So, the results are in and they make for miserable reading for Turkey’s main opposition party, the CHP. If the CHP is searching for a silver lining, they will find one in the fact that the party increased its share of the vote from 21 per cent in 2007 to 26 per cent yesterday. Looked at in isolation, that’s a nice little bounce. But when seen in the context of the AKP’s remarkable feat in increasing its vote above the 50 per cent mark, the CHP’s result starts to look decidedly anaemic.
The CHP can still only call on one voter for every two the AKP is able to count on at the polls. The party really needed to be nudging 30 per cent in this election to create a sense that momentum might be building behind it. Securing 26 per cent does not feel like the result of a party that the electorate will trust with power any time soon. Moreover, the additional votes that the CHP won were cheap votes taken from smaller parties that faded in significance in this election. The CHP needed to begin the process of eating away at the AKP’s vote. It didn’t.
So where does the CHP go from here? It is difficult to see that the party has any choice but to go back to the drawing board. It has been clear from day one that the emergence of the AKP recast the Turkish political landscape in important ways. What is becoming ever clearer is that that wasn’t a one-off event, but a dynamic and ongoing process. The longer the AKP stays in power, the more popular it is becoming and the more decisively it is setting the terms of political debate in the country. Sure, its opponents are becoming more vocal, and with good reason in my view. But the electoral arithmetic is clear. The AKP is delivering for Turkish voters. Sufficient numbers simply do not want what the CHP is offering them.
There will be a temptation for many to look for weak points in the AKP’s result. And they exist, notably in the fact that the party’s parliamentary representation will not just fall, but will fall below the level required to let the party re-write the constitution without relying on other parties’ support. But let’s not kid ourselves—this is a remarkable result for the AKP. I would go so far as to suggest that it is their most impressive yet. In 2002, they went to the electorate following a period of instability and economic crisis—they were in the right place at the right time to profit from the incumbent parties’ decimation. In 2007, they were able to exploit public anger at the military’s interference in the choice of Turkey’s president.
In both cases, the AKP was a potent focus for public anger at other actors in Turkish public life. This helped it to punch above its weight. But that kind of dynamic didn’t apply in yesterday’s election. On the contrary, yesterday’s poll came after months and years of a steadily developing narrative which highlighted the increasing risks posed by the extent of the AKP’s grip on power. That’s a narrative to which I happen to subscribe. But yesterday’s result made it even more bluntly apparent than previously that it isn’t a narrative to which the Turkish electorate subscribes. In circumstances less accommodating than those that obtained in either of the two previous elections, the AKP has recorded a record share of the popular vote. Furthermore, it has breached the 50 per cent mark. This gives it strong claim on moral legitimacy, particularly in a country with a highly majoritarian understanding of how democracy works.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu made a number of important shifts in the way he presented the CHP to the electorate compared to his predecessor as leader, Deniz Baykal. He toned down the party’s defence of Turkey’s secularism and he sought to highlight the party’s socioeconomic policies. But a five per cent bounce doesn’t suggest that this approach gained any meaningful traction at all. The CHP could surely have expected a five per cent bounce just for having ditched Mr Baykal.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that someone is going to have to do something very different if they want to emerge as a serious rival to the AKP. While there is a possibility that fatigue and/or events (such as a sharp deterioration in the economy) may slow or reverse the AKP’s seemingly inexorable momentum, by now it would appear to be at least as likely that the electorate will grow even further accustomed to the AKP as the natural and rightful holders of power in this country. Success breeds success, and the longer the AKP is unchallenged in power the more difficult it becomes for the opposition to suggest that its removal from power is imperative.
While a vocal, substantial and growing minority in Turkey worry deeply about the direction in which the AKP wants to take the country, this election proves once again that a greater number of Turks do not share these fears. That is the reality of political life in Turkey, and much though it may pain them, it is a reality to which the opposition parties will need to reconcile themselves if they are to get back into the business of winning elections.
The AKP is uninhibited in its pursuit of economic growth and profoundly relaxed (to put it mildly) about the prospect of religion being allowed a more prominent role in the public sphere. This policy mix has been shown to work. Granted it is bolstered by other factors, such as the AKP’s powerful grassroots political machine and the massive pull exerted by the leadership of Mr Erdoğan. But if a party espousing broadly right-wing economics and an easy familiarity with piety is winning a steadily increasing share of the vote in three successive elections, a party like the CHP needs to start asking itself some fundamental questions. Here is one to start with: is a platform combining left-leaning economic policy with relatively hardline secularism one from which an election can be won in Turkey?
After last night’s results, that is at least an open question.