AKP's Machiavellian Victory: How It Happened and What It Means for Turkey

silhouetted people walking on busy street in istanbul,Turkey.
silhouetted people walking on busy street in istanbul,Turkey.


In less than five months, Turkey's voters delivered two election results that have disproved most polls and stunned observers. Few people had anticipated the pro-Kurdish leftist Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to win as big as they did in the June election and to deny the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) the mandate to govern alone for the first time in 13 years. That poll led to a protracted government crisis and a snap re-run election on November 1 in an environment of intense polarization, violence and conflict, especially in the Kurdish southeast. This time, even senior AKP figures were caught off guard by the speed and decisiveness with which their party recaptured its lost votes and mandate.

After five months in uncharted waters, Turkey's future suddenly looks more predictable and familiar: no more talk of a coalition as the AKP will keep ruling alone. It will press with its socio-economic and political agenda, including mega infrastructure projects and a constitutional referendum to replace the existing parliamentary system with strong presidentialism. Now that the election is over, we can expect the conflict with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) to ease gradually and the "peace process" to come out of "the freezer" where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan placed it after the June election (even though the conflict showed no sign of abating at the time of writing). The rules of political competition will be tweaked further to favour the ruling party, so that space for tolerated dissent will continue to shrink, either by force or by the quiet persuasion of the AKP's show of power. Disgruntled senior figures within the AKP are also less likely to speak up now that President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have strengthened their grip over the party apparatus.

In short, following a brief moment of fluidity, Turkey's transformation into a competitive authoritarian regime under a dominant party rule goes on as before. But how did this dramatic turnaround come about and what is the legacy of the five chaotic months in between the two elections for Turkey's society and politics?

Fear and Loathing in Post-June Election Turkey For those who wish to see Turkey as a vibrant, pluralistic democracy where civil liberties and minority rights are safeguarded, the picture that came out of the ballot box on 1st November is indeed a bleak one. But for a decisive portion of Turkey's electorate, a more pressing concern leading to the re-run election was the prospect of deepening socio-political chaos and economic crisis in the case of an authority vacuum. It was primarily this fear that has arguably pushed many of the 4.5 million extra voters to choose familiar stability under the AKP in this election.

The AKP's key accomplishment was to influence the voting behavior of two very different groups -nationalist Turks and conservative Kurds -with the opposite sides of the same coin. The party achieved this through means that can only be described as ruthlessly Machiavellian: from the outset it became evident that the President Erdoğan was not interested in a coalition government. As he started stoking the flames of a rekindled conflict with the Kurdish militant group, the PKK, he was also laying the groundwork for re-election. In the ensuing violence that has left hundreds dead since June, the AKP successfully positioned itself as the sole protector of Turkey's national, religious and economic interests against an unholy alliance of treacherous Kurds, secular elites, socialists, atheists and foreign powers.

The AKP propaganda machine promoted this narrative with impressive effectiveness. In the run up to the November election, "PKK terrorism" overtook the "economy" as the top concern in at least two nationwide surveys (access them here and here). Among nationalist Turks, anti-Kurdish/HDP/PKK feelings climbed so high that when asked who could be behind the bomb attack that killed 102 socialists in a pro-HDP peace rally in Ankara on 10th October, 58% of self-identified AKP supporters and over 50% of the would-be MHP supporters pointed to the PKK or the HDP as the most likely culprits. Together with the fear of an economic crisis in the absence of a stable government, conservative nationalist voters, who had either sat out the previous election or voted for the opposition MHP, flocked to the only party they saw as capable of providing that stability.

