By Hasan Selim Ozertem
Turkey’s political scene has experienced four elections over the last two years. After the local and presidential elections in 2014, Turkish voters took to the ballot box on two more occasions in 2015 to decide who would govern their country until 2019. Unable to attain a parliamentary majority on 7 June, according to unofficial results, the AK Party received 49.4 percent of the vote and 317 out of 550 seats in parliament in the elections on 1 November 2015.
Voter turnout was over 85 percent and once again four parties managed to pass the 10 percent electoral threshold. Looking at the results, we can say that the elections have produced a few certain outcomes for Turkish politics. First, the AK Party will be able to establish a one-party government, but still faces limitations when it comes to changing the constitution. Second, the ethnic nationalist political parties failed to preserve the popularity they exhibited in the June elections. Third, the electorate extended the AK Party a valuable line of credit; seeing that it has now been afforded the necessary political support, it will need to address the country’s pressing economic and political challenges.
Considering this context, this analysis is composed of three parts. First, I will look at the main discussions following the 7 June elections, and then I will engage in an evaluation of the outcomes of the 1 November snap elections. Lastly, I will formulate some projections about the possible scenarios and challenges awaiting Turkish politics.
AK Party’s Dilemma: Coalition Formula or Return to the Ballot Box
The results of the 7 June 2015 elections were surprising for both the AK Party and the opposition in Turkey. Here, the AK Party, under the leadership of Ahmet Davutoğlu, faced a dilemma in that it had lost its majority in the parliament, receiving only 40.9 percent of the vote and 258 out of 550 seats. In order to form a government the party would have to establish a coalition with one or more of the opposition parties, alternately, it could also call for another round of elections. But most important of all may have been the AK Party’s interpretation of the message received from the Turkish electorate. On the night of the elections, Davutoğlu stated that the AK Party received this message from the constituency and that it would take the necessary steps instantly.
With the release of the 7 June election results, both experts close to the party and many other commentators argued that several reasons led to the AK Party’s loss of popularity. Among these were the mismanaged party campaign that overemphasized changing the parliamentary system to a presidential one; a lack of attention paid to promising concrete projects for the future; new but unknown faces in the party lists; policies towards Kurds; and the failure to manage perceptions of the AK Party after the corruption probes made public on 17 and 25 December 2013. While the AK Party analyzed these issues and prepared a list of lessons to draw therefrom, Davutoğlu began making his rounds to the opposition parties to discuss the possibility of coalition negotiations, and in the end, the only positive signal he received was from the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). After 35 hours of “exploratory talks” spanning over a month, the AK Party and the CHP both failed to end up with a coalition model. At a press conference, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said that his party received an offer not for a coalition, but for a transition government that would carry Turkey over the next three months until to the next elections. After talks with the CHP collapsed, Davutoğlu didn’t receive a positive response from the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and by that time both Davutoğlu and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had openly articulated the possibility of snap elections. Following this, 1 November 2015 was announced as the date for snap elections.
In the 7 June elections, the CHP, MHP, and HDP respectively received 25, 16.3 and 13.1 percent of the vote and their combined number of seats in parliament exceeded that of the AK Party for the first time since 2002. Nevertheless, the opposition parties put forth a poor performance in the aftermath. Even though they pursued an active campaign against the AK Party, they failed to cooperate to elect the Speaker of the Parliament. This was a lost opportunity for these parties seeing that their failure had granted the AK Party a chance to recover. Davutoğlu and Erdoğan had gained the psychological and legislative superiority over the opposition and this in turn shaped the AK Party’s campaign in the run-up to the snap elections.
Snap Elections: AK Party’s Victory, Opposition Parties’ Dilemma
The AK Party’s share of the vote increased by more than 4 million on 1 November compared to the previous elections. Nevertheless, it should be underlined here that none of the pre-election polling surveys predicted that the AK Party would receive almost half of the overall vote on 1 November; the closest prediction was 47 percent, whereas others ranged between 40-44 percent.
Looking at the results, it can be seen that both Kurdish and Turkish nationalists voted for the AK Party on 1 November, whereas they casted their respective votes for the HDP and the MHP on 7 June. Moreover, the AK Party has now become the main address for the conservative electorate who voted for parties other than the AK Party, or the MHP, in the previous elections. According to unofficial results, the AK Party’s popularity increased by more than eight percent, almost half of which came from the MHP’s constituency, a quarter of which came from the Kurds and the remaining two percent came from others. Among the opposition, while the popularity of the MHP and the HDP decreased, that of the CHP increased, albeit only by 0.4 percent.
The preliminary results show that two factors were influential in the voters’ behavior. First, Turkish society opted to forego the risk of a coalition scenario that might bring further economic and political uncertainty. Second, the atmosphere of instability that resulted from the reemergence of attacks perpetuated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) throughout the summer and the active struggle against this terrorist organization helped the AK Party to attract both Kurdish and Turkish nationalists’ votes. Additionally, the avoidance of framing the election as a referendum on the presidential system as well as the low profile of President Erdoğan during the campaign period contributed the results.
