ISTANBUL — The long-dominant party of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan triumphed in elections Sunday, winning an outright majority of seats in a closely watched vote that has big ramifications for the NATO member nation, which is also a key player in several Middle East conflicts and the Syrian refugee crisis.
Preliminary results showed Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) set to win at least 49% of the vote and a majority of seats in parliament, a stunning reversal of fortune after the AKP won only about 41% of the vote in the inconclusive general elections in June.
Sunday's vote was riddled with scattered allegations of irregularities, but none suggested systematic fraud. Official results are set to be announced within two weeks.
With nearly all votes counted, the results showed the center-left Republican People's Party (CHP) with 26% of the vote, the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) with 12% of the vote, and the pro-Kurdish and liberal People's Democratic Party (HDP) winning just a fraction over the 10% threshold needed to gain a bloc in Turkish parliament.
The results differed drastically from repeated polls showing Turks would vote largely as they did in the June election.
The surprise outcome vindicated the political calculations of the AKP. Erdogan largely scuttled serious attempts to form a coalition after June and instead gambled on another vote, this time amid an intensified conflict with Kurdish rebels.
It turned out to be a good bet.
The ruling party drew votes from both nationalists and the Kurds concerned about security woes that were at least partially stirred up by Erdogan and his allies.
"The Turkish people backed the narrative of stability, the narrative in which AKP argued that the reason why Turkey was going through instability was because it has lost the ability to form a single-party government," said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and scholar at Carnegie Europe.
In public pronouncements, AKP leaders sought to soothe the wounds of a country battered by six months of brutal and divisive politics. "Today, you will greet your neighbors and you will embrace your brothers more than ever," Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told supporters. "There is no loser today. The only winner is our nation, our republic, our democracy."
But AKP insiders described the vote result as a victory by ordinary Turks over those seeking to claw their way into power by practicing divisive identity politics.
"The Turkish people don't want a discriminating elite," Harun Armagan, an AKP spokesman at the party's election headquarters in Istanbul, told BuzzFeed News. "They want a stable country and a stable economy." As he spoke cheers, singing, and chants of "God is great" could be heard in the background.
The AKP has governed Turkey since 2002, riding a wave of pious votes from the country's eastern heartland to win four straight elections. But Sunday's vote will likely have significant international ripples — the country plays key roles in both the Syrian civil war and its ensuing refugee crisis, as well as the U.S.-led military actions in Iraq and Syria against ISIS.
Erdogan, president of the country and founder of the AKP, has been a major backer of the Syrian uprising. In recent months, Turkey toned down its rhetorical support for Syrian rebels fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and highlighted its support for a political transition. The AKP will likely view the election results as an endorsement of its Syria policy. With Russia and Iran stepping up their support for the Assad regime, Turkey may further open the spigots of cash and weapons that make their way across the Syrian border to U.S.-vetted rebel groups fighting the Damascus dictatorship, according to several analysts.
Perhaps more worrying to the U.S., which flies warplanes from bases in Turkey into both Syria and Iraq as part of the war against ISIS, is that Turkey will continue to prioritize its ongoing war against Kurdish guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the battle to bring down Assad over the targeting of ISIS. The PKK's Syrian offshoot has essentially acted as the ground force in the U.S. strategy against ISIS in Syria.
"[The AKP victory] will undermine the international community's campaign against ISIS," Ranj Alaaldin, a researcher at the London School of Economics specializing in Middle East ethnic and religious conflicts, told BuzzFeed News. "Ultimately, the AKP victory is problematic because Erdogan is no longer part of the solution as many once may have believed; he is now part of the problem."
The AKP's election victory also means Turkey is likely to step up its support for more than 2 million Syrian refugees sheltering inside the country, a controversial policy that may have cost it votes with nationalist-minded Turks resentful of the influx.
Turkey has been a far more welcoming host to refugees than other countries. But a recent surge of Syrians and others from Turkey toward the West has raised concerns in Europe. Some expect Turkey to pass laws making it easier for Syrians to find work in the country until they are able to return home.
"It allows the AKP to govern again," Aaron Stein, a scholar the Atlantic Council's Middle East Center, told BuzzFeed News. "The government has been so focused on elections that they have let huge matters fall by the wayside."
But the biggest question that remains is whether the new government will seek to cool down the ongoing war against the PKK, which Turkey has been battling on and off for decades. Modern Turkey was largely built on an ethos of denying rights to minorities, including Kurds, which account for up to 15% of the country. It has been struggling in recent years to recognize minority cultural and political rights without alienating hardline Turkish nationalists. The AKP won its victory Sunday largely by drawing votes from the ultra-nationalist and stridently anti-Kurdish MHP "which signals a hard line against the PKK," said Stein.
What's more, Erdogan's surge may alienate Kurdish voters drawn to electoral politics in recent years by the rise of the liberal, pro-Kurdish HDP and its charismatic figurehead, Selahattin Demirtas, and push them back into the orbit of the PKK — and that means more fighting.
"Erdogan's game of divide and rule has ended any prospect of peace with the PKK and Turkey's Kurdish population," said Alaaldin. "The PKK will gain in strength and support, whilst hardline elements within the movement that prefer violent contestation instead of political engagement will become strengthened."
Still, the war is bad for business and alienates investors at a time when Turkey is muddling through a rough economic patch. Some believe the AKP contributed to the start of the war in July largely as a result of the June elections, which saw the HDP winning seats in parliament for the first time by drawing votes from pious Kurds who had once supported Erdogan. "The dynamics that underpinned the rise of violence were caused by the elections," said Ulgen. "With the elections over, I would expect wisdom to prevail and for a revitalization of the peace talks."
In addition to presenting itself as the party of security and stability at a time of armed conflict inside and outside the country, the AKP turned its fortunes around from June's elections by lowering Erdogan's profile. It replaced controversial talk of transforming Turkey into a presidential system with strident rhetoric against terrorism.
With the elections over, Erdogan and his allies will move forward with plans to reshape Turkey from a parliamentary system, where parties have proportional representation, to a winner-takes-all presidential system like in the U.S. "The presidential system is part of our program," said Armagan, the AKP spokesman. "The AKP will propose this because we think it will be better for Turkey."
But after the divisive election campaign, the AKP will likely have a hard time mustering the two-thirds majority necessary to change the constitution. "They're not in a very strong position to push this ahead," Ulgen said.
Also unclear is whether the government will ease its harsh crackdown on media critical of the government. Over the last two years, dozens of journalists have been dragged into courts and jail cells accused of insulting the president, while authorities have seized television outlets critical of the government on dubious tax grounds. Ulgen said he expected the pressure on Erdogan's critics to continue.
"I think these election results show that the Turkish people have put more emphasis on stability than press freedoms or the rule of law," he said. "These elections can't be read as a signal that what we have witnessed in Turkey in the last couple years will not be sustained. The government has a wide margin of maneuver. They can use it for good as in settlement talks with Kurds. Or they can also use it to increase pressure on freedoms."