Turkey's election takes nation a step back from the Islamist brink

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had plans to move his nation toward an authoritarian Islamist dictatorship, vastly enhancing the powers of the presidency, and needed an election to provide him the 400 votes in parliament necessary for constitutional changes.  Instead, the election held yesterday reduced his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from 326 to 258, robbing it of a parliamentary majority.  AKP needs to find a coalition partner, or else new elections will have to be held.

Here is the new makeup of the parliament, via The Right Scoop:

The disastrous result for the would-be Islamist transformation of Turkey appears to have several roots.  For one thing, Turkey’s economy has been faltering, driving up unemployment.  Selcan Hacaoglu and Onur Ant of Bloomberg:

Turkey’s slowing economy may have also played a role. After a decade of growth averaging 5 percent, the economy has lost momentum, with unemployment at its highest level in five years. The lira dropped the most since October 2008 on a closing basis to 2.8096 per dollar before trading at 2.7650 at 11:28 a.m. The Borsa Istanbul 100 Index traded 6 percent lower after sinking 8.2 percent at the open of trading.

“The economy isn’t in a crisis but it’s not growing as fast as it used to,” Sencar said. “Inflation is climbing, unemployment is high. All these had a role to play in Erdogan’s decline.”

But there was much more than “It’s the economy, stupid” going on.  The HDP party, a Kurdish faction, gambled big on running a slate of candidates, which would require at least 10% of the vote for the party to have any representation in parliament.  In the past, individual members had run as independents and won seats on that basis.  The party sought to reach out beyond ethnic Kurds and refashion itself somewhat as a reformist opposition.  Tim Arrango and Ceylan Yeginsu wrote in the New York Times:

“I voted for H.D.P. because it’s the only party that can break up Erdogan’s bid for absolute power,” said Selen Olcay, 47, a fitness instructor who voted in Istanbul’s Sariyer District. “In this election a lot of Turks abandoned their ideological preferences and voted strategically to derail Erdogan’s one-man rule.”

Erdogan also split his own coalition somewhat in the face of scandals, turning on one of his chief allies and blaming it for corruption:

Mr. Erdogan survived by targeting the followers of his erstwhile ally, the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who over the years had taken positions in the judiciary and the police and were accused of orchestrating a graft inquiry.

But the Kurds were not the only opposition party to gain:

The Republican People’s Party, the main secular opposition party, came in second with 25 percent of the vote, but it was the Kurds whose surge positioned them as kingmakers in the next Parliament. It also highlighted the evolution of the Kurdish movement, from the battlefields of the southeast, where a bloody insurgency raged for nearly 30 years, to the halls of power in Ankara, the capital.

“Turkey’s foreign policy will be less driven by the A.K.P.’s ambitions, which is basically driven by a foreign policy vision to make Turkey a regional player at any cost,” Mr. Cagaptay said, suggesting it had supported various Syrian factions opposing the Assad government and sometimes turned a blind eye to fighters crossing into Syria to join the Islamic State.

He added: “The outcome of the election will take Turkey’s anti-Assad policy down a notch. The government will not be able to drive its agenda single-handedly anymore.”

So now, Erdogan has to try to entice a partner to enter into a coalition.  Stuart Williams, writing for AFP:

Analysts have seen the nationalist MHP as the most likely coalition partner for the AKP in the new parliament.

However while not firmly closing the door on the option, the MHP's leader Devlet Bahceli was hardly effusive, saying the results represented the "beginning of the end for the AKP".

Another Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, suggested that the MHP, CHP and HDP should try and form a coalition between themselves. (snip)

The result was a triumph for the HDP, which in the campaign had sought to present itself as a genuinely Turkish party and reach out to voters beyond its mainly Kurdish support base to secular Turks, women and gays.

It was also a personal victory for the party's charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtas, dubbed the "Kurdish Obama" by some for his silky rhetorical skills.

"We, as the oppressed people of Turkey who want justice, peace and freedom, have achieved a tremendous victory today," Demirtas said, vowing to form a "strong and honest opposition".

Erdogan cannot be counted out, though.  Selcan Hacaoglu and Onur Ant of Bloomberg:

Since becoming Turkey’s first popularly elected president in August, Erdogan has refashioned the traditionally ceremonial role as a new center of control that has sometimes placed him at odds with the government run by his hand-picked successor Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

He assailed the central bank repeatedly for not cutting interest rates low enough to spur economic growth. His rejection at the polls means the bank “may have more room to act independently,” Yarkin Cebeci, an economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in Istanbul, said in e-mailed comments.

“Not being able to consolidate power could become a real problem for the president,” Anthony Skinner, head of analysis for the Middle East and North Africa at U.K.-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft, said in an e-mail on June 4. Erdogan’s “confrontational style of rule – marked by the harassment, fining or arrest of proven or suspected political opponents,” explains why his enemies have chafed at the bit for the president’s downfall. (snip)

Erdogan does not face a presidential election until 2019. In the meantime, the potential for confusion as attempts are made to form a government may present Erdogan with another opportunity to fulfill his plan.

“There is clearly a serious failure and decline in support for Erdogan and AK Party following an intense campaign by the president and the prime minister,” Haluk Ozdemir, head of international relations at Kirikkale University, said by phone. Still “Erdogan will most certainly use this political uncertainty as an argument to push for the presidential system, which he says would eliminate risk of coalition governments and political instability.”

Stay tuned.  Turkey is an enormously important country, and its future hangs in the balance.

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