Why It’s a Big Deal: Erdogan’s Surprise Defeat in Turkey

The surprise defeat for Turkish President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is a big victory in the battle against Islamism.

The speculation leading up to the election was not whether Erdogan and AKP would keep their majority. The question was whether they'd build enough of a majority in parliament to hold a referendum and adopt a presidential system that would solidify Erdogan's grip and complete Turkey's descent into authoritarianism.

Instead – despite the AKP's stifling of the media, rolling back of freedoms, organizational advantages and willingness to use fraud – the AKP lost its majority. It earned only 40% of the vote. The Islamists' were not just stopped; they were shoved backwards.

The big story is the victory by the People's Democratic Party (HDP), led by Selahattin Demiratas. Erdogan called him an "infidel" and claimed he is part of the PKK terrorist group. HDP won 12%, crossing the 10% threshold for parliamentary representation that many assumed the party would not achieve. The main opposition party, Republican People's Party (CHP), got 25% and the Nationalist Movement Party got 16%.

"As of this moment, the debate on the presidency, the debate about dictatorship, has come to an end in Turkey. Turkey has returned from the edge of a cliff," declared HDP's leader Demiratas.

The HDP victory is especially impressive because of how it reached beyond the 20% of the population that is Kurdish. Far from being an ethnic party, HDP won over secular-democrats, women and even homosexuals by running a gay candidate. About 40% of its candidates are female and other candidates are Christian and Yazidi.

HDP's rise is stunning and a testament to the backlash against AKP. Demiratas' brother is part of the PKK and he sought to join it himself as a youth. Less than a year ago, 85% of Turks said they would “never” vote for HDP. That percentage fell to a mere 15% just three months ago. At the same time, half the population said they hoped HDP would get at least 10% of the vote so it could be in the parliament.

Erdogan has been in power since 2002, rising to become the king of the Islamist movement worldwide. He was rated as the second most influential Muslim on earth in 2012. He fell to sixth place in 2013, where he remains.

Erdogan seemed to have mastered the strategy of gradualism; advancing the Islamist agenda with growing popularity and without jeopardizing Western favor.

Erdogan's Turkey became the Muslim Brotherhood's best friend, began hosting Hamas terrorists and even covertly armed Al-Qaeda in Syria. He spread his neo-Ottoman ideology by building mosques around the world, even setting his sights on Maryland, Native American tribes and Cuba.

Turkey's increasing antagonism towards the West and its authoritarianism never once prompted a public questioning of its place in NATO.

The tide turned in the summer of 2013 with popular protests at Gezi Park. A July 2014 Pew poll showed a major shift in attitudes towards the Islamist government. About 51% of Turks said the country was headed in the wrong direction and 49% supported the Gezi Park protests (40% did not). The Turkish people’s opinion on Erdogan was evenly split with 48% on each side.

Although the protests eventually waned, the scandals did not. A power struggle emerged among the Islamists and there were national scandals over high-level corruption, collusion with Iranmedia censorship, social media bans, attempts to control the judiciary and Internet, political purges and a cover-up of the government’s arming of Al-Qaeda.

Trust in the AKP collapsed. As Dr. Daniel Pipes' article on AKP's voter fraud points out, a poll last month found that 77% of Turks disapproved of the Islamist government and 73% opposed Erdogan's plan to transform Turkey into a presidential system so he'd be more powerful than ever. A full 43% did not believe the elections would be fair (including 11% of the AKP's own members), up from 28% in 2007 and 30% in 2011.

Turks also soured on Erdogan's confrontational attitude towards Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Whereas 65% saw Syria as the biggest issue in 2013, it now stands at 20%. The poll showed that anti-American sentiment remains high, however.

A recent poll also found that only 45% define Turkey as an "Islamic country," indicating that attachment to its secular identity remains strong. Some argue that Turkey is actually becoming more secular.

A 2008 poll determined that 84% of Turkish parents believe the youth are less religious. And there may be more modernist trends emerging among the religious, as seen in the popularity of the "Rocker Imam," a mosque leader who is also in a rock band and was investigated by the Turkish government.

What's most exciting about the election results in Turkey is that it is part of a broader anti-Islamist trend: The uprising against Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh; the Muslim Brotherhood's landslide defeat in the Libyan elections; the Ennahda Party being electorally overthrown in Tunisia and the popularly-supported removal of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian military.

The breakthrough can be powerfully described through the words of Levent Gultekin, an Islamic commentator in Turkey who advocates modernist reform:

"Gaining power has not stained Islamism—it has destroyed Islamism. Islamism has nothing to give to society anymore because Islamists have nothing left to say. What Christianity experienced in the West in the 17th and 18th centuries, Islam and Muslims shall experience now and in the future."



Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.

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