Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s emphatic first round victory in Turkey’s snap election is being regarded in the country as much as a resounding defeat for a lacklustre opposition as the endorsement of a President who enjoys unrivalled popularity. The final tally in the race for the presidency saw the Justice and Development (AK) Party’s Erdogan take 53 per cent of the vote, while main challenger Muharrem İnce of the People’s Republican Party (CHP) won 30 per cent; Selahattin Demirtas of the Kurdish Democratic Party (HDP) received 8 per cent.
The victory announcement was met with sighs of relief and jubilant celebrations as citizens honked their car horns and waved Turkish flags all over Istanbul. This followed Erdogan’s somewhat subdued acceptance speech at the Presidential mansion in the city, where he described his victory as a win for the new executive Presidential system of governance.
The final results left the election map glowing with the bright orange of the AK Party across most of the country. Pockets of red representing the CHP stood out on the west coast and the purple of the HDP dominated in the east.
Erdogan now has 12 consecutive election victories against the CHP in polls for Prime Minister and President during his political career. This latest victory, more than any other, leaves the secular CHP founded by Turkey’s iconic ruler and father of the nation, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, in disarray. He it was who turned the once great Ottoman Empire into the nation state of today.
Once the CHP accepts the result and ends its political grandstanding — which is largely pandering to Western critics of Erdogan’s crackdown and state of emergency following the 2016 coup attempt — it will begin the process of looking closely at the failed campaign and trying to identify the policy promises that served to alienate rather than galvanise voters. There is little doubt that the CHP appears to have misjudged the Turkish people’s readiness to expel the four million Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey. For a nation that prides itself on hospitality and is the world’s third largest aid donor, the CHP’s stern promise to deport Syrians back to their war-torn country within in one year of taking office looked decidedly xenophobic, at the very least.
“I don’t like the AK Party,” teacher Merve Cevik told me, “because, in my view, they have become too partisan and sectarian; but I can’t support a party [the CHP]) which would return helpless people to a totally destroyed country that is still at war.”
The swing voter works voluntarily with traumatised Syrian children in Istanbul and understands the effect of the war on the millions of displaced people in her country. She felt that the choice was between a president with “compassion” and one with “cruelty”. She gave her vote, despite her reservations, in favour of Erdogan’s well-known compassion.
On the economic front, the CHP’s proposals were no match for Erdogan’s macro-economic infrastructural approach which has resulted in the tripling of the country’s GDP over the past 15 years. İnce was hoping to capitalise on the shaking economic forecast and the fall in the value of the Turkish lira which has forced the Central Bank to raise benchmark interest rates to more than 17 per cent.
The CHP’s big idea rested on a plan to create information technology centres based on the Indian model and specialising in coding and computer programming. In contrast, days before the election, Erdogan made a maiden flight into the country’s new airport, which is set to be the biggest in the world. He has promised to build an electric car battery manufacturing plant by 2020 and expand green energy policies, and has already fired up the country’s first nuclear power plant to secure its future energy needs.
When all is said and done, voters were not convinced that the opposition groups provided a real alternative. An agenda based simply on removing Erdogan from power was not enough to persuade voters to sideline the sitting President and ignore his achievements.
However, the Erdogan victory aside, the parliamentary election appears to be a cause of some concern. Genuine nervousness about this poll stemmed from the disquiet about a shaky economic forecast as well as shortcomings in the ranks of AK Party officials, particular at municipal and local government levels.
Experienced party observers I spoke to suggest that in recent years the Justice and Development Party’s municipal councillors have “let the side down” by responding badly to local needs and in some cases mismanaging local government funds. That appears to have been reflected in the voting pattern for parliamentary seats, as the ruling party lost control of the house.
In the coming weeks and months the two main parties will be reviewing the events of the election campaign. The opposition will no doubt have a rethink about the prospects of coming out of the political wilderness and assuming political power, while the government of President Erdogan will begin work on another five years of governance that his critics say will be an attempt to make the descendants of the Ottomans great once again. The voters look as if they believe that such an aim is no bad thing for the country.
Additional reporting by Walid Bin Siraj
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.