Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Turkish Elections: Four More Years

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Turkish Elections: Four More Years

Article excerpt

The surprise victory of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in November's snap general election confirms that 2015 will not go down as a good year for pollsters. Election results from Canada to the UK have confounded expectations, with Turkey's ballot also throwing out the forecasters.

The election, widely expected to end in another draw (see August 2015 Washington Report, p. 26), also confirms that 2015 will not go down as a good year for opponents of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan either, or of his AKP, now installed in office for another four-year term.

November's parliamentary victory gave this conservative, Islamist-oriented party 49.5 percent of the vote-just shy of its 2011, best-ever result. Yet this triumph also came just five months after the AKP had put in its worst performance since taking office in 2002. Indeed, when 2015's first general election was held back in June, voters had leftthe party without enough seats to form a government.

Much, therefore, had happened in those five months, with the events of summer and autumn 2015 likely to shape the course of Turkish politics for many years to come.

Strategies of Tension

The June election saw the AKP lose many of its seats to the rising, pro-Kurdish, leftist Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). For the first time, the HDP managed to overcome a 10 percent national vote threshold and swept the southeast of the country-the predominantly ethnic Kurdish region bordering Syria, Iraq and Iran.

There, the HDP's main rival has long been the AKP, which began a program of public investment around cities such as Diyarbakir, the regional capital, soon after it first took national office back in 2002. This won it some support, particularly from more religious Kurds, whose region had suffered from decades of armed conflict between the Turkish military and the leftist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK).

The AKP also began a "peace process" with the PKK that included dialogue with its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and a cease-fire. Indeed, back in March, Ocalan had called for a definitive end to the conflict and a future in which Kurds and Turks would live "within the Republic of Turkey...in peace, as sisters and brothers."

Yet, the peace process was always controversial, with many nationalist Turks and military men opposed. Support for it in Ankara also came under pressure from Kurdish successes across the border.

There, with Kurdish peshmerga from northern Iraq going to the aid of the PKK-linked People's Defense Committees (YPG) of northeastern Syria at Kobani and elsewhere, one of Turkey's oldest nightmares-a Kurdish state-appeared to be becoming a reality.

This explains Ankara's reluctance to support Kurds battling ISIS-although it also undermined support for the AKP in the southeast. Thus, in June, the HDP, led by the charismatic Selahattin Demirtas (see p. 62) and his co-chair, Figen Yuksekdag, made its major electoral breakthrough. Demirtas had also made a successful appeal to liberal and left-leaning Turks to support the HDP in order to head offtheir great fear: that an AKP victory would lead to President Erdogan being able to change the constitution and give himself executive powers.

Thus, when the dust settled from the June ballot, the AKP found itself unable to form a new government. The AKP's acting prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, then began an ultimately fruitless search for a workable coalition.

While these talks stumbled on, however, suicide bombers struck a peace rally in the southeastern town of Suruc in July, killing 33 people. …

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