Claiming victory for his Justice and Development party (AKP) in last week’s historic national election, Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu was defiant. “This election has shown that the backbone of Turkey is the AKP,” he told supporters at party headquarters in Ankara. “The AKP is the only party that is in all of the regions, all provinces, and embraces all of the citizens.” An analyst with Al Jazeera television, a sometimes boosterish outlet for the AKP’s Islamist agenda, offered a rougher assessment: “It was an image of confidence on a very bad night.”
Turkey’s June 7 parliamentary election was, in fact, a rebuke to the AKP and its increasingly autocratic leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Though the AKP received 42 percent of the vote nationally, its failure to capture a majority of seats means it has lost control of parliament for the first time since coming to power in 2002. It can no longer govern alone.
“There is no doubt that this is great news for Turkish democracy,” Mustafa Akyol, an author and columnist at the oldest English-language newspaper in Turkey, Hurriyet Daily News, told me. “The AKP was clearly headed towards illiberal democracy—or elected dictatorship—assuming the support of a great majority of society.”
Whatever direction Turkey’s democracy now takes, this over-whelmingly Muslim nation remains torn by clashing visions of the role of religion in politics and society. The dominant forces in the contest will shape not only the future of Turkey’s domestic politics, but its relationship with its Muslim neighbors—and with the democratic West.
Turkey’s secular government, adopted by its modern founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923, retains strong cultural and political support. Yet many ordinary citizens resent the hard-line secularism—supported by military coups—that often seems at odds with their religious values. This helps explain the remarkable rise of the AKP over the last decade.
Promising to infuse Islamic ideals into civic and political life, the party won three consecutive parliamentary elections by ever-increasing margins—a first in Turkey’s republican history. After three terms as prime minister, Erdogan was elected president in 2014 with more than half of the popular vote, in the first direct election for that post in Turkey’s history. Following Sunday’s election, the AKP commands 258 seats in a 550-seat parliament. It remains the most widely supported party in Turkey.
Nevertheless, Erdogan has overplayed his hand. In recent years he has faced intense criticism for jailing unfriendly journalists, prosecuting individuals for “insulting” public officials, muzzling social media, and sacking hundreds of police and judges. The government violently quashed demonstrations in 2013, after thousands gathered peacefully in Istanbul’s Gezi Park to protest the park’s demolition. A recent Freedom House report faulted the government for “pronounced political interference” in the judicial system. Corruption charges leveled in 2013 continue to dog the administration.
Sahin Alpay, an Istanbul-based columnist for the English-language daily Today’s Zaman, told me he initially supported Erdogan and his economic reforms, but that his governing style has become “increasingly arbitrary and authoritarian.” Ilter Turan, a political science professor at Bilgi University, agrees. “The word ‘terrorism’ has been expanded by the government to cover anything they don’t like,” he told me over cups of tea. “The president is blatantly violating the constitution.”
Erdogan, in fact, was hoping the AKP could secure enough parliamentary seats to amend Turkey’s constitution and transform it into a presidential system, strengthening his executive powers in the process. But the plan found only modest support in opinion polls. All told, the AKP lost 70 seats in parliament, leaving it 18 short of a majority.
Anxiety and anger over the AKP’s agenda clearly energized the opposition. The Nationalist Movement party (MHP) won 16.5 percent of the vote, picking up 80 seats. The Republican People’s party (CHP), the founding party of modern Turkey and the main opposition party, collected 25 percent of the vote and 132 seats in parliament. The CHP’s commitment to secular government finds fervent adherents not only among party members, but among people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.