A new Turkey... but not one to Erdoğan's liking

A stunning election result against many odds is a resounding statement of Turkey's democratic credentials.

Kerem Oktem
8 June 2015

Turkey's general elections on 7 June were neither free nor fair. They came after an electoral campaign of intimidation by the government, extreme polarisation of the electorate, and several attacks against the pro-Kurdish left-wing Democracy of the Peoples Party (HDP). The Justice & Development Party (AKP) used all available resources of the state to boost its campaign. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan transgressed the constitutional limitations on his powers and canvassed openly for the AKP.

Pro-government media shed any residue of genuine journalistic aspirations, contributing to a barrage of hate-speech far greater even than hitherto. This saw Erdoğan highlight the New York Times as a Jewish conspiracy, the HDP as a bunch of gays and lesbians and Armenian-lovers, and the rest of the opposition as illegitimate. During the election, several hundred cases of attempted vote-rigging and intimidation of the electorate were disclosed, particularly in the Kurdish provinces.

Despite such a blatant breach of democratic protocol, however, the AKP lost its absolute majority of votes and seats in parliament, more than 10% of its voter base, and most importantly, the party's air of invincibility. On election day, Turkey may have looked like a country witnessing the last moments of its weak, if insistent, democratic traditions and the advent of a Putin-style authoritarian regime. On 8 June, Turkey's democratic credentials have returned with a vengeance. After years of creeping de-democratisation and the AKP's near-hegemony, the promise of political contestation and active citizenship is back.

The high-stakes contest

What was at stake in Erdoğan's elections for a "new Turkey"? The AKP has presided over a success story of economic and infrastructural development, which began with its election to power in November 2002. With ideological roots in Turkey's mainstream Islamist movement Milli Görüş (National View) and a team of modernisers intent on reconciling neo-liberalism, a measure of redistribution and Islamic values, the AKP oversaw a tripling of the GDP per capita, a rise in Turkey's international standing, and a globalisation of Turkey's economic and cultural networks. At the same time, other processes - democratic reform, inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities, the Kurdish peace process and efforts for a reconciliation with Armenians - never went as far as liberal proponents of the party hoped for.

But the AKP still succeeded in liberating Turkey from the grip of ethno-racial Kemalism and Turkish suprematism. That Erdoğan became increasingly self-aggrandising seemed not too big a threat as long as the institutions of the state were in place. Had the history of the AKP and Erdoğan in power ended with the elections in 2011, the party and its leader might have entered Turkey's annals as great reformers, who brought the country forward: closer both to Europe and to its eastern neighbourhood, the Arab Middle East.

Yet, the 2011 elections did bring the AKP a resounding victory, a third term in government and the opportunity for Erdoğan to run for the first elected presidency. Yet they also marked the pinnacle of power for the party; for after these results, a combination of domestic and international setbacks challenged the AKP's control of events and its ability to think of itself as an "order setter" in its spheres of influence. The revolutions and uprisings in the Arab world removed Turkey's allies in the Middle East from power and saw a decade of soft-power measures and public diplomacy reduced almost to naught. The Gezi protests of May-June 2013 exposed Erdoğan and some members of the party as power-hungry cynics, ready to tolerate the murder of protesters by security services and to resort to lies and intimidation. And a series of revelations by whistleblowers in December 2013 unveiled AKP-ruled Turkey as a deeply corrupt growth machine, a network of mutual enrichment - at the centre of which sits Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

For the first time in Turkey's modern history since Mustafa Kemal, Erdoğan styled himself as "the one leader". His election to president in August 2014 with almost 52% of the vote reinforced his massive symbolic power and dictatorial charisma. Despite looming economic crisis, the waning confidence of international markets and an onslaught on Turkey's independent institutions, Erdoğan went on to reimagine himself as a contender to Mustafa Kemal and avenger of the faithful, who would reckon with the Turkish Republic and its secularist policies and redeem the noble Ottoman empire. "New Turkey" became the key slogan for both his political survival and for Turkey's transformation: regime-change from a parliamentary democracy to an executive presidency with massive powers and no checks and balances.

