Taste of defeat stalls Erdogan’s hopes of unchecked power

Daniel Dombey in Istanbul and Piotr Zalewski in Diyarbakir

The party that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan founded won the most votes in Sunday’s Turkish general election. But for Mr Erdogan himself, a man who had hitherto racked up nine consecutive victories in national votes, the night had the unmistakable taste of defeat.

Mr Erdogan was not on the ballot for the parliamentary election. Turkey’s constitution forbids the head of state from any ties with political parties. But he had been campaigning hard in any case, calling for 400 MPs to change the constitution to give him extra presidential powers.

In the event, the ruling AK party won at most 258 seats with just under 41 per cent of the vote, ending its 13-year run of majority single-party rule.

The election signified a national rebuff to Mr Erdogan’s ambitions, a new era of political and perhaps economic uncertainty and, according to many commentators, a return to checks and balances in a political system that had increasingly been characterised as authoritarian.

“The majority of the Turkish electorate evidently chose the uncertainty inherent to parliamentary coalition politics over President Erdogan’s vision of a strong presidential system,” said Francis Ricciardone, a former US ambassador to Turkey now at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank.

Young supporters of the HDP celebrate in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir late on Sunday night

The result was in line with many pre-election polls. But so dramatically has it changed Turkey’s political landscape that it came all the same as a shock.

Mr Erdogan’s plans for a formal presidential system now seem the stuff of history — but his powers as president remain formidable and clashes between president and parliament are far from unlikely.

Many commentators also forecast a period of infighting within the AKP. Amid economic slowdown, corruption scandals and controversy about Mr Erdogan, the ruling party has seen its vote slump nine points from almost 50 per cent at the last general election. It is due to hold a congress this autumn, a gathering that could select a replacement for Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the handpicked successor with whom Mr Erdogan has been increasingly at odds.

One possible contender is Abdullah Gul, Mr Erdogan’s predecessor as president, who has made no secret of his ambition to lead the party and has set out differences with Mr Erdogan across the range of policy, most notably on the presidential system. “This may be the moment when we see what kind of mettle Gul has,” said Soli Ozel at Kadir Has university in Istanbul.

Nor will the formation of the next government be an easy task, despite a defiant, self-styled victory speech by Mr Davutoglu on Sunday night. Two of the three opposition parties, the left wing, pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic party, or HDP, and the Nationalist Movement party, or MHP, are ideological antagonists, making any opposition coalition hard to conceive. But all three opposition parties have also forsworn entering a government with the AK party.

Nicholas Spiro of Spiro Sovereign Strategy, a risk consultancy, described the election in a note as “one of the most dramatic political developments in emerging markets in recent years [that] takes Turkish politics into uncharted waters at a perilous time for the country’s financial markets”.

The result was in many way the result of a bet by the HDP, part of the broader Kurdish movement led by Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party, or PKK. In earlier contests the HDP and its predecessors gained representation in parliament by running candidates as independents. This time, however, the party and Selahattin Demirtas, its joint leader, gambled on breaking through the 10 per cent threshold to enter parliament.

The mathematics of the HDP’s efforts were clear. If the HDP were excluded from parliament, the AK party would be well placed to win the 330 seats needed to put the constitutional changes sought by Mr Erdogan to referendum. If, however, the HDP made it into the legislature, the AK party could even lose its majority — as turned out to be the case.

Mr Demirtas used those two stark alternatives, allied with his own firm denunciation of Mr Erdogan’s ambitions for a presidential system, as the basis of his appeal to secular Turkish voters, arguing that if Mr Erdogan was to be stopped it was essential that the HDP pass the threshold.

He also won the support of religious Kurds, who hitherto had supported the AK party but who were distraught at Mr Erdogan’s seeming passivity in the face of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) attacks on Syrian Kurds and dispirited by problems with the stalled peace process with the PKK.

Indeed, on election night, the HDP swept the largely Kurdish southeast, winning 75 per cent of the vote in the province of Van and 79 per cent in the unofficial Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir.

The HDP’s advance left the main opposition party, the Republican People’s party, treading water. Its 25 per cent of the vote represent a small decline on its share in the last parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile the rightwing Nationalist Movement party marked an advance in its vote, from 13 to 16 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest celebrations of the night were in Kurdish strongholds.

“We’ve overcome Erdogan, we’ve overcome the threshold, we’ve overcome 40 years of bloodshed,” said Bahuz Capar Yalcin, a 32-year-old construction worker in Diyarbakir. “After tonight, the war is over, brotherhood and freedom has won.”

Selda Arzu, a housewife, added: “It’s a victory for the whole country — it shows we are not alone.”