By: Kemal Kirisci
An electoral earthquake occurred in Turkey on Sunday. In a massive turnout, more than 86 per cent of the Turkish electorate sent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) a rude message. Erdogan, in complete disregard of the current constitution that requires a president to be neutral, campaigned actively for the AKP. He asked the electorate to reward the party with at least 335 seats in parliament so he could transform Turkey from its almost seven-decade-old parliamentary system to a presidential regime to consolidate his autocratic rule. The AKP saw its votes fall from almost 50 per cent in the 2011 general elections to 40.8 per cent, leaving it almost 20 seats short of the majority needed to form a government, let alone granting Erdogan the ability to adopt a new constitution.
Instead, the electorate generously rewarded the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) with almost 13 per cent of the vote, allowing it to surpass Turkey’s notoriously high electoral threshold of 10 per cent and earn 79 seats in parliament. This has left the AKP with just 258 seats, obliging it to either run a minority government or seek a coalition. The staunchly secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the rightwing, nationalist National Action Party (MHP) received just above 25 and 16 per cent of the vote, with 132 and 81 seats, respectively.
It is possible to deduce at least five very clear messages. First and foremost, the electorate has unequivocally expressed its displeasure with Erdogan’s confrontationist language, disregard for the law and his ambition to become a one-man ruler. The spirit of this message was well captured by Devlet Bahceli, the MHP leader, when he invited Erdogan to either “respect the current constitution or resign”. Furthermore, they also objected to Erdogan’s presidential palace, bigger than the Palace of Versailles, with 1,150 rooms rumoured to have gold-covered toilets at a cost of more than $600 million.
Second, the economy. Back in 2002, the AKP rose to power because it promised greater financial stability and economic growth on the heels of a major financial meltdown in the country. Between 2003 and 2006, Turkey’s economic growth averaged 7.5 per cent per year and, not surprisingly, the AKP was rewarded with more than 47 per cent of the votes in 2007. Of late, the Turkish economy has slowed down dramatically, to under 3 per cent growth in 2014. Interference with regulatory bodies, corruption and abuse of the law have scared investors away, accelerating the dramatic fall in the value of the national currency against the US dollar, and increasing unemployment and inflation.
Third, the electorate has sought a revision of foreign policy, disapproving of Turkey’s involvement in Syria’s quagmire and the domestic affairs of Middle Eastern countries that has cost Turkish businesses many export markets and exposed the country to the dangers of Islamic terrorism. The electorate has also objected to Turkey’s once successful and greatly acclaimed “zero problems with neighbours” policy being transformed into one of “zero neighbours without problems”, characterised by a long list of countries from where Turkey has recalled ambassadors. Recent opinion polls have also shown growing support for the EU and Nato — the very institutions against which Erdogan uses derogatory language.
Fourth, by catapulting the HDP well above the electoral threshold, voters endorsed the discourse of its leader Selahattin Demirtas, emphasising his commitment to make the HDP a political party representing not just the Kurdish minority but one that embraces ethnic and social diversity. The HDP’s candidate list included several women as well as leftists, Christians, Alevis (a heterodox Islamic sect) and members of the LGBT and Roma communities.
Last, the electorate sent out a rather subtle but critical message to Turkish institutions, such as the judiciary, police, state media and economic regulatory bodies, including the central bank, for failing to stand their ground and resist Erdogan’s bullying.
This election is a gamechanger, but it’s still a first step. Turkey’s democratic institutions have suffered greatly over the last few years and it would be unrealistic to expect miracles. Big challenges are still waiting. Recovering the independence of state institutions, repairing the damage inflicted on liberal democracy and winning the trust and confidence of investors as well as redirecting foreign policy will not be an easy exercise. Nevertheless, the electorate has given Turkey a second chance to reclaim its democracy and has chosen the AKP to lead this exercise. The party will need to take a critical look at itself, learn the key lessons and return to its policies from the days when it truly enjoyed broad popular support and widespread international acclaim.
The writer is the TUSIAD senior fellow in the foreign policy programme at Brookings, Washington, DC