There was never any real doubt that the ruling Islamist AK Party would get the most votes in the Turkish parliamentary election of June 7, and so it has. But the shocking result is nevertheless a body blow to the ambitions of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party.
The AKP won around 41% of the vote to take 258 seats in the 550-seat parliament. This is a substantial drop in support since the last parliamentary election in 2011, and a dramatic change in fortunes since Erdoğan was elected president in August 2014 with more than half the electorate behind him.
Meanwhile, new party the HDP has ended up with more than 13% of the vote and 80 seats in parliament, which will play no small part in ending Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions.
The stark fact is that Erdoğan himself has become a liability. This general election was not really about parliament at all; the real issue was Erdoğan’s attempts to use the vote to secure more power for himself.
Erdoğan’s transparent aim – even while he was supposed to take a neutral position on the parliamentary election – was for the his party to win a two-thirds majority. That majority would then rubber stamp his plans to transfer power from parliament to the presidency, no questions asked. His plan B was to win 330 seats, which would have enabled the AKP to take its plans for constitutional change to a public referendum.
But both plans are now in tatters. Erdoğan now has no prospect of a smooth transition to presidential rule, and his party is facing the destabilising prospect of minority rule or governing in a coalition. He might well face a backlash from within his own party, both from his former allies in the Gülen movement and from party political rivals.
How the mighty fall
It seems clear that Erdoğan’s political style has lost its shine. Many secular liberal Turks are worried by his increasingly erratic and authoritarian behaviour – as witnessed by the protesters at Gezi Park in 2013.
Meanwhile Kurds have lost patience with the AKP over its questionable policies on Islamic State and apparent indifference to the plight of Syrian Kurds in Kobanê.
Erdoğan and the AKP are now reliant on their core support in socially conservative central Anatolia. They may have benefited from the economic growth of the past decade but could be vulnerable to any change in economic fortunes – which is made more likely by the political uncertainty now on the cards.
All this has created an opportunity for the brightest rising star in Turkey’s political firmament – Selahattin Demirtas of the Halklarin Demokratik Partisi (People’s Democracy Party, or HDP).
Until recently seen as a “Kurdish” party, the HDP has now broken through into the mainstream. Demirtas’ liberal rhetoric has taken votes across the board and acted as a lightning rod for voters determined to stop Erdoğan’s power grab.
And just as Erdoğan’s propensity for attracting corruption allegations, attacking media freedom and locking dissenters up on spurious “charges” is becoming tiresome for many Turkish people, his mercurial behaviour and wild accusations are also a cause for considerable concern for the EU and Turkey’s other allies.
Eyebrows were raised in Brussels in 2013 when Erdoğan blamed the Gezi Park unrest on an ill-defined foreign conspiracy, his deputy going so far as to blame “the Jewish diaspora”. More recently he has castigated the BBC and the New York Times for daring to question him, blamed criticism of the AKP on the “Armenian lobby” and decried the HDP as being full of atheists and homosexuals. The EU, its member states and the US have long since stopped expecting Erdoğan to say anything sensible.
Now for plan C
However, the uncomfortable truth for all Turkey’s allies is that Brussels and Washington require meaningful dialogue with Ankara in order to be able to deal with a whole checklist of geopolitical crises in the region. Terrorism, Islamic State, Syria and Ukraine are just the start. The Cyprus issue, energy security, the Syrian refugee crisis and the people-trafficking routes that pass through Turkish territory en route to the EU are all pressing matters too.
So two questions remain: what will Erdoğan do next and can Turkey form a functioning government without months of uncertainty and possible civil unrest?
It seems unlikely that a man such as Erdoğan, with such acute political instincts and an obvious desire for more power, will give up easily. It is widely presumed he has a plan C and D but his options are becoming more limited: whether other parties will be able to work with the AKP (or among themselves) in coalition is unclear. Turkey has 45 days in which to form some kind of government or another election will have to be called. The political argy-bargy is already underway but there is no obvious coalition forming – yet.
The international implications of this domestic uncertainty are more long term. Erdoğan’s executive presidency ambitions may have been thwarted for now but Turkey’s democratic and economic wellbeing depend on the establishment of a stable government and the implementation of liberal democratic constitutional reform. This is what Turkey deserves and what its international partners need.
Natalie Martin is a lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Nottingham Trent University.