- - Sunday, June 7, 2015

ISTANBULTurkey’s self-styled strongman president suffered a serious setback after voters unexpectedly backed a string of opposition parties in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has dominated the political scene for more than a dozen years, campaigned on behalf of his former party, the Islamist-rooted Peace and Development Party (AKP), appealing to voters to elect at least 300 parliamentarians to help push through a constitution that would expand his powers as an executive.

But Sunday’s stunning results make that a distant prospect.

With 99 percent of the vote counted, the AKP had the support of about 41 percent of voters, according to state-run TRT television. According to projections, that would give it some 258 seats — 18 below the minimum needed to keep its majority. The AKP received around 49 percent of the vote in general elections in 2011. The setback would be the first time that the party is faced with falling short of a majority to rule alone since it swept into power in 2002.

“This could bring an effective end to the aspirations of the president to transform the political system,” Ilter Turan, a professor of international relations at Bilgi University in Istanbul, said in an interview. “But we’ll have to see whether he gives up his ambitions.”

A strong showing by a pro-Kurdish political party running on a liberal platform crossed the 10 percent threshold and gained more than 70 deputies in a popular challenge to the dominance of Mr. Erdogan and the AKP.

“These results represent a happy embrace with the people — the national election threshold was a shame,” Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) co-chairman Figen Yuksekdag told supporters as results were announced. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas said bluntly, “As of now, the discussions on a presidential system, a dictatorship, has come to an end,” he said.

The AKP remains the largest single party in the country, largely on the strength of Mr. Erdogan’s charisma as he campaigned across the country for his former party. The main secular opposition Republican Peoples Party, or CHP, was seen getting about 25 percent of the vote, while the nationalist MHP was expected to get under 17 percent.

In the supposedly nonpartisan post of president, Mr. Erdogan himself was not on the ballot. Still, the election was widely seen as a referendum on whether to give his office the powers that would significantly change Turkey’s democracy and prolong his reign as the country’s most powerful politician.

The election results also will be felt in Washington, where the Obama administration has found Mr. Erdogan to be a difficult partner in dealing with two of the region’s biggest crises on Turkey’s border: the battle against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and the civil war in Syria. The increasing U.S. reliance on Kurdish fighters in Iraq against the Islamic State also has sparked friction with Ankara.

The result sets up a season of political bargaining and coalition-building that Turkey hasn’t seen since the AKP first rose to dominance. After the final official results are confirmed, there is a 45-day period in which a new government needs to be formed or new elections are called.

In Istanbul, Simak Bahar, a 65-year-old jeweler, said he voted for the ruling AKP because he is a single-issue voter: a stalwart supporter of Mr. Erdogan.

“I support them because of Erdogan,” Mr. Bahar said. “He’s a real person.”

AKP’s rise and fall

Indeed, over the past decade, the AKP had curbed hyperinflation and heralded an era of economic development in which the standard of living rose for much of Turkey’s working class. Breaking with the strict secular state model established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk a century ago, Mr. Erdogan came to power with the promise of marrying democracy with a strong Islamic faith.

But in recent years, accusations of corruption combined with Mr. Erdogan’s rising authoritarianism dogged the AKP’s reputation and tarnished its promise as a model for political Islam in the region.

In late 2013, police arrested members of Mr. Erdogan’s inner circle in a corruption investigation that went to the heart of Turkey’s leadership and exposed the dark side of its economic success.

But the government used its parliamentary majority to quash the investigations and moved to arrest and reassign police and prosecutors behind the operation. Mr. Erdogan has accused the judiciary and police of being a part of a “parallel state” loyal to Pennsylvania-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen, whose movement broke ranks with the AKP in 2013.

Now that AKP has been denied a strong majority in parliament, Mr. Erdogan’s former political allies almost certainly will answer for their alleged misdeeds, say analysts.

“This is the beginning of the end of AKP. For the first time in 13 years, the AKP is not going to be the majority in the parliament,” said Behlul Ozkan, a professor of international relations at Marmara University in Istanbul. “Now the opposition can send any minister or deputy to the constitutional court.”

Turkey’s world standing also plummeted after the brutal crackdown of protesters during the 2013 uprising sparked by a peaceful movement to save a central park in Istanbul.

That, coupled with a religiously conservative agenda, alienated many secular Turks, who felt their more open, Western-oriented lifestyle was threatened by further government restrictions.

“I don’t like this Islamist government, and I’m not happy with the situation,” Turker Okumus, a 44-year-old small-business owner in Istanbul, said after exiting his local polling place.

Another crucial issue was the fate of the peace process between Turkey and its restive ethnic Kurdish minority in the southeast. The HDP — which has organic ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — campaigned as a socially liberal peace partner to end the conflict that has claimed more than 40,000 lives since the 1980s.

Exiting an Istanbul polling station, 51-year-old HDP voter Polat Kit said he supported the pro-Kurdish party because of its anti-discrimination policies for women and minorities as well as the peace process with the PKK.

“There is a war in our country, and they kill our people, our children,” Mr. Kit said. “We want to have peace and save lives.”

Tensions remain high in Turkey’s predominately Kurdish southeast, especially after more than 100 attacks against HDP offices during the campaign season and twin bombs Friday that killed at least two people and injured hundreds at a campaign rally in Diyarbakir.

Now, Mr. Ozkan said, Turkey’s leadership will be forced to deal with the new parliamentary bloc on equal terms as a government whose absolute majority is no longer assured.

Mr. Erdogan is in deep trouble,” he said. “He should now forget the presidential system and find a way to survive.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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