Turkey's increasingly authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won an unexpectedly decisive victory in the country's snap general elections on Sunday.
It was the second parliamentary vote in six months after June polls saw the Islamist AKP denied a majority for the first time since it took power 13 years ago, largely due to the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) crossing the 10 percent threshold required to secure parliamentary seats. The result blocked Erdogan's plans to alter the constitution and transfer executive powers to his office, but created a hung parliament.
In the following weeks, the AKP's talks to form a coalition with the country's second and third largest parliamentary blocs — the secular Republican People's Party (CHP) and far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — fell apart, leading to the election on Sunday.
By 11pm local time, with 99.37 percent of votes counted, the AKP had secured a 49.37 percent share, good for 316 seats in the 550-seat parliament, according to CNN Turk. It's enough to form a comfortable majority and a major increase from the 258 seats it won earlier in the year. It will likely fall short, however, of the 330-seat "super majority" required to call a referendum on constitutional change.
The same results put CHP at 25.42 percent, MHP at 11.95 percent, and HDP at 10.68 percent, just over the parliamentary threshold. Both of the smaller two parties lost significant numbers of votes compared to June, suggesting that the AKP had won over religious Kurds and nationalist Turks.
The final standings have yet to be announced by the Turkish Supreme Electoral Council (YSK). The election monitoring group Oy Ve Otesi is also expected to triple-check votes.
The results were far more conclusive than predicted by opinion polls and analysts, many of whom expected the AKP to be forced to seek an unwelcome alliance with the CHP or MHP, a scenario that would undoubtedly have sidelined Erdogan and potentially exposed AKP leaders to graft investigations.
Supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) celebrate in Istanbul after hearing the early results of the general elections. (Photo by Deniz Toprak/EPA)
In central Istanbul, AKP supporters took to the streets, cheering, banging drums, and beeping car horns. But clashes erupted in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern city of Diyarbakir with security forces dispersing crowds of protesters with water cannons and tear gas. The voting itself passed mostly without incident, although police reportedly broke up a fight between AKP and HDP supporters in northwestern Kocaeli.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu tweeted "Thanks be to God" when the scale of his party's victory became clear, but he later delivered a speech urging AKP supporters to be humble.
At a joint press conference, HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag thanked those who campaigned for the party, with Demirtas adding that despite "tyranny and massacre politics," it was still a victory for their party. He went on to say the elections had not been fair or democratic, but that HDP would "continue its fight without despair."
The elections came at a time of increased instability in Turkey. The government launched a two-pronged "war on terror" in July claimed to target both the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Islamic State (IS). The focus has been largely on the militant Kurds thus far, and attack jets have bombed their positions in Turkey and neighboring northern Iraq, reportedly killing hundreds.
The PKK launched a number of assaults on army and police targets in response, killing dozens and threatening a return to the bloody three-decade insurgency it waged against the Turkish government until a landmark 2013 ceasefire agreement.
'We don't want a sultan.'
IS-linked activity has also been on the rise. A July suicide bombing in the border town of Suruc left 33 pro-Kurdish activists dead, and another attack on October 10 killed 102 people at a peace rally with major Kurdish presence in Ankara. The latter was the worst terror attack ever to take place in Turkey, but instead of bringing the country together, it highlighted how deeply it is now divided, with HDP and AKP officials blaming each other.
Both Erdogan and the AKP had been suffering through a noticeable dip in popularity. The June result was a significant fall from 2011's polls, when the AKP secured nearly half of the vote. The party rose to power by delivering much-needed economic expansion following a catastrophic financial crisis in 2001. But by the end of 2014, Turkey's economic growth had fallen to just 2.5 percent, while the lira, the country's currency, plummeted in value and foreign investment fell even as commodity prices continued to rise. Erdogan's approval ratings have also fallen, dropping to 37.5 percent in June, almost halving since 2011. The lira has continued to fall significantly throughout the recent unrest.
Speaking with VICE News after casting her vote in Istanbul's Besiktas neighborhood, Ilter, a 72-year-old retired teacher, said the elections were once again all about the president. "We are expecting to give another slap to Erdogan because he hasn't learned his lesson," she said. "Davutoglu is just a puppet, so the AKP and Erdogan are linked together, and he's destroyed the good people of the party."
Erdogan and other AKP leaders have campaigned on the message that only a single-party AKP government could bring stability to Turkey, a strategy which has seemingly paid off. His opponents, meanwhile, have blamed him for the violence, claiming the PKK strikes were a play to garner a larger share of the vote for the AKP by appealing to nationalist sentiment.
Kurdish supporters of People's Democratic Party (HDP) clash with riot police after hearing the early results of the general elections in Diyarbakir, Turkey. (Photo via EPA)
Members of the conservative AKP base, however, have clearly taken the message on board. "I want everything to be fine for the future," said 55-year-old Necati. "They're all related to each other. No peace means no stability and a bad economy… Very bad things happened recently: death, wars, losing our martyrs," he said referring to deaths of soldiers and police officers at the hands of the PKK.
But some opponents had looked for a coalition, with the expectation that it would rein in Erdogan's more autocratic tendencies and produce a more representative government. Kaan, 51, told VICE News that he'd like to see both CHP and AKP ruling the country instead. "We don't want them [AKP] alone, but together with CHP. I have hopes in both." A friend, Ziya, 65, nodded and interjected: "We don't want a sultan."
The pugnacious, divisive Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, first as a three-term prime minister with the AKP, then as head of state since August 2014. The presidency is traditionally a largely symbolic role in Turkish politics, but since taking office, Erdogan has often bypassed Davutoglu and further tightened his control over the police, judiciary, and media.
His authoritarian streak has increased since his recent rebuke in the polls: Courts have prosecuted journalists responsible for critical coverage, dozens have been jailed for "insulting" the president, and members of the HDP have been arrested for alleged terrorism links. In the election run-up, police raided a number of opposition media groups.
The crackdown on dissident voices will likely be encouraged still further by these strong results, and Erdogan is now expected to attempt to transfer executive powers to his office, further tightening his grip on Turkey.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck