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Erdogan election upset: Turkey’s ruling party loses majority in parliament

June 7, 2015 at 6:31 PM EDT
An interesting turn of events in Turkey's parliamentary election: The ruling party was favored to win big, but early results show it could end up losing its majority altogether. Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations joins Alison Stewart via Skype with analysis of the early results.
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Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this transcript, we incorrectly identified Steven Cook as the Douglas Dillon Fellow, but he is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

ALISON STEWART: A turn of events in Turkey’s parliamentary election. The ruling party was favored to win big, but early results show it could end up losing its majority altogether.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked the country’s 53 million eligible voters to give his party 400 parliamentary seats. That would have created a supermajority that could rewrite the constitution and give the presidency unprecedented new powers.

The election has created real tension in the streets. Bombs exploded at a rally for a rival party Friday, killing two and wounding at least 200.

Joining me to help analyze these early results is Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And, Steven before we go into the weeds on the — on the results, I want to step back and set the scene for people. Why was this election so important? Why was the world watching?

STEVEN COOK, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, this was an important election because, one, President Erdogan, who had been prime minister for the previous 12 years, had wanted to change the Turkish political system from a hybrid presidential parliamentary system to a purely presidential system, which would mean that all of the power in the political system would flow to him.

At the moment, it’s the prime minister who is the primary political actor in the system. Under a presidential system, he would have all of the executive power.

The second reason why it was so power was because a Kurdish-based political party was poised and in fact has passed Turkey’s very high threshold for getting into the parliament. They have now gotten about 11 percent of the popular vote, which means for that, first the time, a Kurdish-based party will be a major factor in Turkish politics.

ALISON STEWART: And what impact will that have on the way Turkey is governed going forward?

STEVEN COOK: Well, up until this point, going back to 2002, when the Justice and Development Party first came to power, they have not had to share power in a coalition government. They have ruled essentially alone, with very few checks and balances, I might add.

Now they will have to go into coalition with another party. It looks like there will likely — at least initial discussions will be between the Justice and Development Party and the Nationalist Movement Party, a party which — with which the Justice and Development Party shares a constituency and with whom they have worked previously.

Together, that would be the most likely coalition going forward.

ALISON STEWART: Obviously, because of its location, with — sharing a border with Syria and Iraq, Turkey is at the center of so many geopolitical discussions.

Tell us, who are the actors in the area who will be paying close attention to these results?

STEVEN COOK: Well, in the area specifically, the Syrian opposition, the Iraqi government, the Egyptian government, the Israeli government, and all of the governments in the Persian Gulf.

ALISON STEWART: Everybody, is what you’re telling me.

STEVEN COOK: The entire region.

And it goes to show how strategically important Turkey is to virtually every conflict in the region at the moment. There has been a significant disconnect between Washington and Ankara over the way to best approach the conflict in Iraq with ISIS and how to deal with the Syrian civil war.

The Turkish position has been that the best way to deal with the so-called Islamic State is to bring down the Assad regime. The change in government is not likely to fundamentally alter the Turkish position with regard to Syria. It may, though, put a break on the effort on the part of the Turks to fund and coordinate different extremist groups, as they have begun doing with the Qataris and the Saudis, to take on the Assad regime.

So, there might be some changes in the approach, but, overall, I think Turkish foreign policy will likely remain largely the same.

ALISON STEWART: In reading the wires and following Twitter, it seems that this outcome, this potential outcome, was unexpected.

STEVEN COOK: Well, there were a lot of different expectations going forward.

And I should say there were a lot of different expectations in the last few weeks. No one really can trust the polling that was done ahead of the elections. Everybody certainly expected the Justice and Development Party to do quite well. And they have done quite well. By any standard, other than their own past success, having 40 percent of the popular vote is a very successful political party.

But the fact remains that, with the Kurdish-based party getting more than 11 percent of the vote, the Nationalists doing better, the — the Justice and Development Party will have less seats than it’s ever had in the parliament since it came to power in 2002.

I would say, on social media, there’s a certain amount of schadenfreude, given the fact that the Justice and Development Party and President Erdogan in particular have ruled in a kind of thuggish way over the course of the last four or five years. And many Turks resent that kind of arrogance of power.

ALISON STEWART: Steven Cook from the Council on Foreign Relations, thanks for walking us through the Turkish elections.

STEVEN COOK: It’s my pleasure.

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