Turkey’s Snap Elections 2015: Explaining the AKP Victory

KADIR YILDIRIM AND MUSTAFA GURBUZdavutoglu-balkon-konusmasini-yapti-159490


  • The ruling AKP has won Turkey’s repeat general elections, regaining their parliamentary majority with 315 seats after five months of coalition talks and rounds of ethnic violence.
  • Voter turnout is reported to be 84.3 %, a slight increase compared to the June elections. Yet Kurdish-populated cities witnessed lower turnouts this time.
  • The Turkish nationalist MHP was the big loser in the elections. They lost ground to the AKP in central Anatolia, and the party now has fewer parliamentary seats than the pro-Kurdish party—an unprecedented development in Turkish history.
  • The pro-Kurdish HDP performed poorly compared to the June elections. Yet, the HDP did manage to pass the 10% electoral threshold and became the third-largest party in Parliament.
  • The impressive electoral victory of the AKP is likely to obscure one of the persistent weaknesses of the Turkish political system: a hollow opposition.
  • Escalation of the violence between the PKK and Turkish state greatly benefited the AKP, securing votes from not only Turkish nationalists, but also the conservative Kurdish electorate.

To the surprise of most polling agencies, Turkey’s elections indicated strong public support for the stability associated with the ruling AKP, after five months of failed coalition talks and rounds of ethnic violence. Increasing security concerns and the hopeless misery of the parliamentary opposition yielded the AKP victory with 49 % of the vote, reminiscent of the 2011 elections. The Turkish nationalist MHP was the big loser (12 %), yielding a lot of ground to the AKP and shrinking to having less parliamentary representation than the pro-Kurdish HDP. The secular-leftist People’s Republican Party, CHP, remained on course (25%) with another unimpressive showing. Although the pro-Kurdish party managed to pass the 10% electoral threshold, it lost some of the “provisional” vote from June 7 elections, partly as a result of increased violence and partly due to the perception that there was no need for the extra push to surpass the electoral threshold.

The impressive electoral victory of the AKP is likely to obscure one of the persistent weaknesses of the Turkish political system: a hollow opposition. Despite the breath of air brought to the CHP by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and the witty and charismatic leadership by Selahattin Demirtaş that brought the pro-Kurdish HDP into the (inter)national spotlight, the opposition parties have internalized their epiphenomenal roles in the political system with no real desire to win power.

The story of the last two years sums it up best. First, the opposition parties were presented with a series of unmistakable opportunities on a silver platter: the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the country; domestic and foreign policy failures; a sharp decline in freedom of expression and the media; and a deteriorating rule of law. Yet the opposition parties collectively failed to mobilize the electorate in a unified effort to usher in change. In the November 1 elections, the turnout barely increased over June 7, despite the fact that a staggering 85% of the non-voting electorate affiliate themselves with the opposition parties. The governing AKP could not have been any weaker.

Second, the opposition parties were collectively granted a chance to affect a change in the system following the June 7 elections; three parties (CHP, MHP, and HDP) controlled the majority of seats in Parliament. They missed a big opportunity to reverse course. They failed to hold the AKP accountable on graft charges, undo authoritarian legislation passed in Parliament in recent months, or gain control of the legislative and executive branches for the first time in the past 13 years. The insipid character of the opposition is such that the three parties could not even agree on a speaker of Parliament, allowing the AKP to dictate the process. To borrow from Tony Blair, the Turkish opposition is “weak, weak, weak.”

Ethnicity played a major role in the elections. Ethnic identity (primarily Turk vs. Kurd) constitutes one of the key political, social, and economic cleavages in Turkey. The Kurdish issue has been as divisive in recent years as it has ever been. When the Kurdish HDP secured 13% of the vote and 80 seats in Parliament on June 7, the party was “blamed” for undermining Erdoğan’s bid for a constitutional change toward a presidential system, reinforced by his infamous “400 deputies” remark.

Consequently, the Kurdish Peace Process, initiated by Erdoğan himself a few years earlier, got the axe. The political utility of increased tension and violence on the Kurdish issue is invaluable for politicians playing into nationalist sentiment. The worst terror attack in the history of Turkey on October 10—killing more than 100 people and injuring hundreds more— is a case in point. While all signs pointed to an ISIS-organized attack and the concomitant leniency in containing this threat, the extant media control and the gag order on the prosecution allowed the AKP government to frame it in an entirely different light. The attack was portrayed as a PKK-led false-flag operation, even though Kurds and the HDP were the key organizers of the political rally targeted by the bombers. According to Gezici poll, 38% of Turkish citizens actually believed that the attack was carried out by Kurdish militants. Many Turks and Kurds grew increasingly concerned about violence and instability spiraling out of control; the HDP decided to suspend its rallies for the remainder of the campaign season. The AKP ended up, as expected, as the “safe haven” capable of bringing this violence to an end.

The AKP’s stability argument found an echo not only among Turkish nationalists, but also among conservative Kurdish voters as well. The party regained the most votes from the Kurdish electorate in Eastern Turkey. The HDP votes, however, were still much higher than in the 2011 elections among Kurds—a trend that indicates the increasing strength of the party in the region.

Arguably, one of AKP’s greatest political achievements to this day has been to indelibly shape the electorate’s perception of its function in the current Turkish political system. For many voters, the AKP is not merely a political party on the right, subject to the ebb and flow of the public mood. Rather, the AKP has become the pillar of the system; its relative absence (even if that means being a coalition partner rather than forming a single-party government) exacerbates voter anxiety about impending political instability. In other words, the AKP came to denote stability.

The heightened political tension and violence in the aftermath of the June 7 elections unmistakably contributed to such anxiety. While for the opposition the AKP and Erdoğan were the principal instigators of increased tension in recent months, for others, especially among the constituency that shifts its allegiance from one election to the next, the AKP turned into an anchor of stability. The AKP offered the best odds for achieving political stability for the concerned voters particularly when faced with an anemic opposition as the alternative.

Optimism for the Future?

The new AKP government under Ahmet Davutoğlu’s premiership faces a number of challenges. First and foremost is President Erdoğan’s ambitions for a Putinesque presidency. Increasing authoritarianism has bitterly polarized the country and damaged the mechanisms for checks and balances. Having won a decisive electoral victory, Davutoğlu might claim more legitimacy in balancing President Erdoğan’s powers in executive decision-making. Who will run the country, however, remains to be seen; an ambitious President Erdoğan may still push for a referendum for his dream of an executive presidential system.

Second, the Kurdish Peace Process should be a priority for the new government as proof that AKP majority rule means a return to stability. The election victory may give the AKP the upper hand; however, an emboldened PKK as a partner of an anti-ISIS coalition will not be easy to convince. Although there are major challenges for serious peace negotiations, a short-term ceasefire that benefits both the AKP government and the PKK is highly likely.

Third, foreign policy challenges, ranging from the Syrian refugee crisis to forming a coalition against the Islamic State, remain as trying as ever. As the United States begins to send its soldiers to Syria, Turkey’s strategic priorities will be more critical. What complicates the matter is that Ankara’s policy toward the Kurdish cantons is not independent from the Peace Process at home.

On the other hand, the European Union rediscovery of Turkey due to the refugee crisis may encourage the government to seek better relations with the West. If Davutoğlu prioritizes the rule of law and media freedoms, chances are that he can save the AKP from drowning in petty cronyism enmeshed with anti-Western discourse. His task, however, will not be easy.