History was in the making last week when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) secured its second term in office by notching a 12% increase in votes over its 2002 election victory. The result marked a spectacular victory for the incumbent government, trouncing the main opposition.
Turkey's AKP ran unchallenged by its chief rival - the Republican Peoples' Party (CHP) - winning 46.6% of the national vote and securing 340 seats in a 550 member parliament. That the CHP was left in the dust was not altogether unsurprising, with CHP leader Deniz Baykal long struggling to find a chink in the armour of the ruling party. The centre-left party won a mere 20.85% of the vote, losing 60 parliamentary seats - leaving them with 112 for the coming term. This is despite the electoral alliance that was forged with the Democratic Left Party (DSP.) A defiant Baykal may now not be able to resist demands for his resignation from party ranks. The prospect of swimming to Greece's Rhodes - as he joked during the elections should the CHP not come to power under his leadership - may not seem so unappealing if opposition in the party swells.
The CHP thought it had found a window following inconclusive presidential elections in April/ May. A chain reaction of events characterised the political crisis at the time: AKP fielded their own Abdullah Gul as the presidential candidate, the military issued a veiled ultimatum warning that Turkey's secularist political system was under threat by Islamist forces and Turkey's constitutional court in turn ruled the election null and void due to an insufficiently large quorum in parliament. The AKP called snap parliamentary elections this July. That the ruling party was plotting to impose conservative Islam on the secularist republic by taking the presidency was the thrust of the secularists' election campaign - one that ultimately failed to pay much in way of dividends at the ballot box.
The AKP on the other hand saw the political crisis as presenting an opportunity - one that would confirm, if not strengthen, its mandate by winning a clear majority in the snap elections. The ruling party characterised the military's statement as meddling with the democratic process, a position articulated by Brussels as well. There is little doubt that AKP feels vindicated by the elections results, compared to a crest-fallen CHP.
Turkey's generals however have not suffered a clear-cut loss. The military's statement in April had the required effect at the time - aided by the ruling of the constitutional court - forcing the AKP to back down. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan since announced that the ruling party would seek a consensus candidate for the presidency and engage with the opposition to this end. This comes despite the fact that Abdullah Gul has been loath to withdraw as a candidate. Despite the April/May crisis, Gul interpreted the AKP's recent electoral fortunes as a vote of confidence in his presidential candidacy.
Although securing a greater portion of national votes from 2002, the ruling party enjoys fewer seats in parliament than previously, which are now occupied by nationalist and independent Kurdish deputies. With 340 seats in parliament, the AKP must secure a quorum of 367 for approval of a presidential candidate in the first round of votes, meaning that it does not have the political weight to push through its own candidate without engaging the opposition. But the AKP may now have to seek less of a consensus in the presidential vote than was originally expected. With its sizeable representation in parliament, the National Action Party (MHP) has agreed to attend rather than boycott the presidential vote, providing the AKP with the required number of parliamentary attendees for a successful outcome.
The elections have been described by political commentators as a battle for Turkey's soul - a partial reflection of reality. The AKP' s electoral success not only derived from its ability to capitalise on the political crisis earlier this year and its predictable success at harnessing votes from Turkey's more religiously conservative electorate. Nor just from the lack of an effective opposition. AKP's popularity derives from its straight-talking leadership, its impressive economic record, its economically liberal and business-friendly posture and the measures it has taken to improve the lot of Turkey's less well-to do citizens.
While the AKP has promised a continuation of reform, fiscal discipline, economic development and a continuation of the EU-accession drive, the opposition has struggled to differentiate itself by offering attractive alternatives. It is not only the business success of Anatolian traders and businessmen that have added to AKP's tally of votes, those of secularist businessmen have also factored.
Yet, misperceptions in the Western press over why the ruling party was able to secure another five years in office persist. The vast majority of Turks want both democracy and secularism, along with economic welfare and a cohesive, stable, transparent and competent government that responds to public needs. The AKP has tried to reassure the electorate that it will not abandon Ataturk's secularist principles. Should such reassurance prove hollow, Turkey's military could once again turn the screws.
According to Atilla Yesilada, strategist and analyst at information platform Istanbul Analytics, "Might prevails...and there are many Machiavellian ways to stop the freight train called the AKP.'' That said, the military would be reluctant to act without widespread popular support, as existed during Turkey's previous military coups.
The ruling party will not rest on its laurels, however, or have the chance to bask for long in the afterglow of an election victory. A president must be appointed within 30 days of parliamentary elections, with further political turbulence not to be discounted.
Meanwhile, the 14.3% vote secured by the MHP and its 71 seat representation in parliament testified to the rise in nationalism in Turkey, fuelled by the undeterred presence of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, annoyance at the instability next door along with frustration and disillusionment with the EU. Concerns over the PKK in northern Iraq and the status of oil rich Kirkuk will not disappear on their own, and following the exhaustion of political efforts, could well require a cross-border incursion. Turkey is not yet clear of choppy political waters.