What next in Turkey?

Turkey's election result is a tribute to its vibrant democracy. But there are hard political and economic tests to come.

Dimitar Bechev Nathalie Tocci
9 June 2015

At the peak of the protests of May-June 2013 in Turkey, spurred by plans to transform Gezi park in central Istanbul, the country's then president, Abdullah Gül, made a statement that would go down in political folklore: “Democracy does not consist only of the ballot-box” ("Demokrasi sandıktan ibaret değildir"). He had a point: a democracy worthy of the name is also about other things - the rights of minorities, freedom of speech and association, the rule of law, transparency and accountability - all of them in scarce supply in Turkey, both historically and in more recent days. 

Yet, the parliamentary polls on 7 June 2015 are also a strong reminder that the ballot-box can actually be the most robust safeguard of democratic governance. Free and fair elections alone may not suffice. But when a polity, which has experienced multi-party democracy for over half a century, casts its vote, it can help put back on track a process of political transformation gone astray.

On Sunday, Turkish voters checked the ambitions of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to grab even more power and turn Turkish politics into a one-man show. It is not only that the Justice & Development Party (AKP) failed to reach the three-fifths majority (330 seats) required to pass constitutional amendments, which would have been validated through a referendum. Such a prospect had already been thwarted in the elections of June 2011 when tactical voters helped the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) enter Ankara's Grand National Assembly.  What is new this time round is that the AKP, for the first time since 2002, has no simple majority either. With 40.6% of the vote, Erdoğan’s AKP finished in first place, yet is still nineteen MPs short of the 276 seats needed to form a cabinet on its own.

The political balance-sheet

This election will long be associated with the rise of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The confident wager made by its 42 year-old leader Selahattin Demirtaş paid off handsomely: that the party would overcome the 10% election threshold, in the process decimating the AKP in Turkey's southeast provinces and furthest eastern regions, while also winning respectable backing in western Turkey. With a 12.9% vote share, the party will send eighty-one MPs to the next parliament (compared to thirty-six in 2011, when its candidates ran as independents rather than members of a single party).

The HDP, whose support has grown to 5.8 million votes from 2.8m in 2011, emerged as the main beneficiary of the “stop Tayyip” vote. This includes supporters of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in cities such as Istanbul and Izmir, notably Alevi Kurds. But empirical research suggests it was principally the decision of Kurds to drop the AKP in favour of the HDP that accounted for the latter's stunning success.

Overall, Demirtaş’s principal achievement is weaving together an unlikely coalition of groups and interests, all of whom saw his party as the alternative to the status quo: Kurdish nationalists, conservatives, liberal leftists, LGBT activists, Christian minorities, environmentalists and others. In many respects, the HDP vote mirrored the civil-society mosaic that mobilised in Gezi against the government in 2013. In doing so it made a stride forward in breaking out of the mould of an ethnically-defined party that stigmatised all its predecessors. By gradually transforming its platform into a national one, the HDP has also exposed Turkey’s 10% electoral threshold as but another democratic aberration designed precisely to keep an organised Kurdish party from entering parliament. In overcoming the hurdle, the Kurds - just like the Islamists in the 1990s - have both highlighted this implicit rationale and made it void.

In the run-up to the vote there were concerns about an authoritarian backslide and incidents of violence, but the elections went relatively smoothly and without major irregularities being reported. From the big cities all the way to remote areas, tireless monitors and volunteers - for instance, outfits like Oy ve Ötesi (“Vote and Beyond”) - acted as insurance against major electoral fraud. The fact that AKP, entrenched in power for more than a decade, saw its ambitions frustrated suggests that democratic rules, procedures and institutions do work.

It is commonplace to compare Erdoğan to Vladimir Putin, yet this election shows clearly that Turkey is no Russia, whatever the grand vision espoused by its president. The combination of genuinely competitive politics, politically savvy voters, and a reasonably impartial electoral commission has done much to deliver a quality process. Despite the high threshold, the parliament represents a fair picture of Turkish society.  Representatives of minority groups such as Armenians, Assyrians and Roma are sitting on its benches (and ninety-six women, a record number). And, as in 2011, the rate of vote "waste" is remarkably low. In sum, Turkey demonstrated maturity but also an indigenous capacity to move forward with its democratisation.

The outcome might even prove good news for the AKP itself. The party still dominates Turkish politics, but now has a chance to kick-start a process of self-reinvention and go beyond the overbearing persona of Erdoğan.  Economic liberals in its ranks - the likes of Mehmet Şimşek or Ali Babacan - have a golden opportunity to reassert themselves against the president’s appointees in the executive. A return to politics of a natural bridge-builder such as ex-president Abdullah Gül also cannot be ruled out, particularly if the AKP were to reach out to the HDP in order to bring the Kurdish peace process to a successful conclusion.

The next transition

But if the results of Turkey’s elections can only be applauded as a signal of democratic sophistication, the immediate future may well hold in store a period of profound instability. A first question is whether the AKP will succeed in forming a coalition government, which initial declarations by prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu suggest is its intention. For the moment, a pairing between the AKP and the CHP seems to be ruled out; and equally difficult, unless the AKP can quickly recast itself (or rather rediscover its former self of the mid-2000s), is an AKP-HDP coalition.

This leaves the nationalist MHP as the only partner: a tough, but not impossible, bargain to strike. Were an AKP-MHP government to be formed, the Kurdish peace process would likely be shelved. That will, in turn, undermine the likes of Demirtaş and empower radicals within the Kurdish movement, such as the groups who stirred unrest in the southeast in October 2014. Abandoning this momentous endeavour would not only mean missing a historic opportunity, but also raise the risk of unprecedented destabilisation in Turkey itself, a fearful possibility as the wider Middle East unravels.

If a coalition government is not formed the result could be political tension. A recalcitrant Erdoğan would then be able to play the spoiler rather than the arbiter of a fragmented parliament, and the country would rapidly move towards new elections, with precious little certainty of a different outcome. No party officially endorses this option, and its seems unlikely at present, but it in the event of protracted coalition talks ending in failure it may become the default outcome.

Amid all this, the markets have already reacted to the potential instability ushered in by this moment of political inflection. The Turkish lira hit a record low on 8 June on the prospect of a minority or coalition cabinet, a harbinger of things to come if unsettlement persists. At a time when growth is already tempered by growing political meddling (in the markets, the central bank, and assorted regulatory agencies) as well as by an ailing structural-reform process, fractious politics could take a significant toll on the Turkish economy.  It is worth remembering that Turkey’s growth is critically dependent on capital inflows and therefore highly vulnerable to external shocks.

The 7 June elections in Turkey have reconfirmed the vibrancy of Turkey’s democracy and the maturity and dynamism of its people. But as an era comes to a close and a new one opens up, the uncertainty embedded in this transition could make for a bumpy ride.    

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