President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a man who brokers no dissent, went into Sunday’s elections hoping to win enough of a majority so that he could ram through a new constitution that would enhance the power of the president, now largely symbolic, over that of the prime minister and parliament. He was disappointed. But Westerners hoping that this signals an end to Erdoğan’s anti-democratic rule may also be disappointed.
While Erdoğan’s Islamist-oriented “Justice and Development Party,” best known by its Turkish acronym AKP, has dominated Turkish politics since November 2002, he was expecting 330 seats in the new parliament but received only 258.
The Republican People’s Party (CHP) received 132 seats, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) won 81 seats, and the ethnic Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) won 79 seats.
Because the AKP lost its majority, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu — who is to Erdoğan what Dmitry Medvedev is to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin — will need to resign so that a new government can be formed. Since the AKP won the plurality, Davutoğlu — presuming Erdoğan gives him authority — will have 15 days to form a new government. But, if the CHP, HDP, and MHP hold firm on their pledges not to work with the AKP, then the AKP will fail.
The CHP and MHP, while on opposite sides of the spectrum, have worked together before — most recently fielding a joint presidential candidate for the 2014 presidential election — and they could in theory put together a minority government, with the HDP not joining in but tacitly supporting. This also may not occur, since animosity between the HDP and the Kemalist parties runs deep.
If no government can be formed, then there will be new elections in 45 days.
While some diplomats may say that the elections prove that democracy can overcome autocracy, even if a new government forms — whether or not the AKP is part of it — optimism that the damage done by more than 12 years of one-party AKP rule can be overcome may be misplaced. On key issues of concern to the United States — for example, Turkey’s indirect and even direct support for radical Islamist terrorist groups in Syria — Erdoğan has delegated authority to organizations like the Turkish intelligence service (Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı, MİT) which do not answer to any democratic authority.
Erdoğan has also permanently altered the bureaucracy by maneuvering religious school graduates into key positions and even Turkey’s military, purged and cowed so that it is a shadow of its former self. Add into the mix a steady diet of anti-Americanism and conspiratorial incitement, and Turkey will remain one of the most anti-American countries on earth.
If the elections lead to gridlock and new elections, expect the would-be sultan to take his gloves off. There has been a bizarre undercurrent in recent weeks in Turkey threatening war with Syria. No one believes it, but it presents a useful excuse to suspend elections and rule by fiat. In new elections, he might also provoke extreme violence to keep the HDP below the threshold in any new election. Kurds will not believe the results should he do so, and tremendous violence would result, but if Erdoğan cannot rule without dissent, then he will be willing to send Turkey into the morass.
Turks are at the precipice. To suggest smooth sailing from here would be naivete of the same sort that brought us the “reset” with Russia, the notion that Bashar al-Assad was a reformer, or, for that matter, the idea that Iran could be a trusted partner.