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On Sunday 7June, over 50 million Turkish citizens cast votes for their preferred political parties. During the heated campaign, considerable attention was given to Turkey’s fourth largest political party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The party’s political popularity was critical for the determination of the political future of Turkey’s most powerful politician: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Despite having ascended to the presidency last June, Erdogan has retained control over the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Legally, the AKP is under the direction of current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, but the party’s campaign reflected Erdogan’s political ambitions. The most divisive issue was the Erdogan backed transition from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency, which if executed ultimately entailed the elimination of the office of the Prime Minister. To adopt these changes, the AKP needed to win more than 330 parliamentary seats. This would have allowed for the party to draft its own constitution and pass it on to a plebiscite.
The AKP’s success was tied to the performance of the HDP: if the party broke the 10 per cent threshold, the AKP would not have the required parliamentary seats to enact Erdogan’s preferred system of government. The HDP’s success ultimately hinged on the charisma of party co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, whose strong showing in last year’s Presidential election appears to have catalysed the decision to run as united political party – and thereby requiring that the party pass the 10 per cent threshold nationally. To grow its vote total, the party targeted two key constituencies. First, pious Kurds in the southeast who have traditionally voted for the AKP. Second, in large urban areas, the HDP needed to convince liberal urbanites to defect from the Republican People’s Party (CHP),and perhaps the AKP, and vote for the HDP.
From the outset, the party’s key weakness was its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an on-and-off again insurgent campaign against the Turkish state since 1984. The party’s greatest asset, however, was Demirtas, whose charisma and sharp wit disarmed a number of wary Turks sceptical of his PKK connections. The HDP also adopted a liberal platform, imbued with subtle references to Kurdish nationalism, but nevertheless aimed at reaching beyond its core constituency.
Defying expectations, the HDP surged past the 10% threshold, receiving 13.1% of the vote, which corresponds to eighty parliamentary seats. The AKP, in contrast, underperformed, winning 40.9% of the vote; resulting in 259 parliamentary seats – seventeen below the number needed to form a government. The CHP, the traditional opposition, received 25% of the vote (132 seats) and the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) won 16.3% (80 seats).
The HDP success, coupled with that of the rise in votes for the MHP, now means that the AKP will have to consider coalition politics. The party has yet to decide on a unified narrative vis-à-vis its future ambitions, with members of the AKP and the pro-AKP media proposing that the party either seriously consider finding a coalition partner, or angle for an early election. As of now, many within the AKP establishment and key members of the AKP sympathetic media are in agreement that the party must reflect on the reasons for its drop in votes to determine why it lost touch with key segments of the electorate.
As customary in Turkish law, Erdogan is now responsible for giving the mandate to an individual to form a new government. This person then has 45 days to reach agreement with another political party, or the Constitutional Court will call for early elections. This leaves Erdogan and the AKP with two options: Erdogan could tap Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to begin negotiations with the MHP for a coalition. Alternatively, the AKP could opt to stay out of a coalition, which means that Erdogan could ask an opposition party member to form a government. In the case of the latter, Erdogan would likely make clear that his support for a non-AKP led coalition would require certain assurances, particularly related to the 17 December corruption allegations levelled against four former AKP MPs and, critically, Erdogan’s son, Bilal.
In either scenario, the nationalist MHP plays the role of kingmaker. The MHP’s support for a coalition with the AKP, or the HDP and CHP will likely determine the make-up of Turkey’s governing coalition. If the party balks at either, early elections are assured. The MHP has thus far ruled out cooperating with either the AKP or CHP/HDP, but already rumours are floating around suggesting that the MHP could be enticed to join the AKP if certain conditions are met. One condition, however, is the refusal to support Erdogan’s presidential system.
