Before power went to his head, Turkey’s president empowered the voters who in Sunday’s election abruptly blunted his rise
Turks dealt a staggering blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday in the only language he understands: votes. The invigorating result was to reaffirm the exciting changes that Erdogan engineered in Turkish society when he first emerged as the nation’s leader a dozen years ago—the same changes that Sunday’s result showed Erdogan failed to properly appreciate. He thought it was all about him.
The great and historic success of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known by the Turkish-language initials AKP, was in empowering the heartland voters the country’s governing elite had never quite trusted. Built as a parliamentary democracy, Turkey was crippled through most of its first eight decades in existence by the paradoxical unwillingness of the people in power to abide by the wishes of the electorate.
Again and again, the country’s military grabbed power whenever things were going in a direction the generals deemed dangerous. Each time, their excuse for seizing power was safeguarding the “secular democracy” put in place by the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the charismatic former officer who shaped a modern state from the remains of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Ataturk died in 1937, but the paternalism of his early state lived on. It even had a name: Kemalism, a kind of governing rigidity, hostile to religious expression and deeply invested in “the state,” that critics said Ataturk himself would have disowned for stunting the growth of a mature democracy.
And that’s what AKP’s 2002 ascendance appeared to announce. For most of its first decade in power, Erdogan’s party made Turkey’s democracy credible. Each election brought it a larger share of the vote for the party, and with it, the political clout that allowed AKP to finally sideline the generals. The party did so partly by governing moderately, despite Erdogan’s earlier embrace of political Islam. Under AKP, sharia was cast not as a replacement for electoral democracy but rather the a moral force that informed one party’s politics—not unlike the Christian Democrats of postwar West Germany, as Erdogan liked to point that out.
Another thing Erodgan liked to point out was that he constituted the personal embodiment of this morality. Unlike previous Turkish leaders, he was a working class son of the land, the self-described “black Turk” who took the country back from the elitist secularists known as “white Turks.”
The only problem: He did not govern as a democrat. “He thinks democracy is winning elections, period,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told me last year. To Erdogan, a thumping victory at the ballot box is a mandate to do as you please, and he brooked no dissent, either within AKP or from outside. Famously thin-skinned (on the night of his first election, he took umbrage at a simple question by threatening to have me declared an enemy of the state), he not only sued journalists, but made Turkey what Reporters Without Borders called “the world’s largest prison for journalists,” with 42 then behind bars in 2013, the year Freedom House shifted its description of Turkish news media from “partly free” to “not free.”
As a majoritarian, Erdogan acted on the same presumption that doomed the Muslim Brotherhood—an Islamist party he admires—in Egypt, where the military had not yet been defanged. In Turkey, Erdogan sailed on, riding out mass protests over his high-handed style of governing, and a corruption scandal that produced a tape of him instructing his son to move tens of millions of Euros out of a home safe. Last August, 52 percent of Turkish voters made him him president, a largely ceremonial office that Erdogan made clear he had plans to expand. Erdogan set out to restructure Turkey’s entire system of governance to suit his opinion of himself—a presidential system, with powers as vast as the $615 million presidential palace he built in Ankara in anticipation of victory: 1,150 rooms, including space for five official food testers.
But to alter the constitution, AKP needed to win a supermajority of the 550 seats in the Grand National Assembly in the June 7 election. At the start of the campaign, Erdogan asked the public to give his party 400 seats—a super-duper majority. He fell a bit short—the 256 seats AKP won was not even enough for a simple majority. For the first time since 2002, AKP will need to find a partner in order to govern. None of the other parties say they want to serve as junior partner, including the Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, the upstart whose 13 percent of the vote cost AK its majority . HDP is a Kurdish party, long linked to the guerrilla movement that fought a separatist war on behalf of the country’s largest minority, which Kemalists refused to recognize as an ethnicity. In the election, however, HDP campaigned on peace, and drew not only from the Kurdish southeast of Turkey but also the substantial population of ethnic Turks who no longer feel threatened by a minority identity in the land. And surely many who oppose Erdogan.
Led by a former human rights activist named Selahattin Demirtas, the campaign signaled a healing of the Turkish body politic that only a few analysts, such as Cagapty, saw as inevitable, given the forces that the rise of AKP had set in motion — from the empowerment of the electorate, to the economic boom that, though fading lately, nonetheless created both new wealth and new expectations of governance.
“I think Turkey’s future is it will be governed by liberals,” Cagapty said last year. He reasoned that Erdogan’s days were numbered by the “large, liberal middle class” spawned by economic growth in the Anatolian heartland that the elite had long ignored. “So he’s in fact created his own political nemesis.” And in the process, accidentally produced a bit of good news in a region where authoritarianism is rising unchallenged almost everywhere else.