On the flip side, the Kurds' defiance of Erdoğan at the ballot box was met with a terrible vengeance. As nationalist mobs freely attacked Kurdish workers and businesses in the west of the country and suicide attacks killed young Kurds and socialists, paramilitary police units descended upon besieged Kurdish towns with tactics and brutality all too reminiscent of the 1990s. For some Kurds - mainly conservative Sunnis, tribal leaders and/or business owners -who abandoned the AKP in June to protest Erdoğan's anti-Kurdish stance since Kobane by pushing the HDP over the threshold, this seems to have been too high a price to pay. In the re-run election, about a million HDP voters either returned to the AKP or did not show up at the polling booth at all. (In comparison, traditional supporters of the Kurdish movement continued to back the HDP; in Şırnak, for example, where some of the fiercest fighting took place, the HDP was able to raise its vote). All in all, Kurds appear to have voted more in line with class and ideological divisions in this election, but also more pragmatically: giving Erdoğan the minimum he asked for in order to stop the war and killing, but still managing to keep the HDP above 10% and therefore in parliament.

The AKP, in other words, was able to enhance conditions of crisis and then present itself as the only antidote to it - making good of deputy PM Yalçın Akdoğan's words on 8th June that "the process ahead will make everyone better understand that the AKP is the only guarantor of security and stability" in Turkey.

The (Mis)steps of the Opposition Erdoğan's Machiavellian strategy may have been the determining factor influencing voter behaviour on Sunday, yet it was not the only one. A series of (mis)steps taken, consciously or otherwise, by various opposition actors also affected the outcome. The lack of any tangible political vision, strategy or coherence on the part of the MHP might explain why the party could not hold on to the gains it made in June. One should bear in mind that those initial gains were not the result of an active political strategy in the first place. Instead, the MHP merely received the protest vote of those who saw the AKP as getting too close to the PKK during the 'peace process' and were also disturbed by the corruption scandals involving top government officials. Taking its safe share of nationalist votes for granted and running insipid campaigns election after election, the MHP's institutional sluggishness and passive politics do not allow the party to dictate the terms of its own electoral performance in Turkish politics.

The PKK, on the other hand, did take an active position, which had a critical impact on the voters. Kurdish militants eagerly accepted Erdoğan's invitation to duel and returned his provocations in kind, ambushing army units and assassinating off-duty police officers in cold blood. This did not only facilitate the AKP's efforts to woo nationalist voters, but also put the HDP on a back foot, whose leaders found themselves constantly having to justify the party's difference (or proximity) vis-à-vis the armed group. While party leaders (HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, more so than his counterpart, Figen Yüksekdağ) insisted on a rhetoric of peace and passive resistance, some of the rank and file members took a more combative stance, in line with the PKK's urban branch, the Koma Civakên Kurdistan (Group of Communities in Kurdistan, or KCK). In the end, the HDP had a difficult time explaining to its less ideologically committed voters why some of its municipalities were declaring autonomy and allowing the digging of trenches on the streets of Kurdish neighbourhoods, thereby drawing the wrath of the Turkish security apparatus upon them.

The Past Five Months: A Vicious Legacy Is it, then, back to Turkey as we knew it before the June election? No -not least because the HDP did manage to cross the threshold a second time despite fighting an uphill battle against both the AKP and, arguably, the PKK. This is still a remarkable success and presents an opportunity: having twice denied Erdoğan the necessary parliamentary super-majority to change the constitution without a referendum, the party will now have the chance to voice its opposition in the parliament, which it was deprived of after the June election both by the AKP and the PKK.

Indeed, the period since the June election has brought to surface the inherent contradictions between the HDP's shift from an ethno-nationalist to an all-country party (the so-called 'Turkeyfication' agenda; or Türkiyelileşme) agenda and the Kurdish movement's historical drive for autonomy. It has also highlighted the civil-military tensions within the movement. Suspicious of parliamentary politics' potential to bring about desired change, seasoned guerrilla leaders made no secret of their reluctance to give up the leadership of the struggle to a new generation of young, idealistic civilian politicians untested on the battleground. The rise of the HDP and Selahattin Demirtaş, in other words, ruffled the feathers of not only the AKP but also the PKK. The party's potential to make a difference in Turkey's politics rests on its leaders' ability to reconcile these contradictions and reclaim the momentum from both the AKP and the PKK to advocate its inclusive, pluralistic politics. This, however, is a steeper climb now, especially after the AKP's victory and the experience of the past five months, which is likely to dampen Kurds' enthusiasm for the defiant stance personified by Demirtaş and symbolized in the slogan 'We will not let you [Erdoğan] become president.' The case for 'Turkeyfication' is not dead, but it needs salvaging.

