Turkish elections: A breakthrough in the long road to democracy

Dilek Kurban explains why the elections could change the course of politics in Turkey.

The results of June 7 general elections drastically changed the course of politics in Turkey. AKP’s 13 years of single-party rule has come to an end, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitions to change the country’s regime for a presidential system have failed and Turkey is facing a coalition government for the first time in nearly fifteen years. In an election where the stakes were extremely high for the AKP and its opponents, as reflected in the 86 percent participation rate, the electorate put an end to the AKP’s anti-democratic, corrupt and unaccountable mode of governing personified in its leader Erdogan.

AKP Took a Battering

While the AKP – for the fourth time in a row- emerged as the first party in the elections, it lost more than 9 percent of the votes it had received in the 2011 elections. Based on not-yet-official results, with less than 41 percent of the votes, the party falls significantly short of the minimum number of parliamentary seats it needs to form a single-party government. The three opposition parties hold together the majority of the seats (292 out of 550), rendering a coalition government inevitable. This is a major blow to a political party who has been single-handedly ruling Turkey since its inception and has no experience of power sharing or opposition.

A Triumph for the HDP

Most significantly, in terms of historical symbolism and political consequences, the Kurdish movement entered the parliament as a party. This is a first for a movement which had been deliberately kept out of the parliament through a procedural hurdle placed by the military junta in the early 1980s and kept in place by all governments including the AKP. The Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) passed the 10 percent electoral threshold with a record 13.1 percent of the votes, more than doubling the 6.4 percent of the votes the independent candidates of its predecessor BDP had received in 2011. After decades of democratic struggle, when five Kurdish political parties were dissolved by the Constitutional Court, dozens of elected Kurdish officials and party members were killed by ‘unidentified perpetrators’ and hundreds imprisoned for legitimate political activities, the Kurdish movement entered the parliament.

The significance of this transcends the Kurdish political representation. With the HDP being able to claim the seats it won, the Turkish parliament is much more representative of the national will. Despite its claim to represent the majority, the AKP had owed its single-party rule to the electoral threshold. In 2002, when various political parties failed to pass the 10 percent hurdle, 46 percent of the electorate was left unrepresented. As a result, the AKP’s mere 34 percent had translated into 66 percent of the parliamentary seats.

Who Voted for the HDP?

The HDP passed Europe’s highest threshold with the unprecedented support it received from the Kurds, not only in the Kurdish region (having received more than 90 percent in 14 districts and more than 85 percent in 15 others) but also in the major metropolises, first and foremost Istanbul. HDP attracted around four percent of its votes from Islamist Kurds who had voted for AKP in 2011. These Kurds, some of whom always oscillated between the two factions in the past elections, felt infuriated by Erdogan’s exclusionary statements towards the Kurds, the AKP’s blockage of the flow of arms and fighters to Kobane where the Kurdish forces fought against ISIS and Erdogan’s perceived wish for the Syrian Kurds to lose this strategic fight. Partly thanks to Erdogan himself, HDP further widened and deepened its electoral base in the Kurdish region, becoming the first party in Turkey’s Kurdistan.

Also instrumental in HDP’s success were around two percent of votes it attracted from high-educated, secular, urbanite, middle class Turks, including first-time voters, many of whom would otherwise vote for the main opposition CHP. This was the much anticipated political legacy of the 2013 Gezi protests. Partly out of a strategic interest to preclude Erdogan’s singlehanded reign under a presidential system, partly in support of the HDP’s rainbow coalition bringing together religious and ethnic minorities, women, environmentalists, workers and LGBT individuals and largely due to the HDP co-chair Selahatting Demirtas’ charismatic leadership, the Gezi youth voted for/with the Kurds. And they did not stop there. In an unprecedented type of electoral mobilization in Turkey, they formed the civic initiative “Vote and Beyond” to verify vote counting in 45 provinces with more than 50,000 volunteers.

A Referendum on Erdogan

Finally, there is the Erdogan factor. So unwilling was he to let go of the spotlight that Erdogan actively and openly campaigned for AKP in defiance of his constitutional duty to stay above party lines. As a result, the elections turned into a referendum on Erdogan. Yet, his strategy backfired, not only boosting HDP’s ability to pass the threshold but also alienating a good portion of the AKP’s core constituency who either did not go to the ballots or voted for the nationalist MHP. Erdogan’s 1,150 room mega palace and the serious corruption allegations against him and senior AKP officials also translated into a vote loss for the party at a time of economic slowdown and high unemployment.

In the short term, it remains uncertain whether a coalition government will emerge out of this new parliamentary arithmetic. The bigger challenge for future governments is the restoration of a democratic order based on the rule of law in a country where the AKP left long-lasting scars on the institutional, political and juridical landscape. But today, the historic coalition of the Kurds and liberal Turks carried the HDP to the parliament and gave Erdogan and AKP their first electoral defeat. This, in and of itself, is a significant achievement in a country which still has a long way to go towards democracy.

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