Why did the AKP fail this time?
The night of June 7 was pleasantly surprising for many Turks that I know - and myself. The results of the general election showed that the 13-year-long reign of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which was quite clean and liberating in its initial phase but later turned increasingly corrupt and authoritarian, finally faced a setback. Turkish society proved wiser than being merely in the ruling party’s pocket, and we can use football terminology to say that it was able show the AKP a “yellow card.”
In fact, this card was shown in particular to President Tayyip Erdoğan, who must be “non-partisan” according to the constitution but who was undoubtedly the master of the AKP. Many voters who still approve of the party’s pragmatic policies were fed up with the aggressive triumphalism of Erdoğan and his latter-day cronies. Meanwhile, many conservative Kurds who voted for the AKP in the past for its “openings” toward them were disillusioned or even angry at the “Erdoğan language” of the past year. This language included his insensitive tone for the embattled Kurds in Kobane in northern Syria, his declaration that “there is no Kurdish issue any more,” and his bitterness directed toward the pro-Kurdish HDP.
That is why the HDP emerged as the greatest victor from the ballots. They won millions of Kurdish votes that had previously gone to the AKP, as well as the votes of many liberals and some secularists who saw them as the safest bulwark against the AKP. They proved wise enough to see and seize the opportunity.
All this should show to Erdoğan and his supporters that aggressive triumphalism does not always do wonders. Their fear- and hate-mongering propaganda machine does not always convince the majority of society. So will they give up this propaganda and try to restore the AKP back to the modest, reasonable, civilized party that it once was?
We don’t know the answer yet. Since election day, some sensible voices have appeared in the AKP universe (i.e., the party and the media, which are integrated). These voices call for soul-searching, typically arguing that the AKP suffered this setback because of its own mistakes: Corruption scandals, Erdoğan’s lavish palace, his cult of personality, his hate-mongering apparatchiks, the exclusion of the moderates.
These people also now call for “normalization,” in the sense that Erdoğan must accept his limited role defined by the constitution and let the AKP move forward under the leadership of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Some even hope that, at some point, Abdullah Gül, the quintessential moderate, might come back to restore and lead the party.
Meanwhile, on the other hand, the propaganda apparatchiks are still doing their job, accusing Jews, secular Turks, the non-AKP media and the international press of conspiring against their beloved “New Turkey” by fooling voters.
That is why the direction that Erdoğan takes in the weeks and months to come is crucial. But also crucial are the leadership skills of the opposition parties. If they fail to form or at least offer a promising coalition government in the next 40 days, Erdoğan could call for renewed elections. And he will be able to do that with the good old argument of “stability” in his hand: “You see what happens when my party is not the majority in parliament, the country slips into chaos.” This line really could work for him.
In other words, getting a “yellow card” from the electorate neither means that Erdoğan is out of the game nor that he will lose it. Much depends on other political actors, and whether they are smart enough to turn last Sunday’s boost into a longer-lasting win.