ANKARA -- Turkey is stunned. So is the outside world. Not only could two dozen polling companies not predict the outcome -- even Prime Minister Davutoglu admitted he was surprised by the strong showing of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). What the heck happened on Sunday in Turkey?
The Turkish electorate made a conscious choice. The choice was between two scenarios: The first scenario was that they will allow the country to witness a repeat of the inconclusive post-June 7 election coalition bargaining process with the risk of another election in 2016. This scenario was fraught with a lot of uncertainty and came with heavy baggage in terms of security and economic risks. The second scenario was that they go with the devil they know. The electorate knows that the AKP is corrupt, has strong authoritarian tendencies and continues to plunder (but distributes some of) Turkey's resources. But they also know that it can deliver services as it did until 2011. They chose the second option.
There is no doubt that this election was held under immensely unequal and unfair conditions. The opposition had a hard time getting its message to the masses as the AKP ensured that opposition TV channels were either taken out of major cable packages or their signals were excluded from satellites. Some opposition TVs and their newspapers were physically attacked or unlawfully taken over and handed to pro-government hands. Throughout the country, pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) offices, including its headquarters were bombed, burnt and looted.
The electorate knows that the AKP is corrupt, has strong authoritarian tendencies and continues to plunder (but distributes some of) Turkey's resources. But they also know that it can deliver services as it did until 2011.
All three opposition parties exhausted their campaign money in the June 7 election campaign. Their resources were grossly inadequate to finance a new campaign. On the other hand, the AKP was able to spend enormously with access to state and municipality funds. Worse, fearing another deadly suicide attack, physical campaigning was very limited by the opposition parties, especially the HDP. However, it is not reasonable to explain the shift of more than four million votes back to the AKP with extremely unfair election conditions or pressure on the media only. The AKP ran a very effective campaign as the party recognized the dire legal and political consequences if they were to loose again. Contrary to June 7, it fielded seasoned candidates and targeted its audiences smartly.
In addition, PKK and ISIS terror hurt the HDP immensely and overshadowed its all-embracing peace message prior to the June 7 election. The "securitization" of the election climate injected fear of chaos and instability into the electorate. Consequently, conservative Kurds switched back to the AKP. Liberals went back to the CHP. However, the key shift came from two million nationalist MHP voters who were enraged by their leader Devlet Bahceli's uncompromising and erratic choices. He made certain that the electorate recognized the impossibility of forming a coalition and thereby the inevitability of plunging the country into uncertainty. The AKP owes a lot to him.
What does that mean for Turkish politics? The immediate response is that the Turkish electorate above all favors stability and economic predictability. Fundamental values such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and free and fair elections constitute much lesser concerns for a large part of the electorate. Authoritarianism is not terribly toxic because Turkey's political culture is still very macho and favors a strong man.
The Turkish electorate above all favors stability and economic predictability. Fundamental values such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and free and fair elections constitute much lesser concerns.
However, the Turkish electorate has given the AKP a qualified support. They want to see the economy grow and domestic security established again. That means combatting homegrown ISIS cells effectively as well as finding a solution to the Kurdish problem before Turkey's Southeast descends into violence again. If they fail to live up to their election promises -- especially on the economy, the four million votes may easily abandon them again. Whether the AKP will be able to manage the expectations of their voters remains to be seen.
The attention of Turkish politics is now likely to switch to intra-AKP affairs. The question is whether the emboldened Ahmet Davutoglu will be willing to seek a constitutional amendment for an executive presidency. The AKP does not have the adequate numbers in the legislature to push for that yet. However, will Davutoglu allow Erdogan to run the country de facto from the presidency in the interim? Or will the two men be able to find a working compromise on power sharing?
Davutoglu's initial statements indicate that he may not be as willing to allow Erdogan to exercise executive power from the presidency. But do not hold your breath for that. Davutoglu is likely to attempt to carve out some independence from the presidency over time. Nevertheless, given Erdogan's dominating persona and unquestioned influence in the party, this is no easy task.
Authoritarianism is not terribly toxic because Turkey's political culture is still very macho and favors a strong man.
Needless to say, Turkey's opposition parties find themselves in disarray. They are slowly coming to grips with how badly they have squandered a historic opportunity to normalize the country from Erdogan's authoritarianism. Leadership challenges and soul searching within the parties began the day after the election. The good news is that they have four years to revitalize and restructure.
In the absence of a major restructuring of the current parties or the emergence of a new party, it will be extremely difficult to challenge the dominance of the AKP. Turkey needs a new, credible opposition party to emerge. After all, it is the lack of a credible alternative that pushed many voters back to the AKP. The emergence of a modern, robust and credible political alternative would not only mean much for Turkey but also would have significant repercussions for a much wider geography.