Turks can be forgiven for the party they threw themselves late Sunday, stretching into Monday morning. They voted in droves in what was widely regarded as the most important general election in more than a decade and dealt the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a significant blow. After garnering nearly 50 percent of the vote in the 2011 parliamentary elections, the AKP ceded about 9 percentage points to a combination of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a new Kurdish-based group that will enter the Grand National Assembly for the first time. The AKP’s result translates into a loss of either 68 or 69 seats (officials results have yet to be released), meaning that the party will need to find a coalition partner if it wants to continue governing—something it has never had to do. It is true that the AKP still commands the largest number of votes by a significant percentage, but it no longer seems so invincible. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the central figure in Turkish politics, who made the elections about himself and his ambition to transform Turkey from a hybrid parliamentary-presidential system to a purely presidential system is no doubt diminished by the result. Erdogan, who once rode to power on a broad coalition of liberals, the pious, Kurds, big business, and average Turks, is now a deeply polarizing figure for many. The joy at Erdogan’s comeuppance was unmistakable in the dizzying pace of tweets, retweets, favorites, and likes as the results became clear.
Yet all the schadenfreude and celebrating should not get in the way of what is actually happening in Turkey. Rather than democracy returning to Turkey as many hope, the country is likely entering a period of political paralysis, instability, and uncertainty. This does not mean instability akin to Syria, Iraq, or Yemen, but rather similar to the years before the AKP came to power, when unstable coalition governments often at war with each other marked Turkish politics in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Erdogan and the AKP have been in power for such a long time that it is easy to lose sight of that unhappy decade. During that era, as politicians tried to outmaneuver each other and pursue their own interests, Turkey’s economy performed poorly; the military had its way, engineering the ouster of the country’s first experiment with an Islamist-led government in 1997; and Turkey lagged well behind the places its elites fancifully considered to be peers—Greece, Portugal, and Spain. It was not a pretty picture. In March 2001, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit helped precipitate a wrenching financial crisis after a rather nasty and very public spat about the slow pace of anti-corruption investigations and reforms. The implication was that Ecevit was dragging his feet because close associates were implicated. The ensuing panic, especially in the banking sector, resulted in a steep devaluation of the lira and a sharp spike in interest rates that brought economic activity to a virtual halt. The problem was made worse given the general lack of confidence that Ecevit, who led a three-party coalition, could take appropriate action to fix the economy. It was because of the economic pain inflicted on Turks as a result of this episode, along with the endless allegations of corruption in high places and military meddling in what seemed like every sphere of public life, that many Turks rejoiced in November 2002 when the upstart AKP, which had only been founded 15 months earlier, won 34.3 percent of the vote and 363 seats in parliament. The hope that the stability of single-party rule would bring a respite from the cruel antics of venal politicians and arrogant military officers was vindicated in a decade of economic growth and development—though the political environment hardly improved under the AKP, especially in the past five years.
No doubt Turkey is a much different country today than it was in the 1990s. Under the weight of the economic crisis, Ecevit relented and grudgingly accepted IMF-sponsored reforms that stabilized the economy and set it on a path of growth that Turks enjoyed and from which the AKP has benefited. For all of the ways Turkey has changed and for all Turks have learned in the past decade, Sunday’s election outcome threatens the stability that AKP’s success wrought. It may very well be that the leaders of the MHP, the HDP, and the Republican People’s Party—the party of Ataturk, commonly known as the CHP—are posturing when they publicly declare that they have no intention of joining a coalition with the AKP. Yet there is a distinct possibility of new elections in 45 days because no party is able to form a coalition government. There are significant risks to all the parties from a new round of elections, but given current political dynamics it is hard to rule out snap elections and political paralysis.
There are, indeed, few combinations of parties that make political sense. Nevermind that AKP officials accused the HDP leader, Selahattin Demirtas, of having ties to terrorists and engaged in slurs against homosexuals. (The HDP fielded Turkey’s first openly gay candidate.) Demirtas has ruled out a coalition with the AKP because it would damage his credibility at a moment when he has successfully reached out to Turkish liberals. A center-right/center-left coalition consisting of the AKP and the CHP makes sense math-wise, but it is unlikely given the bad blood between the parties. The CHP, which was unable to capitalize on anti-AKP sentiment and lost three (or four) seats, has become less of a party in recent years and more of a front consisting of competing factions that agree on only one issue—their profound and abiding distaste for Erdogan. A minority government seems equally unlikely given the fact that the nationalists of the MHP would have a hard time cohabitating with the Kurdish-based HDP.
This leaves an AKP-MHP coalition, which makes sense to the extent that the parties have overlapping constituencies and have worked together previously, notably on their joint effort to lift the ban on headscarves at public universities in 2008. This makes Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the MHP, the strongest man in Turkish politics today. If the AKP wants to form a government, it needs the MHP. Like everything in politics, the solution to a problem in one arena creates problems in another. One of the primary reasons for the AKP’s slide—besides Erdogan’s behavior—was the inability to manage the competing demands of Turkish nationalists and the Kurds. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu seemed to want to build support within the Kurdish community through an on-again, off-again peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organization that has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984. Erdogan objected, understanding that in the local elections of April 2014 the only people who gained at the AKP’s expense were the nationalists of the MHP, though they did not actually win anything. As a result, the President chose to tack heavily toward his nationalist flank. This was clear as early as last summer, when the Turks did nothing to help the Kurds of the besieged town of Kobani when the forces of the self-declared Islamic State pounded it relentlessly. In response to the Turkish government’s inaction, Kurds rioted in the streets of Istanbul. Erdogan’s tough campaign rhetoric about Demirtas and the HDP only further alienated the large numbers of Kurds. Having gotten little return on his nationalist investment, Erdogan is now confronting a Bahceli who will likely hold the AKP to its hardline position on the Kurds as a condition for a coalition, continuing the polarization of the political arena and raising the prospect of renewed PKK violence.
It is quite likely that, even if the AKP had won a parliamentary majority on Sunday, Turkey would have come undone anyway. The political and economic stability that the party provided over the course of three election cycles was ending under the weight of a party that had been subordinated to Erdogan’s unbounded ambition. A presidential system would almost certainly have divided Turkish society further and set the stage for instability in the inevitable power vacuum that would emerge after Erdogan left office. To the great satisfaction of many Turks, the AKP was thwarted at the ballot box, precluding that particular scenario (at least for the moment), but setting the country up for an entirely different but no less vexing kind of instability. It may not be democracy, but—and this tells us just how bad things had gotten for so many Turks under Erdogan—they seem to be willing to embrace it.