In come the Kurds (and Turks and Armenians and LGBT individuals..)

Such an executive presidency would have been the end of Turkey's long engagement with democracy. The election results have wrecked Erdoğan's project beyond redemption, as the AKP now lacks even a qualified majority to rule without partners. The two single most important causes of this massive shift of power are Turkey's unfair election system - one of the most unfair in the world with a 10% threshold - and the audacity of the People's Democracy Party in running as a political party and challenging that threshold. The HDP was the only party to effectively respond to the demands of the Gezi protesters: less state intervention into people's lives, gender equality, LGBT rights, citizen involvement and less rent-maximising development.

It succeeded in reorienting itself from a pro-Kurdish party to an all-Turkey party with a socially progressive appeal. Under the leadership of two charismatic chairpeople - the Kurdish Selahattin Demirtaş and the Turkish Figen Yüksekdağ - the HDP convinced not only the Kurds of Kurdistan - where the AKP lost most of its seats - and western Turkey, but also the Turkish left-wing vote. With 13% of the vote and eighty members in parliament, the party exceeded the 6-8% of ethnic Kurdish votes by an impressive margin. Had the HDP remained just under the threshold, almost all its mandates would have gone to the AKP.

For the two other main parties, the results are more or less as expected. The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) made slight losses and got 25% of the vote. Its chairman, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has cleansed the party of its most extreme nationalists and diehard Kemalists. He attracted some promising new members, but he has failed to give the party the decidedly social-democratic outlook which it needs to become a credible alternative to the Justice & Development Party. That long-overdue step is most likely going to be made by his successor. The far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) received 16% of the vote and will made itself heard, if the peace process with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) is going to be revived in the near future.

What of the future of the Justice & Development Party? With 41% of the vote, it is still the largest political party in Turkey and the winner of the elections. Even though it lost almost the entire Kurdish vote, it remains the most important political actor, representing constituencies from all over the country and now holding 258 out of 550 seats in parliament. The AKP is very likely to be in government in one form or other. Will the AKP be able to reconstitute itself as a political party that is able to stand up to Erdoğan and return to its default settings as a socially conservative, economically progressive party of development?

It is unlikely that such a goal can be attained under the leadership of the current prime minister and former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, whose incoherent "balcony speech" on election night even many AKP supporters found pathetic. The party may yet opt for a return of respected and conciliatory politicians like ex-president Abdullah Gül. If the AKP is capable of such a transformation, it would entail the successful integration of a (mildly) Islamist party into a secular democratic system. There are few things in the world of democracy, and the future of Muslim societies, which are more relevant.

The hate-speech election

If Turkey's 2015 election campaign had to be subsumed under one caption, it would be the "hate-speech election". Turkey witnessed President Erdoğan and many of his acolytes reaching into the most abject repertoire of polarising narratives, character assassinations and cheap electioneering. The image of him holding a Kurdish-language Qu'ran and thundering against the enemies of Islam will join the "best of..." section on any class on contemporary Turkey and the history of elections. It is, however, a photo which the majority of people in Turkey did not like. This is why they voted - above all - against him. This is why hundred of thousands of citizen observers joined initiatives such as OyVeÖtesi (Vote and Beyond) and did not leave the ballot-boxes until the votes were safely delivered to the polling stations.

It will not all be smooth sailing now. Turkey is entering a period of uncertainty in which only the advent of economic crisis is relatively certain. The AKP could establish a minority government or opt for a coalition with the Nationalist Action Party. This failing, the main opposition Republican People's Party could seek a coalition partner. Neither promises a viable government. Nor do we know about Erdoğan's plans for the future and whether he will be able to accept defeat.

What is certain, however, is that Turkey's state institutions have been eroded to the point of compromising the country's domestic security and its role in international alliances. But one other thing is also sure. The people of Turkey have not risen to make a revolution. They never do. But as in the elections of 1950 and 1983, they have defeated the prospect of certain dictatorship at the ballot-box. This is a triumph for democracy.

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