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Why Turkey's election results shocked all the experts

There were fireworks, both literal and metaphorical.
There were fireworks, both literal and metaphorical.
(Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Turkey held a national election Sunday — and the results were shocking. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP won 316 seats in Turkey's parliament, a solid majority. That reverses the AKP's defeat in June's elections, when it lost majority control in the legislature for the first time since it came to power in 2003.

This was quite a shock. "I know of no serious Turkey analyst, either Turkish or otherwise, who saw this coming," Michael Koplow, a Turkey expert at the Israel Policy Forum, writes. "The polling whiffed entirely."

The AKP's big victory came on the back of an aggressive nationalist campaign — and shows us that the AKP is still in control over Turkish politics. Here's why, and why that matters.

How the AKP won

AKP supporters hold a placard with Erdoğan’s face.
AKP supporters hold a placard with Erdogan’s face.
(Ercin Top/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The AKP's victory was all about stability. Between March 2003 and June 2015, the AKP controlled a majority of seats in Turkey's parliament. After the party lost it in June, Turkey experienced some real upheaval. A ceasefire with the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group based in the country's southeast, collapsed in July, kicking off renewed, deadly fighting in the decades-old conflict. In October, ISIS set off bombs in the capital, Ankara, killing 90 — the largest terrorist attack in the country's history.

The AKP argued that this new instability could only be fixed by returning its control over Turkey's entire government, and Turkish voters bought it.

The AKP offered a "narrative of stability, which they had linked to the continuation of single-party rule," Sinan Ülgen, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, said in a call with reporters. "That narrative proved to be far more effective than many people thought, especially against the backdrop of the rising political instability, a worsening security climate, ISIS-perpetrated attacks, the upsurge of PKK violence."

This "stability" argument had some pretty nationalist overtones, a general theme in AKP rhetoric for a while now. "In the past year and more, Erdogan tacked hard to the nationalist, anti-Kurdish right," Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes. In this election, that involved linking HDP, a smaller progressive party representing the Kurdish minority, to the PKK's return to violence.

These attacks sapped votes from HDP, which had benefited from a surge of non-Kurdish support in the June election. They also simultaneously bled the right-wing opposition MHP, as some of its voters found the AKP's stance appealing.

"AKP has picked up seats from the nationalist MHP and from the Kurdish HDP, and turnout overall is up. That says to me that the nationalist positioning worked exactly as it was supposed to," Koplow writes. "As has been the case repeatedly over the last decade and a half, Erdoğan’s political instincts are better than everyone else’s."

Why this is so surprising — and what it means

AKP supporters celebrate the party's victory.
(Burak Kara/Getty Images)

This election establishes, quite firmly, that the AKP is still in control of Turkish politics — an open question before November 1.

After the AKP lost its majority in June, a number of commentators suggested the years of AKP dominance were ending. Their reasoning made a fair amount of sense: The rapid economic growth of the past decade, which had buoyed the AKP's initial success, had ended. The ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria and the flood of refugees into the country made the AKP's foreign policy look ineffectual. President Erdogan's creeping authoritarianism, including a plan to change the constitution to empower the presidency at the prime ministership's expense, scared many Turkish voters.

These issues, especially the economy and the presidential system, played a major role in the AKP's June defeat. And none of them had gone away by November. "There's almost no issue in Turkey where you can say people are better off now than they were four years ago," Koplow said in a phone conversation two days before the vote.

And yet, the AKP still won. Part of it speaks to Erdogan's political cleverness in exploiting fears of instability, and part of it speaks to a divided, ideologically fractious opposition. "The outcome is as much a byproduct of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s electoral prowess as the continuing ineffectiveness of Turkey’s parliamentary opposition," Ülgen explains.

But the results also say something deeper about Turkey. The AKP is a conservative Islamist party, and a lot of Turks seem to find that authentically appealing. People in the West often like to think of Turkey as a fairly secular country, but outside the cities that isn't quite true. A lot of people in Turkey plain like the AKP's political views, and are willing to support the party despite its fairly dismal policy record.

"At the end of the day, Turkey is a pretty socially conservative country, and the AKP is the party of social conservatism," Koplow explains.

What happens now?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan delivers a speech
President Erdogan, speechifying.
(Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Now that Turkey will have a united, one-party government, Erdogan will be freer to pursue his ideal policy. "I think the first thing is that the AK Party will read these elections essentially as a green light to their policies across the board," Ülgen says.

But it's not obvious what exactly the AKP is going to do. The PKK conflict, perhaps Turkey's biggest issue, is the most obvious example. The AKP's aggressive campaign rhetoric might suggest that it plans to step up the military campaign against the PKK. But historically, the AKP has been relatively dovish on the Kurdish conflict — it entered into a fairly bold round of peace negotiations in 2013. It's possible the newly strengthened AKP may want to tamp down the fighting by returning to the peace process.

The election "gives the government quite a bit of margin to maneuver on really the foremost issue facing Turkish policymakers, which is the Kurdish question," Ülgen says. "I would expect the government now to revitalize the peace process sometime in the near future."

It's also possible that Erdogan makes another bid to expand presidential powers. He needs a supermajority, 330 votes, to change the constitution — which means he can't do it without support from one of the minor parties, all of which oppose his plan to shift power to the presidency. He may try anyway.

"On the constitutional issue, this outcome will certainly keep Erdogan’s aspirations alive," Ülgen concludes. "They were almost dead after the June elections. Now he has been able, with this outcome, to revitalize his presidential ambitions."

But it's important not to be too confident in predicting what this election means for the peace process, presidentialism, or any other major issue. Erdogan is notorious among Turkey watchers for being unpredictable; it's a fool's game to try to predict with any certainty what he'll do.

The only thing that's sure is that the new government is facing some very big, very real challenges — ones very similar to those it faced when it first took power in 2003.

"The outcome of the elections is irrelevant to the larger story in Turkey, which is how familiar the violence, tawdry politics, and economic uncertainty all feel," Cook, the CFR expert, writes. "In important ways, Erdogan’s Turkey today looks like the country he inherited when he first became prime minister in March 2003."