The repeat parliamentary elections that took place in Turkey on November 1—just five months after the pivotal vote that saw the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) lose its single-party majority after thirteen years of uninterrupted rule—brought a resounding victory for the party. Defying opinion polls that predicted that the election results would place Turkey in a political deadlock, closely mirroring the results of the previous election on June 7, the AKP won 49 percent of the national vote. The pro-Kurdish, democratic socialist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) failed to recapture the triumphant victory it enjoyed in the last election, when it easily cleared the 10 percent electoral threshold to enter parliament. On Sunday, the HDP narrowly escaped falling below the barrier, winning 10.75 percent of the vote and losing 21 seats. But with 59 seats in parliament, the HDP has emerged as the third largest party in parliament. Trailing behind is the ultra-nationalist National Action Party (MHP), which slipped from 80 to 40 seats.
Voters went to the polls on Sunday after several months of mounting casualties as resurgent violence broke out between state security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in late July, breaking a two-year ceasefire. Sixteen soldiers were killed in one day in the Daglica attack on September 6; the total number of military and police officials killed is reported to be over 160. Turkey suffered the gravest terrorist attack in its 92-year history when suicide bombers reportedly affiliated with Islamic State (IS) exploded twin bombs in the capital city of Ankara on October 10, killing more than 100 civilians. Critics have said that the AKP sacrificed peace for a snap election. But speaking to reporters on Sunday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that the election became a necessity when the basis for nation-wide stability failed to emerge from the ballot box in June. Indeed, the AKP’s political rhetoric before the elections invoked the goals of stability, security, and unity. As domestic turmoil deepened amid threats of IS attacks and uncertainty over the future of the peace process with the Kurds, the government defined the election by the threat of chaos should voters not hand the AKP a strong mandate to govern for at least another term.
A number of recent changes in the political context distinguish the November 1 election from the vote five months ago. First, whereas the June vote was fixated on the rise of the pro-Kurdish HDP as a new political actor, Sunday’s vote took place amid questions about the AKP’s future and whether a new player may emerge from among the disgruntled members of the party who had grown tired of Erdogan’s one-man dominance. While rumors of a comeback by former president Abdullah Gul, one of the founders of the AKP who was subsequently pushed out of the inner circle of party decisionmakers, have circulated periodically since he stepped down, there appeared to be signs that a new party could split off from the AKP, recapturing the democratic values it embraced in its formative years. However, recent election results make this scenario highly unlikely, with the AKP successfully consolidating its hold over right-wing conservative politics and leaving little room for an ideologically likeminded rival.
Second, the pre-election campaign was shaped by how political parties reacted to rising political violence. As the fight against PKK targets intensified, the reemergence of authoritarian practices in southeastern Turkey such as extended curfews and a highly visible security presence as the fight against PKK targets intensified, as well as the repeated connection that AKP technocrats and pro-government media drew between the HDP and PKK, aimed at accomplishing two tasks simultaneously. One was to drum up the Turkish nationalist vote that feared a relapse into the violence of the 1990s. According to a poll conducted following the June 7 election, MHP voters formed the highest percentage of those who admitted that their vote was strategically lent to oppose Erdogan. The MHP’s intransigence during government coalition talks, combined with the AKP’s strong anti-terrorism campaign, meant that the AKP was able to regain the Turkish nationalist-conservative vote. The AKP’s second goal was to persuade the socially conservative Kurds who historically sided with the AKP that the HDP was no friend to them. The AKP altered its candidate list in key Kurdish areas this time around, taking into consideration local preferences and bringing attention to prominent figures that could tap into past loyalties. The AKP’s vote jumped to 22 percent in Diyarbakir on Sunday, up from 14 percent in June. The AKP has now regained, at least partially, its claim to represent the pro-Kurdish electoral bloc in east and southeastern Turkey.
