Sunday’s election in Turkey—which saw a remarkable 87 percent turnout—yielded a victory for strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This, despite a surprisingly strong opposition challenge that he had not seen before.
Unless Erdogan addresses Turkey’s mounting domestic and foreign policy problems, he and his party will be vulnerable at the local elections in March 2019. To truly sustain his victory, he will need to tone down his populistic rhetoric and cooperate with a parliament that is now much more diverse.
According to unofficial results as of writing, Erdogan received 52.5 percent of the vote—an outright victory, bucking opinion polls that predicted a run-off—with opposition candidate Muharrem Ince receiving 30.6 percent.
However, Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) fell short of expectations with 42.5 percent of the vote, regressing by more than 7 points since November 2015. This translates to 295 seats for the AKP in the parliament, short of the 301 needed for a majority. AKP’s ally the MHP (Nationalist Action Party) received 11.1 percent of the vote and obtained 49 seats in parliament, compensating somewhat for AKP’s poor performance.
On the opposition side, the CHP (People’s Republican Party) won 22.6 percent, a performance that did not meet predictions and fell short of the 25 percent CHP won in the November 2015 elections. Its electoral ally, the newly formed Iyi (Good) party, led by Meral Aksener, won an impressive 10 percent of the vote in its first-ever election.
These two parties will have 146 and 43 seats in parliament, respectively. The mostly Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) contested the elections on its own, and managed to pass the 10 percent threshold for entering parliament, winning 11.7 percent of the vote (67 seats).
The election followed a short but intense campaign that took place under the emergency rule, still in effect after the July 2016 coup attempt. While the outgoing prime minister proudly announced that the election was transparent enough to be a model for other countries, the atmosphere was hardly conducive to a level playing field, considering the opposition’s limited access to the media and state resources.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which has monitored elections in Turkey, has reported irregularities in past elections, and expressed similar concern ahead of this vote. It will be interesting to see if the new parliament might address these problems and take action to ensure that Turkey’s next elections are, in fact, free and fair.
Erdogan's next moves
The new composition in parliament, which is somewhat less favorable to Erdogan than before, will bring a new phase. While it’s hard to imagine that Erdogan will engage in constructive and compromise-driven politics, the new parliamentary reality—combined with his past record of pragmatism—may open room for more pluralistic politics.
How will Erdogan approach the new presidential system he inherits, one granting far greater powers for his position? One of the first tests will be on whether to lift emergency rule, which will say a great deal about where Erdogan and the new parliament stand on the crucial issues of democracy and rule of law.
During the campaign, opposition candidates were vocal about their intention to end emergency rule, forcing both Erdogan and his Prime Minister Binali Yildirim to entertain the idea as well.
Lifting it could end many people’s detentions, including Selahattin Demirtas, the presidential candidate from HDP who ran his campaign from behind bars, as well as many academics, journalists, and university students being held on spurious terrorism charges. It would also bring about a climate of reconciliation.
Erdogan’s approach to the economy will be another important indicator to watch. During the campaign, he blamed external factors and their domestic collaborators for Turkey’s economic woes, which seemed to resonate with voters. Campaign rhetoric, however, will not suffice to bring down inflation or unemployment from their new heights, nor will it fix structural problems such as persistent current account deficits.
The Turkish lira has eroded from 2.14 to the dollar when Erdogan was first elected president in August 2014, to 4.68 to the dollar today, and a serious policy response is needed. Reforming the economy will require close cooperation with parliament and will be linked to reconstituting the rule of law.
Finally, Turkey has a long list of foreign policy and security challenges, ranging from the situation in Syria to the poor state of relations with its traditional transatlantic allies. The calls by the opposition candidates, especially Ince and to a lesser extent Aksener, to improve relations with the European Union evidently did not resonate decisively with the electorate.
Instead, the anti-Western narrative employed by Erdogan and his entourage prevailed. However, it is difficult to see how Turkey can manage the geopolitical challenges in its region, emanating largely from the actions of Iran and Russia, without reforming its foreign policy.
Furthermore, given the state of the Turkish economy, there is an urgent economic need to cooperate with the EU, Turkey’s largest economic partner and largest source of foreign direct investment. Will Erdogan be prepared to tone down his fiery religious nationalism and listen to the voices of reason in parliament that call for improved relations with Europe?
This weekend’s vote was, in short, a surprise. Contrary to predictions, Erdogan won decisively, and his new presidential system has received a seal of approval from the electorate. However, the AKP’s failure to secure an absolute majority in parliament is an important message for Erdogan.
It remains to be seen whether Erdogan will take this as an opportunity to address the long list of challenges facing Turkey and reconstruct its democracy and economy, and regain the respect that he once enjoyed internationally. The March 2019 municipal elections will be the next test of his performance.
* Kemal Kirisci is Director of the Turkey Project, and Senior Fellow at Foreign Policy, Center of the United States and Europe at Brookings Institution. The comment was published by the Brookings Institution.