Turkey's ruling AKP surprises pundits by winning enough seats for single-party rule
The AKP, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party, had lost its majority in elections in June
Analysts: New mandate could have implications for ISIS fight, Kurdish conflict
The preliminary results from Sunday’s vote show the AKP securing 316 seats in parliament, more than the 276 seats needed for single-party rule but shy of the 330 seats needed to take constitutional changes to referendum without reaching out to other parties.
With nearly all the votes counted, the AKP, led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, won 49.41% of the votes (316 seats), followed by the Republican People’s Party with 25.38% (134 seats), according to preliminary results released by the semiofficial Anadolu News Agency.
Polls and pundits had not predicted such a comprehensive victory for the AKP. In a general election in June, the party failed to secure enough votes to form a government.
With the country severely shaken by terror attacks, waging a renewed conflict with Kurdish militants and more deeply polarized than before, what will the AKP’s resounding win mean for this pivotal regional power?
War on ISIS
Turkey, an influential player in the Syrian conflict, has been a major backer of rebel groups seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Long after the terror group ISIS came into international prominence by carving out its so-called “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, Turkey took little action against it.
“They didn’t take a clearly opposing position,” said Yilmaz Esmer, professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University.
He said this stance was a result of both an element of ideological sympathy for the goals of the Sunni jihadist group on the part of the Islamist-rooted AKP, and the fact that ISIS appeared useful in toppling Assad.
Recently though, he said, “as it became evident that it was simply a horrific terrorist organization,” Turkey gradually changed its stance, allowing the U.S. to launch airstrikes on ISIS forces from a Turkish base.
Turkey has also suffered from terror attacks, including twin bombings in Ankara that constituted the deadliest single terrorist attack on Turkish soil, that have been blamed on the terror group.
But even then, said Esmer, Turkish authorities appeared loath to condemn ISIS too strongly, equating the group with Kurdish militant groups, which it appeared to regard as an equal or greater threat, and launching strikes against both targets.
Fadi Hakura, associate fellow of Chatham House’s Europe program, said Turkey’s major foreign policy goals in the region have been removing Assad and preventing Syrian Kurds from establishing an autonomous entity in the north – with the latter making U.S. backing of Kurdish forces fighting ISIS problematic for Ankara.
Erdogan would likely read the election result as a vindication for the country’s stance on Syria – one that strengthened his hand against the West, said Esmer.
The risk for the international coalition’s war against ISIS was that Erdogan would use this leverage to prioritize the fight against Kurdish forces over the one against ISIS jihadists.
“This is by all counts an Islamist party, and therefore it’s not going to be easy for it to be a member of the coalition against ISIS and at the same time keep their deeply felt ideology,” Esmer said.
The Kurdish question
The recent resumption of hostilities in the Kurdish-Turkish conflict have left the “solution process,” as the peace talks of recent years have been known, “in tatters,” said Hakura.
While the government and Kurdish representatives came close to achieving a deal last year, the conflict flared again in July after a suicide bombing in Suruc that was blamed on ISIS.
Since then, hundreds more casualties have been added to a conflict which has killed 45,000 people since 1984, with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, saying the ceasefire has “lost its meaning.”
“There’s very little prospect at present for the resumption of peace efforts between the Turkish government and the PKK,” said Hakura.
The failure of previous talks had left both sides skeptical about the merit of future negotiations, he said, and Erdogan had benefited handsomely from resuming the conflict.
Esmer agrees. “The AKP realized after the June elections that it’s not politically profitable to mend fences with the Kurds and the PKK. Therefore they threw away the peace process and very blatantly played for the nationalistic vote – and got it.”
Prospects for the resumption of the “solution process” were bleak, although with the next general election four years away, the AKP could make the calculation to attempt to revive talks without worrying about alienating nationalist-minded voters, he said.
“They may decide we can pull this out and try to put an end to violence and terrorism,” he said.
The strong mandate delivered to the AKP also means that Turkey’s stance on hosting refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict is unlikely to change.
Turkey, which shares a long border with Syria, now shelters 1.9 million refugees, almost half of all the Syrians who have fled the conflict.
The strains placed on the country by the new arrivals have made the policy unpopular with some Turks. But that did not appear to have affected the AKP’s standing, and the policy was unlikely to change, said Esmer.
“The voters that resent that haven’t voted for AKP anyway. Among the AKP supporters, whatever AKP does is right,” he said.
Hakura said the election result would also likely strengthen Erdogan’s hand in attempting to extract more concessions from European nations in return for stemming the flow of Syrian refugees to mainland Europe, such as accelerating talks on visa-free entry to Europe for Turkish citizens.
Relations with Europe
The strengthening of the AKP’s mandate is likely to “further reinforce the growing chasm between Europe and Turkey,” said Hakura.
“Whether it is to combat (ISIS) in northern Syria or to stem the flow of Syrian refugees, Turkey is actually paramount to Europe’s immediate strategic concerns,” he said. “But this election does not provide a positive framework for enhancing the relationship between Turkey and the EU.”
Turkey applied to join the European Economic Community, the predecessor to the EU, in 1987, but the process was “pretty much at a standstill.” “That’s unlikely to change any time soon,” he said.
Esmer said the AKP’s Islamist roots made it naturally suspicious of joining the EU, which was regarded as a “Christian club.”
“I have always had my doubts that they were sincere about joining Europe,” he said.
The AKP’s rule has been marked by a repressive attitude toward the media, which has seen the country become one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists and raids of Turkish newsrooms become commonplace.
According to the press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Turkey is ranked No. 149, with No. 180 being the world’s worst.
Twitter has been periodically banned in the country.
Many of the raids have targeted media outlets associated with Erdogan’s political rival, the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
He leads a religious movement which the government accuses of infiltrating the police and judiciary.
More of the same seems likely with regard to press freedom in the country, said Esmer.
“It will intensify. It has worked for them,” he said. “Now Turkey no longer has an independent judiciary.”
Hakura agreed. “We will see much more of the same, perhaps upping it a notch or two.”