This leaves Erdogan with a choice: he can either gamble on the expected failure of CHP-HDP-MHP negotiations and begin to prepare for an early election, or he could direct the AKP to negotiate in earnest with the MHP for a coalition government. If the AKP opts for the latter, a potential AKP-MHP coalition would move the party further away from the formula that ensured its political dominance between 2002-12: an economy focused political platform, underpinned by a democracy oriented narrative designed to appeal to key constituencies outside of the AKP’s core base.
The MHP is hostile to one key element of this previously successful platform: the Kurdish peace process. The AKP’s biggest failure during this election came in the southeast, where Erdogan’s anti-Kurdish rhetoric after the Daesh led siege of Kobane last summer undercut the party’s support amongst a key constituency: religiously minded Kurds wary of supporting the HDP, owing to its links to the PKK.
To begin to pick up the pieces of this election, the AKP will have to win back the hearts and minds of this key element of the Kurdish electorate. A coalition with the MHP would undermine any efforts in the coming weeks to re-establish trust with these Kurds, owing to the MHP’s stridently anti-Kurdish platform and the party’s links to extra-judicial killings of Kurds during the 1990s.
Faced with this key electoral challenge, Erdogan and the AKP could opt to sit this one out, and make the decision to remain outside of coalition governance. The MHP and HDP’s conflicting politics suggest stalemate, should the three opposition parties attempt to form a government without the AKP. The stalemate would ultimately result in early elections, and perhaps undercut the upstart HDP with the same religious Kurds, particularly if the party is seen as being to forthright in concessions to the nationalist MHP or secularist CHP. In this scenario, Erdogan could also change tact, adopt more conciliatory rhetoric, and play the role of ‘uniter-in-chief’ as the country gears up to revisit the ballot box in a few months time. He could then begin the campaign anew, perhaps as rebranded (and more presidential) Erdogan concerned only with deepening elements of Turkish democracy.
This would entail a move away from the heavy-handed focus on the presidential system, in favour of a narrow emphasis on the need to change elements of the Turkish Constitution. Within the country, there is widespread agreement on the need to replace the document. It was drafted by a coup government, and contains anti-democratic language in need of revisions. In this last election, the AKP stumbled because its plan to change the constitution was wrapped into Erdogan’s presidential ambitions. Yet, Erdogan’s intense focus on the subject will he hard to overcome, and suspicions will remain that any narrow AKP led focus on constitutional reform will be linked to Erdogan’s ambitions – no matter what the party says in public.
Much will depend on the future of Ahmet Davutoglu, who had promised to resign if the AKP failed to secure a majority. If Erdogan opts to appoint a new Prime Minister, the direction of the party could come into sharper focus. If the party selects a more nationalist linked figure, the AKP could be signalling a future emphasis on right wing voters; some of which defected from the party and voted for MHP in this last election. Alternatively, if the AKP picks a more liberal candidate, it could signal the return to pre-2011 AKP, which focused heavily on promoting a narrative of democratic reform.
In yet another scenario, Erdogan may also opt to keep Davutoglu in place, retreat from the public eye, and have the Prime Minister be the public face of what is likely to be a fraught debate about coalition governance. In this scenario, Davutoglu could then be replaced at an AKP party Congress in September, ostensibly for the twin failings of securing a majority and then forming a workable coalition. And finally, elements within the AKP could work to side line Erdogan, and empower Davutoglu or a forthcoming successor.
In the aftermath of the recent election, much remains unsettled. The future make-up of Turkey’s coalition remains a mystery and Erdogan’s next moves remain shrouded in doubt. Yet, without doubt, the AKP must now begin to evaluate the reasons for its defeat, and begin to put in place a strategy to win back the trust of certain voters.
Erdogan retains considerable influence over the party and his future decisions will set the tone for the post-June 2015 Justice and Development Party. His reaction depends on his own calculations, particularly about his presidential ambitions, and whether those goals continue to fit with the future of the AKP. They may not; raising questions about the direction and scope of the debate as the party turns inwards to evaluate what went wrong this time around.
Aaron Stein is an Associate Fellow at RUSI