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Turks Block Erdogan's Presidential Ambitions In Historic Parliamentary Elections

Erdogan had hoped to transform turkey into a presidential system, a move that critics feared would would encourage his authoritarian tendencies.
John Beck/VICE News

Turkish voters blocked President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's plans to alter the constitution and boost his own powers Sunday in a general election that saw his allied Justice and Development Party (AKP) lose its parliamentary majority.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), meanwhile, crossed the 10 percent threshold required to secure parliamentary seats for the first time - a significant victory achieved after by expanding beyond its traditional support-base to appeal to secular and liberal Turks.


Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics for over a decade: First as a three-term prime minister with the AKP, and as head of state since last August. The presidency is traditionally a largely symbolic role in Turkish politics, but Erdogan often bypassed Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and further tightened his control over the police, judiciary, and media. In recent months this included prosecuting journalists responsible for critical coverage, and even people who insulted him on social media.

Erdogan had hoped that the elections would give the AKP a large enough majority (330 out of the 550 parliamentary seats) to constitutionally transform turkey into a presidential system and transfer executive powers to him, a move that critics feared would further encourage his authoritarian tendencies.

Related: Erdogan Hopes to Further Consolidate Powers in Turkish Election

But AKP secured 41 percent of the vote, a significant drop from 2011, when it secured nearly half. This means that while it won far more seats (258 down from 327) than any other party, it failed to reach the 276 needed to form a government alone, and is far from the super majority required for constitutional change. Its leaders will now need to form a coalition government and seek an unwelcome alliance with one of Turkey's second and third largest parliamentary blocs, the Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).


The election results constitute the biggest challenge to AKP's 13 years in power, but Davutoglu struck a positive tone in his "balcony speech" in Ankara, insisting that the results showed the party was the "backbone of Turkey."

After news of the results spread, joyful HDP supporters took to the streets across the country. Large crowds gathered outside the party's Istanbul headquarters, beeping their horns, cheering wildly, and off fireworks.

HDP supporters celebrate outside the party's Istanbul headquarters. Photo by John Beck

Speaking at a packed press conference shortly after preliminary results were announced, HDP leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag said that the result was a vote against Erdogan's presidential ambitions, the "end of dictatorship discussions," and a victory for all of Turkey's oppressed groups.

"HDP's sun is enough, we don't need the lightbulb [AKP's logo]," Demirtas said to cheers from supporters assembled outside watching his remarks broadcast live. He went on say that those who had switched allegiance from other parties would not let be disappointed.

IHDP and its supporters have sought to portray the party as the progressive face of Turkish politics, pushing women's rights and LGBT issues alongside their traditional focus on the so-called "Kurdish problem." It has more parliamentary candidates from minority groups than any other party, including the openly gay Baris Sulu, a first for Turkey.

"We don't want a single man, we don't want a single party, we want plurality. We'll create a new Turkey together," added Yuksekdag.


Demirtas also offered his condolences to the victims of a twin bomb blasts at an HDP rally in southern Diyarbakir on Friday that killed four people and injured 200 others. It was the most severe in a series of attacks on HDP members and buildings in the election run-up.

HDP's Demirtas and Yuksekdag speaking to supporters after the party gained its first parliamentary seats. (Photo by John Beck)

The vote came at a difficult time for the AKP. It rose to popularity by delivering much needed economic growth following a catastrophic financial crisis in 2001. But by the end of 2014, growth had fallen to just 2.5 percent, while the lira plummeted in value and foreign investment fell even as commodity prices continued to rise.

This is partly the result of Erdogan's own behavior, Kemal Kirisci, director of the Center on the United States and Europe's Turkey Project at The Brookings Institution told VICE News. The President has attacked central bank policies, the banking regulators, and what he's christened the "interest rate lobby" - all while continuing to spend in an increasingly extravagant manner, including a $615 million, 1,150-room presidential palace more than 30 times the size of the White House.

Meanwhile his foreign policy decisions have also proven divisive. An "open-door policy" to those fleeing the conflict has led to an influx of more than two million people from neighboring Syria, and diplomatic spats with Egypt, Israel, and Libya, have not proven universally popular either.

