ISTANBUL (AP) — In normal times, you can’t escape President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. His voice booms from television screens, his hands wave at campaign rallies and his face smiles from billboards.
Yet as Turkey digested the surprise sinking of support for his long-dominant party, Erdogan’s only reaction came in a brief written statement Monday appealing for unity — and acknowledging the sudden need to make new political friends.
“Our people’s will is above everything else,” said Erdogan, conceding that the new political landscape “does not allow any party the possibility to govern alone.”
For the first time since his Justice and Development Party roared into power in 2002, Erdogan may have lost control of his political fate. His party, reduced to 258 seats in a 550-member parliament, has lost its previous strong majority and faces weeks of talks to form a coalition with opposition forces who will want dearly to bring Erdogan back down to earth.
Erdogan’s ruined master plan involved running for president last year with the assumption that his dominant party, known as the AKP, could transform the largely ceremonial post with new powers into an office able to override and outmaneuver parliament.
The expectation was that Erdogan would get what he wanted, because he has seldom lost. But he performed erratically in the subsequent campaign — and many questioned why he was center-stage at all. Under Turkey’s constitution, the president is meant to stay above the fray of campaign politics. Not a candidate on any ballot, Erdogan made the election a referendum on his ambitions.
On the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, voters of many political loyalties breathed a collective sigh of relief that the era of an unquestioned Erdogan may be over.
“The AKP was suffocating us. The people told it to stop,” said Erol Oran, who runs a barber shop in Ankara. A supporter of the right-wing opposition Nationalists, Oran said he didn’t care what kind of coalition emerged from negotiations. “I am just happy that the AKP didn’t get what it wanted,” he said.
Cem Atac, a 49-year-old mechanical engineer in Ankara, expressed the same sentiment. “What’s important is that the dictatorial regime he was trying to bring has been stopped. I am very happy for my country. It’s a good result,” he said.
“The people turned off their television sets when he came on,” said another voter, Zeki Altay, in Istanbul. “He wanted to be the only one in power, and the people did not give him permission.”
Erdogan’s campaign proved divisive and personality-driven at a time when the once-booming Turkish economy — a foundation for his long success — was sputtering. And that picture could worsen with political instability as investors dumped Turkey’s lira currency, its stocks and its government bonds Monday, driving up the cost of future borrowing.
On the campaign trail, Erdogan took no prisoners. He sought to demonize secularists and media, both foreign and domestic. He sued dozens of his critics and threatened newspaper editors with prosecution for publishing stories he found unacceptable. If he was trying to motivate his base, he instead managed to alienate much of his party’s traditional broad coalition of support that includes nationalists, Kurds and liberals.
He repeatedly was put on the defensive over his 1,150-room presidential palace built for an untold fortune. In the last week of the campaign he was drawn into — and, to the glee of opponents, kept stirring — debate over whether his taxpayer-funded home had toilet seats made of gold. He also insisted that his government’s religious affairs chief deserved a Mercedes-Benz, even though the official already had surrendered the luxury sedan in embarrassment.
Erdogan’s energetic performance eclipsed that of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the nominal party chief and government leader who was supposed to be leading the campaign. Davutoglu responded by trying to mimic Erdogan’s intonations and body language on the campaign trail, and came off as a pale imitation.
Ironically, had Davutoglu done a better job of mobilizing the AKP base, he could have given Erdogan enough parliamentary votes to push through his plans for constitutional reform — a blueprint that included eliminating the prime minister’s post.
Despite the latest setbacks, Erdogan remains far and away the greatest political force of his generation and no political leader has emerged as a plausible alternative. His AKP still outstrips all opposition parties by a wide margin.
But Sunday’s election also empowered a new political generation being led, in part, by Turkey’s most charismatic younger politician, 42-year-old Selahattin Demirtas. His People’s Democracy became the new No. 4 party in parliament by mobilizing a broad left-wing coalition of Kurds, gays, women and other interest groups seeking equality in Sunni Muslim-dominated Turkey.
The AKP faces difficult negotiations to coax the right-wing Nationalists into government or, less likely, the main secularist Republican People’s Party or Demirtas’ new force. If no deal can be done, a period of fragile minority government and early elections loom.
Whatever new power structure emerges, analysts say Erdogan no longer will be able to bend his party to his will by sheer force of personality and his expectation of attaining unassailable power. Sunday’s loss put an end to that.
Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, summed up Monday’s new reality. “This takes away the cloak of invincibility,” he said.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.
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