Turkey's June 12 elections will have a significant impact on a number of issues, from the state of Turkey’s opposition to the reform process for the country’s constitution. Ömer Taşpınar of the Brookings Institution, Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Carnegie’s Henri Barkey discussed the prospects of Turkey’s elections and the implications for the future.

Parsing the Election Results

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has built the Justice and Development Party (AKP) into a powerful political force through a confluence of economic growth, efficient allocation of social services, and charismatic leadership. Although the AKP’s victory in the June 12 election was never in doubt, the geographic distribution of votes and the performance of other political parties shed new light on political trends in Turkey.

  • An Historic Victory: All three speakers noted the AKP’s significance as the first party since the 1950s to win three consecutive elections. Even more unprecedented is its increase in the vote share in each successive election, reaching 50 percent in the June 12 plebiscite – good for 326 of the 550 seats in parliament. Taşpınar pointed out that the AKP’s dominance is reflected in Istanbul—a city with a population greater than that of many countries which the AKP has governed without interruption since 1994.
  • High Expectations for the CHP: The main opposition party and inheritor of Kemalist ideology, the CHP, improved significantly on its 2007 election showing by capturing 26 percent of the vote and 135 seats. Many CHP supporters were disappointed in the results, however, as many had prognosticated that the party would win30 percent of the vote under the dynamism of new party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has taken the CHP in a more liberal direction. Barkey noted that finger-pointing had already begun in the aftermath of the election, and that Kilicdaroglu’s political future is uncertain with such infighting taking place.
  • Kurdish Success: Barkey asserted that along with the AKP, the other main winner of the election was the pro-Kurdish BDP, which consciously pursued a “big-tent” strategy that integrated leftist elements and voters previously critical of the BDP’s direction. Knowing that it was unlikely to reach the Turkish constitution’s 10 percent vote threshold for parliamentary representation, the BDP ran candidates as independents in select provinces and succeeded in increasing their parliamentary seats from 21 to 36. The BDP showed extraordinary electoral skills as it faced a very difficult set of challenges, and Barkey predicted that without the 10 percent threshold, the BDP could have secured up to 50 seats across an even broader geographic base of support.
  • Weathering the Storm: The nationalist MHP Party did worse than in 2007, capturing only 13 percent of the vote and 53 seats. It nevertheless showed resiliency, however, as nationalist voters had been openly courted by the AKP in an attempt to deny the MHP more than 10 percent of the vote. The party also had to navigate its way through a sex scandal that ensnared many of its top officials.

Turkey’s Future Trajectory

Despite the AKP’s strong showing, the relative success of other parties denied Erdogan the parliamentary supermajority that would have enabled him to more easily draft a new constitution to replace the 1982 military constitution. The resulting need for compromise will largely shape the evolution of domestic political events in the years to come.

  • Lack of a Supermajority: All three speakers agreed that the lack of an AKP supermajority is a positive development that tempers Erdogan’s ambition to focus constitutional reform on the creation of an empowered, directly elected presidency similar to the French model. Many people feared that Erdogan will seek the presidency after completing his term as prime minister, but these concerns is likely to subside as the AKP is forced to focus its efforts on building consensus around a narrower band of constitutional issues.
  • The Kurdish Question: Taşpınar argued that the top constitutional priority for the Turkish government will be Kurdish issues, especially in the context of the BDP’s strong showing and what Barkey observed as a transformation of Kurdish demands away from independence and toward peaceful existence within an accommodative Turkish state. Key issues to be addressed include cultural autonomy policies, such as bilingual education, reform of ethnicity requirements for citizenship, and a general decentralization of state power that will likely also prove popular to other political constituencies.
  • Change in Discourse: Secularism was notably absent as an electoral issue, which is indicative of Kilicdaroglu’s efforts to “modernize” the CHP into a social-democratic alternative instead of fighting the party’s old “Kemalist” battles. The “Ergenekon” scandal surrounding a failed military coup had diminished saliency in this year’s political campaigns, as the “military vs. AKP” dialectic was replaced by broader concerns over economic growth, press freedom, and authoritarian tendencies in the current government. Taşpınar articulated his belief that the brightest future for the CHP lies in furthering this shift and creating a “neo-Kemalist” CHP in the model of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “New Labour” Party.

Foreign Policy Implications

  • Turkey and the Arab Spring: Cook pointed out that the democracy protests throughout the Arab world that surprised the rest of the world also caught Turkey off-guard, undermining Ankara’s long-held assertion that it enjoys “special insight” into the dynamics of the Middle East. Although Turkey may provide a “model,” especially in regard to its economic dynamism, for Arab nations, Taşpınar argued that the emergence of a strong, democratic Egypt will ultimately diminish Turkey’s “soft-power” in the Middle East. He cited the recent Fatah-Hamas agreement—which was brokered by Egypt, not Turkey—as evidence of this.
  • “Zero Problems” No More: Interestingly, the upheavals in the region have served to distill Turkey’s core interests from the often-ambiguous background of its “zero problems with neighbors” policy, Cook said. He pointed to Syria as a clear example, as Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have been slowly nudged toward the West in their approach to crackdowns by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The latent competition between Turkey and Iran—who Assad has long and accurately considered Syria’s only true ally in a time of crisis—has come into focus in recent months, said Cook. Taşpınar recounted that Turkey recently hosted a Syrian opposition conference while simultaneously pursuing a dialogue with Assad, but argued that this balance is unsustainable as the conflict intensifies.
  • Turkey and the United States: American policymakers will continue to scrutinize the AKP’s foreign policy, but should not expect any dramatic shifts, Taşpınar said. He noted that Davutoglu is very invested in producing a “road map” for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and that such a development would be the most likely to significantly advance U.S.-Turkish relations in the near future. Cook foresaw a continued transition for Turkey from “client state” to “partner,” and expressed hope that a “cushion” of mutual understanding could be built into bilateral relations so that isolated events will not unduly throw U.S.-Turkey relations off course.