But Erdogan is likely to remain the most prominent man in Turkish politics and still enjoys strong support among his religiously conservative base. In the run up to elections, many AKP supporters remained adamant that the president was still the best man to lead Turkey.


"It's what we need now…we need a strong leader," Firat, a 30-year old shopkeeper in Istanbul's largely pro-AKP Tophane neighborhood, told VICE news on Sunday. "This government has been in power for 12 years, it saw Turkey developed as a success," he said, referring to the economic growth and development which had taken place during its time in office.

A number of opinion polls showed that Turks did not share Erdogan's presidential ambitions. Metin, a 22-year-old habitual AKP supporter told VICE News that he didn't want to see the constitution change, but was also was suspicious of HDP so hadn't voted.

HDP supporters celebrate in Istanbul. (Photo by John Beck)

Others were more openly hostile. Huseyin, 45, who had voted for HDP, said he did so in the hope that the pro-Kurdish party would pass the threshold and block Erdogan's plans. "It won't be good for the country [if Erdogan is succesful], he wants the Ottoman Empire to continue," he told VICE News outside a polling station in Okmeydani, Istanbul. "The disappearance of democracy, that's what the presidency means."

Gulseren, 62, who had just voted for the CHP, agreed, telling VICE News that stopping the president's plan was "very important for our future, and for our children's' future."

In order to cross the vital 10 percent threshold, the HDP needed to draw in voters who would normally back other parties. The social-democratic CHP were most likely to lose out.

Kurds have long faced discrimination and persecution in Turkey, and some in the CHP and elsewhere remain suspicious of HDP and allege it has links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which waged a 30-year insurgency against the Turkish government. At a polling station in Istanbul's Besiktas neighborhood, Yasin, 22, described it as a "terrorist party."


"I don't want any favors from them at all," he told VICE News. "I don't trust them."

Related: Syrian Refugees Can't Vote in Turkey's Election - But They Have A Lot Riding on the Outcome

But others have switched sides. At the Okmeydani polling station, Sisan Georgu, 58, said she expected the elections to move Turkey "from darkness into light," adding that the comparatively youthful and charasmatic Demirtas was the man to do it. "We believe that young people's place is in politics, this is the brightness," she said.

Her 23-year-old son Mehmet added that he knew of many other Turks who had shifted their votes from CHP to HDP, especially those closer to his age. "Everyone thinks he [Demirtas] is sincere, even though some don't like the Kurdish," he said. Others said they had convinced their parents to back the HDP also.

HDP supporters react as Demirtas and Yuksekdag appear at a window following a Sunday night press conference. Photo by John Beck

Erdogan, who as head of state is supposed to remain nonpartisan, campaigned relentlessly for the AKP in a move that Kirisci described as a "pretty much blatant violation of the constitution."

Demirtas said while placing his vote Sunday that the electoral race had not been a "fair and equal one," remarks that were echoed by CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Related: Volunteers Rush to Monitor Turkish Elections Amid Fears of Fraud

Turkey's electoral history has been seen as broadly legitimate, but last year's polls were marred by allegations of irregularities and vote rigging. The Supreme Electoral Board (YSK), which oversees Turkish elections, ordered only two reruns despite 1,400 allegations of irregularities, mostly from opposition parties, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. This time around, the YSK has also rejected complaints made by opposition groups against Erdogan's open backing of the AKP.

As a result, trust in the electoral system is declining. Forty-three percent of eligible voters thought the polls would not be fair, according to a study published last month by professors Ali Carkoglu and S. Erdem Aytac of Koc University. In response, volunteers rushed to join civil society monitoring groups, such as Oy ve Otesi ("Vote and Beyond"), which deployed a team of more than 60,000 volunteers on Sunday. Social media platforms were inundated with allegations of irregularities throughout the day.

A young girl celebrates outside HDP's Istanbul headquarters on Sunday night. Photo by John Beck

The polls appear to have passed without any major incidents of malpractice, however. But now the AKP must embark on the process of forming a coalition. The outcome is uncertain, and the lira fell to almost record lows against the dollar on Monday morning as markets reacted to the news.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck