Turkish ruling party wins back its majority

Supporters of Turkey's Justice and Development Party celebrate in front the AKP headquarters in Istanbul on Sunday.
Supporters of Turkey's Justice and Development Party celebrate in front the AKP headquarters in Istanbul on Sunday. AP

In a surprise victory that strengthened the hand of Turkey’s powerful president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party regained its parliamentary majority Sunday after an unexpected surge of support in a rerun of the June national elections.

Preliminary results gave the moderate the Islamist AKP 316 seats in the 550-seat parliament, a working majority but short of the 330 it would need under the Turkish constitution to pass legislation.

It was an amazing improvement in the percent of the vote – 49 per cent compared to 40.9 per cent in June, and more than any poll or even the AKP had predicted. State television reported voter turnout at 85.8 percent, slightly higher than in June.

In second place was the social democratic Republican People’s Party, known as the CHP, which won the 134 seats, compared with 132 seats in June.

The big losers were the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, of HDP, which fell to 59 seats from 80 and but still managed to get 11 percent of the total vote, above the 10 percent minimum required to win seats in parliament, and Turkey’s right-wing party, the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, which won only 41 seats, down from 80 in June. But its 13 percent of the total vote also guaranteed it a place in parliament.

Proclaiming victory, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu tweeted “Alhamdulillah,” – praise God – and then told a rally in his home town of Konya: “This victory is not ours; it is the nation’s victory.”

“Today is a day of victory, but a day to be modest,” he said in brief remarks before going to visit the tomb of Celalluddin Rumi, the mentor of Turkey’s main Sufi religious order, the Mevlana, often called the dervishes.

Erdogan was not on the ballot and under the Turkish constitution is supposed to be above the political fray. But he played an active role in the campaign, speaking frequently to denounce separatists of the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, after the Iraq-based guerrilla group unilaterally resumed a conflict with the Turkish state in mid-July.

He repeatedly linked the HDP with the PKK, in rhetoric apparently directed at swing voters, whose disaffection with Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style of rule had catapulted the HDP into the parliament in June for the first time in the history of a Turkish Kurdish party.

At the same time, the state’s hard-line response, bombing PKK positions in Iraq and its affiliate in Syria, the People’s Protection Units or YPG, apparently enabled him take votes from the right-wing nationalist party, which had a strong anti-Kurdish stance. The MHP has long opposed negotiating a resolution to the three- decades-long war with the PKK – a process that Erdogan launched in 2013 and then haltedon the eve of the June elections.

It appears that the violence carried out by the Islamic State extremists helped convince voters that Turkey was heading into a period of growing instability and that a strong man would be better able to cope with it than a divided government.

The Islamic State’s first major attack in Suruc July 20 killed 33 members of a pro-Kurdish group. A twin suicide bombing at a pro-Kurdish demonstration in Ankara Oct. 10 left 102 people dead.

Despite the AKP’s gains, it fell far short of winning 367 seats, or two thirds, required to amend the constitution to strengthen Erdogan’s office.

A random sampling of 10 voters in central Ankara Sunday found broad support for a single-party government.

“The economy, stability and security must prevail,” said Alper Toprak, 19, a butcher in a local market. “In the past four months, this country lost time. A single party will be established.”

“I will continue supporting the team that I trust and I believe in,” said Haki Nas, 40, a teacher. “I hope after the election that stability will prevail.”

Probably the most closely watched result, other than the AKP’s victory, was the HDP, for there was a wide expectation of disturbances, even riots, if the pro-Kurdish party was ousted from parliament just five months after entering it.

Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic human rights lawyer who is the party’s co-president, made clear he is against any such reaction.

“We have been respectful of the voters from the beginning and expected the same respect from the beginning,” he said.

Acknowledging the loss of 1 million voters, he said it had not been a “free, fair, equal election,” but added: “we managed to survive the doomsday and achieved 11 per cent.”

Due to the fall in seats for MHP, HDP expects to enter the parliament as the third biggest party.

Perhaps the biggest setback to the HDP after its remarkable showing in June was the PKK’s decision to restart its violent confrontation with the Turkish state. Demirtash repeatedly pleaded publicly for the PKK to lay down its arms, but by the time it had agreed to a cease-fire, Erdogan and Davutoglu made it clear they would not stop their bombing campaign.

The biggest challenge facing the new government will be ending the fighting and reviving negotiations leading to a permanent settlement.

Special correspondent Guvenc reported from Ankara.

Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc