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Quick Takeaways from Turkey’s Election

Turkey voted on Sunday in a two-in-one election, in which voters cast ballots for both president and parliament. All sides in Turkey’s fractious political landscape attached great importance to this election both because all major national political positions were up for grabs but also because it was the first held under the new constitution and electoral law.  

For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ushering in and standing at the head of this new system has been a central preoccupation of his more than 15 years in office. For the opposition, the election represented the last, best chance of stopping Erdogan’s domination of Turkish politics and society.  

Ultimately, the result was both totally expected and surprising. In April, when Erdogan announced snap elections, almost 18 months ahead of schedule, it was generally assumed that, having dictated the terms and timing of the contest, he would win. Yet, the short campaign saw an energized, united, and creative opposition that grew to believe that it might if not claim the presidency, at least be able to deny the AKP and its allies a parliamentary majority.  

The outstanding performance from the opposition came not from the new kid on the block—Meral Aksener and her nationalist, center-right Good Party (IP), but from Muharrem Ince and the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which transcended its staid traditional secular left constraints. It is now evident that the path to electoral success in Turkey lies not just in new permutations of alliances across the political spectrum but in exploding the categories that have long demarcated the positions of Turkish political parties.  

After the Turkey elections, the big question is which Erdogan will now rule? 

But the efforts of Ince and the rest of the opposition were not enough. Erdogan won the presidency and while his Justice and Development Party (AKP) did not claim an outright parliamentary majority, they will be able to enlist their allies in the National Movement Party (MHP) to pass legislation. 

The big question is which Erdogan will now rule: the one who started hinting at major concessions—lifting the state of emergency, reopening peace talks with the Kurds—or the one who has trammeled Turkey’s rule of law, separation of powers, free expression, and civil society? Likely the same Erdogan that has always existed: an Erdogan with a fixed and committed ideological vision of a Turkey founded on its Islamic heritage and occupying a preeminent role in the Middle East, but with a flexible and pragmatic approach for achieving that vision by all means necessary, including burning through political allies and fracturing his opponents. 

Here are some quick takes on what the outcome tells us about what happened and what happens next. 

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same 

Turkey woke up on Monday to a new, presidential system of government, but the same government that it has known for 15 years, that of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Yet, with the same parties and personas in power today as yesterday, it is unclear how much this shift to a presidential system or Erdogan’s victory will really matter.  

After all, many of the powers that Erdogan has now officially acquired, he had already been previously wielding. And those new ones he has gained, such as effectively legislating on some matters by presidential edict, would seem to suggest that he will remain the committed in his quest for power, only now better able to carry out his vision for a “new Turkey” while further silencing his critics. 

However, Erdogan also made or signaled some major potential changes on the campaign trail that suggested that an electoral victory might usher in another, more conciliatory Erdogan. Faced with a slumping lira, he abandoned his long-held stance in favor of low interest rates and allowed the central bank to raise rates. His prime minister, now out of a job, hinted that the state of emergency that has been in place for nearly two years since the July 2016 coup attempt might be lifted. And Erdogan himself suggested a potential openness to a coalition with the pro-Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) that could pave the way to the resumption of peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).  

Which Erdogan is likely to occupy the new executive presidency? Likely the same one that has always existed: an Erdogan with a fixed and committed ideological vision of a Turkey founded on its Islamic heritage and occupying a preeminent role in the Middle East, but with a flexible and pragmatic approach for achieving that vision by all means necessary. Over the past 15 years, this has manifested itself through both a series of advantageous but short-lived political alliances—first with the Gulenists, then the Kurds, and now the nationalists of the National Movement Party (MHP)—but also concerted efforts to keep his opposition divided.  

With his eye likely already fixed on the 2019 local elections and the next national elections (no later than five years from now, 2023, but potentially earlier, at Erdogan’s discretion), Erdogan is likely calculating not just how to maintain his electoral advantage but how to undermine the positive advances made by the opposition in this latest election cycle.  

This suggests his most immediate concern will be propping up Turkey’s weakening economy. Here he will have to balance the sorts of public infrastructure projects and social spending that will likely play well at the local level with bigger changes needed to lure foreign investors back to Turkey. If there is one dynamic that could force Erdogan to strengthen rule of law in Turkey and walk back the politicization of the judiciary, it would be massive capital flight resulting from foreign markets determining that investing in Turkey came with untenable political risk. 

