Analyzing Turkey's election 'earthquake'

Turkey’s election results surprised even the AKP brass, while the MHP and HDP lost considerable ground.

al-monitor A man looks at newspapers at a kiosk in Diyarbakir, Turkey, Nov. 2, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov.

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turkish politics, turkey elections, recep tayyip erdogan, mhp, justice and development party, hdp, chp, akp

Nov 2, 2015

Turkey’s Nov. 1 election results came not as a surprise, but as an earthquake. The entire list of polling companies performed dismally and failed to forecast the results accurately.

But never mind the pollsters. Even the top brass of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won the election as the single ruling party for the fourth successive term, were not expecting such a mind-boggling victory.

Veteran AKP politician Ali Babacan, who has served as a minister in all AKP governments, said only a few days before, “It doesn’t look very promising for us.”

The Nov. 1 election was expected to have the same outcome as the one held June 7.

But the AKP, which did not win enough support to claim a single-party victory in June, now appears to have won the elections with 49.47% of the general vote, with 317 parliamentary seats out of 550 — 49 more than in June. The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) got 25.3% of the votes for 134 seats, two more than in June. Those parties’ gain came at the expense of the opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which received 11.9% of the votes for 40 seats  — a staggering loss of 40 seats from June — and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which won 10.75% of the votes for 59 seats, a loss of 21 seats.

The AKP increased its nationwide tally by 4.5 million votes. While it surpassed the 276 seats needed to be the single ruling party, by unofficial counts, the AKP did not reach the magic number of 330 seats necessary to submit constitutional amendments to referendum without cooperating with others.

The main opposition group CHP saw not much change in its overall vote. The big losers were the MHP and HDP. Most analysts agree that there was a significant shift of votes from the MHP, HDP, Felicity and Grand Union parties to the AKP.

The favorite topic of the day in Turkey now is how the AKP succeeded so impressively. Ismet Akca, a professor of political science and international relations at Yildiz Technical University, attributes the shift to the sharp escalation in violence with the Kurds and the suicide bombings that killed more than 130 people in Suruc and Ankara.

Akca noted the AKP managed to garner bulk conservative and nationalist right-wing votes.

“The expectation was for the nationalist MHP to benefit, but the contrary happened. The MHP base approved the AKP approach by voting for the AKP,” he told Al-Monitor. Voters viewed the AKP as being the most capable party to implement the MHP’s nationalist policies, he added.

Political science professor Ali Carkoglu of Koc University believes the opposition parties’ excuses of having to enter elections under the current unstable conditions in Turkey are not valid. He thinks the opposition parties were simply helpless in countering the AKP election strategy. He said, “Those parties have no right to whine about circumstances. We need political parties precisely to deal with those circumstances. They have to take on those conditions and generate appropriate policies.”

Nevertheless, he feels that for the MHP and HDP to pass the 10% threshold needed to claim seats is a positive and important result for democracy in Turkey.

The winners of the June 7 elections were the nationalist MHP and Kurdish HDP. The MHP increased its votes then by 3.5% compared with 2011, and the HDP crossed the 10% threshold by 3%. How did they wind up as the losers this time? This time, the MHP went below even its 2011 votes. The HDP lost votes even in southeastern Anatolia, its traditional stronghold. In Mus, for example, the HDP lost 24% of its earlier votes, and in Bingol, 15%.

Carkoglu believes both parties’ narratives failed to persuade the voters that those parties were capable of running the country. Carkoglu said some Kurdish voters hold the HDP partially responsible for the escalating violence in the southeast, and that caused a shift of the conservative Kurdish vote to the AKP.

Akca acknowledges that, although the HDP lost votes, it wasn’t entirely unsuccessful. He thinks the ruling party’s approach of equating the HDP with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) played a role in the HDP’s vote loss. “Nevertheless, for a political party that is entering elections for the second time in its existence to [win] 10.7% is a success.”

One striking novelty of the Nov. 1 elections was President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s minimal campaigning. This time, the AKP was careful not to harp on its desire for an executive presidential regime, as it did in June. Many people wonder whether the AKP will now put the presidential regime back on the agenda.

Erdogan, who has been running the AKP unofficially, but without argument, from behind the scenes is now at the peak of his powers. He already had the credibility of being elected president by a 52% direct vote of the people. He is now further empowered with the AKP victory.

Will Erdogan use these advantages to once again strive for a presidential system? Carkoglu poses two scenarios. The pessimistic scenario predicts Erdogan will force his way to a presidential system. “But this will generate resistance. A dormant opposition may be given new life,” said Carkoglu. Erdogan may therefore prefer to pursue his goal not so brazenly, but with a low-key, behind-the-scenes approach. Akca shares a similar view: “The presidential system de facto exists anyway. He may opt to take his time so as not to irk the public. We don’t know which one he will choose.”

Akca said there were signs of a rift between Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu before the elections. But as Erdogan is armed with his party’s almost 50% of the general vote now, can Davutoglu be expected to impede Erdogan’s aspirations?

“But in such an atmosphere of victory, nobody will want to be seen activating the fault lines again. They will try to shape a new division of labor between themselves,” said Akca.

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