In May, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for snap elections on 24 June, nearly a year and a half before they were due in November 2019. The proposed elections would take place in a state of emergency, declared in the wake of the attempted coup in July 2016.
Last year, Erdogan had already obtained popular support for major changes in the country’s constitutional set-up which will now be implemented with these elections: the country would now have a presidential rather than a parliamentary system; the strength of the national assembly would increase from 550 to 600, and the voting age would now be 18 years instead of 25 years earlier. Not surprisingly, Erdogan’s critics at home and abroad saw in these changes an attempt by the president to consolidate his authoritarian rule in the country.
Opposition parties made a major effort to present a united front: though there were six presidential candidates, Erdogan’s principal opponent was Muharrem Ince who headed the Republican People’s Party (CHP, in its Turkish acronym) and campaigned on a secular platform. The other candidates were Meral Aksener of the newly setup IYI (Good) party and Selahattin Demirtas of the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), who has been in prison since 2016 for backing the Kurdish insurgency.
The opposition campaign consisted of severe criticisms of the president’s dictatorial approach and the promise to return the country to parliamentary rule, end the state of emergency and, in the case of the Kurdish candidate, establish local democracy in place of strong central rule.
In the event, opposition hopes were dashed: in a voter turnout of 87 percent, Erdogan obtained 53 percent of the vote, while Ince got 31 percent. In parliament, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) got 295 seats, just short of a majority. However, his electoral ally, the rightwing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) got 48 seats, giving Erdogan a comfortable majority in parliament. The CHP and Meral’s IYI party got 146 and 43 seats, respectively. The Kurdish party did well to get 67 seats.
Erdogan’s success has been ascribed to his ardent nationalism and his military forays in Syria to confront the expanding territorial gains of the Kurds, while standing up to the Americans who were backing them.
The results have exposed the hostility that sections of the western political establishment and media have for Erdogan personally, projecting him as a hardline Islamist, largely on account of his tough posture towards the European Union (EU), his criticisms of US support for the Kurds in Syria, his overt shift towards Russia and his participation in the Russia-led peace process in Syria with Iran.
Despite dire warnings from some observers, Erdogan is unlikely to be either capricious or dictatorial: his authoritarian instincts will be restrained by his dependence on an ally for majority support, the strong presence of the opposition in parliament, and the clearly asserted democratic values of the Turkish people.
But, there are formidable challenges before the newly elected president. Erdogan, with five years in power ahead of him, will need to urgently address the economy, where the currency has lost its value and inflation and unemployment have dealt serious blows to the very people who see him as “our father” and depend on him for salvation. Turkey is also facing the impact of hosting over three million Syrian refugees.
Erdogan will also need to heal the divisions in his country – mainly between his government and the Kurds. He has for long seen their aspirations for political, economic and cultural space in their country as a security threat, without accepting that perhaps his own highhanded policies could have added to their sense of alienation.
Erdogan enjoys certain advantages as well. Large numbers of Turkish people accept Erdogan’s narrative relating to the “Gulenist conspiracy” that had tried to overthrow him in 2016, with the help of foreign powers. Most Turks are also comfortable with his vision in which Turkey is neither European or Asian but is in the vanguard of shaping a new “Eurasian” identity which would place Turkey more deeply anchored in ties with Russia and China, while maintaining close political and economic ties with the EU.