Erdoganism and democracy


The president’s authoritarian tendencies are pegged back by the elections. A majority of the electorate won’t go along.

The glory days are over for the once unstoppable power in Turkey’s politics, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which lost its majority in Parliament and is now struggling to form a coalition government for the first time since it came to power in 2002. The AKP won the parliamentary elections comfortably for the fourth time with around 41% of the vote but failed to secure the majority required to rule alone due to a steep drop in support from 49% in 2011. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is seeking to form a coalition with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) or secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) as this piece goes to print. Probably the unhappiest man in Ankara on election night, 7 June, was Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an Islamist and AKP’s co-founder, who increased his power over three terms as prime minister until he was elected president in 2014. 

The historic night was a defeat for Erdoğan, who turned parliamentary elections into a referendum on his personal rule, but voters thwarted his ambitions to rewrite Turkey’s constitution and establish an all-powerful executive presidency. This despite his having toured the country attending one rally after another and asking voters to grant him 400 deputies to draft a new charter and thus consolidate his role as founder of a “new Turkey”.

But his dreams to redesign the country in his own image were shot down at the ballots. Kurds, liberals and secular Turks stood united at the polls against the increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan. He had pushed for greater control over state institutions; cracked down on any form of criticism; attempted to restrict fundamental freedoms; breached the rule of law; used the judiciary as a tool to punish dissidents and protect pro-government circles; and imposed his Islamic convictions on citizens’ private lives.

Erdoğan’s rallying to the AKP’s religiousconservative base led to increasing polarization and added greatly to social tensions in Turkey.

According to Özer Sencar, head of the MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research Center, the Turkish people said to Erdoğan, “Enough”. After the elections, the pollster told the daily newspaper Hurriyet that Erdoğan had tried to place executive, legislative and judicial powers in his hands, a “unity of power” that harkens back to the coup d’état days, and voters rejected his “one-man rule”. According to a recent post-election survey, Sencar said that the AKP lost support for several reasons: Erdoğan’s charged statements at the campaign rallies when constitutionally he should have been impartial; his insistence on turning Turkey into a powerful presidential system; allegations of corruption; and a shift of the Kurdish vote from the AKP to the HDP.

The fall of the AKP turned into an electoral triumph for the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which largely represents Kurds and also encompasses liberals, and made it possible for the pro-Kurdish ticket to cross the 10% threshold required to enter Parliament for the first time.

Pro-Kurdish candidates previously ran as independents for single seats in an attempt to overcome the 10% barrier, but the HDP gambled and triumped with 13%. If the Kurdish party had fallen short of 10%, its nearly 80 seats would have gone to the ruling party, and the AKP would have held on to its majority in Parliament. But the HDP successfully broke free of ethnic identity politics and reached beyond Turkey’s Kurdish population. The party nominated an array of candidates from diverse backgrounds, ranging from the centre-right to the far left.

HDP party co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş gained sympathy among Turkey’s young voters for defending women’s rights, the LGBT community and ethnic minorities as well as using positive political language and humour, something the Turkish political landscape had not seen in years. In doing so, he eventually gained the support of the centre-left and secular Turks.

Moreover, although some Erdoğan opponents had never supported a pro-Kurdish party before, they cast tactical votes for the HDP to pull them across the threshold and ensure that the ruling party lost seats. Some 1.5% of HDP votes came from for the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) voters, said Sencar, adding that another 1.5% of votes were first-time voters.

Many Kurdish voters moved away from the AKP once Erdogan, fearing to lose his nationalist following, had stalled negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Nevertheless, Erdoğan’s fears came true, and the AKP lost the nationalists’ support because it entered into “peace talks with the Kurds, but by failing to reach a conclusion, it also lost Kurdish votes”, Sencar said. “The HDP received 3.5% of its votes from religiously conservative Kurds who previously supported the ruling party”.

The AKP still has substantial support, mainly from more religiously conservative Turks, who feel liberated by Erdoğan’s rule, and those who credit the Islamist party with maintaining economic stability.

As the party’s dominance in Turkish politics suffered a major blow, just two days after the elections, party members, particularly from a faction close to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, began discussing the need to restore ‘factory settings’ and return to the early era of AKP rule when fundamental rights and democratic norms were well nourished.

As no action for a party ‘restart’ is on the horizon yet, the biggest obstacle to Prime Minister Davutoğlu’s plans to restructure his party will be ‘Erdoganism’: the former president’s policies and his inevitable dominance over the AKP.