Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

Despite electoral setback, all is not lost for Erdogan

Failure of any Turkish party to get a parliamentary majority gives president leverage.
A pedestrian walks past a billboard in Istanbul featuring Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 8, 2015, the day after a general election in which his party lost its parliamentary majority. Emrah Gurel / AP Photo
A pedestrian walks past a billboard in Istanbul featuring Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 8, 2015, the day after a general election in which his party lost its parliamentary majority. Emrah Gurel / AP Photo

ISTANBUL // While the result of Turkey’s elections signals weeks of jockeying between the ruling Justice and Development Party and deeply hesitant opposition parties, it also casts doubt on the future of a man who was not on the ballot.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had earlier called on the public to deliver the AKP “over 400” deputies in Sunday’s vote, branding his opposition an alliance of gays, atheists and traitors, and calling for a mandate to bolster the powers of largely ceremonial office.

His party secured just 258 of Turkey’s 550-seat parliament, however, falling 18 seats below majority rule and well short of the 330 seats needed to unilaterally hand Mr Erdogan a strengthened presidency.

But while Sunday’s defeat torpedoed his ambitions for an enhanced presidency, it will only elevate the clout of Mr Erdogan’s office as a power broker for a ruling coalition.

“Erdogan retains considerable flexibility, despite the AKP’s failure to win more than 330 seats,” said Aaron Stein, an Atlantic Council fellow. “He will certainly be in charge of the coalition discussion and is of primary importance for determining how and under what circumstances a possible minority coalition will take shape.”

On Monday, Mr Erdogan’s office issued a brief statement acknowledging that no party had won a mandate for majority government, and calling on Turkey’s political parties to ensure an atmosphere of peace and stability in the country. “The judgement of the nation is above all else,” Mr Erdogan said.

The AKP is most likely to strike an alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), whose staunchly rightist constituency has been swayed by the ruling party’s ideology in past elections. MHP leader Devlet Bahceli has firmly denounced any prospects of an alliance, however, citing a stifled corruption investigation into Mr Erdogan’s inner circle and opposition to Ankara’s stalled negations with Turkey’s Kurds. “Erdogan should be a neutral president or he should resign,” Mr Bahceli told his supporters, who jumped from 13 to 17 per cent of the national vote share on Sunday.

That leaves few options for forming a government, given the categorical opposition of the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Kurdish-rooted People’s Democratic Party (HDP) to any alliance with the AKP.

The HDP handily passed Turkey’s 10 per cent electoral threshold by embracing liberal Turks eager to curb Mr Erdogan’s power and pious Kurds angered at Ankara’s stalled negotiations with Kurdish insurgents. With 13 per cent of the vote, the HDP victory marks the first time Kurdish legislators have gained entry to parliament as a formal party.

The dearth of options saw deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc dare Turkey’s opposition parties to form their own coalition. “When the call comes, saying ‘Help us AKP’, we are ready,” he declared.

Though CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu proposed a grand alliance between the country’s three opposition parities on Monday, the powers of Mr Erdogan’s presidency would allow him to handily strike one down. While minority parities need a mandate from the president to form a government, “Erodgan is not constitutionally obliged to give them one,” said Sinan Ulgen, director the Istanbul-based centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. Once in power, opposition parities could reopen a sweeping corruption investigation that targeted four AKP ministers in 2014.

“Thus he can force an early election,” said Mr Ulgen. By law, Turkey’s president can call for new elections if a coalition government is not formed in 45 days. “Of course, he would pay a political price since it would be seen as a non-democratic behaviour,” said Mr Ulgen.

But Mr Erdogan might also benefit from the chaos of parliamentary deadlock or a weak coalition government. His party rose to power in 2002 by evoking the weakness of Turkey’s successive coalition governments, which saw Turkey crippled by chronic instability and runaway inflation in the 1990s.

Now, “Erdogan could retreat from the public eye and benefit from a fraught negotiating process that stalemates Turkish politics,” said Mr Stein. Tapping into the still-deep support of Turkey’s pious majority, Mr Erdogan might claw back much of his previous power in fresh elections.

But if he plans to regain his status as Turkey’s dominant political force, Mr Erdogan will need to set aside his presidential ambitions and the harshly polarising rhetoric of the election trail. In what was seen as a thinly veiled swipe at Mr Erdogan, deputy PM Mr Arinc warned in February that divisive rhetoric was making the country “ungovernable”.

The electoral defeat handed to the AKP on Sunday has confirmed that unease among ruling party supporters and moderate legislators alike, said Akin Unver, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. “The AKP base is solid, but they have been uneasy with the growing polarisation in the country,” he said. “A silent majority in the party is tired of being a pawn in what they feel as unnecessary escalation of tensions.”


Updated: June 8, 2015 04:00 AM