ANKARA: Turkey’s long-dominant Justice and Development Party (AKP) scored a stunning electoral comeback on Sunday, regaining its parliamentary majority in a poll seen as pivotal for the future of the troubled country.
The party founded by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won 49.4 percent of the vote to secure 316 seats in the 550-member parliament with nearly all votes counted, easily enough to form a government on its own.
The result is a huge personal victory for 61-year-old Erdogan, Turkey’s divisive strongman who may now be able to secure enough support for his controversial ambitions to expand his role into a powerful US-style executive presidency.
“Our people clearly showed in the November 1 elections that they prefer action and development to controversy,” he said in a statement giving his first reaction to the election result, adding that voters had backed “unity and integrity”.
The outcome of the vote was a shock to many, as opinion polls had predicted a replay of the June election when the AKP won only 40 percent and lost its majority for the first time in 13 years.
Then, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won seats in Turkey’s parliament for the first time, denying Erdogan’s party a majority, but renewed violence with Kurdish militants and a surge in bloody jihadist attacks have boosted support for the government.
“Today is a day of victory,” a beaming Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a crowd of jubilant supporters in his hometown, insisting that “today there are no losers but winners”.
Speaking later to thousands of people who waited for hours in the cold to hear him speak from the balcony of the AKP headquarters in the capital, he vowed to protect the human rights of all of Turkey’s 78 million inhabitants.
“You saw the dirty games played in our country, and you have changed the game,” Davutoglu said.
Analysts said it appeared voters had turned away from nationalist and Kurdish parties, after the collapse of a truce with outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in July prompted a surge in violence.
Erdogan said the result “delivered an important message for the PKK: oppression and bloodshed can not coexist with democracy”.
Support has also fallen for the HDP, which some critics accuse of being a front for the rebels, who only just managed to scrape past the electoral threshold of 10 percent to stay in parliament on Sunday.
“Erdogan rode the wave of violence back to power,” said Aykan Erdemir of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a former Turkish opposition MP.
Underscoring one of the key challenges ahead for a new AKP administration — the state of the Kurdish peace process — clashes erupted briefly between police and protesters in the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakir.
HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas said it was not a “fair election” after his party halted campaigning in the wake of the IS attacks that targeted pro-Kurdish activists.
“But it’s still a big victory, we have lost one million votes but we have stood tall against this policy of massacres and fascism,” he said, vowing to press the faltering push for peace between Ankara and PKK rebels.
During the election campaign, Erdogan declared that only he and Davutoglu could guarantee security, criss-crossing the country with the message: “It’s me or chaos.”
The political landscape has changed dramatically in Turkey since June, with the country even more divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.
The threat of further jihadist violence also overshadowed the poll after a string of attacks blamed on the Islamic State group, including twin suicide bombings on an Ankara peace rally last month that killed 102 people — the bloodiest in Turkey’s modern history.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) scored about 25.4 percent of the vote, similar to its June result.
Support for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) fell to just under 12 percent, with commentators suggesting its voters shifted to the AKP.
The IS attacks have drawn Turkey even further into the quagmire in neighbouring Syria as it struggled with the burden of more than two million refugees and found itself at odds with its NATO allies over the conflict.
After long supporting rebels fighting the Damascus regime, Ankara was cajoled into joining the US-led coalition against IS and launched its own “war on terrorism,” also targetting PKK fighters and even US-backed Syrian Kurds.
Erdogan, dubbed the “big master” or “Sultan” who has dominated Turkey’s political scene for more than a decade, is revered and reviled in equal measure.
He was hailed in the West for creating what was once regarded as a model Muslim democracy but is now accused of blatantly cracking down on opponents and critical media.
Opponents fear that if he succeeds in expanding his powers, it would mean fewer checks and balances in a country that has long aspired to join the EU.
Turkey’s economy is also in trouble, with growth slowing sharply from the dizzy heights of five years ago, unemployment rising and the Turkish lira plunging more than 25 percent in value this year.