After winning a crucial parliamentary victory this week, a jubilant Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared the results “proof of [Turkish citizens’] strong desire for the unity and integrity” of their divided nation.
But in returning President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to its accustomed top spot in the parliamentary hierarchy, voters may simply have opted to go with the devil they know over the potential volatility of a forced coalition government.
And to think that just five months ago, Turkey’s future looked as if it would be very different. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) had gained enough seats to deny the AKP the majority for the first time in more than a decade. Erdogan supporters were reeling in fear that their days of wielding absolute power were suddenly numbered.
Given their history of discord and the fundamental policy differences between the AKP and its parliamentary rivals, hardly anyone envisioned a smooth transition. A few false starts later, Erdogan, accused of stalling in hope of avoiding the inevitable, finally directed Prime Minister Ahmet Davugolu to begin putting together a new government.
The process was expected to be slow. What was not expected, at least in certain quarters, is that it wouldn’t happen at all. Barely two months after the AKP lost ground, Davugolu announced that all efforts to find a partner had failed and that snap elections would be held in the fall.
The move was unprecedented, and it was anyone’s guess what would happen next: Could rival factions siphon even more seats from the AKP? Might Erdogan’s grip on power be further threatened? If a new party were to snare an absolute majority, what positive policy changes might finally be within reach?
There was every expectation that the AKP was, at long last, on its way out. Turkey and much of the world eagerly awaited the new elections — only to wind up with more of the same. Erdogan quickly called for all who had expected a round of electoral fireworks climaxing in regime change to respect the outcome, as he and his followers set out to make up for lost time amid concerns by foreign observers that the elections weren’t exactly free or fair.
But what happened in those five months between then and what might have been? How did a critical mass of voters revert to trusting the AKP yet again?
Some who may have changed their vote recalled that, after the HDP’s supposedly game-changing triumph, there was a wave of attacks on its offices by nationalists seething over violence carried out by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group outlawed in Turkey.
They also noted that HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas said at the time that the party was caught in the crossfire between the PKK and Turkish authorities — and warned that the country was headed for civil war.
From that moment on, the world just kept growing darker: The Islamic State stepped up its incursions. The violence in neighboring Syria spilled over the border amid news of Russian military intervention in that years-long civil war. A philosophical disconnect between the HDP and the PKK raised unanswerable questions about the rights of the Kurds and their eventual independence. The economy stagnated, with no end in sight.
And then, last month, a bomb attack on a peace rally in Ankara, the capital, killed 102 people and gutted the faith of countless others who had dared to dream of a different fate for their country. Many voters no longer found any reason to care who was in charge. The promised new Turkey was looking a lot like the unpromising old Turkey, with its history of political coups, abrupt changes at the top, depressed economies and never-ending sectarian violence.
As the election neared, more and more voters found themselves yearning for the familiar. Erdogan had at least presided over a relatively stable government for the better part of 13 years.
In Sunday’s elections, the AKP received millions of votes not just from nationalists but from pro-Kurdish rivals, as well, even though an AKP majority would almost certainly throw a wrench into peace talks with Kurdish separatists. The public, its once and future leader explained, wants no part of a new world order that seems to dish out nothing but death, destruction and destitution. As Al Jazeera wrote:
The election results, which give the AKP a clear mandate to rule for four more years, show that Turks were “scared by the potential of civil conflict starting in southeast Turkey again,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute. Forced to choose between security and freedom, he said, “they chose security.”
And now the deluge: Rather than gloat, Erdogan immediately began cracking down on civil liberties, targeting journalists and political rivals who had been less than complimentary toward his policies.
Citing fears of a coup, he also ordered the arrests of dozens of citizens with links to the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is set to stand trial in absentia for allegedly working to topple the president. Even in the run-up to the election, security officials stormed the offices of opposition media groups whose owner was said to have ties to Gulen.
Perhaps as he ruthlessly wields the power he knows he nearly lost, Erdogan truly believes that he is simply giving the people, his people, what they want.