But it is just as likely that Erdogan will react to the opposition’s now demonstrated ability to work together across political divides to sow discord before any new coalitions can be formed against him. To this end, signaling a willingness to explore a new Kurdish opening could be the most potent political wedge available to Erdogan. It would force the HDP to decide between the broad pro-democracy agenda it has pursued since 2014 and potentially securing the release of its imprisoned leadership and an end to conflict in the southeast. Some watchers of Turkish foreign policy have even suggested that Erdogan would be ready to go so far as to countenance working with the United States to carve out a new entity in Syria, uniting Kurdish territory and Sunni opposition-held territory in a loose confederation, as a bulwark against Russian and Iranian influence in the region. This scenario still seems far-fetched at this point, but it points to the creativity and flexibility that Erdogan brings to Turkey’s “game of polls.” 

 The AKP-MHP Alliance Paid Off for Erdogan, But Not The AKP 

One new feature of this parliamentary election was the ability of parties to create electoral alliances, allowing all members of an alliance to win seats in parliament as long as the entire alliance won at least 10 percent of the vote (previously each individual party would have had to surpass the 10 percent threshold to enter parliament). The AKP introduced this feature in order to allow it to join forces with the right-wing, nationalist National Movement Party (MHP), which had emerged as a staunch supporter in the last three years. The trade-off inherent in this alliance was that the AKP would help bring into parliament the MHP, which had seen its support among voters shrink, partly as a result of a faction breaking off to start the new Good Party (IP), potentially below the electoral threshold, in return for the MHP not fielding a presidential candidate and urging its voters to cast their ballots for Erdogan. 

This arrangement worked out beautifully for Erdogan, ushering him to a victory in the first round of voting and precluding the need for a run off. Indeed, his vote tally of 52.5 percent is nearly identical to the sum of votes cast in the parliamentary election for AKP (42.5 percent) and MHP (11.1 percent), showing that MHP voters executed their presidential duties faithfully.  

And yet in the parliamentary election, the alliance appears to have actually cost the AKP an outright majority, forcing it to seek a partner, presumably the MHP. Heading into voting, most opinion polling showed MHP support below 10 percent, with some showing it as low as 5 percent. That the MHP outperformed expectations could be a result of inaccurate polling, but it is just as likely that the alliance freed nationalist AKP voters to switch to the MHP, since they viewed their ballots as ultimately being allocated to the same electoral bloc. It is possible that without the alliance, those voters would have stayed with AKP and made the difference between the 295 seats (out of 600) it won and the 301 it needed to control parliament on its own. 

Someone Didn’t Vote for Erdogan! 

Erdogan garnered nearly, but not exactly, the same number of votes in the presidential election as the AKP-MHP alliance won in the parliamentary contest. Some 1.1 percent, or nearly 600,000 voters, that cast their ballots for AKP or MHP nevertheless did not vote for Erdogan (AKP-MHP won 53.6 percent of the parliamentary vote; Erdogan got 52.5 precent of the presidential). Who were those voters and where did they go? 

It seems most likely that a small, but not insignificant, number of AKP voters, while backing their party for parliament, preferred to split their ticket and vote for Muharrem Ince, the presidential candidate from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), instead of Erdogan. This suggests that there are party members who still believe in what the party stands for, but not in Erdogan’s leadership of it, reflecting a dynamic that played out in the last parliamentary elections in 2015. Then, the AKP ran an initial campaign that focused heavily on Erdogan and lost its parliamentary majority. However, rather than form a coalition government, Erdogan forced a new election but took a step back from campaigning. Although it was not the sole reason, the AKP was able to improve its performance and regain its majority when the election was not seen as simply a referendum on Erdogan. 

Signs of Strategic Voting 

Outside of the AKP-MHP alliance, there was wide-ranging divergence in the vote tallies of major parties in the parliamentary election and their respective presidential candidates. This suggests that voters split their tickets seeking to maximize the chances of the opposition—uniting behind the strongest presidential candidate, the CHP’s Ince, but dividing their votes for parliament to ensure seats for as many opposition parties as possible. 

The opposition formed the “National Alliance,” consisting of the secular-left CHP, center-right nationalist IP, socially conservative Felicity Party (SP), and liberal Democrat Party (DP), to rival the AKP-MHP “People’s Alliance.” This would usher in SP and DP, which routinely polled in the single digits. However, one major opposition party remained outside the alliance, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).  

The HDP had exceeded the 10 percent electoral threshold in 2015, marking the first time a Kurdish party held seats in parliament (as opposed to Kurdish politicians being allocated seats as independents) and contributing to the AKP’s original weak performance in that election. But with its leader and multiple members in jail, and with heavy security measures possibly suppressing turnout in the Kurdish southeast, it was not at all certain that the HDP would be able to surpass the threshold this time around. Polling indicated HDP support at around 10 percent, with the margin of error falling on either side of the threshold. 

