When voting ended on the night of June 12, most people in Turkey did not have to wait for official results of the general elections. Turkish and foreign experts had already anticipated that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would win a third consecutive victory. A few hours later when early results came in, a landslide victory was confirmed for the AKP. It had secured 50% of the popular vote. This was an unprecedented outcome in Turkish political history since no other party had ever increased its vote in three consecutive elections. When the AKP first gained a parliamentary majority in 2002, its popular vote was 34%. This number increased significantly in 2007 giving the AKP 47 % of votes. Finally, in 2011 the trend continued with a three-point increase, assuring AKP’s unmatched success.
This, however, was not an easy victory. There were a number of hurdles that Erdogan and the AKP had to overcome. Fierce battles had to be fought along the way with the old guard of the Turkish Republic, which had formed strong alliances with foreign powers. Nevertheless, Erdogan triumphed in these battles and has become the most powerful popular leader in modern Turkish history.
There are several factors that enabled Erdogan to achieve such victories, especially in the most recent elections: the AKP’s election campaign themes were stability, providing services to the public, and strong leadership. Ever since the AKP’s first electoral victory in Turkey, the volatile political landscape has gradually stabilized. External influence, and army and media interference in the political system have gradually been reduced and a single political party with popular mandate has implemented its policies bringing much needed stability. Keeping the AKP in power means continuation of this stability for at least another four years.
Unlike previous governments that plundered public resources, the AKP has used available resources for public benefit, which rapidly increased the standard of living of Turks. Healthcare, social security, transportation, education system and other services have improved significantly. In the election campaign, Erdogan vowed to further improve these services. He promised to turn the whole country into a big construction site to bring more services to the people. The Turks know that Erdogan is not a man of words, he is a man of action and they believe and know that he will deliver on his pledges.
The most noteworthy project promised by Erdogan is to build a huge canal through Istanbul to serve as a substitute for ships passing through the Bosphorus. It will also alleviate the population density of central Istanbul to provide better living standards and minimize losses in the event of an earthquake. Projects for connecting major cities with high speed trains, extending motorways to remote areas, and building large hospitals and advanced technology centres, are also welcomed by the public.
Indeed the strong leadership since Erdogan was inaugurated into office has been a major factor for his success. Turks have always admired charismatic leaders; hence strong political movements have always centred around a strong leader. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that Erdogan is one of the most charismatic leaders Turkey has had in a long time. His firm stance in the face of crises and difficulties, which was witnessed in Davos during his encounter with Israeli President Shimon Peres in January 2009 and many other examples, enabled him to win over the hearts of many people both at home and abroad.
Although the AKP scored a major success in terms of its share of popular vote, it did not gain as many seats in the National Assembly (NA) as it had in the previous parliament. Recent redistribution of constituencies worked against the AKP and reduced its number of seats in parliament. In the 2007 election, the AKP had secured 341 seats with a 47% popular vote; in the just-held elections, despite increasing its popular vote to 50%, the AKP seat total fell to 327. This number does not allow it to realize Erdogan’s biggest election promise. Erdogan needed at least 330 seats to call for a referendum for a new constitution: to introduce a new constitution. He may have to postpone this plan or give concessions to the other two parties in parliament to gain their support. The staunchly secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), gained 26% of the vote, and the Nationalist Movement Party got just above the 10% mark to enable it to enter parliament.
Additionally, a small number of independent candidates supported by the Peace and Democracy Party that represents a section of the Kurdish population also managed to gain seats in the NA. If the AKP wants to proceed with its new constitution proposal, it will have to negotiate with one of these parties, which have very different ideals and goals. The two Islamic parties, People’s Voice Party (HAS Parti) founded and led by the popular political leader Numan Kurtulmus, and Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi) founded by the late Necmeddin Erbakan, performed poorly in the election. They both received around 1% of the vote.
It seems the most important domestic issue the AKP needs to deal with now is to introduce a new democratic constitution that gives more freedom and rights to the people. This was the most important promise Erdogan made during the election campaign. In terms of foreign policy, the upheavals underway in the Muslim East and North Africa present the biggest challenge. The AKP wants to pursue a zero-problem policy with neighbours but Syria is facing political unrest. The AKP government has been trying to contain the situation through dialogue as it had established firm relations with the Assad regime in Damascus. However, the situation has escalated with protests spreading to different parts of Syria. Public opinion in Turkey has begun to shift, especially with Syrian refugees streaming into the country.
Initially the Syrian upheaval was perceived as a joint US-Israeli operation to remove Assad from power. The Turkish government and public remained silent about these developments but Bashar al-Assad appears not to have handled the situation well. Although Assad gave some concessions to the protesters, he did not introduce the reforms he had personally promised to Erdogan. Currently, nearly 10,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Turkey, and the numbers continue to increase. The way the Syrian regime has handled the situation so far has upset the Turkish government and the public. Consequently, the strong economic and political relations that had been built over a nine-year period have reached a difficult juncture.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition group, has strong ties with Turkish Islamic groups. The geographic proximity as well as the Hama massacre of 1982 created great sympathy for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and dislike for the Assad family among Turkish Islamic groups. Thus they are determined to prevent a similar atrocity and indeed this time they have considerable leverage over the Turkish government. Handling the uprising in Libya also poses a major challenge for Ankara as the future remains uncertain.
Scoring a strong electoral victory, Erdogan and the AKP have been given a major opportunity in Turkey and the wider Muslim world. If this opportunity is used wisely in times of turmoil as the current crisis in the Muslim East show, Turkey might help Muslims to resolve their difficulties. It will thus be able to strengthen its position as a leading player in the Muslim world.