AK party going down? Not so fast

To present the outcome of Turkey’s elections as a watershed moment for democracy is a sign of ideological bias.

The AK party still represents a vast majority of the Turkish population [Reuters]
The AK party still represents a vast majority of the Turkish population [Reuters]

Many interpreted the result of Turkey’s June 7 general election as a major defeat for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK party) and creeping authoritarianism, and a welcome victory for democracy.

Yet, it did not take long for many to realise how flawed these assumptions have been. Since the election, the political bickering mostly takes place amongst the opposition parties rather than between the AK party and the opposition.

Voting on the election of the new parliament speaker on July 1 has conspicuously demonstrated how politically fractured the opposition is. The AK party’s candidate Ismet Yilmaz won the post with 258 votes, while Republican People Party’s (CHP) Deniz Baykal lagged behind with a mere 182 votes in the fourth round of the election.

What’s behind Turkey’s ruling AK party setback?

Opposition parties nominated their own candidates separately and largely stuck to them during the vote. Despite the strong rejection of the AK party’s governance in the pre-election period, the opposition has been miles apart from each other in the post-election period, failing to agree on a joint candidate, political agenda, and vision.

Electoral decline

Because of this fracturing, it’s valid to question if the AK party has truly been defeated and if Turkish democracy has been saved by the June 7 general election.

It was the AK party’s electoral decline that led so many academics, columnists, and pundits to pass their favourable judgements on the country’s democracy.

When compared with the 2011 general election, the party had lost approximately nine percentage points, or four million voters, in electoral support. It saw its share of the vote go down from almost 50 percent to 41 percent.

Those who saw the AK party – which has enjoyed 13 years of uninterrupted rule – as pushing the country increasingly towards authoritarianism, welcomed its sub-standard electoral performance and hailed it as a sign of democracy.

However, it is difficult to depict the AK party’s electoral performance as a defeat, especially when taking into account the electoral results of major opposition parties.

The gap between the AK party and its closest competitor, the Republican People Party (CHP), was 16 percent. Such overwhelming success has been unrivalled throughout Turkey’s political history, and is rarely seen in the majority of multiparty parliamentary democracies.

The post-election political picture has revealed how indispensable the AK party has remained and will continue to remain in Turkey’s politics.


Track record 

Two factors played major roles in the growing perception that the AK party has suffered a major defeat. First, AK party’s inability to meet its own high electoral standards and, second, the electoral victory of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), which came largely at the expense of the AK party.

AK party’s past track record has led to it setting ambitious targets for itself. In this election, its goal was to gain at least 330 parliamentary seats to later be able to put Turkey’s political system to a referendum.

The same track record also led people to regard these rather ambitious aims attainable, so these goals became the benchmark used to judge the party’s electoral performance.

However, the likelihood of reaching this goal was contingent upon the HDP’s own electoral performance: had HDP failed to pass the 10 percent electoral threshold that parties need in order to attain parliamentary representation, AK party would have been the primary beneficiary of its electoral misfortune, acquiring the majority of HDP’s seats for itself.

Yet, the HDP emerged victorious with 13.12 percent of the votes and 80 seats in the parliament, and the AK party only gained 258 seats, well below its target.

Support base 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan [AFP]

Despite falling short on its goals, AK party won its 10th election victory. The post-election political picture has revealed how indispensable the AK party has remained and will continue to remain in Turkey’s politics. No coalition option is realistic unless the AK party joins it as a senior partner – any talk of defeat is farfetched.

There had been unfounded fears that if the AK party received the sufficient support needed to put the political system to a referendum, the country would have taken an authoritarian turn – in reality it is the AK party’s own electoral base that primarily prevents the country from drifting towards authoritarianism.

In this year’s election, most voters who defected from the AK party went to the HDP, rejecting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s nationalist rhetoric and protesting the stalemate in the Kurdish peace process.

In other words, though the HDP has been hailed for stopping Turkey’s purported slide towards authoritarianism, it was only able to do so thanks to former AK party voters.

Respectable public surveys have also found that AK party’s voters primarily base their support for the party on its policies and promises. IPSOS, a public survey firm, has recently found that 50 percent of AK party voters, the highest among all major parties, justify their support based on such criteria.

Voting behaviour

The voting behaviour of the AK party’s constituency is therefore very rational and performance-oriented. As this constituency becomes upwardly mobile and increasingly more integrated with the rest of the world, its members will not see Turkey’s future and fortune as being better served by a suffocating autocracy rather than a vibrant democracy.

HDP supporters celebrate what they consider to be an AK party defeat [Getty]

In contrast, the main opposition party, the CHP, more or less received the same vote, approximately 25 percent, in both the 2011 and 2015 general elections. But the party has advanced two completely different visions in these elections. Prior to 2011, the party was reactionary and regressive, anti-Kurdish rights, pro-military and lacking any meaningful economic programme.

However, the CHP struck a different chord before the 2015 general election. It adopted an economy-focused programme and a sympathetic position towards the Kurds. It pledged to take a religious liberties friendly approach to politics. Moreover, at no other time has the CHP been more representative of the identity of the Alevis, a religious minority group, in its rank and file.

Despite these radical policy changes between 2011 and 2015, the party has received more or less the same level of political support. Thus, its social base seems to be impervious to the changing dynamics within the party – and Turkey as a whole – when they go to cast their votes.

It is clear that, when set against such a static political base, the AK party’s own dynamic political base has been and will continue to be the main determinant of Turkey’s future political trajectory.

In Turkey, democracy largely remains a conservative/Islamic-Kurdish cause buttressed by the demands and energy of a younger generation. There was therefore no societal foundation for the establishment of a top-down, one-man-rule either before or after the June 7 elections. To present the outcome of these elections as a watershed moment for democracy is, if not political naivety, a sign of ideological bias. 

Galip Dalay is senior associate fellow on Turkey and Kurdish Affairs at Al Jazeera Center for Studies, research director at Al Sharq Forum.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.  


More from Author
Most Read