That the HDP was able to not only exceed 10 percent with 11.6 percent of the vote, but outperform the MHP (11.1 precent) as well as its own previous result (10.8 percent in November 2015), suggests that opposition voters from other parties, most likely CHP, voted for the HDP to ensure its representation in parliament. 

There was strategic voting for president as well. While the HDP, IP, and SP ran presidential candidates (Selhattin Demirtas, Meral Aksener, and Temel Karamallaoglu respectively), they received far fewer votes than their parties did in the parliamentary election (8.4 percent for Demirtas compared to 11.6 precent for HDP; 7.3 percent for Aksener compared to 10 percent for IP; 0.9 percent for Karamallaoglu compared to 1.4 percent for SP). Meanwhile, the CHP’s Ince got far more votes than his party did (30.7 precent for Ince compared to 22.7 percent for CHP). This suggests that the opposition’s vow to work together was real. Voters from across the political spectrum all banded together in an attempt to elect Ince, with HDP voters contributing 3.2 percent to Ince’s total, IP voters 2.7 percent, and those from SP 0.5 percent, for a total addition of 6.5 percentage points from the CHP’s coalition partners.

As mentioned above, Ince’s coalition appears to include AKP voters too. The additional 6.5 percent Ince received from within his coalition does not fully account for his surplus (8 percent more than CHP got in parliamentary votes). However, when one takes into account the 1.1 percent of AKP and MHP voters that Erdogan lost (53.6 percent for AKP-MHP but only 52.5 percent for Erdogan), the source of the additional votes for Ince is found. 

The Center-Right Matters, But Only So Much 

The source of the AKP’s electoral success has often been attributed by analysts to the party’s domination of Turkey’s political right. By attracting voters ranging from pro-market businessmen to nationalists to religious conservatives (including Kurds) to even, early on, liberal reformers, the AKP had been able to construct a big tent party that could easily win against the fractured left. The only thing that could jeopardize the AKP’s dominance, based on this analysis, was the emergence of a new center-right party that could capture the votes of those who had grown uneasy with Erdogan’s abuses of power, increasingly unsteady economic stewardship, and divisive identity politics, but would not otherwise vote for the CHP let alone HDP. 

The emergence of the IP—which split form the MHP and billed itself as a more responsible and reasonable nationalist, center-right party—thus should have been the deus ex machina that changed the course of these elections. According to IP’s own leadership, they expected to win somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the vote, pulling at least half of that from the MHP and a significant portion from the AKP.  

Those expectations turned out to be both right and wrong. The IP clearly underperformed its own expectations, securing only 10 percent of votes in the parliamentary election with their presidential candidate doing even worse at 7.3 percent. Although it is difficult to tell with certainty where those votes came from, comparing the outcome of this parliamentary election with the previous ones, there is a notable decrease in the total vote share of the AKP and MHP from roughly 60.4 percent in November 2015 to just 53.6 percent in 2018. It is reasonable to believe that this difference of 6.8 percent of the vote went instead to IP this time around, suggesting the party was right to believe it could take votes from AKP and MHP though less than anticipated. 

That leaves, however, some 3.2 percent of the votes that IP won unaccounted for. Those votes, it would seem came mostly from the CHP, which saw its support diminish by 2.6 percent (from 25.3 percent in November 2015 to 22.7 percent in 2018), although some of those CHP votes likely went to HDP as well. 

Thus, while the center-right is an important political battleground in Turkey, it did not prove the decisive swing vote that both the IP and many analysts were expecting. This could be for a number of reasons. Perhaps Aksener and the IP were not convincing enough to drive center-right voters to defect from the AKP-MHP alliance. Or else the structure of political allegiance is rigid and traditional enough that a new party will not be able to fully capture the center-right, enough people will vote for the party their parents voted for that it will take a change of position by the MHP to really move this bloc of voters out of the AKP camp. 

Just as importantly, however, it is now evident that the path to electoral success in Turkey lies not just in new permutations of alliances across the political spectrum but in exploding the categories that have long demarcated the positions of Turkish political parties. The surprise performance in this election came not from Aksener and the right, but from Ince and the secular left. By transcending the rigid anti-religious secularity, socialism, and Turkish ethnocentrism that CHP once stood for, campaigning with his headscarf-clad sister, articulating a dynamic economic vision, and even visiting Demirtas in jail, Ince was able to attract voters to his presidential campaign that never before would have voted for a CHP candidate.  

The AKP redefined Turkey’s political map in 2002. Politicians and analysts alike will continue to be proved wrong as long as they continue attempting to beat Erdogan on the battlefield he has defined. 

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