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Turkish Voters See Stability In Unpredictable Erdogan

Supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) hold a banner of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a speech by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at AKP headquarters in Ankara, on November 2.
Supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) hold a banner of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a speech by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at AKP headquarters in Ankara, on November 2.

Just five months ago, Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was unable to get enough votes to build a government on its own and coalition negotiations failed to bring about an agreeable government formula.

On November 1, the AKP walked away from parliamentary elections with an absolute majority that will allow it to form a single-party government.

Over the past 13 years -- during which he served first as prime minister (2003-14), and then as president (2014-present) -- Erdogan has too often proven to be unpredictable. The one thing that could be counted on was his party consistently winning parliamentary and presidential elections, but even that assumption was altered when the AKP won June's snap parliamentary election, but lost its parliamentary majority.

The assessments at that time were not good: Erdogan's political strength and his AKP party were on the decline. Voters had clearly shown they were not behind Erdogan's ambitious plan to change the Turkish Constitution and replace the country's parliamentary system with a presidential system similar to France or the United States.

But while Erdogan had never hidden his desire to be Turkey's first president under such a system (and showed signs early in his presidency that he was settling into the new role before it was defined) he once again did the unpredictable: he retreated.

Lesson Learned?

After the June disappointment, Erdogan acted less like the holder of the presidential office that he envisions, and more like a traditional Turkish president. He campaigned less for the ruling party than he ever had in 14 years as the AKP's head -- taken as a sign that he was adjusting to a reduced role.

The tactical adjustment, political analysts suggest after the November 1 reversal, may have helped the AKP win back some of the votes it lost in the June poll.

At the same time, Erdogan's reputation as a strong though divisive personality worked to his advantage at a time when Turkish voters increasingly feel at threat.

Facing the prospect of a Kurdish separatist war at home, and rising numbers of attacks by both the Islamic State (IS) group and Kurdish fighters along Turkey's southern borders with Iraq and Syria, the unpredictable Erdogan began to look like the man who could provide stability.

Now, as a president who heads a revitalized party that can run the government alone, the question is whether Erdogan will return to the priorities he pursued before political realities caused him to change course.

This is the same Erdogan who, for more than two years, had been on a reconciliatory course with Turkey's banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is listed by United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization. Yet since the spring of 2015, the PKK has resumed and even intensified its military operations against the Turkish military inside Turkey.

Coincidentally and strangely, the last few months has also witnessed increased and highly bloody attacks carried out by the IS group inside Turkey.

Turkey supports Syrian rebel groups fighting to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad. They are also supported by Saudi Arabia. Many observers have suggested that both Riyadh and Ankara could join forces to launch a new military attack against Assad.

The main Kurdish militant group in northern Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is an ally (and some suggest, a branch of) Turkey's archenemy, the PKK. According to Amnesty International, the PYD, in its effort to fight IS militants, has been attempting to cleanse Turkoman and Arab towns and villages in northern Syria.

Considering its internal foe, the PKK, and its ethnic aspirations, Turkey has been extremely alarmed by PYD military gains along the Syrian border. Ankara considers PYD activity an attempt to expand the Kurdish presence "from northern Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea," an expansion that Erdogan and the Turkish military seem resolved to prevent. Erdogan has made no secret that the best plan would be to attack northern Syria to rid the region of both IS and Kurdish militants.

The strong, 50 percent vote of confidence for Erdogan's ruling party is a sign that in these times of crisis the Turkish people preferred strong, stable, and confident leadership to the alternative -- a coalition, most likely a weak one, that was new to government business and probably split over what path to follow.

Very real risks remain for the government. The economy is faltering. Turkish exports have fallen by $1.5 billion since the June elections and the value of the Turkish currency has slid against the U.S. dollar. This means uncertainty and less income.

There are more than 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, having cost the country more than $6 billion since the start of the crisis in Syria.

The government and its Kurdish adversary have not been able to come to an agreement, and conflicts from Arab-Kurdish neighbors in the south threaten to further infiltrate Turkey.

And despite being given a strong vote of approval, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party may be wary of being branded heavy-handed and authoritarian.

Even before ballots were cast, Erdogan's social democratic and Kurdish opponents were calling the November 1 poll the "last elections before dictatorship." More than half of Turkish voters prefer stability and continuity, but as they showed in June, they do have their limits.

Abbas Djavadi is a regional director of programming with RFE/RL. The views expressed in this piece are the author's own