The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
Imagine a country in which the ruling party—having won three consecutive national elections over the past decade-plus—wins its fourth in a row, beating the second-place party by over fifteen percentage points, and yet nearly every outside observer declares the result to be a disastrous loss for that party. This is the situation in which Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) now finds itself following Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Prime Minister turned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still ensconced in his thousand-room palace, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will remain at his post, and the AKP is going to continue dominating the government as either a minority ruling party or as the lead party in an extremely lopsided coalition. Wherever you look, though, the AKP’s political obituary is being written.
It is easy to understand why schadenfreude reigns supreme among the 60 percent of Turks who voted for a party other than the AKP. In the span of one election, the AKP has gone from 49.8 of the vote and just three seats short of a coveted supermajority in the Grand National Assembly to having to rely on the backing of another party for the first time since it came to power in 2002. Six in every ten Turkish voters cast their ballots for an opposition party, and when taking into account Erdogan’s very public drive for the AKP to win 400 seats in order to give him the increased presidential powers that he so desperately covets, it is in many ways a devastating blow. The path to a formal presidential system—one that many feared would put Turkey on the fast track to full-blown democratic breakdown—has petered out. This in itself is plenty cause for celebration. However, the exuberance that reigns supreme in many quarters should be tempered; although the results of this election will prove good in the long run, the short-term aftermath may prove decidedly unpleasant.
Denying Erdogan his presidential ambitions is a victory for the health and stability of Turkish democratic institutions. Erdogan’s vision of an empowered presidency was not one of limited powers, checks and balances, or respect for consensus. And Turkish voters—including some who had voted for the AKP in the past—sent the message that rule by Erdoganic fiat is not to their liking. But the fact that the AKP will not likely remake Turkey’s constitution in the way that Erdogan wants does not mean that Turkey has fully avoided the dangers of an empowered presidency. Over the past year, Erdogan has steadily accumulated powers normally reserved for the prime minister, including chairing routine cabinet meetings during non-emergency situations and choosing at least part of the party list for parliamentary elections. He has appointed what amounts to a shadow cabinet of advisers operating out of the presidential office, and Turks now refer to “the Palace” as shorthand for Erdogan and the coterie surrounding him.
The result of Sunday’s election will only encourage this trend. Erdogan has weakened the office of the prime minister and Turkey’s parliamentary system. Now, with a minority government whose powers and mandate will be curtailed, or a coalition government in which the AKP must share power, the parliament will be even less able to protect its prerogatives from a power-hungry president. Moreover, AKP’s internal term limits mean that an influential band of party lifers and heavyweights who were unable to stand for a fourth term will now move over to the Palace as part of Erdogan’s staff. That will only tilt the balance of power even more toward Erdogan and away from Davutoglu and the assembly.
In addition, despite the undoubtedly positive development of the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) smashing through the ten-percent threshold to enter parliament—marking the first time a Kurdish party will hold seats as a formal party rather than as a band of independents—the HDP is going to find itself stymied. The AKP positioned itself in direct opposition to the Kurdish party during the latter stages of the campaign, with pro-government outlets tarring the HDP and its leader Selahattin Demirtaş as not having Turkey’s best interests at heart. If the AKP is to form a coalition, its likeliest partner is the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which has positioned itself in opposition to Kurdish nationalism and greater Kurdish rights since its founding. The AKP’s relative weakness means that it cannot afford to embark on any new initiatives to continue the Kurdish Opening begun in 2009, and relations between the government and the HDP will not be cordial. The HDP’s success is the feel-good story of these elections, and many non-Kurdish voters supported the party as Turkey’s clear home for liberal voters, but the AKP’s inability to give any quarter out of a position of weakness means that the HDP’s policy success is going to lag behind its political success.
The AKP may no longer control a majority of the seats in the assembly, but that does not mean that there is an effective opposition to keep it in check. The HDP is a strong symbolic opponent, but with only 12 percent of the vote and about 80 of the 550 seats in parliament, it is not in a position to stymie any of the government’s initiatives. The main opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP), has proved to be relatively feckless, and it did not improve at all on its 2011 performance. The AKP may now have to rely on legislators from other parties in order to advance its agenda, but its agenda is the only one that has a realistic chance of being advanced at all. The dominant party in a coalition government is still the party that runs the show; therefore, celebrating the AKP’s “loss” threatens to obscure the fact that the AKP is still Turkey’s ruling party, albeit a weakened one.
There are many reasons for Turks to be jubilant after the Sunday vote. A presidential takeover has been averted, a complacent political party that resorted to nationalist demagoguery and ugly conspiracy theories in an effort to scare voters has hopefully learned the lesson that performance matters to voters, Kurds will be represented after decades of struggling to make their voices heard, and the AKP’s majoritarian style of ruling has been rejected by a clear majority of Turks. But the next phase is going to be a difficult one, and it may leave many Turks wondering why they were so insistent that Sunday’s election heralded an immediate change for the better.