Turkey’s political earthquake

Over the weekend, Turkey experienced something resembling an electoral earthquake, with Sunday’s general election yielding an array of unexpected outcomes that suggest a major political reconfiguration lies ahead for the Republic.

That has come as something of a surprise. After all, over the past several years, Turkish politics have been nothing if not predictable. Since coming to power in 2002, the country’s ruling Adalet ve Kalk?nma Partisi, or AKP, has systematically consolidated its political control, in the process moving Turkey ever closer to becoming an authoritarian one-party state. As a result, more than a few seasoned observers concluded that this election, like past ones in 2007 and 2011, was destined to be much ado about nothing.

They were wrong, and Sunday’s vote instead yielded some surprising and important takeaways:

The end of single party rule. Ahead of Sunday’s election, the AKP had high hopes of expanding its dominance still further. In 2011, the party garnered 327 seats in the country’s 550-member parliament, just three votes shy of having the power to put constitutional changes to a national referendum. The objective was to cross that threshold again (as it had in 2002), and perhaps even to secure the 367 seats needed to make changes to the country’s constitution unilaterally.

But the opposite happened. Rather than expanding its electoral footprint, the AKP saw its lead shrink considerably, falling below even the threshold of 270 seats necessary for single party rule. For the first time since taking power 13 years ago, the party needs to build a coalition to govern. And while multiple scenarios are possible, one result is already clear: The AKP will no longer enjoy nearly as much unchecked power to pursue its political initiatives.

A rebuke to Erdogan. In many ways, the AKP’s poor showing is the fault of one man: the country’s bombastic, venal president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Over the past several years, Erdogan’s excesses — from his extravagant lifestyle to his ruthless political tactics to his notoriously thin skin — have drawn increasingly frequent comparisons with another larger-than-life strongman, Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Sunday’s election was thus at least in part a referendum on Erdogan’s divisive political style. The outcome is a clear signal that, after having a front-row seat to his preferred way of doing business, Turkish voters are not prepared to simply sit back and grant the President even more power for the next four years.

Nationalism resurgent? One of the AKP’s most successful political projects of the past decade has been the near-complete evisceration of its opponents. Through trumped-up conspiracy charges, dubious sex scandals and questionable criminal investigations, Erdogan’s government has succeeded in clearing the decks of any real organized political opposition, including the country’s once-powerful nationalist camp.

Now, however, there are the early glimmers of what could, over time, turn into a nationalist revival. In Sunday’s election, the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or CHP, Turkey’s most prominent nationalist party, won nearly 26% of the vote — improving significantly on its 2011 performance of some 20.5%. The far-right Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, or MHP, also improved its standing, from just over 14% in 2011 to 16.5% today. In all, the number of seats held in the Turkish parliament by nationalist representatives increased by an appreciable 27 seats. While not a commanding performance, it nevertheless demonstrates growth in popular support for the nationalist forces that had previously been so successfully sidelined by the AKP.

More political power for the Kurds. Unquestionably the biggest winner in Sunday’s vote was Turkey’s long-overlooked Kurdish minority. At nearly a fifth of the country’s population of 81.5 million, Kurds represent Turkey’s largest ethnic minority. Yet their political enfranchisement has lagged far behind their numbers, because of both systematic discrimination and longstanding official policy.

That state of affairs is now changing. Sunday’s election saw the rise of a new champion of Kurdish identity, the Halklar?n Demokratik Partisi, or HDP. Ahead of the vote, the political debate centered on whether the fledgling party, which is only 3 years old, could manage to crest the 10% electoral threshold for representation in the country’s parliament. But the HDP did much better than that. The 13% of the vote it secured assures the party of a place in the Turkish parliament — and, by extension, a much louder voice for Kurds in national politics.

To be sure, not everything has changed. The AKP remains Turkey’s most prominent party, having secured over 40% of the national vote. That in and of itself is a political mandate, as Erdogan and his followers will surely claim in the days ahead. Nevertheless, it’s the weakest one they have ever enjoyed. Turkey’s electorate, in other words, has spoken. Only time will tell whether the AKP is listening.

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