The results of the election in Turkey on 1 November took analysts by surprise: the Justice and Development Party (AKP) received nearly half the votes, an increase of 9 per cent on its performance five months ago, and close to its best ever showing, in June 2011. When the party came to power in November 2002, after a long period of instability and economic crisis, it was with only a third of the popular vote. But it quickly captured a good part of the secular electorate when it went along with political reforms required by the EU in order to start membership negotiations. Centre-right business circles were attracted to IMF-inspired institutional reforms, and the AKP won the support of the poor with its health and welfare policies. By the end of the decade, the party’s mastery of the mechanisms of governance was complete. Even after jettisoning the liberals, it won the elections in 2011 with 50 per cent of the vote.
Not long after the start of accession talks in 2005, it became clear that the EU had closed its gates to Turkey. The government focused its attention on the economy. It achieved a respectable growth rate, and made important investments, especially in infrastructure projects; but democratic goals were gradually forgotten. A personality cult formed around the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A group of businessmen engaged in government contracts, land development and construction were prevailed on to buy and run newspapers and TV channels that toed the government line. A referendum in 2010 determined that the president would be elected by popular vote instead of in parliament. Erdoğan started building an 1100-room palace in Ankara, and was duly elected president (with 52 per cent of the vote) in August 2014.
Opponents of the regime had come together in the Gezi demonstrations in June 2013. Gezi started as a youth movement protesting against the planned building of a shopping mall in the main square in Istanbul, but quickly became a countrywide insurrection, mobilising students, women and the non-Sunni Alevi population. Opponents of authoritarianism, calling for Erdoğan to resign, battled the police for more than a week. Erdoğan framed the uprising as a coup attempt, underwritten by various conspiracies.
A fervent supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East, Erdoğan expected Assad to lose power in Damascus as quickly as Mubarak had in Cairo. Instead, the Syrian civil war gained traction and Mohamed Morsi was removed from the Egyptian presidency by a military coup in July 2013. Then, in December 2013, the Gülen faction in the ruling bloc in Turkey tried to gain ground by attacking Erdoğan directly. Followers of Fethullah Gülen had provided the AKP with its professional and managerial cadres, including key members of the security forces and the judiciary. They had been in the forefront of the struggle against the military’s interventionism, and were well placed to expose the venality and graft in the top echelons of the AKP. Tapped telephone conversations implicating Erdoğan and his family, as well as other government officials, were made public. The government responded with an assault on the Gülen faction, its schools, newspapers and TV channels, which is yet to end.
AKP cadres have been tense since the end of 2013, not soothed by Erdoğan’s successful run for the presidency. They have increasingly resorted to bullying tactics and street politics. The ranks of the judiciary were purged: there is no longer any pretence of judicial independence. The media and the universities came under strict control. Turkey’s scores on media freedom and human rights have plummeted. Hundreds of people have been prosecuted for insulting the president. It was against this background that elections were held in June.
After 12 years of uninterrupted rule, the AKP failed to get a majority in parliament. The symbolic winner was the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Its charismatic Kurdish leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, was seen as the candidate for democracy for Kurds and Turks alike. With 13 per cent of the vote, the HDP would be represented by 80 deputies. The CHP (the main opposition) and the ultra-nationalist MHP won the rest of the seats. But President Erdoğan prevented the formation of a coalition government and announced that there would be a ‘repeat election’ on 1 November.
In 2012, the AKP government had started secret negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and a ceasefire was declared in 2013, with promises of a democratic apertura in due course. But Erdoğan made it clear that he wanted an Isis victory over the PKK in Syria, which meant the end of the deal. Even so, the truce held. During the campaign for the November election, however, a gathering of young HDP sympathisers near the Syrian border was attacked by an Isis suicide bomber. In response, two Turkish policemen were executed; the PKK reluctantly accepted responsibility; Turkey bombed Kurdish targets in Syria. Government propaganda made out there was no difference between the PKK and the HDP: HDP offices were burned and looted by AKP gangs while the police looked the other way. This was followed by the attack in Ankara three weeks before the election, again the work of an Isis suicide bomber, which claimed 102 lives. Opposition parties cancelled all election rallies; AKP rallies continued to take place.
The AKP campaign concentrated on the instability unleashed by the war with the PKK, branding its opponents as pro-terrorist and attacking the few critical journalists and newspapers that were left, threatening their owners with retribution. The country was said to be under the threat of partition; the only way to restore stability was by returning the AKP to power in a single-party government.
The parties campaigned under unfair conditions, but the elections were fair. The AKP gained votes from the MHP and from more cautious Kurds who defected from the HDP because the party could not clearly reject its links to PKK. People who had sat out the June election overwhelmingly voted for the stability the AKP promised. The AKP has a comfortable majority, though not enough of one to rewrite the constitution. Erdoğan cannot, for now, change the regime to an all-powerful presidency. This will not be a problem, however, as long as he maintains control over AKP members of parliament.
Given Erdoğan’s appetite for power, grandiose global ambitions and absolute control over the AKP and the state apparatus, it is difficult to be optimistic about the near future. Party hacks don’t hide their willingness to silence any opposition. The use of civilian gangs who seem to be above the law to intimidate opponents is particularly worrying. Erdoğan thrives on conflict and it has served him well in the domestic arena. It is not realistic to expect him to offer détente after the big win. The Kurdish question is far from being resolved, and Isis is now a presence inside Turkey. The riskiest trap, however, is the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, and Erdoğan may be too vainglorious to be able to avoid it.