Attempting to counteract the AKP’s caricature of the HDP as a mouthpiece for the PKK, HDP co-chairperson Selahattin Demirtas sought to act as a peacebroker to end the downward spiral into regrettable violence. In a notable move on August 23, he stated that the PKK should cease its attacks with no “ifs or buts.” But this was not enough to convince voters that the HDP was willing or able to distance itself from the PKK’s militant command structure. The HDP lost votes in critical metropolitan centers like Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul. The anti-Erdogan “borrowed votes” that had helped to catapult the HDP to success in June reverted back to their origins, some to the social-democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) but also some to the AKP. The HDP’s pledge to be a party for all of Turkey’s citizens, which had served as the driver of its success on June 7, was not replicated in its election campaign leading up to Sunday’s vote. Unilateral declarations by some districts and provinces in Kurdish areas for “democratic autonomy” in August stirred up anxiety among urban HDP voters who saw their vote being used to justify separatist fervor to which they did not necessarily sign up.
Although it retained its unquestioned grip on the Kurdish-majority provinces in southeast Turkey, even there the HDP experienced losses. The HDP saw a drop in its voter percentage in Bingol, Agri, Kars, Bitlis, and Van, among other key provinces. The party lost 7.8 points in their stronghold of Diyarbakir. A significant portion of socially conservative Kurds that had given the HDP a chance in the previous election swung back to the AKP this time. The HDP’s vociferous anti-government rhetoric alienated Kurdish voters uncomfortable with the PKK’s role in resurgent violence, its exclusionary stance toward competing parties in the region, and its claim to dominate the Kurdish rights struggle at the expense of civilian politics. PKK-sanctioned violence sabotaged the HDP’s hard-won opportunity for civilian representation in Ankara, which would have heralded a new chapter not only for the expansion of pro-Kurdish rights but for genuine democratization across Turkey. The results also show that Kurdish political preferences defy the assumption that votes are cast on hardliner ethnic allegiances alone.
Third, Sunday’s elections took place in a political context marked by a sharp tension between Turkey’s autonomous democratic institutions and an overreaching party-dominated state apparatus. Since the June vote, opposition journalists have come under greater censorship and surveillance, and just four days prior to Sunday’s election two newspapers and television channels owned by the pro-Gulen Koza-Ipek Media were raided, shut down, and placed under a form of government “trusteeship.” Further concerns that the judiciary is no longer a neutral public institution have contributed to the perception that the AKP has morphed into a hybrid state–party. This represents a stark departure from the AKP’s aspirational claims over a decade ago to be the voice of the marginalized masses. However, voters either did not take seriously fears of eroding democracy, withering individual liberties, and media freedoms—or sacrificed them for the AKP’s promises of public order and security. Whether this tradeoff will serve the longer-term interests of inclusive and consent-based democracy in Turkey is highly questionable.
The AKP is set on playing the long game, focused on creating a “new Turkey” marked by economic and political clout by the republic’s centenary in 2023. “We are just at the beginning of the road,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced on Sunday night. It is likely that the issue of constitutional reform will be on the AKP’s agenda once again, and this time Erdogan will have more force on his side to push for an executive style hyper-presidency that he has long argued is the most appropriate system for Turkey. And despite running on the claim that the AKP is the country’s only chance for long-term stability, it remains to be seen whether the AKP government will crack down on radical Islamist groups that serve as a recruiting pool for IS cells in Turkey. Similarly, if the peace process with the PKK is somehow resuscitated, the dominant AKP may seek to bypass the HDP and deal directly with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, to seek a solution on its own terms rather than collaborate with the HDP on a peace plan.
Turkey remains a country divided. What is troubling about the state of Turkish politics today is not the deep divisions along party loyalties or ideological lines—diverse and even clashing views are a cornerstone of robust democracies—but the unwillingness of political elites to listen to the other side, blinded by a fog of certainty in their own positions.
This article is reprinted with permission from Sada. It can be accessed online here.
Burcu Ozcelik is a Teaching Associate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on Kurdish politics in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria.