Nobody had anticipated the landslide victory that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) secured in last month’s snap elections in Turkey. Even the most optimistic opinion polls showed the AKP barely coming close (not reaching) a majority in parliament to form the government. However, when the first results were announced on the evening of November 1, it quickly became clear that the AKP was about to score a major victory. By midnight, ballot counting was over and the AKP had secured almost 50% of the popular vote.
The snap elections took place due to the political deadlock that arose following the June 2015 general elections. The AKP lost its majority in parliament despite garnering 40% of the popular vote when it gained 53 seats less than its previous total in the National Assembly. There were half-hearted efforts at forming a coalition government for nearly two months but they came to naught. On August 24, President Recept Tayip Erdogan called a snap election aimed at regaining his party’s majority. He was disappointed by the outcome of the June elections as he expected a two-third majority but his eagerness to assert himself in the election campaign cost the AKP dearly.
One must admit, however, that Erdogan has a knack for politics and he skillfully navigated his party through a political storm. Thanks to his manipulative campaign, he managed to regain a majority for the AKP. One can point to Erdogan’s many faults but one needs to acknowledge that he is a very skilled politician who has a very clear understanding of how the Turkish public responds. Since Erdogan and his friends founded the party in 2001, he has used this ability to cling to power.
Erdogan’s awareness of what moves the public enables him to easily manipulate it by exploiting polarizing elements within Turkish society. The AKP was founded in the aftermath of the February 28, 1997 military coup that targeted Islam as a major threat for Turkey. It resulted in severe restrictions on religious freedoms. Erdogan was aware of the Turkish society’s deep-rooted religious sentiments. Thus, he used a subtle religious discourse to gain favor of the electorate while portraying the secularists (including the public) as the most dangerous enemy. Until he established his unchallenged authority, the AKP continued to use its polarizing discourse.
By 2011, the AKP had scored major victories in the three general elections and managed to eliminate the secularists from the Turkish political landscape. Erdogan had realized his ambition and there was no need for him to share power with Turkey’s old guard. But it was also a dilemma for Erdogan as he had built his political strategy by exploiting conflicts within various segments of the society.
In this regard, the March 30, 2014 local election could have been a major challenge for Erdogan and the AKP but thanks to the emerging new Gulenist threat (followers of Fethullah Gulen), he was again able to galvanize support of the Turkish public and scored another landslide victory. Throughout the election campaign he successfully portrayed the Gulenists, who were once his strongest allies, as the main threat to Turkish society. Creating fear in voters, he was able to eradicate the Gulenists. Of course this was not an easy task; if he had failed in his struggle with the Gulenists, he would almost certainly have ended up in prison, and for a long time. But as usual, Erdogan survived his most challenging political battle by winning the local elections.
As he had eliminated all rivals, Erdogan thought that it was time to introduce himself as the new Sultan of Turkey. If the AKP had scored another victory in the June elections, he would have changed the political system from parliamentary to presidential thereby establishing himself as the undisputed ruler of Turkey. A new pasha would be born. Things, however, did not work out the way he had wanted. Since there were no more enemies left, he did not have any new “threats” to exploit during the election. Consequently, he was not able to manipulate the public to vote for him. For the first time in his life, Erdogan was deprived of an election strategy that was built on conflict and polarization.
Further, bolstered by previous victories, Erdogan’s ego was impervious to the possibility of defeat. Thus in the election campaign he recklessly put himself ahead of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. These factors contributed to the AKP’s failure to gain a majority in the June 2015 election.
However, soon after that defeat, Erdogan decided to reignite the Kurdish conflict. Thanks to the peace process with the PKK that had started in 2012, the long bloody war with the Kurds had come to an end. It was expected that there would be a permanent resolution in the near future. Erdogan was the architect of the peace process and he vigorously defended it from the beginning. However, as he has built his entire career on exploiting political, ethnic and religious differences in society, Erdogan was sure that the ethnic conflict would serve him well to achieve his political goals.
Thus, in July 2015 Turkey launched a massive air campaign against PKK camps inside Turkey and in Northern Iraq thereby ending the peace process. The ensuing fights caused havoc in southeastern Turkey and created a strong sense of insecurity in the minds of the Turkish public. The ISIS bombing of Ankara on October 15, 2015 that killed more than 100 people worsened the situation. But what really worried the Turks was that the country was left without an elected government in the middle of a crisis. There was an interim government but there was no possibility of forming a coalition.
This was just what Erdogan envisaged when he walked away from negotiations with the Kurds. He wanted to create an environment of instability that would then force the electorate to vote for the AKP for the sake of the country. The main campaign message of the AKP was either you re-elect us or you are doomed.
The plan worked perfectly. In the November elections, the AKP gained 59 extra seats giving it a comfortable majority in parliament so it could form the government on its own. The elections showed that the Turkish public’s priorities are economic and political stability and they consider the Erdogan-led AKP to be the only political party able to provide stability.
The other political parties due to their internal structures are not able to offer anything better and they are certainly not able to match Erdogan’s political acumen or charisma. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that so long as there is no drastic change in the present situation or no strong alternative, Erdogan will continue to dominate Turkey for a long time.