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A guide to this week's shocking election in Turkey — and what happens next

Supporters of the opposition HDP party cheer.
Supporters of the opposition HDP party cheer.
Burak Kara/Getty Images

On the evening of June 7, Turkey's opposition was jubilant. Election results from that day showed the ruling Justice and Peace Party (AKP) had failed to win an outright majority — stunning many observers, who had expected the AKP to maintain essentially unchallenged control over Turkey's government.

The opposition's excitement went beyond normal post-election celebrations, because this was much more than a normal election. Although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not on the ballot, this week's parliamentary election was widely perceived as a referendum on Erdogan's plan to change the Turkish constitution in order to grant himself sweeping, unprecedented presidential powers. Because Erdogan's record shows clear tendencies toward authoritarianism, many observers in Turkey and elsewhere believed that his proposed constitutional amendments would not just change the structure of Turkish democracy, but pose an existential threat to it.

But the AKP is far from defeated: although voters denied them an outright majority, the party is still likely to head a coalition that will control the government for some time. So while this election is good news for Turkish parliamentary democracy, the widespread triumphalism about the AKP's "defeat" is still radically premature.

The winner of the election: Turkish democracy?

turkish president recep tayyip erdogan

(Dilek Mermer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Erdogan. (Dilek Mermer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Turkey has a hybrid presidential/parliamentary system, where the prime minister is generally the one who actually runs the government. But Erdogan wanted to change that: his plan for changing the constitution would likely have given himself powers that would make the American presidency, one of the least constrained in the world, look weak by comparison. It's not entirely clear what specific powers Erdogan's new presidency would gotten, but judging from his statements about what he wanted, Turkey observers were deeply concerned.

"I shudder to think what would happen if there was constitutional change," Michael Koplow, the program director at the Israel Institute and an expert on Turkey, says.

Erdogan needed 367 votes in the Turkish parliament to begin the process of changing the constitution, which meant this week's election was to some extent a referendum on whether he should be allowed to change the structure of Turkish democracy. The result seems to have been a resounding "no": the AKP won only 258 seats — giving the three opposition parties, when combined together, an outright majority. Each of them strongly opposes Erdogan's presidentialism.

"Erdogan's presidential ambitions are now exhausted," Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writes.

Were Turkey's citizens voting with their pocketbooks?

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HDP supporters in a pre-election demonstration. (Ilyas Akengin/AFP/Getty Images)

But the election wasn't just about presidentialism: Turkey's economy also played a huge role. For the past decade or so, the AKP has ridden high on a fairly dynamic record of promoting economic growth. But recently, the economy has been slowing down.

"Since the last election in 2011, the AKP's economic performance has been markedly worse, and people feel it," Koplow says. "The lira is low compared to the dollar, the economy has not grown anywhere near the rate that it had [several years ago], and there have been predictions now for years — and at some point, it's going to happen — of an economic collapse."

This economic slowdown opened up a gap in the AKP's armor: one that opposition parties happily took advantage of. That goes to show that in Turkey, as in most democracies, the ruling party's political future depends crucially on the economy: the AKP's standing in the future will continue to rise and fall with Turkey's overall economic performance.

Why this is such a big deal: Turkey's slow slide toward authoritarianism

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A Turkish anti-government protestor in Gezi Park in 2013 attacked with a water cannon. (Ed Ou/Getty Images)

To understand what was at stake in this election, you need to understand Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian turn during his decade as Turkey's leader — first as prime minister from 2003 to 2014, and then as president.

Erdogan was elected prime minister in 2002 in a massive AKP wave, largely fueled by economic problems. The election was a watershed: the Turkish system has been staunchly secular by design of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But the AKP is an Islamist party, albeit a fairly moderate one. An Islamist party taking control, however moderate its religious views, was a huge shock to Turkey's political system.

Initially, it looked like worries about the AKP's threat to Turkish democracy were misplaced. The AKP delivered impressive economic growth and managed to rein in the military, which had previously had a nasty habit of staging coups when it didn't like the direction Turkish politics was going.

But in the past few years, it all started coming apart. The AKP tried to "reform" Turkey's school system along Islamist lines. Erdogan cowed the media, violently cracked down on anti-government protests, and even went so far as to temporarily ban Twitter to prevent it from being a threat to "moral and national values."

"Comparisons to Vladimir Putin are useful," Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey scholar at St. Lawrence University, writes. "Both Erdogan and Putin voice faith in the institution of elections as a tool for demonstrating legitimacy, and both ensure that no sustained critique of their policies can reach the public."

So when term limits forced Erdogan out of the prime ministership in 2014, he ran for president — and won. He started pushing for presidentialism, and it looked like he had a real shot at taking control.

Then Turkey's voters intervened.

Why the AKP is still in the driver's seat

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Erdogan supporters. (Gokhan Tan/Getty Images)

However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the recent election results have left the AKP powerless. Erdogan is still president, and the AKP is still likely to lead a coalition government.

Under Turkish law, the president must select an individual from one of the parties to form a government, who will then have 45 days to so. If no stable coalition forms, then new elections will be held, starting the process over again.

There are essentially three ways a coalition could form. The first, and least probable, is that the three opposition parties band together to form a parliamentary majority that excludes AKP.

This is unlikely for many reasons, most notably that the opposition parties have deep disagreements with one another. The HDP, the first Kurdish party ever to be seated in Turkey's parliament, won roughly 80 seats. That's a big deal, given the way Turkey's government has repressed its Kurdish minority, at times quite brutally.

However, one of the other two opposition parties is the MHP, a hard-line nationalist party that, according to Koplow, "has essentially put itself in opposition to Kurdish rights and minority rights in general." The idea of a Kurdish party and an anti-Kurdish party agreeing to share power is ... implausible, to say the least.

The two other possible options, then, both leave AKP in control of the government. Either the AKP could form a governing coalition with one of the other parties, probably the MHP. Or it could form a minority government with outside support, again likely the MHP. The latter option would likely mean early elections, however, as it's not easy for a government to function without an outright majority in parliament.

Bottom line: while Erdogan's plan for presidentialism has been defeated for now, the AKP is still in control of Turkish politics — and likely will remain that way for some time.

"I don't see the AKP going anywhere anytime soon," Koplow says. "The co-founder and de facto party leader of the AKP is still the president of the country. The AKP is still the largest party in parliament. It's still going to control the prime ministry. It's still the governing party of Turkey, and none of the other parties are within spitting distance of it."