8 Jun 2015

Turkish elections: the key questions

Turkey’s AK party has lost its majority at a general election after 13 years in government – a blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was seeking to cement his grip on power.

Supporters of Turkey's AKP (Getty)

What happened at the elections?

The AKP, founded by Erdogan, failed to win an outright majority in parliamentary elections for the first time in more than a decade, but is trying to form a coalition government.

The result may prove fatal to Erdogan’s plans to assume even greater powers. He had hoped for a decisive victory that would allow him to change Turkey’s constitution and create a US-style presidential system.

His loss was the Kurdish nationalists’ gain. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party (HDP) is on track to take more than 12 per cent of the vote, allowing it to enter parliament for the first time.

The HDP managed to appeal beyond its Kurdish heartlands to secularists and left wingers disillusioned with Erdogan. But he is still in a powerful position. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said he expected him to invite the AKP’s leader, Ahmet Davutoglu, to form the next government because it had come first – describing the results as testament to Turkey’s “mature”, multi-party democracy.

Who is Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan was prime minister for 11 years before becoming Turkey’s first directly-elected president in 2014. His Justice and Development (AK) party has won three general elections since 2002.

Critics accuse him of trying to turn a secular country into an Islamic one. When he was mayor of Istanbul, the sale of alcohol was banned in cafes, and Erdogan, a devout Muslim, has never made any secret of the fact that he wants Turkey to reflect its Islamic heritage.

In 1999, he was jailed for reciting a poem saying: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers….” This was seen as incitement to violence and religious hatred and he spent four months in prison.

As well as a crackdown on alcohol sales, Erdogan has sought to ban adultery and has championed the wearing of the headscarf. Although he still enoys considerable support, secular Turks have become increasingly weary of him, particularly in urban Istanbul.

Why has Erdogan been accused of authoritarianism?

Erdogan has been accused of moving Turkey in an authoritarian direction, presiding over the arrest and trial of hundreds of critics and journalists.

He has described social media as “the worst menace to society”, while vowing to “wipe out” Twitter.

His outburst was a response to the widespread use of social media during the 2013 protests, driven by the paucity of news about what was happening across Turkey on the major television networks.

Erdogan has been able to rely on much of the media for support or at least a willingness on their part to toe the line.

Gezi Park, Istanbul, 2013 (Getty)

Why were there protests against Erdogan in 2013?

The election results could be seen as the culmination of nationwide protests against Erdogan’s government in 2013 following an initial demonstration against plans to redevelop Gezi Park in Istanbul and build a new mosque.

What started as a small protest escalated after riot police used water cannon and tear gas against demonstrators. The protests spread to many other parts of Turkey, with thousands of people injured.

To many demonstrators, the plans for Gezi Park smacked of further Islamisation of a secular country. They also added to the perception that the AKP had grown increasingly arrogant and was not prepared to tolerate dissent. It paid the price for this at the elections.

Will Turkish foreign policy change now?

For years, Israel regarded Turkey as a Muslim ally, but Erdogan has criticised its treatment of the Palestinians and condemned the 2014 Gaza war. A previously warm relationship is now decidedly cold, but he has been applauded in the Arab world for his stance.

His most controversial policy has been in Syria, where good relations with Damascus have given way to hostility since Bashar al-Assad’s violent response to protests in 2011.

The Turkish government supports the Free Syrian Army and has provided it with arms to fight the Assad regime – a policy that has not been popular in Turkey. The election result – and the AKP’s reduced standing – has implications for Turkey’s future role in the Middle East, with speculation that Ankara will be forced to pursue a less activist, and more cautious, approach.

There has been talk of Turkey joining the anti-Islamic State coalition, but this has not happened, and Ankara is often accused of colluding with IS, whose foreign fighters have been using the country as a gateway to Syria.

Coalition countries have complained about Ankara’s unwillingness to let them use Turkish air bases to attack IS. Could the elections result in Turkey choosing a more pro-western path?