it was last June, with both the AKP and CHP having almost the same number of seats in the parliament that they had had before?
First and foremost, credit for this "regressive triumph" must go to Davutoglu, who led a focused campaign, and understood that Erdogan’s intense campaigning in the months leading up to the previous, June elections did more harm than good. Erdogan then had deliberately overshadowed Davutoglu, undermining his role, and in his usual polarizing way, created a great deal of unnecessary controversy.
This second round of elections was in effect forced on Davutoglu by Erdogan. After the last elections, which didn't produce the supermajority that the AKP sought, Erdogan pressured the prime minister not to enter a coalition government with the CHP, forcing Davutoglu to take his chances with a new popularity test at the polls.
But it is Davutoglu who has now created an important balance between the two leaders. On the one hand, Davutoglu provided Erdogan with his due respect as the “leader,” by never short-changing or challenging Erdogan’s quest for extended presidential powers; in return, Erdogan remained “presidential” and more or less above party politics. This agreement seems to have been reached this September, at the AKP convention, when more and more disgruntled voices were emerged in the party, growing impatient with Erdogan’s often irrational behavior.
The AKP’s gain can also be attributed to the other parties’ lack of ability in retaining their votes or gaining more electoral traction. Firstly, the AKP successfully pulled votes away from the MHP through its message that the AKP held the key to stability, as fighting between the PKK and the Turkish security forces entered a dangerous new round following the collapse of the peace process. Further, the poor political maneuvering of the MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli, was edged out by the AKP’s hyped-up nationalist rhetoric.
As for the CHP, even if Kemal Kilicdaroglu, its leader, has consolidated the party’s powerbase, he has not been able to transform the party into one that embraces more conservative voices: He is not much of a coalition-builder and is not a particularly charismatic leader, whose 25 percent seems to be an election ceiling for the party
The Kurdish-associated HDP, and the other opposition parties for that fact, can breathe a sigh of relief that it was able to cross the threshold for a second time; if it had not, the AKP could easily have reached the 367 seats needed to allot new powers to Erdogan, which would have set the stage for Turkey’s descent into a more authoritarian state than it has already become.
However, the HDP's image has been badly dented. The HDP was able to create a special dynamic of change and hope for the Kurdish issue in the lead-up to the June elections, but afterwards, once the peace process began to break down, its inability to persuade the outlawed Kurdish Worker’s Party (the PKK) to halt its violence highlighted a major weakness of the party, which led more conservative Kurdish voters to return back to the ranks of the AKP.
At the same time, the attacks against HDP offices and affiliated businesses, even as the police turned a blind eye, coupled with the rampant state of violence in the majority-Kurdish cities, which have been subjected to extended curfews, did not provide the HDP with a chance to relive its impressive pre-June campaign, as it was preoccupied with the daily struggles of its constituency, not to mention the two ISIS-led suicide attacks on HDP-affiliated political gatherings.
While it is too early to understand the greater trends of these elections, it is clear that the AKP’s winning 317 seats in parliament (a number that is subject to change with later electoral adjustments) returns the party to a very similar bind to the one it was in before. It is still short of the 330 seats needed to bring constitutional changes via a referendum, or the much higher 367 needed for the party to pass constitutional changes without putting them to a popular vote.
In other words, this election was no more of a landslide victory than past AKP wins. However, only time will be able to answer the pressing question of whether Davutoglu will be able to balance the various factions in parliament and create a new atmosphere of change. He has shown some talent for difficult juggling acts – not least, he has just managed Erdogan's pressures on him and with the electoral need to minimize Erdogan's presence in the election campaign. With the increasing polarization of the electorate, the continued clamp-down on the press and personal freedoms, the timing for change could not be better.
Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Follow him on Twitter at @IstanbulTelAviv