June 9, 2015 | Quote

Autocracy Blocked

For Turkey’s Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has won every campaign he has run since being elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, it was a first taste of defeat. Voters denied his Justice and Development (AK) party a majority in Sunday’s parliamentary polls, thwarting his dreams of rewriting the constitution to grant himself executive powers. AK, led by Ahmet Davutoglu, the prime minister, garnered 41% of the vote and looked set to win 258 seats, 18 too few to govern alone. The result marks a big decline from the record 50% AK won in the 2011 elections. For the first time since AK swept to power in 2002, coalition rule seems all but inevitable. And Mr Erdogan's drive to aggregate power to himself, which led critics to accuse him of authoritarianism, has been halted.

In the Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir, supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (pictured), which entered parliament for the first time, were ecstatic. But the prospect of a return to weak multiparty rule sent jitters through the financial markets. Istanbul's main stock index dropped 8% in early trading, while the Turkish lira fell 5% to a record low. “Welcome to the good old Turkey,” tweeted Mehmet Simsek, the finance minister.

Political analysts were less downcast. “The Erdogan era is drawing to a close,” said Ozer Sencar, an Ankara-based pollster. That take may be exaggerated, but the result was certainly a blow to Mr Erdogan, who had brushed aside the constitution's requirement that the president remain non-partisan in order to hit the campaign trail for AK. Tellingly, Mr Erdogan did not make a public appearance after the outcome was announced on Sunday. Mr Davutoglu tried to put a brave face on the results, declaring that AK remains “the backbone of Turkey”. But the faces at the party's after-election rally were dejected.

The question is what Mr Erdogan will do next. Normally the president asks the winner to try its hand at forming a government. The right-wing nationalist MHP party, which placed third with 16% of the vote, is ideologically closest to AK and seems the most likely choice for a partner. But the MHP's leader, Devlet Bahceli, has ruled out backing an executive presidency, meaning any deal would have to entail keeping Mr Erdogan in his box. Mr Bahceli is also likely to want to resurrect corruption charges against former AK ministers that were launched by prosecutors in 2013 but shelved last year. This could prove tricky, as Mr Erdogan and several of his family members were implicated.

If Mr Erdogan refuses to let go of his drive for an executive presidency, a power struggle could erupt within his party. Some have suggested that AK might try to bring Abdullah Gul, a co-founder of the party and a former president, back as prime minister; but that would require a by-election, as Mr Gul is not currently an MP. Alternatively, AK could form a minority government, with the MHP providing support but not taking part. The CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, might try to form a government with AK, but few believe this would work. The CHP could partner with the MHP, but they would still need the HDP’s support, and the nationalists would be loath to rub elbows with the Kurds.


If a government is not formed within 45 days, Mr Erdogan will be forced to call new elections. But the result is likely to be much the same. Turkish voters have blocked Mr Erdogan's attempt to dominate the country's political system, but instead of a clear alternative they seem to have produced a hung parliament. “Turkey has not felt this hopeful in a long time,” says Aykan Erdemir, a former MP for the CHP. “Nor this unpredictable,” he adds.


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