The power vacuum that emerged after the inconclusiveness of the 7 June elections caused economic and political risks to increase due to the absence of a legitimately elected government. Turkey’s economy had become more prone to rising risks in global markets, and just as in other developing countries the Turkish Lira depreciated, capital outflows hastened and investment slowed. Such economic difficulties became even more problematic in the southeastern part of the country as the PKK attacks caused stark disruptions to the normal flow of daily life. While the AK Party emphasized the importance of stability under a single party government and adopted a populist economic agenda in its party program, the opposition parties failed to address the concerns of the society, which still suffers from the trauma of the 2001 economic crisis, and couldn’t promise anything new compared to their 7 June party programs. Moreover, the majority of Turkish society seems to approve of the AK Party’s fight with the PKK, whereas they are not happy with the link between this terrorist organization and the HDP.
It should be noted here as well that the AK Party also took advantage of its control over an important part of the media, whereas the opposition had limited access to mass media organs in Turkey. Additionally, lacking the ability to receive aid from the national treasury, the opposition parties couldn’t compete with the AK Party’s financial resources during the campaign period. The fatal blasts in Ankara also pushed parties to slow, or completely halt, their campaigns in order to avoid the risk of other such calamities occurring at their future rallies. All of these factors, resulted in underrepresentation of the opposition parties throughout the election period, whereas, having comparative advantages, the AK Party managed to reach out to its constituency in a more robust manner.
One of the main debates on election night was “whose success are we talking about after the AK Party’s victory?” It is true that Davutoğlu has gained important leverage as a leader after his party received 49.4 percent of the vote. However, during his victory speech after the release of the preliminary results, he mentioned AK Party cofounder and Turkish President Erdoğan several times to roaring applause. In this regard, the ongoing speculation of Abdullah Gül’s return to the political scene as a savior of the party he helped to create seems to be out of the question for the time being. The results consolidate Ahmet Davutoğlu’s position as the leader of the party, but it is for sure that there is still a delicate balance that is being maintained between him and President Erdoğan.
In his “balcony speech”, Davutoğlu said that he is ready to cooperate with the opposition to prepare a new constitution that will eliminate the legacy of the 1980 military coup that was left behind in the country’s legal code. This is actually an important statement seeing that the political parties failed to come together to draft a text after 2011. According to the election results, despite its success, the AK Party still does not have the necessary majority to unilaterally change the constitution or to bring it to a referendum, which would require 367 or 330 seats respectively. This actually makes it obligatory for the party to cooperate with the opposition if it wants to replace or reform the constitution. It cannot be ruled out that a debate on a new constitution might pave the way for heated discussions revolving around the enactment of a presidential system in place of the current parliamentary one.
In fact, drawing a framework about the terms of reference between the President and the Prime Minister is a critical issue. Over the last year, the delicate balance between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu gave the former serious room to maneuver as an executive power beside the parliament. With or without a new constitution, the main expectation is that Erdoğan will continue to occupy his dominant position in Turkish politics as the first popularly elected president. Until now, both have largely succeeded in avoiding stepping on each other’s toes; from now on, the way that this dynamic is institutionalized, whether in de facto or de jure terms, will define the character of Turkish politics for the foreseeable future.
There are also urgent issues waiting to be addressed other than defining the new rules of the game. Two issues high on the agenda are the economy and the Kurdish issue. For a long time, the AK Party’s economic technocrats such as Ali Babacan and Mehmet Şimşek have been reiterating the need to frame and implement economic reforms. Considering the recent fluctuations in global markets that have been exerting strong effects on developing economies, it is important to strengthen the Turkish economy in order to increase its impermeability to potential risks. This will require the preparation of a well-framed reform package buttressed by the political will of the new government. Moreover, it would not be wrong to expect the Kurdish issue to be addressed as soon as possible by the new government considering the fact that Erdoğan stated “the process had been put into deep freeze” but not outright terminated. The results show that the AK Party received strong political support from both Kurds and Turks on 1 November, and this time around it will be able to find serious counterparts in the parliament that are committed to a political solution. The approach to this problem is not only important for domestic peace in Turkey, but it also has implications for regional balances considering the situation in Syria and Iraq. However, the way that the issue is handled will now be more important than before.
Apart from these challenges, there is a need to decrease the political tension in Turkey, which has peaked over the last two years due to election rallies as well as ominous domestic and regional developments. In this regard, the AK Party needs to pave the way for a smooth transition in Turkey by adopting a constructive tone and participatory political approach both within the parliament and society at large. This might help the AK Party to consolidate its power and turn back to its “factory settings of 2002” in order to build “a new Turkey”, as was the desire expressed by the party leadership during the campaign period.
Note: This analysis was firstly published at Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies’ webpage (http://english.dohainstitute.org/release/e6fb5e01-69b4-49f5-91fe-a7ff7ba063f0)
 It has become a tradition for the leader of the AK Party to deliver a speech from the balcony of the party’s headquarters in Ankara on election night.