Story by Kaileigh Higgins and Robert Tokanel // Photos by Catherine Strong // Video package by Jessica Gagne
Istanbul, Turkey – Less than 24 hours before Sunday night’s parliamentary elections, the Sultanahmet neighborhood was a campaign battleground. Flags strung between old brick buildings hung like spider webs of laundry, and motorcars blared campaign rants as minivans wound their way through narrow streets.
On election night, though, it was almost silent. At an open-air café in the historic heart of the city, Sertac Ayhan sat alone with his back to a TV tuned to the polls.
The 24-year old engineering student wasn’t apathetic about the projections flashing the names and parties of candidates that had been plastered across the city for weeks. He just knew who was going to win, and he feared what it could mean for his country.
“It’s going to be a monarchy,” he said.
Ayhan’s fears proved unfounded as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) predictably finished as the clear victors, winning 50 percent of the vote, but didn’t score the absolute majority that would have allowed the conservative group to rewrite the Turkish constitution without opposition.
Itir Tocsoz, assistant professor of international affairs at Istanbul’s Dogus University said the AKP’s failure to gain enough seats will force the party to work with rival political parties instead of pushing through its agenda unchecked.
“There will be more negotiations, bargaining and compromises between political parties,” she said. “There will have to be cooperation [because] if they really want to write the new constitution, they don’t have enough votes now to pass it on their own.”
While greater Istanbul was largely quiet Sunday through the election, the AKP headquarters on the edge of the Bosphorus was pulsing with celebration. Shortly after the polls closed, supporters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative party spilled into the streets honking horns, waving flags and burning flares. Inside, the mood was easy and light.
“Would you not be happy if you won?” joked Egemen Bagis, the AKP vice-chairman in charge of foreign affairs.
There was never a question regarding Erdogan’s re-election; the only uncertainty was how much of a majority the party would gain in Parliament. The Republican People’s Party, or CHP, received 26 percent and the Nationalist Action Party, or MHP, earned 13 percent.
Regardless, Bagis, who is also the minister for European Union affairs and Turkey’s chief negotiator with the EU, said the AKP still plans to move forward with its promise of a new constitution to replace the one written by the military following a coup d’etat in 1980.
“We will establish the government and then we will deliver what we promised, a civilian constitution,” said Bagis. “And we’re hoping to work in cooperation with our opposition.”
While Bagis spoke to the press inside, supporters in the streets were chanting Erdogan’s name. Children lined the edges of a huge white AKP banner, waving it up and down, forming a makeshift parachute. The party anthem echoed from the speakers above the crowd while people danced to the music, even beating drums of their own.
Onur Ata, a 24-year-old law student at Istanbul University, watched over the celebration with his group of friends.
“To see the light of the future,” he said.
The AKP’s victory was a disappointment for many who are concerned about losing civil liberties to the party’s growing conservatism. On her way into the polls to cast her vote, Ece Alkaya, a 21-year-old law student at Istanbul University, said she would be voting for the more left-leaning CHP. When asked why, she simply said “for more freedom.”
Since coming to power in 2002, the party’s pro-Islamist values have been moving toward the forefront of its social policies. Recently, the AKP began efforts to impose restrictions on the sale of alcohol, and the party plans to limit, starting in August, citizens’ access to the web. The party claims these initiatives will protect the people of Turkey, but many see it as religious imposition in a country that prides itself on secularism.
“From the secular citizens of Turkey, we have never experienced such a conservative life in our political system, from our lives and from our fathers, mothers and grandmothers,” said Hakan Gunes, a political science professor at Istanbul University.
Rival parties, such as the CHP, are concerned with the growing religiosity of the AKP, but more importantly are worried about the AKP’s consolidation of power. By law, in order to be represented in parliament, a party must receive 10 percent of the popular vote, leaving the majority of the nation’s parties without representation.
To circumnavigate this rule, smaller parties, most notably the Kurdish Peace and Freedom Party, or BDP, field independent candidates rather than running under the party. For this election, this strategy earned them about 5 percent of the seats.
“Actually most of the parties could not deal with [the 10 percent threshold],” said Gunes. “Some other groups and individuals are doing it this way, but they don’t have a chance. Only the pro-Kurdish independent candidates can get enough votes to become members of parliament.”
Bagis said the AKP will recognize the mandate to work with other parties toward consensus while addressing the people’s most vital needs.
“The Turkish people have spoken and their will is very clear,” said Bagis. “They want us to cooperate, work together, they wanted stability, they wanted justice, they wanted development, economic prosperity. They wanted the growth to continue and we have to deliver.”
By the time midnight rolled around, the crowd outside the AKP headquarters began to shrink, though a few hundred supporters continued with the festivities. A few men danced with one another while women wearing AKP baseball caps over their headscarves hung out of car windows, cheering and waving party flags.
This was how the winners celebrated. In other parts of Istanbul, far from headquarters, the streets were quiet. Whether that was due to the election results turning out as expected or outright dismay will likely not be known until the AKP tries to make the changes it has promised.