Beyond the internal dynamics of the Kurdish movement, the past five months have inflicted traumatic wounds and memories on Turkey's increasingly divided societies, which require a radical change of collective mentalities to heal -- something the past election certainly did not provide. Damning evidence of security failures leading up to the suicide bombings against opposition members in Suruç and Ankara, allegations of state complicity in these attacks, the media bans on their reporting and the police violence targeting the mourning friends and families of the victims will only intensify the deep-running distrust and hostility felt by dissident Kurds, Alevis, leftists and secularists towards the AKP and state institutions. Coupled with the reciprocal distrust and animosity of nationalist Sunni Turks towards these groups -unreservedly provoked by President Erdoğan and the AKP at least since the Gezi protests of 2013 -the resultant extreme polarisation makes Turkey a very difficult country to rule, even under a single-party government. This is especially the case if the government in question has demonstrated no intention or ability to be reconciliatory and inclusive.

The critical takeaway from the post-June 7th period is the basic fact that when faced with an unfavourable election outcome, Erdoğan chose to ignore and suppress the democratic 'will of the nation,' which he so readily invoked after every election victory of the AKP. This heralds the beginning of a dangerous new era in Turkey's multiparty politics, where elected officials can no longer be trusted to share or relinquish power through elections. If it were to become a trend, this would not only render democratic institutions meaningless, but also open the door to potential non-democratic interventions into politics. That possibility, in turn, heightens the siege mentality of those in power now, creating conditions for a self-fulfilling prophecy and a vicious cycle that risks exploding sooner or later; the classic story of authoritarian descent and rupture in electoral regimes.

In Place of a Conclusion: What can the CHP do? In view of such a crisis, let me conclude on a note about the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which has been absent from the analysis so far (mainly because the party more or less preserved its vote and parliamentary representation between the two elections, while the other three parties were trading votes). Increasingly, the CHP seems to be suffering from a condition that is the opposite of the MHP's predicament. Under the leadership of the chairman, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the party has gone through a quiet revolution over the past five years, shedding most of its secular authoritarian image and members, and assuming a more inclusive, social democratic platform. While there is ample room for improvement in terms of organisational capacity, outreach and delivery, it would be unfair to suggest that the party has been a passive player in recent politics of Turkey.

Despite this transformation, its electoral record seems to have stabilised at around 25% of the national vote. A common explanation, particularly coming from the CHP ranks, is that the secular left in Turkey has been historically disadvantaged against the right on a 1:2 demographic ratio. While compelling, this argument leads to a sense of misplaced fatalism among CHP members and supporters while reinforcing their image as 'elitist' among non-CHP voters.

If the CHP were to break this glass ceiling and move above 30%, together with the HDP's 10%, it could change the electoral map of Turkey for good, rendering single party AKP governments a thing of the past. To do this, it can emulate the examples of the AKP of 2002-2007 or even the HDP before June 2015, whose successes were based on a few core factors: a charismatic leader that can maintain party discipline, appeal to the youth and diverse interest groups; an effective communication strategy that circumvents the AKP's near-monopoly over the mainstream media; dedicated members from diverse backgrounds who put the party's interests above their own; a dynamic, meritocratic and highly effective party mechanism; grassroots networks based on well-functioning municipalities; and success stories on the local level to show that the party can deliver tangible results.

In an increasingly unfair electoral playing field whose terms are dictated by the AKP, this is admittedly a tall order, though not an impossible one. Moreover, it is urgent: barring a revolution or a coup, the CHP may be the only political actor which can still contest the AKP's seemingly unflinching grip over the country.

(This piece was originally written for and published by Research Turkey on 12 November 2015.)