The hopes of the main opposition party in Turkey, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), were dashed this week after a hard fought electoral campaign and record turnout of over 50 million voters. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and the country’s conservative AKP party were able to secure over 44 percent of the vote with a divisive electoral approach, which demonized his political opponents and took on increasingly sectarian undertones.
CHP once again demonstrated an inability to connect with young voters, minorities, and rural voters in Eastern Turkey, and ultimately fell short of the 30 percent goal it had set, out-organized by the winning party’s impressive voter-mobilization operation. The ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which had polled over 20 percent in some surveys shortly before the election, also fell well short of expectations.
The campaign was defined by a bitterly partisan debate over press and internet censorship and a series of corruption probes implicating Erdoğan and the leadership of the AKP. But by and large, the elections seem to have met the required standards, although serious concerns have been raised in a some cities, including Ankara, where controversial AKP mayor Melih Gökçek currently holds a 25,000 vote lead — less than 1 percent — over his opponent Mansur Yavaş, who had been level in recent opinion polls. Suat Kınıklıoğlu, a former AKP MP who is now the campaign manager for CHP candidate Mansur Yavaş, has decried “extensive evidence that fraud, manipulation and interference in the counting process has occurred,” arguing that, “the will of the people of Ankara has not been reflected in the outcome.”
While counting in Ankara continues and legal challenges are likely to arise, few results were close enough for fraud to enter the equation, and the elections appear to be legitimate. Prime Minister Erdoğan and his AKP proved their continued appeal to a large segment of Turkish society and demonstrated their superior grass roots organization.
Erdoğan is eager to cast the AKP’s victory as a vindication of his majoritarian approach and a rejection of the corruption probes against him. An official close to the government said that the “decisive win provides a clear mandate, and the anti-AKP camp will need to undergo a fundamental revision,” continuing that “the AKP voter base is intact, and is either indifferent to the corruption claims or thinks they are fabricated.” Certainly, the AKP showed its skill at translating the energy of a political movement into electoral turnout—it is the only party running a truly modern electoral campaign. The main opposition CHP underperformed in a campaign made difficult by limits imposed by the government on the press and social media. But the AKP also benefited from concerns about the CHP’s history—particularly on the Kurdish issue—and the opposition’s poor organization, which prevented them from earning a larger share of the vote.
The AKP should not conclude from this election that all is well. The Prime Minister remains a compelling and forceful personality who can personally move a large chunk of the electorate and who motivates fervent devotion from the base. But his sectarian populism and merciless electoral campaign, which included disrespect for freedom of expression and the rule of law, has permanently alienated a large segment of Turkish society and caused concern even within AKP ranks. This victory might be short lived should his government continue its authoritarian tendencies and rule only for their plurality of voters, particularly with a looming economic slowdown.
The best-case scenario for Turkey would seem to be if the Prime Minister and the AKP soften their rhetoric. This could help heal the stark divisions in Turkish society as the government grapples with sluggish economic growth, structural underemployment, and an unsustainable account deficit. If the government want to repair its international reputation, then it will need to fully reinstate press and Internet freedom and move forward with the Kurdish peace process.
An alternative scenario appears more likely — one which will exacerbate the divisions in Turkish society. During his victory speech at AKP headquarters, the Prime Minister described his opponents as terrorists and traitors, encouraging them to flee the country. The AKP is reading this election as a vindication of past improprieties and a mandate to continue their consolidation of power, rather than as renewed evidence that they do not command majority support in Turkey. The Prime Minister and his party, enraged by criticism and damaging leaks from within their conservative camp, are likely to continue harassing journalists, politically motivated investigations and tax-fines, and retributive arrests within the conservative movement. Such a period of prolonged uncertainty will further undermine Turkey’s standing in the eyes of investors and the international community.
The other big question is where the opposition goes from here. The CHP’s inability to connect to minorities and young voters continues to hamstring the party. Another decisive electoral defeat may prompt a much-needed overhaul of the party apparatus. “Half of the Turkish population is under the age of 30, and half of Turkish voters are below 40. Yet only 6 of the 134 CHP MPs are under 40 years of age, and only 2 of the 17 members of the CHP Central Executive Board are under 50,” says Aykan Erdemir, a Member of Parliament for the CHP. “Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu took a big step in the right direction by introducing a 10 percent quota for people under-30, but we need other initiatives such as mentoring programs, young leaders training programs, and networking events.”
Gülseren Onanç, a CHP member who has sought to improve the party’s appeal among the Kurdish population, concedes that “the CHP has structural problems which require reforms; it is perceived as elite and distant from the public, against the headscarf, and against the Kurdish peace process.” Repeatedly through the local election campaign, CHP activists appear to lament the tactics used by the AKP, including busing in supporters to rallies or embracing populist proposals. But these are the tools of modern electoral campaigns, and the CHP has been unable to counter the personal appeal of Prime Minister Erdoğan. The CHP needs new ideas to piece together a viable electoral strategy to unite the opponents of the AKP—remembering that 55 percent of the Turkish population cast their vote for a party other than the AKP in this election.
Another change — a 2012 law allowing citizens in rural regions to vote for mayors in sometimes distant metropolitan centers — may have played out in the ruling party’s favor in Sunday’s elections. While the Turkish government insisted that the law was designed to provide “effective and productive provision of public services” and “strengthen democracy in Turkey at the local level,” it also brought more conservative voters into the equation. While what happened there was comparable to redistricting in the United States, the change was almost entirely missed in the pre-election coverage.
The AKP’s mostly clean electoral victory has done little to ease the tension in Turkey, and all sides will now fight to define the popular mandate in advance of the August presidential elections — the first time Turks will vote in a truly national election. The defining question is now whether Prime Minister Erdoğan will continue to consolidate power by seeking the presidency or changing AKP bylaws to extend his ministry, or seek to heal the country. While the opposition is today in disarray, Turkey’s economy faces a rough year, which could dramatically change the political calculus. The international community, meanwhile, will closely monitor the treatment of journalists and political opponents to judge if Turkey’s drift towards authoritarianism will continue.
Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Max Hoffman is a Policy Analyst at the Center. The authors are in Turkey to observe the municipal elections.