Turkish voters clip Erdo?an’s wings

Turkey flags

Supporters of the AK Party wave Turkish national and party flags. Antalya, June 2015. [Reuters]

He sits in his newly-built thousand-room “White Palace”, his plans for a powerful presidency all but ready; but in the very hour that should have seen his final triumph, Tayyip Erdo?an’s star appears to be waning.

If one sentiment united the country’s disparate opposition parties after Sunday’s parliamentary election, it was this: a resounding “no” to Erdo?an’s drive to transform the country’s political landscape in search of what he sees as a new Turkey.

The AK Party he founded in 2001 remained by far the biggest party, but for the first time in 13 years, it lost its overall majority, and fell well short of the two-thirds majority it needs to change the constitution. Coalition beckoned for a man not well used to compromise.

Erdo?an’s ambition and unquestionable authority, which long held together a party embracing liberal reformers, centre-right and nationalist elements as well as religious conservatives, now risks pulling it apart.

Western NATO partners have also been disturbed by the possible consequences of political turmoil in an ally bordering Iraq, Syria and Iran.

“These results could be summarised in one sentence: the voters said ‘enough’ to Erdo?an,” said Ahmet Insel, a columnist and professor at Istanbul’s Galatasaray University.

Erdo?an, 61, stepped down after over a decade as prime minister last August to take up a largely figurehead presidency he planned to convert into a powerful executive post.

Stretching the constitution to its limits, he held onto the reins of government, holding cabinet meetings at his palace. It was, he calculated, just a temporary indulgence until a new parliament endorsed his planned new role.

Critics said he paid little heed to his obligation as president to remain above party politics. He addressed up to three rallies a day ahead of the vote, often overshadowing Prime Minister and party leader Ahmet Davuto?lu, whom he accused of doing too little to promote the idea of an executive presidency.

“Erdo?an’s discourse has weakened Davuto?lu. No matter what anyone says, Erdo?an taking control of the party’s election process, and interfering with daily events has caused discomfort in the party and among voters,” a senior AKP official said.

“Erdo?an is the natural leader, no one is denying this, but he should have left the party’s work to the party,” the official said, asking not to be named for fear of retribution.

Drawing up a plan

Erdo?an forged the AKP as Turkey slid into financial crisis in 2001. It won a growing share of the vote in three successive parliamentary elections, during a decade which saw incomes rise sharply and Turkey establish itself as a regional power.

But his growing intolerance of dissent has alienated half the population, leaving Turkey acutely polarised, while the centralisation that marks AKP is a cause of increasing concern.

Some in the AKP fear he will blame Sunday’s result on Davuto?lu, who has tried to build his own influence in the party, and seek revenge, seeking to replace him with a more pliant alternative.

“Erdo?an will see these results as a defeat for AKP, and will criticise the party […] he always thinks about Davuto?lu’s alternative,” a second senior party official said.

“He never accepts defeat […] But it will not be as easy as before for him to do what he pleases in the AKP. There is a group whose respect Davuto?lu has won and there is more criticism towards Erdo?an in the party than ever before.”

In stark contrast to his triumphalist appearances after past elections, he seemed conciliatory in a first brief statement from his office on Monday.

“Our nation’s opinion is above everything else,” he said.

Not the end

It would be a brave man who bet against Erdo?an, a towering figure of Turkish politics once jailed for sedition, a colourful orator given to inspire supporters with Ottoman poetry and pledges of justice for a conservative religious class he says has been trodden underfoot by decades of secular governments.

He won credit at home and abroad for political and economic reforms largely in his first two terms as premier. The last few years have witnessed an increasingly authoritarian rule, though he has bounced back from mass protests and a corruption scandal.

Etyen Mahçupyan, a former advisor to Davuto?lu and co-founder of Istanbul-based think-tank PODEM, predicted Erdo?an would weather the setback.

“He looks for legitimacy through votes. Whatever the vote says, he will accept that. His time is not finished,” he told Reuters in the run-up to the election.

“The questions for Erdo?an will be what kind of party do I want, what kind of party can get 50% again.”

He faces strong headwinds.

Selahattin Demirta? the charismatic leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), is the one opposition politician who demonstrates anything resembling Erdo?an’s charisma. He appears to be succeeding in capturing the imagination of the left, taking his party beyond its roots in Kurdish nationalism and propelling it into parliament for the first time at the expense of the AKP.

Turkey’s economy, long a pillar of the AKP’s electoral successes, is also vulnerable, slowing after years of stellar growth, while the growing threat from jihadism in neighbouring Syria and Iraq comes at a time when its relations with both Western and regional partners are strained.

For Mahçupyan, the AKP will need to look to a new generation of Islamic conservatives, pious but more democratically-minded and comfortable with liberal values, if it is to claw back support.

“At the end of the day Tayyip Erdo?an is a paternalistic person, he is not a democrat. But who is a democrat in Turkish politics? No-one,” Mahçupyan said.

“Erdo?an is very influential, but up to a point. From that point on, he has to adapt, he has to conform, he has to learn.”

The learning could begin soon.

If the AK Party is forced to, or able to, form a coalition, the junior partner may well refuse the long trek to the presidential palace, built at a cost of some $500 million, to hold cabinet meetings under Erdo?an. The president, however, is not one to sit in lonely splendour and await events.

Turkey said in September 2014 that crises in the Middle East and elsewhere made closer co-operation between Ankara and the European Union essential and announced a new programme to revive the country's stalled drive for EU membership.

The document highlights a substantial shift in tone on the part of the Turkish authorities, who have reacted angrily to criticisms from European officials over their handling of anti-government protests and a widespread corruption scandal which has swirled around Erdogan's inner circle.

>> Read: Turkey announces EU accession strategy

Turkey's relations with the European Economic Community (EEC) date back to 1959. But it took many years, until the Helsinki European Council of December 1999, for the country to obtain the status of a candidate country for EU membership.

The EU opened accession talks with Turkey in October 2005, but a number of stumbling blocks are holding up Ankara's progress, in particular concerning Turkey's relations with Cyprus, human and minority rights and freedom of expression.

Out of 35 negotiation chapters, so far only one chapter (science and research) has been provisionally closed. Thirteen chapters are open, but the EU has suspended the opening of eight chapters over Turkey's failure to implement the Ankara Protocol, which states that access should be granted and ports opened to products coming from the Republic of Cyprus.

The opening of another 11 chapters has been blocked by France and the Republic of Cyprus, amounting to 19 blocked chapters in total.

In 2010, the EU, in a gesture of good faith towards Turkey, opened another chapter in the accession process, increasing the total number of opened chapters to 13. The chapter covers sectors related to food safety, veterinary standards and phytosanitary requirements.

On 26 June 2013 EU ministers agreed to open one more chapter – regional policy – which was among those hat France had been refusing to give go ahead since the term of former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

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