Turkey election: President Erdogan tightens his grip on power in surprise landslide victory

As the Kurdish and secular parties’ support falls away, the Turkish President is handed a mandate that will allow him to monopolise power and intervene in Syria

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has won a decisive victory in the Turkish parliamentary election, with his Justice and Development Party (AKP) winning a majority of seats and defeating the other three opposition parties.  

With 98 per cent of the vote counted, the AKP had won 49.4 per cent and 316 seats in the 550 seat parliament, a far better performance than predicted by the polls. These had mostly forecast that the AKP would fail to win back the majority it lost in the last election on 7 June.

“Today is a victory for our democracy and our people ... Hopefully, we will serve you well for the next four years and stand in front of you once again in 2019,” Prime Minister and AKP leader Ahmet  Davutoglu said last night.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) had a surprisingly sharp fall in its vote from 13 per cent in the last election, which denied the AKP its majority, to bring it dangerously close to the 10 per cent threshold below which it would lose all its members of parliament. This would have left Turkey’s Kurdish minority, with its long history of confrontation with the state, without any effective parliamentary representation. 

As president, Mr Erdogan is theoretically above the political fray, but has clearly directed the AKP’s strategy which has confounded all forecasts. These had strongly suggested a repeat of the stalemate of the last election and the likelihood of a coalition government or even a third election. 

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A portrait of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

In the wake of the AKP’s spectacular victory, it will be in a strong position to take control of all remaining levers of power: army, security services and media. Ever since it first formed a government in 2002, the AKP has been progressively eliminating all opponents in positions of authority in the secular Turkish state founded by Kemal Ataturk. Almost all the state and private media has already come under AKP control, which is one factor explaining its gain in votes. State television has given blanket coverage to Mr Erdogan and the AKP, while largely ignoring its opponents. 

Mr Erdogan’s strategy during the five months since the last poll has been to seek to confront the Kurds and demonise the HDP as a proxy of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has been fighting a guerrilla war against the Turkish state since 1984. AKP supporters claimed last night that conservative and religious Kurdish voters had abandoned the HDP as tainted by its links with a “terrorist” group.

Confrontation with the Kurds enabled the AKP to play the nationalist card, taking many votes from the right wing anti-Kurdish National Movement Party (MHP). Notorious for its ineffective leadership and lack of policies, its vote share fell from 16 to 12 per cent. The centrist and secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), the largest opposition party, saw its vote remain the same at about 25 per cent but it was never able seize the political initiative and present itself as a convincing alternative to the AKP. 

The AKP has been in a strong position since 2002 because Turkey has voted for centre-right parties in elections since 1950. But in the past there have been other power centres which prevented it exercising complete authority. Many liberals and secularists saw the rise of the AKP as a welcome democratic alternative to a system in which the army and the judiciary repeatedly intervened. Many of these are now blaming themselves as “useful idiots” who have facilitated the AKP’s path towards a monopoly of power. One said just before the latest election that “we thought the AKP wanted to change the state, not take it over”. 

Mr Erdogan will be strengthened by his new mandate to influence events in Syria. He has clearly not suffered in the minds of Turkish voters from his failure to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, an unchanging priority for Ankara. The past three years have also seen the rise of a de facto Syrian Kurdish state in north-east Syria controlled by a branch of the PKK. This has an army of some 25,000 fighters who act in close cooperation with the US air force, despite being repeatedly denounced by Mr Erdogan and Mr Davutoglu as “terrorists”. Mr Davutoglu has threatened a Turkish military response if the Syrian Kurds advance west of the Euphrates. 

Mr Erdogan is reported to have wished for direct Turkish military intervention in Syria in the past, but to have been restrained by the Turkish army. After this impressive endorsement by the 58 million electorate on an 86 per cent turn out, he may be better able to push for greater military engagement in Syria. 

A sign that the Turkish government will be strengthened by an end to political uncertainty was the sharp rise of the Turkish lira against the US dollar last night. Many voters also said they wanted an end to uncertainty and the prospect of a series of ill-assorted coalitions with a limited lifespan. 

At the same time, Turkey’s growing ethnic, sectarian and religious divisions are not going to disappear. Among Kurds, the poor results of the HDP will strengthen those who argue that armed struggle is the only way forward. There will also be many who will argue that Mr Erdogan and the AKP won because they frightened voters by fomenting a crisis and an atmosphere of fear which they then pledged to end. 

The final weeks of the campaign took place with no rallies, except those held by the AKP, because of the bombing of a demonstration in Ankara on 10 October that left 102 dead. Many voters in Istanbul said they feared that the violence was going to get worse. 

Many secular voters did not conceal their revulsion against the AKP-run state imposing more Islamic norms on Turkey. Aynur Olanlar, whose husband worked in a bank in Istanbul, said “I don’t want these people with head scarves any more.” 

She had once voted for AKP and had regretted ever since and was voting for the secular centrist CHP. She will have been disappointed.

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