No pressing matter of state like the economy or foreign policy compelled Alayrettin Ayyaldiz to head to a polling station in his modest Istanbul neighborhood Sunday and cast his ballot for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. It was a vote of faith and emotion.
“We’re totally connected with our hearts to the AKP,” said the 38-year-old vegetable and fruit vendor, referring to the party’s acronym. “It’s not about what they do. It’s because we love them. They’re of us. They’re of the people.”
The Islamist-rooted party, riding a wave of support from the pious poor and the newly emergent Muslim middle class, handily defeated its opponents to hold a majority of parliamentary seats, setting up a third term for Erdogan, who has been in office since 2003.
However, it fell just short of the 330 seats required to push through constitutional changes that would probably include resolving the country’s painful Kurdish problem by calling for a referendum rather than wrangling with parliament.
“He needs to consult with as broad a coalition as possible to change the constitution,” said Cengiz Aktar, a university professor and journalist. “And on the second-biggest challenge, the Kurdish issue, he also needs to consult. If he gets overconfident and makes his own constitution and his own Kurdish solution, they won’t work.”
For his part, Erdogan struck a conciliatory tone in televised remarks. “The winner of the June 12 elections is our people, whether they voted for the AK Party or not,” he told supporters. “Our nation assigned us to draft the new constitution. They gave us a message to build the new constitution through consensus and negotiation. We will discuss the new constitution with opposition parties, civil society groups and academics. We will seek the broadest consensus.”
Interest in the election was fervent; 81% of eligible voters cast ballots. With all of the votes counted, results showed the AKP with just over 50% of the vote and 326 seats in the 550-seat chamber. Its main rival, the center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP, won only 25% of the vote, good for 135 seats and better than its 2007 showing but low enough to prompt a leadership change within the organization, analysts say.
The right-wing Nationalist Movement Party appeared to have broken through the 10% hurdle required to gain a block of seats in parliament, with about 13% of the vote and 53 seats, despite a series of sex scandals. Independent candidates mostly representing the country’s Kurdish minority appeared set to win about 36 seats.
In addition to a solid core of pious Turks who voted for the AKP because they identify with its conservative values, voters interviewed in different parts of Istanbul expressed concern about the economy and the issue of resolving the decades-old conflict with ethnic Kurds, who account for a fifth of Turkey’s 75 million people. Constitutional changes championed by the AKP and others would expand the definition of citizenship to include Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities.
“I am Turkish, but I think the most important issue standing in the way of Turkey’s success is the Kurdish issue,” said Mustafa Ozturk, a 58-year-old printer in central Istanbul.
“The Kurdish issue is the No. 1 problem in our attempt to become more democratic,” said Irfan Yalcin, a 51-year-old graphic designer. “Having this problem and talking about democracy is absurd.”
Few voters discussed Turkey’s longstanding ambition to join the European Union, a reflection of how much the country’s political and economic orientation under Erdogan has shifted toward the eastern lands of the former Ottoman Empire.
Many voters said they were troubled by the rising income disparity of the last few years. Though Turkey’s economy has grown dramatically over the last decade, affluence has been uneven, many complain. “I’m a military officer and I’m driving this taxi on weekends,” said Ahmet Zorlu, when asked about his voting priorities. “That’s enough of an answer.”
But though the AKP espouses economic policies that favor big business and investors, its government has managed to cultivate an image of being close to the working classes. It is close to Islamic charities that help the poor, has improved health services and has launched showy public works projects. Despite the AKP’s pro-business slant, voters said they doubted that any other party would pursue different economic policies.
Those voting against the AKP said they were worried that Erdogan’s ambitions had turned into hubris, that he had created a cult of personality that threatened the very democracy his party had invigorated when it came to power early in the last decade. Erdogan says he plans to transform Turkey’s political system from a European parliamentary model into an American-style presidential system with a strong executive branch.
“If he does what he really wants to do, it will be scary,” said Nilgun Celikbas, a 60-year-old interior designer in the swanky Bebek district of Istanbul who voted against Erdogan. “Right now, we have a picture of prosperity. But in the future, I think he will be dangerous.”