Kurds Deny Turkey’s Ruling Party Majority

In a setback for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s ruling Islamist party loses its majority in parliament.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey speaks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, in Kiev, March 20
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey speaks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, in Kiev, March 20 (Press Service of the President of Ukraine/Palinchak Mikhail)

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was on track to lose its majority in parliament on Sunday when early election results showed the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) clearing the 10 percent threshold to win seats for the first time.

With more than 90 percent of the votes counted, the AKP was at 42.1 percent support, down from almost 50 percent four years ago.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) was at 25 percent support, roughly the same as four years ago, while the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party was at 17 percent, up from 13 percent in 2011.

The big winner would be the HDP which was shown at 12 percent support nationwide. The party was founded in 2012 by left-wing and Kurdish candidates who previously ran as independents to circumvent the election threshold.

To clear the high bar to enter parliament, the party needed to win the support of Kurdish nationalists, pious Kurds who voted for the Islamist AKP in previous years and liberal, middle-class voters in the west of Turkey who are fed up with the ruling party’s majoritarianism.

The breakthrough would give the HDP around 75 out of 550 seats in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly and reduce the AKP’s delegation to below the 276 needed for a majority. It would also leave the Islamists short of the 330 seats needed to call a referendum on proposed constitutional changes.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the former prime minister who still informally leads the AKP, said before the election he wanted a mandate to centralize power in his new office.

Erdoğan won Turkey’s first direct presidential election last year. Unlike his predecessor, Abdullah Gül, who played a largely ceremonial rule, Erdoğan stretched his authority to the limit, chairing ministerial meetings and influencing policy.

To formalize an executive presidency, however, Erdoğan needed to change the constitution. The current version was written under military rule after a 1980 coup. Without a two-thirds majority to change the law unilaterally, the AKP could still have forced a referendum on constitutional reform with three-fifths of the seats in parliament. That now looks unlikely to happen.

In the days leading up to the vote, Erdoğan and his deputy, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, had warned against a return to the era of unstable coalition governments and military rule that marked Turkey before the AKP first came to power in 2002.

They also fulminated against an opposition they said was part of an international conspiracy to keep down the AKP’s “new Turkey”.

Critics of the AKP government warned that an executive presidency would allow Erdoğan to manipulate the country’s democratic institutions and suppress dissent.

Recent years have seen the ruling party battered by graft accusations and mass protests. Under Erdoğan’s leadership, it went on the offensive against its opponents. Hundreds of police officers, prosecutors and judges who were involved in corruption probes were purged. Demonstrations were violently broken up. Last year’s local elections, which the AKP predictably won, were overshadowed by a ban on social media and voting irregularities, including power outages in provinces where the party was struggling to hold on to seats.

What may have convinced middle-class, Muslim voters who previously benefited from the AKP’s relatively liberal economic policy to switch sides is the economy’s slowdown.

The Turkish economy grew 4.1 percent on average between 2010 and last year but unemployment has since risen to 11.5 percent, a five-year high, while the Turkish lira has hit record lows.

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