The Turkish electorate voted this week-end in parliamentary elections. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had hoped to expand his majority to 2/3 so that he could amend the constitution to make Turkey a presidential rather than parliamentary republic. His socially conservative Justice and Development Party [AKP by its Turkish initials] has ruled the nation for the last 13 years, and it appears that the Turkish people are not willing to give him any more power. While the AKP secured 41% of the vote, it has just suffered its biggest electoral defeat since its founding in 2001. Turkish democracy remains secure.
With but a handful of votes yet to be counted, the AKP received just under 41% of the vote, enough for 258 seats in the 550-seat lower house. That’s down from 327 it previously held. The Republican People’s Party [CHP, the secular opposition] scored just under 25% for 132 seats. The nationalist MHP earned 80 seats with its 16.3% of the vote. Entering parliament for the first time is the Kurdish and generally left wing HDP with 13.12%, also good enough for 80 seats.
Within the next 45 days, a government of some kind must be formed, or under the terms of the Turkish constitution, new elections will be required. The most likely junior partner in a coalition would be the MHP; however, nothing is guaranteed. The AKP could wind up running a minority government for a time.
Whatever the government that is formed, two very important things emerge from this result. First, the Turks have a very healthy democracy that they take very seriously. Clearly, Mr. Erdogan was making a bid for much greater power, and after 13 years of the same people running the show, it was time to clip some wings. TheNew York Times offered this quotation from a 47-year-old fitness instructor named Selen Olcay, “I voted for H.D.P. because it’s the only party that can break up Erdogan’s bid for absolute power. In this election a lot of Turks abandoned their ideological preferences and voted strategically to derail Erdogan’s one-man rule.”
The second important fact here is the emergence of a Kurdish voice in the Turkish parliament with the success of the HDP. This is the first time the party topped the 10% threshold needed for winning seats, and it was a departure from the previous strategy of running independent candidates. The risk, of course, was the possible failure to reach 10%, which would have buried the party for some time to come. In the end, the risk was justified.
The Washington Post quoted Akin Unver, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul as saying, “Despite the civil war of the 1990s, Kurds have evolved politically and established a lasting legacy” on the Turkish national stage. He said it is now “impossible to sideline Kurdish politics.”
This diminution of presidential powers comes at a time when Turkey might benefit in the short term from a stronger presidency. The country is hosting, reluctantly, about 2 million Syrian refugees who are not going home until the civil war there is over, and that war doesn’t seem to be any closer to a resolution that last week, last month or last year. The nation, a very significant member of NATO, is having more than a few troubles with its allies over its rather lukewarm support for the use of force against ISIS.
Whether this is the end of Mr. Erdogan’s ambition to create a presidential republic or whether a period of weak and ineffective government will precede a restoration of his majority one cannot say. What is certain is that Turkey remains an example, however flawed, of the reconciliation of Islam with modernity and democracy. Long term, that’s a vastly better outcome.