The ruling party in Turkey, President Recep Tayip Erdogan’s AK Party, came up short of a majority in today’s Turkish elections, while a Kurdish party won official — and substantial — representation in parliament for the first time.
It’s a big loss for Erdogan, and a big step back for his personal stature and his attempt to weave more Islamist elements into Turkey’s political fabric. His party had a strong majority of the seats in parliament for the last 13 years, having won between one-third and half the vote; Sunday he won 42 percent of the vote but is a bit short of a majority, meaning he will scramble to form a coalition — or call new elections if a government isn’t formed in time. (Turkey’s parliament works on proportional representation, but does not seat parties that get less than 10 percent of the vote, so the parties above 10 percent get a bigger share of seats than they do of the vote — hence, Erdogan’s party held a solid majority of seats despite getting just 49 percent of the vote last time around.)
Compare this result — having to form a coalition — with what Erdogan had hoped to do: Over the last couple years, he had talked up the possibility of rewriting Turkey’s constitution to include an executive presidency, giving the president — currently himself, in a role without many formal powers — a great deal of influence. He needed two-thirds of parliament to change the constitution, and seemed to hope that with the right combination of economic growth, patronage politics, and fear-mongering about violence from the opposition that he could get it. Now, he could still form a coalition to govern, but he’s about a hundred seats away from the goal he’d aspired to.
#related#And he saw a defeat on another front: A party identified with the Kurdish minority has won representation in parliament for the first time ever, landing about 11 percent of the vote. Kurdish candidates had in the past run as independents, because parties identified with ethnic (or religious) identities are banned under the Turkish constitution. Erdogan was supposed to have made progress with the Kurds, backing off the aggressive military campaign against them and granting them more cultural latitude than they’d ever had under Turkish law (more use of their language in the schools, for instance). Now, their cause has won real stature in Turkish politics, at the same time their Iraqi and Syrian brethren have become crucial Western allies.
Once upon a time, President Obama had looked to Erdogan’s Turkey as a model for how to integrate Islam and democracy and modernize a Middle Eastern economy (Erdogan had aggressively marketed it thus, as well – it wasn’t Obama’s invention). Erdogan still got a big chunk of the vote today, but with a troubled economy and his Islamist and authoritarian impulses proving stronger and more unpopular than expected, we have more evidence he wasn’t the right man to bet on. Walter Russell Mead wrote in a Wall Street Journal essay a couple years ago that Obama’s belief in Erdogan was suggestive of his larger flawed strategy in the Middle East. From a U.S. perspective, Turkey is crucial to a number of issues in the region – Syria and Iraq foremost – and where it’s headed after an illiberal leader suffers a democratic rejection, who knows.