Turkey held its second general election in less than six months on Sunday, with early results suggesting a major surge in support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as the increasingly divided country struggles with an increase in violence and instability.
With 73 percent of votes currently counted, the AKP is leading with 51 percent, according to CNN Turk, with the secular Republican People's Party (CHP) at 23.55 percent, 11.54 percent for the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and 10.54 percent for the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).
Five months ago, voters shocked the Islamist AKP by denying it a parliamentary majority for the first time since it took power 13 years ago. The result blocked the president's dreams of altering the constitution and transferring executive powers to his office. This was largely due to the HDP crossing the 10 percent threshold required to secure parliamentary seats for the first time, a victory achieved by expanding beyond its traditional support-base to appeal to secular and liberal Turks. In the following weeks, coalition talks with the CHP and MHP fell apart and snap polls were called.
Campaigning was not as fervent as earlier in the year, when bunting festooned the streets of Istanbul while party slogans and songs blasted from temporary election offices. The toned down atmosphere partly attributable to the fact that most surveys indicated that the results will be largely unchanged from last time round.
'No peace means no stability and a bad economy.'
Outside a polling station in Istanbul's Besiktas neighborhood, advertising worker Gamza, 35, said she hoped to see Erdogan leave office, but admitted that she was not confident results would go as she wanted. "In terms of Tayyip, nothing has changed, we [opponents] have become more conscious and people are more motivated… but I'm not sure if the results will change," she said.
With the HDP almost certain to again pass the parliamentary threshold, the key question is whether the AKP can achieve a majority and allow Erdogan to continue to wield de facto presidential powers. To do so, the president's party would have to increase its share of the vote from 40.9 percent in June to more than 43 percent and retaking some key marginal provinces to reach 276 out of 550 seats, up from 258.
Related: Turkey Cracks Down on More Media Outlets, Just Days Before Elections
Conversely, winning less than 40 percent indicate that Erdogan's popularity is in an "irreversible downward trajectory," said Chatham House associate fellow Fadi Hakura, adding that the president is intrinsically tied up with the AKP in the mind of the electorate. "The Justice and Development Party is a reflection and embodiment of Erdogan. If his popularity goes down, the party will go down with it."
Ilter, a 72-year-old retired teacher, said the elections were once again all about the president. "We are expecting to give another slap to Erdogan because he hasn't learned his lesson," she said after casting her vote. "[Prime Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu is just a puppet so the AKP and Erdogan are linked together, and he's destroyed the good people of the party."
Both Erdogan and the AKP had been suffering through a noticeable dip in popularity. The June result was a significant fall from 2011's polls, when the AKP secured nearly half of the vote. The party rose to power by delivering much-needed economic expansion following a catastrophic financial crisis in 2001. But by the end of 2014, Turkey's economic growth had fallen to just 2.5 percent, while the lira, the country's currency, plummeted in value and foreign investment fell even as commodity prices continued to rise. Erdogan's approval ratings have also fallen, dropping to 37.5 percent in June, almost halving since 2011.
Watch the VICE News documentary Caught Between the Islamic State and the Kurds: Exiled From Tal Abyad:
Failure to form a single party government would force the AKP to seek an unwelcome alliance with either CHP or MHP, a scenario that would undoubtedly sideline Erdogan and potentially expose AKP leaders to graft investigations.
Aaron Stein, an associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute, sees partnering with CHP as more likely, but cautions that no scenario is likely to offer an easy solution. "All roads lead to incredible difficulties, which I think will last at least up until Christmas," he said, adding that further breakdown in negotiations could result in an ongoing cycle of failure to form governments, causing more damage to a country already struggling with broad divisions and political uncertainty.
Related: Turkish Official Claims VICE News Journalist Is Linked to PKK — But Provides No Evidence
The pugnacious, divisive Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, first as a three-term prime minister with the AKP, then as head of state since August 2014. The presidency is traditionally a largely symbolic role in Turkish politics, but since taking office, Erdogan has often bypassed Davutoglu and further tightened his control over the police, judiciary, and media.
These authoritarian tendencies have increased since his recent rebuke in the polls: Courts have prosecuted journalists responsible for critical coverage, dozens have been jailed for "insulting" the president, and members of the HDP arrested on accusations of terrorism links.
The government has also launched a two-pronged "war on terror" claimed to target both the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Islamic State (IS). The focus has been largely on the militant Kurds thus far, and attack jets have bombed their positions in Turkey and neighboring northern Iraq, reportedly killing hundreds.
'All roads lead to incredible difficulties.'
The PKK — classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and European Union due to its history of attacks on civilian and military targets — has since launched a number of assaults on army and police targets. The conflict has left dozens dead and threatened a return to the bloody three-decade insurgency the PKK waged against the Turkish government until a landmark 2013 ceasefire agreement.
There have been other security challenges. In July, a suicide bombing in the border town of Suruc left 33 pro-Kurdish activists dead.Then, on October 10, IS-linked militants killed 102 people in a double suicide bombing at a peace rally with major Kurdish presence in Ankara. It was the worst terror attack ever to take place in Turkey, but instead of bringing the country together, it highlighted how deeply it is now divided, with HDP and AKP officials blaming each other.
Related: How President Erdogan Is Casting a Dark Shadow Over Turkey's Election
Erdogan and other AKP leaders have campaigned on the message that only a single-party AKP government could bring peace and stability to Turkey. His opponents, meanwhile, blame him for the violence, claiming the strikes are a play to garner a larger share of the vote for the AKP by appealing to nationalist sentiment.
Others blame the HDP for recent unrest. Kaan, 51, said that he hope the party would not reach the vital 10 percent threshold this time. "We let them pass and this is what happened," he said, adding that he'd like to see a CHP and AKP ruling coalition instead. "We don't want them [AKP] alone, but together with CHP. I have hopes in both of them."
Despite these divisions, almost everyone appears to want an end to current instability one way or another. Many in Erdogan's conservative base have little desire for further bloodshed, especially as it starts to impact on the economy. "I want everything to be fine for the future," 55-year-old Necati said in Istanbul. "They're all related to each other. No peace means no stability and a bad economy… Very bad things happened recently: death, wars, losing our martyrs."
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck