Nov. 1 saw another snap parliamentary election in Turkey, just five months after the last one in June. This time around, the results were much more favorable for the Party of Justice and Development (AKP). Amidst a highly politicized atmosphere, the Turkish electorate turned out in huge numbers (87 percent turnout rate) to vote for Turkey’s long-time ruling party.
Totally unexpected for the most part, the voting behavior across Turkey dramatically differed from that in the previous June elections. Within less than five months, the AKP was successful in gathering more than five million additional votes. Its share of the vote climbed from 41 to 49 percent, giving the AKP 316 seats in the Turkish parliament.
The AKP fell short of a super majority required to amend the constitution. The main opposition secularist/social democrat Republican People’s Party came in second, getting 26 percent of the vote and 135 seats. Both the Nationalist Movement Party and pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party lost a remarkable share of votes and were able to get only 12 percent and 10 percent of the vote, respectively. This is an obvious triumph for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Turkey’s ruling party swept to victory. But it is also a very big win for Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Benefiting from this result, he could consolidate his power within the AKP, which would be an unprecedented move.
Actually the situation is very similar to the latest elections in the UK, a NATO ally of Turkey. In contrast to public opinion polls that continually underrepresented its vote-getting ability, the Conservative Party surprisingly won the elections to form a single party government under British Prime Minsiter David Cameron’s new style of leadership.
In Turkey, Prime Minister Davutoglu succeeded in the same way and now is able to insert himself as the new leader of the party with such a spectacular election showing. Nevertheless, a tough test is waiting for Davutoglu since domestic political polarization in Turkey might further accelerate. Moreover, foreign policy issues related to Iraq and Syria might challenge his power amidst the ongoing struggle against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).
The last (but not the least) main result of this early election is that it is now clear that providing political stability in Turkey might be more difficult than most think under single-party rule. Unpredictable developments might challenge political rule in the country while the Turkish Army, as a traditionally influential actor in politics, is regaining power.
What changed between June and November?
Back in June 2015, 13 years of single-party rule by the Party of Justice and Development seemed to be coming to an end. None of the parties represented in the Turkish Grand National Assembly were able to secure a clear margin in parliament (276 seats out of the 550 needed). Moreover, long coalition talks to form a new government afterwards failed. Seeking to transform this political deadlock into an opportunity, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was definitely not satisfied with the June election results, did not hesitate to call for new elections in November.
In the framework of regional developments, since June 2015 serious changes have been observed in the Turkish political arena. Turkey started targeting PKK and ISIS after a terrorist attack by ISIS in the Turkish town of Suruc, near the Syrian border. The government’s three-year-long “peace process” with Kurdish separatism was cut short and armed conflict between Turkey and PKK was restarted in the southeastern part of the country. In addition to the struggle with PKK, there is also the matter of ISIS, which recently claimed credit for terrorist explosions in the capital Ankara that killed over 100 people. Political destabilization has further spread throughout the country.
Aside from domestic developments, due to the deteriorating security environment along its southern borders, Ankara has faced foreign policy problems with great powers over Syria, including with Russia. Turkey finally had to agree to open the Incirlik air base for U.S. air force operations against ISIS in Syria. And, moreover, Turkey was negatively affected by active Russian involvement in Syria against opposition groups, which are allegedly linked to Ankara, on the other. It seems that Ankara decided to overcome its foreign policy dilemma by falling totally into the Western orbit by reaching a new political deal with the U.S.
According to some analysts, President Erdogan himself has artificially created those tensions in order to regain power after the political defeat of his erstwhile political party, the AKP, in June. Although the AKP led the elections by getting 41 percent of the total votes, for the first time its popular support decreased (by more than 9 percent) and the party lost its majority in the Turkish parliament. That was bad news for Erdogan, who has been facing pressure domestically because of corruption claims. That’s why he was insisting on new elections by undermining coalition talks, hoping for a better result for his political survival.
Other analysts claim that Turkey’s recently intensifying war against PKK and ISIS is just a geopolitical imperative amid the worsening situation in Syria and has nothing to do with Erdogan. According to this view, contained by a wide range of political enemies, Erdogan could only have seen increasing tensions as an exit window from further trouble that a coalition might have caused for him. In regard to these arguments, there is something very clear: Erdoğan’s popularity rate, which was 52 percent a year ago, began to decline sooner than expected and his political dream to transform the political system into a presidency is being questioned.
Turkish society is highly polarized given such significant tensions both within and outside the country.
The state of Turkish-Russian relations now in doubt Before discussing the repercussion of developments in the Turkish domestic politics on Turkish-Russian relations, one should keep in mind that bilateral relations between Ankara and Moscow are mainly based on economic interests of energy cooperation and not strategic partnership.
There were also good relations at personal level between the Russian and Turkish presidents but this is not the case anymore after the quarrel over Syria. The Syrian case could be an important factor for determining future political relations between Ankara and Moscow. Different than was the case in June, in recent months it has been observed that the AKP’s relations with the West have been becoming warmer and Davutoglu is the main driver behind this.
One could expect that Ankara’s reorientation to the West will become closer still amid cooperation over the immigrant issue with the EU. Ankara’s consolidated position in the Western alliance therefore might result in more active Turkish involvement in Syria and other areas, from the Balkans to the Caucasus, under Davutoglu. This might negatively affect Turkish-Russian relations at the political level, which are already not in the best condition.
Nevertheless, regarding the economic relations between the two nations, there is still ongoing pragmatic cooperation as the result of one-party rule in Ankara. Gas price negotiations between Russia’s gas giant Gazprom and Turkey’s Petroleum Pipeline Corporation Botaş will continue. And only the construction of the first line of the Turkish Stream pipeline project, which is expected to feed the Turkish domestic market, might be realistic.
As in the case before, Russia is interested in its economic gains in Ankara and knows its limits when it comes to strategic political matters. That’s why the situation is different for the remaining capacity of the Turkish Stream that is designed to reach the European market. It could be predicted that in a more Western-oriented Ankara, Russia’s aim to avoid Ukrainian transit risks by pumping its gas to Europe via Turkish territory and the progress on the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, which Moscow seeks to build, would be much more difficult than under the previous governments. In short, one essential result of Turkey’s snap elections for Russia is the fact that it will have to deal with a new, more powerful AKP government under Davutoglu’s leadership.
A new political era starts in Turkish foreign policy and, at this point, it is also important to note that the final result is complicated for the Kremlin. Moscow’s involvement in Turkish politics is weak and it has not developed institutional relations with opposition parties and has relied only on the AKP. But there is a challenge here: If there is a new Turkey, it means there will be a new AKP as well and this will not be the same party with whom Moscow has established good relations for many years.