Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has dominated the country’s politics since 2002, has fallen short of a majority on Sunday’s election. With a hung parliament, Turkey is facing the prospect of weeks of political uncertainty. Yet, there is already an air of optimism unseen since the clamp-down and the downward spiral of democracy in recent years. While the President that attacked his political opponents several times per day during the campaign has remained silent, limiting his reaction to a short and polite written statement after the vote, there has been a visible loosening of tongues among people too scared to speak freely before. The fact that shares in the largest supplier of police water cannons tumbling hours after it became clear that the incumbent AKP did not have the 276-seat simple majority to form a single-party government in the 550-seat parliament speaks volumes.
No single party gained a majority in the elections. Instead of the two-thirds majority necessary to create an executive presidency as desired by Mr Erdogan, the AKP has won 40.9% of the vote, 10% less than in 2011, gaining 258 seats. The main opposition the Republican People’s Party (CHP) secured 132 seats with 25% of the vote. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) won 16.3%; the Kurdish-affiliated People’s Democratic Party (HDP) got 13.1percent, both gaining 80 seats each.
The results represent a serious blow to AKP and a derailment of President Erdogan’s ambitions to increase his executive powers. For the main opposition CHP, which failed to increase its share of the vote, it is a disappointing outcome. The Turkish nationalist MHP did much better than expected. The most significant victory belonged to the HDP, which against all odds, crossed a 10 percent threshold required to enter Parliament.
The HDP ran a successful campaign, emphasising its commitment to democratic rights and freedoms for everyone. Its youthful and well-spoken co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas, with his modest, polite and unifying style of leadership was the complete opposite of the president, who despite his constitutional obligation to remain above party politics, continued to campaign aggressively, rudely and divisively. While the AKP continued to polarise the country along religious lines, with the President brandishing a copy of the Quran during election rallies, Mr Demirtas had carefully refrained from emphasising any ethnic identity, successfully reaching out to non-Kurdish voters. Unlike the President and the Prime Minister who were given uncritical, favourable treatment by biased government-controlled news coverage, Mr Demirtas had limited access to mainstream media. When he had the opportunity to address his wider audience, often with hostile and patronising questioning, he came across as an honest politician with personal and political integrity.
In the past, Islamic brotherhoods and groupings were known to throw their weight behind a particular political party, pragmatically mobilising their followers at general elections. This time, alarmed at the authoritarian turn in the AKP rule, many people spontaneously decided to vote for HDP in order to stop Mr Erdogan’s seemingly unstoppable grasp for power. Bringing Turkish secularists, liberals and left-wingers with secular and pious Kurdish nationalists under one umbrella, HDP was able to surge ahead, not only to cross the 10% threshold, but to become the third biggest party in the country.
For Turkey’s Kurds to be finally represented with their own party in Parliament is alone good enough cause for optimism. Nevertheless, a lot of caution is needed.
The HDP reassured its supporters that it has now become a nationwide party and its leader repeated his promise that they will stand by their electoral pledges. A considerable part of its support came from conservative Kurds that switched their allegiance from the AKP. At the same time, the HDP received a significant amount of Turkey’s leftist vote that had nowhere else to go.
Mr Demirtas declared their success at the ballot box as “the victory of the left”. Apart from their untested longer-term stance on ethnic issues, it will be interesting to see how the party will balance its secular left and the pious conservative Kurdish grass-roots.
Looking at the wider picture, the AKP is still the biggest party in the parliament. It may be down but it is not out. As the leader of the largest party, the incumbent Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will likely have the first attempt at forming a coalition government. His defiant, bordering on vitriolic, balcony speech at the party headquarters claimed a historical victory despite the loss of their parliamentary majority.
After a tense and negative campaign, it will not be easy to bridge deep divisions when it comes to sitting around a negotiating table. The leaders of the three smaller parties are well aware of the risk of alienating their voters, by forming a coalition with the AKP that they had accused of corruption and authoritarianism.
Turkey’s electorate has given a stronger than expected warning to the AKP and the country’s partisan, non-law abiding president. While doing so, they threw more of their weight behind Turkish and Kurdish nationalisms. We are entering uncharted territory. At a time when the country is facing greater economic risks, it will be a challenge to capitalise on voters’ democratic maturity and to navigate a treacherous path ahead.
This post is also available in: Turkish