(CNSNews.com) – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose foreign policies have troubled some Western officials, sailed to a third term victor in elections Sunday, as expected.
But voters did not hand Erdogan the majority he sought to push ahead with plans for a new constitution without the support of opposition parties. The Islamist-leaning AKP’s 49.9 percent of the vote translates into 325 seats in the 550-seat parliament, down from 331 in the last parliament.
That result is well short of the two-thirds needed to replace the constitution without consulting other parties or Turkish citizens in a referendum.
Erdogan’s plans include moving Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system, prompting some concerns that he may – emulating Russia’s Vladimir Putin – use the change as a vehicle to extend his rule beyond 2015, when his third and last term as prime minister is set to end.
In another setback for Erdogan on Sunday, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) achieved its best result in three decades (25.9 percent). Kurdish-backed candidates increased their share of seats in parliament by a third, underlining the growing importance of the issue following an election campaign that saw Erdogan adopt a more nationalistic tone with regard to the large Kurdish minority.
Erdogan in a optimistic, conciliatory statement hailed the outcome as “a victory for democracy, for stability, for peace” and promised to work with opposition parties.
The Obama administration, like its predecessor, points to Turkey’s mix of Islam, democracy and economic reforms as a “model” and example for other countries in the Muslim world to follow.
But Erdogan has drawn criticism for authoritarian tendencies at home, and for a evolving foreign policy that has seen Turkey, a NATO member, side with Iran both in the councils of the transatlantic alliance as well as at the U.N.
One area of his foreign policy facing a particular challenge right now is how to deal with the bloody crackdown in Syria, a neighbor and historical rival with which Erdogan improved relations dramatically in recent years.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s violent response to anti-government protests has caused Erdogan headaches for several reasons: More than 5,000 refugees have crossed the border into Turkey; there is rising sentiment inside Turkey against the ill treatment of fellow Sunnis by a minority Allawite regime; and concerns that the way Syria’s Kurdish minority is affected by the crisis may boost Kurdish nationalism and separatism, with destabilizing consequences for southeast Turkey’s Kurdish areas.
Erdogan has become far more critical of Damascus as the violence has worsened, moving from urging his “good friend” Assad to enact reforms in March to siding openly with protestors and last week describing Syrian armed forces’ actions as “inhumane.”