Erdogan’s Turkish gamble pays off as his AKP surges to back to power


In June, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to have taken the biggest hit of his career after his party lost the ability to govern alone. But heightened security problems and Erdogan’s decision to stay in the background during campaigning paid off, turning his call for snap elections into a clear win.

Turkey voted for a solid single-party government Sunday, giving the Justice and Development Party (AKP) a large majority that ensures it can govern alone while confirming President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dominant role in the country’s politics.

“This is Erdogan’s victory,” says Gonul Tol, director of the Centre for Turkish Studies at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “This is a huge surprise for everyone.”

Voters handed the Islamic-rooted AKP more than 49 per cent of the vote, one of its best-ever showings, as voters facing growing security concerns, including suicide bombings and unrest in the south-east, demanded stability.

Surveys had predicted the AKP would improve on its results in June elections, which saw the party fail to secure a majority of seats in parliament for the first time since it first swept to power in 2002.

But none of the major polling companies had predicted the size of the victory the AKP would enjoy in the snap election, which Erdogan called after attempts at a coalition government failed.

Opposition politicians and analysts said Erdogan blocked those attempts precisely because he feared a coalition with a smaller party would weaken AKP’s position.

The snap election was still a gamble, but Erdogan believed a do-over would benefit the AKP, despite accusations of corruption and authoritarianism from opposition parties.

“The AKP managed to convince the electorate that a return to single-party rule was in Turkey’s best interest,” says Aaron Stein, a Turkey analyst at the US-based Atlantic Council think tank.

After campaigning heavily for the AKP ahead of the June election, Erdogan switched strategies and withdrew to the background, letting Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu be the main face of the campaign.

The party focused on its social programmes and development projects, overshadowing its previous calls for a fundamental shift of the governing system to a French-style executive presidency, which would empower Erdogan.

Analysts had suspected his domineering presence was alienating swing voters with those calls, including independents from both ends of the political spectrum: far-right Turkish nationalists and Kurds.

“His rebranding paid off, and voters shrugged off their previous discontent about his rule and went out and voted for the AKP,” says Stein.

“I think the story here is that the AKP managed to win back votes from the religious Kurds they lost.”

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) lost more than 1 million votes, as voters worry about a fresh insurgency from Kurdish militants in the south-east. The violence was met with a tough hand by Erdogan.

At the same time, the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) haemorrhaged many votes to the AKP on Sunday, losing about 5 percentage points when compared to June results.

The party mismanaged coalition talks, failing to explain why it was refusing to enter into a cabinet with the AKP, leaving many voters disillusioned.

Moreover, coalition governments are eyed warily in Turkey, which saw a spate of unstable coalitions in the 1990s. The wide gaps between parties that became apparent in the coalition talks heightened these concerns.

“It’s better if the AKP comes to power alone. It is better in terms of decision-making and stability,” Mustafa Altintop, a 44-year-old tradesman, said as polls were open, hoping for a clear victory.

This need for stability was only solidified in early October, when a pair of suicide bombers attacked in the capital Ankara, killing 100 people.

The Islamic State is largely seen as the main suspect, though they have not claimed responsibility. Nonetheless, people’s sense of security was shaken to the core.

Nerves were already frayed. Since the June election, Turkey has seen a dramatic rise in security unrest, leaving hundreds dead, causing anxiety and setting down a somber national mood.

A suicide bombing killed 34 people at a pro-Kurdish rally in July. While the Islamic State group was blamed for the attack, it set off a chain of events that shattered a two-year ceasefire with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

It was amid those near daily attacks that Erdogan called in August for snap elections. Analysts say Erdogan has turned the unrest in his favour, at least politically.

A “sense of instability in Turkey, coupled with Erdogan’s ‘strong man who can protect you’ strategy has worked,” Soner Cagaptay, head of the Turkey programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, posted on his Twitter feed.

However, the crises facing Turkey, both in terms of the decades-old war with the PKK and the fresh horrific attacks from the Islamic State extremist group, were not resolved at the polls.

The next AKP government will be tasked with stabilizing the economy, which is taking hits as a result of global headwinds and a sliding currency, and providing what the people want: peace and security.