ISTANBUL — The glowing reputation Turkey's ruling party built early in its decade-plus in power seemed a distant memory on Sunday as voters punished it at the polls.
Battered after losing its parliamentary majority for the first time since taking control of the country in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is catching its breath — and it has the chance to take a fresh look at why its name has lost its shine to many Turks.
The AKP was long heralded as a liberalizing party that built up Turkey's middle class and pushed for better democracy. But it's the darker terms increasingly leveled at it that drove angry voters to the polls: cronyism, corruption, and authoritarianism. All are tied to the man who towers over the party and over Turkey's political scene, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the former prime minister and current president.
It was Erdogan who assumed de facto powers after being elected to what is meant to be a largely ceremonial post last year — and Erdogan who vowed to cement them, with constitutional changes, if his party won enough seats in Sunday's vote.
It is also Erdogan who sits at the center of a lingering corruption scandal, periodically orders Twitter to be blocked, threatens members of the media, and has his lawyer sue citizens over insults. But he is so powerful within the AKP that it has seemed unlikely for the party to rein him in.
After voters sent a clear rebuke on Sunday, though, some Turkish political observers wonder if that might change.
"For the democratic-leaning members of the AKP, this gives them an opportunity to challenge the rising authoritarianism, the use of hate speech and conspiracy theories, and the undemocratic turn the party has taken," said Aykan Erdemir, a former parliamentarian for the Republican People's Party, an AKP rival. "Now I think there is an opportunity for them to raise their legitimate concerns — and finally, there might be some ears within the AKP that might hear them."
Many voters are uncomfortable with the outsized role Erdogan has been playing in the government, and the poll results could force him to take a step back. They could also empower members of the AKP who have been pushing for reform behind the scenes. Erdogan has been successful at sidelining rivals within the party over the years. But even some of its leading figures — such as former President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc — have been rumored to be at odds with Erdogan over the last two tumultuous years.
"There could be a challenge not only to Erdogan's control, but also to the AKP's tactics," said Erdemir, a non-resident fellow at the Foundation for Defense for Democracies in Washington, D.C.
"Or this might all be wishful thinking. We'll see," he added.
Ceren Kenar, a Turkish journalist and commentator, noted that the initial reaction to the polls from many AKP supporters and pundits has not been to claim victory — even though the party won 40% of the vote, 15% more than its nearest rival. "People accepted the 40% as a failure," she said. "They said, 'All right, this is a failure, and now it's a time to question ourselves.' I think this shows integrity, and I think this shows political maturity."
"There is a consensus within the AKP that Erdogan is the leader of the movement, who is revered as a hero by his supporters," Kenar added. "However, this doesn't mean he is immune to criticism — many pro-AKP journalists are writing articles that claim Erdogan's certain policies and manners should be also be held responsible for the decline in the AKP's votes."
Still, the AKP has given little indication so far that major change is on the way — and it would take a major effort to challenge Erdogan within the party. "I'd be highly surprised," said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute. "Erdogan still does dominate the AKP, and he's very much a feared figure in the party. It would take a major revolution led by a brave heart, and it's not clear who this brave heart would be. He has created this sense that you cannot and should not defy him."
But regardless of what the AKP does next, voters who saw Sunday's polls as a chance to rein in Erdogan themselves may still see some significant changes. With the party no longer able to govern without a coalition partner, it won't dominate the same levers of power — such as key parliamentary and regulatory bodies that oversee areas like the press and judiciary — that Erdogan has used to exert much of his influence. "Here's the funny thing: He can no longer be a de facto head of government even if he wants to be," Cagaptay said.