Turkey voted on Sunday. The results are eye-catching, and certainly worth parsing for a world that awaits explanation. Here are five quick conclusions for a wide audience.
1. After 12 years in power, the tide has turned against Erdoğan
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s apparently unstoppable rise hit a democratic bumper in Turkey’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, despite his presiding over 12 mostly boom years at the top of Turkey’s political system and the fact that his party won more than 40 percent of the vote.
Erdoğan began the election season by setting his followers a goal of winning 400 of parliament’s 550 seats for the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The idea was to change the constitution and legitimize the executive powers he is already using in practice. Even on election night, his stalwart advisor Yiğit Bulut was still in denial about AKP’s setback, insisting that “this result means one thing: an executive presidency.”
This is now most unlikely to happen. What happened to Erdoğan, one of Turkey’s luckiest, canniest and most charismatic politicians?
For sure, Turks have become tired of a creeping authoritarianism, a narrowing space for opposition, tightening state control of the judiciary, policy mistakes in Syria and the Middle East, and an extravagant 1,150-room presidential palace.
But the most bitter paradox for Erdoğan is that it may have been precisely his personal engagement to clinch a supremely powerful executive presidency that backfired, leaving AKP as the largest single party, but without a parliamentary majority or an obvious coalition partner.
Casting aside the traditionally neutral role of Turkey’s president — a five-year position he has held for less than a year — Erdoğan stepped in to spearhead his old party’s campaign, haranguing vast crowds about ‘we’ (the ruling party) against ‘them’. Using sometimes vitriolic language, he claimed all the other parties had “formed gangs” against AKP, and were siding with foreign “conspirators” and “terrorists.”
The result: The anti-Erdoğan camp indeed reacted against his attempt to consolidate power. Enough of them persuaded their friends to vote for a small Kurdish nationalist party that for once topped Turkey’s 10 per cent threshold of the national vote to get into parliament on its own account.
This swing of about five percent against AKP completely upset nearly 13 years of Turkish parliamentary arithmetic. Whatever happens next, Erdoğan has lost his old ability to control the government and possibly even his party from his presidential post.
2. Democracy works, even for Kurds
It helped that the leader of the Kurdish nationalist Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, ran a superb campaign, resulting in his party receiving 13 percent of the vote.
Demirtaş had all the right lines, even when a bomb killed two people and injured 100 just before his last big rally, calming supporters by saying “we must give the answer at the ballot box.” With youthful good looks and an easy manner, he appealed to Turkish progressives by vowing to seek peace to end Turkey’s three-decade-old Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgency, choosing Turkey’s first openly gay candidate, fielding far more women candidates than many European political parties, and even accepting as genocide the destruction of the Armenians of Anatolia in 1915. Erdoğan derided him as a “pop star.”
HDP will have to work hard to keep this high non-Kurdish share of the vote, but already the climate is more conducive to reconciliation between Turks and Kurds. As one Istanbullu commented: “We used to look down on Turkish spoken with a Kurdish accent as being the language of peasants. Now it’s cool.”
3. The result may well help efforts to end Turkey’s PKK insurgency
If Demirtaş and HDP had not reached the 10 percent threshold, its disappointed MP candidates might have gone to Diyarbakir and declared an autonomous parliament. This would have fed into polarization between Turks and Kurds, and empowered hardliners in the PKK insurgency.
But now that HDP has won a place in Ankara as a political party and not as a group of independents, there is a clear, legitimate, Kurdish counterpart for solving the Kurdish problem in Turkey. Whatever platform is chosen for the discussion — parliament, a constitutional convention, a group of wise persons — it will need to address long-standing Kurdish concerns about mother-tongue education, a non-discriminatory constitution, decentralisation, a fairer anti-terrorism law, and a lowering of the ten percent election threshold.
Without such political advances there will be little chance of persuading the PKK to disarm in Turkey, or of turning a ceasefire in place since 2013 into a long-lasting peace settlement.
This is by no means the end of the road in a conflict that has killed more than 30,000 people since 1984. HDP may now have become empowered as an interlocutor, but it has lost its all-powerful partner in Erdoğan. Bombings and attacks on the HDP during the election campaign are a reminder that violence is always close to the surface.
4. Politics are going to be uncertain in Turkey for a while
Turkish television stations lit up with debate as the extent of Erdoğan’s problems became clear, throwing off recent years of caution during which a wrong word could bring a phone call from Ankara that could cost a journalist his or her job.
Some commentators thought the AKP would push for another election in the hope of winning back their lost ground. But the newly empowered parliament would have to vote for that, which seems unlikely. A minority AKP government supported from the outside by another party also would not be sustainable, and seems unlikely.
AKP leaders sent mixed messages about whether or not they might go into coalition with any of the other main parties. The next biggest party, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), with 130 seats, might be too ideologically opposed to the pro-Islamic AKP. The right-wing Nationalist People’s Party (MHP), with 81 seats, is more likely to join AKP. Demirtaş, on behalf of HDP, with 79 seats, ruled out the possibility.
If none of these pans out, it is possible that the three opposition parties — CHP, MHP and HDP — will get together.
5. Turkey is not going back to the bad old days of the 1970s or 1990s
Long-faced AKP supporters gloomily started recalling the bad old days of coalition governments in the 1970s and 1990s that led to runaway inflation and bloody domestic conflicts. They believed that Turkey would miss the political stability and almost uninterrupted economic growth it has known under Erdoğan’s rule, and the mega infrastructure projects of his “New Turkey” that built new roads, railways and airports all over the country.
But the fact is that the economy had already started slowing, and has long been seen as a bubble waiting to burst. Whoever won was going to have trouble. And part of AKP’s fear may be that long-suppressed corruption cases may now come back on the agenda.
At the same time, Turkey once again demonstrated a key difference with its Middle Eastern and Eurasian neighbors: its elections were once again well run, its results accepted, and participation high. It was long clear that a small number of votes could swing this election, fueling suspicion among AKP critics that the ruling party would try to increase its share of votes with election fraud. While news of small irregularities circulated on social media, the government deserves credit for the conduct of elections and the acceptance of results — but so does civil society, which staged an unprecedented effort to monitor the polling stations.
And things may not be so bad as Turkey finds a new normal. Turkish society is now more mature, compromising and accepting than in previous eras that were ended by military coups or plagued by ideological intolerance. Pluralism is now appreciated as necessary, a fundamental change of which the AKP, in its early years, was an integral part.
Ironically, it was also Erdoğan’s increasing intolerance of dissent, epitomized in the crushing of the Gezi protests in Istanbul in May-June 2013, that created a sense of solidarity between many normally fractious factions of Turkish society — nationalists, Islamists, Kurds, secularists, and liberals — that set the stage for much of the activism that persuaded Turks to vote against him on Sunday.
Nigar Göksel is the Turkey senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, an independent conflict prevention organization. Hugh Pope, whose books include “Turkey Unveiled” (Overlook, 2011) and “Sons of the Conquerors: The rise of the Turkic world” (Overlook, 2006), is the ICG’s director of communications & outreach.