The government begged the electorate not to vote for instability. Turkish voters shrugged their shoulders and did exactly that. The result is that a party with only 13 percent of the vote is being hailed the winner, while the incumbent party that won the most seats may well be written off as a waning force.
This topsy-turvy state of affairs is the result of a bold move by the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Its charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtas, led what was a Kurdish nationalist force, openly sympathetic to the armed struggles of the past, into becoming a mainstream party. Under Turkish electoral law, a party needs to clear 10 percent of the national vote to qualify for any parliamentary seats at all. In past elections, Kurds got around this exclusion by running as independents. This time, Demirtas took the gamble that his party should run under its own flag.
To succeed, HDP needed to attract not just Kurdish but Turkish voters disillusioned with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rule. But win it did. A rump of some 80 HDP deputies in the 550-seat parliament means the party that ruled Turkey for more than a dozen years has lost its working majority.
Erdogan’s hope of persuading parliament to change the constitution and grant himself Vladimir Putin-like unchecked powers has gone up in smoke.
The financial markets dreamed of a modest AK Party victory that would tame Erdogan’s excessive ambitions, nudge the party back to the middle of the road but still allow business as usual. They will now have to wake up.
The problem is Erdogan himself. He started in national politics by courting the political center, but in later years has tried to yank that political center closer to his own extreme of religious-coated nationalism. His style has been deliberately divisive. He branded the opposition as traitors or worse. During the campaign, his rhetoric teetered on hate speech; he lambasted the HDP for running an openly gay candidate, accused it of offering a home to godless heterodox Muslims or being a tool of the Jewish lobby that runs the New York Times.
The election campaign may have been free but it was certainly unfair. Through a system of cronyism — many media bosses have huge contracts with the government — the ruling AK Party managed to rule the television airwaves. Even publicly funded TRT seemed to carry little other than a speechifying Erdogan snipping the ribbon at ceremonies marking the completion of this airport or that highway. Reports concentrated on defending the record of the government he had run up until last summer as prime minister.
There was a week in May when the president enjoyed 44 hours of airtime. with opposition candidates unable to make themselves heard. It got to the point where Demirtas joked that if you had a bottle of soda pop at home, the president would be round to organize an opening ceremony with a speech.
Even scarier were the draconian measures the AK Party has introduced. These give police the power to search homes as a result of “reasonable suspicion” rather than concrete evidence, as well as giving ministers the ability to ban access to webpages they dislike without going to court and to impose gag orders on newspapers on public security grounds.
In recent months, these have included newspapers reporting on high-level corruption, the causes of a huge mining accident in which 301 workers died and a gun-running operation organized by national intelligence almost certainly intended for Islamist militants in Syria.
The AK Party still won 41 percent of the vote. Many rightly credit the party with putting the economy on an even path, listening to demands for better urban services and for lifting restrictions on pious Muslims entering public life. Many were prepared to overlook evidence of massive corruption (“all politicians steal”) or to forgive the construction of a presidential palace four times larger than Versailles as a fitting home for a powerful head of state.
Yet for a majority of voters, the AK Party was a force running out of ideas. The economy and, more importantly, productivity have been static in recent years. Increasingly, the Turkish economy has been running on a treadmill of ever more ambitious and environmentally hazardous urban megaprojects.
So from zero, the HDP has become the hero that dealt Erdogan his first major defeat. The odd thing is that the Turkish president’s office is meant to be above any partisan fray, using its prestige to call for a coalition government. The AK Party was founded in 2001, a year before it was elected into power. It has never known opposition. But it is hard to see which of the other three parties would join with it and serve under the tutelage of such a polarizing figure as Erdogan.
One prognosis is that an early election is now inevitable. But opposition parties, while deeply divided among themselves, might still make common cause to dismantle some of the worst aspects of the AK Party’s legacy — and to lower that 10 percent voting threshold. None of this will be easy. But for many, the difficulties ahead are worth facing if it means that Turkey has really turned away from the brink of authoritarianism.
Andrew Finkel has been based in Istanbul for over twenty years. He is a founder of P24, an association to support independent journalism in Turkey. His latest book, Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know, is published by OUP.