Erdogan Scores an Own Goal

06/10/2015 10:00 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

You would not believe it from the autopsy carried out on its remains since Sunday's election, but the Justice and Development Party (AKP) remains an electoral success. This is the 11th election in 13 years it has won. In the last six years, its share of the vote has ranged from 39 percent in the local elections of 2009 to 49.8 percent in the general election of 2011.

Even in an election where the AK Party found itself unable to form a single party government, the opposition parties also failed to emerge as national ones. The Republican People's Party (CHP) won no seats in 37 cities. The National Movement Party (MHP), which came third, drew a blank in 32 cities. In fourth place, the People's Democratic Party (HDP), had no representation in 56 cities.

The electoral map tells the same story. Even on a bad day, the AKP still dominates Turkey geographically and demographically. And it has done this with turnout 20 points higher than in the general election in Britain last month. No one can say any Turk or Kurd has been unrepresented by this vote.

If Sunday did not spell the end of the AKP, it did to Erdogan's ambitions to create a presidential system. This is a positive outcome, because it shows democracy working in Turkey to curb the ambitions of the man who has dominated Turkish politics in a way not seen since the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. The message of this election was nuanced: Yes, we want the AKP as Turkey's largest party, but no, thank you very much, we want to keep Erdogan within the constraints of a parliamentary-based system.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan shot himself in both feet by making an unformed, undefined, unagreed-to project to increase the powers of the presidency the main issue of this election. The vagueness of the project did not give him leeway to negotiate. It was a gilt-edged invitation to kill it before the idea was even well formed.

In an atmosphere of polarization and intrigue that has dominated Turkey since the Gezi Park protests, Erdogan's presidential project invited his opponents to paint him as the sultan-in-waiting. There were those in the party who warned of the dangers of making this election a referendum on a project that was still in its birth pangs.

Neither did Erdogan think through the messages he sent out on the campaign trail. You cannot aspire to be a president of all Turks -- and Kurds -- if you are forever casting your opponents, or even former allies, as plotters seeking to subvert the state. A presidential system where the institutions of state are strong is one thing. One in which institutions are still fighting for their independence from the executive is quite another. You make your task as president a gargantuan one if you have no way of talking to the opposition, even in your own ranks. Gul had. Erdogan does not.

The language Erdogan used about the Kurdish HDP, whose rise was to be his undoing, was especially ironic. Erdogan should have praised and welcomed the fact that, as a result of the peace process that he pushed through, Kurds now had a real voice and presence in parliament. He should have highlighted the HDP's links with the PKK as the fruits of his policy in starting negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan in prison, and the PKK in the Kandil mountains, as the benefits of creating a political process. Instead, he stomped over to the other side of the table and attacked the HDP's links with the PKK to appeal to Turkish nationalists.

Erdogan does not hold a state monopoly on misjudgment.

For two years, the AKP was leading the way for a ceasefire and an unprecedented inclusion of Kurds at the heart of the Turkish state. Now that Kurds have found their political voice, the HDP are an opposition party who number among their voters Kemalists (supporters of Kemal Ataturk) and Gulenists (supporters of exiled Fethullah Gulen), both of whom opposed the peace process. If the pro-Kurdish HDP vote is a protest one, used also by groups who remain implacably opposed to giving Kurds language and cultural rights, then it has a problem for the future.

It should distinguish between strategic gains and tactical ones. On the strategic level of how the HDP got to where it was, the answer is fairly clear.

Twenty-one years ago Kurds were being burned out of their villages by the Turkish army. There was a blanket denial in Turkey of the Kurdish question. The Kurdish language was not allowed. Three thousand villages vanished. The key changes since were the formation of a party that vowed right from its inception to bring Kurds in from the cold, and the retreat of the nationalist deep state and the generals as a dominant force in Turkish politics.

The ending of any insurgency, let alone one as long and as bloodstained as this one, is in itself a troubled process. Think how long it took ETA or the IRA to end their campaigns.

It took from the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 (when Dublin was formally involved as an interlocutor) and 1994 before the IRA first called a ceasefire, on the understanding that Sinn Fein would be included in talks. When Britain demanded disarmament before Sinn Fein could enter multi-party talks, the IRA renewed its campaign, with major bombings in Manchester and the London Docklands. A ceasefire was reinstated three years later, and the resultant Good Friday Agreement happened in 1998 -- 13 years after the process first started. In that time, the baton of negotiation had to be passed between three British prime ministers. Compared to this, talks with the PKK (currently stalled by the deaths of 34 in protests in support of the Kurdish border town of Kobane in Syria) are still in their infancy.

The peace process, however, remains the only game in town for the Kurds, the HDP, and the PKK. And strategically there is only one party big and strong enough to drive this process to its conclusion, the AKP. Both parties should realize this. Reveling in the relative demise of the AKP is an inviting but short-term strategy for the HDP.

What happens next? There will be an attempt to form a coalition, but much of this could be window dressing. Coalition government in Turkey has a bad history, reminding the country of the era of political instability and military coups. If the AKP entered a coalition, it would have to negotiate and potentially forgo Erdogan's biggest ambition, the presidential system, and specifically if it joins hands with the CHP. Early elections remain, at present, the most likely outcome.

Whatever happens, it will have to ask itself who is responsible for the setback. There are two distinct views on this.

A large part of that blame could be directed towards Erdogan, and there is evidence of dissident voices within AKP. The party could be splitting along the fault lines that Erdogan himself created. The other view is that it was because Erdogan was not prime minister that its fortunes crashed. One could say that the AKP's biggest asset remains its biggest liability. But that itself is an oversimplification.

The AKP's biggest asset is its record over 13 years -- the fact that it delivered on its four main promises that it made when it started life. Turkey is now a major economy; Turkey has moved substantially in those 13 years towards greater democracy and not away from it; the army has returned to its barracks; and the Kurds are engaged in a political process. It is on this record that the AKP should go back to get a majority of seats.

For the Middle East as a whole, what happens in Turkey is being eagerly watched -- in Iran, the only other stable state; in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad is nervously anticipating Turkey's next move; in Tunisia, where the democrats are watching; in in the Gulf and Egypt, where the dictators and monarchs are watching too.

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is by his own admission against democracy. He said Egyptians were not ready for it. He offers a simple prescription: Dictatorship is the only guarantor of stability, and the choice is either military dictatorship or the Islamic State.

Turkey is a radically different exemplar. It says political differences can be mediated. Political ambitions can be tempered by the popular vote, while seeing through major structural changes to society and the economy, the curtailing of the deep state, and the advancement of minority rights.

In a region convulsed, and fractured, by conflict, much of it sectarian, that is a powerful message.