On June 8 2015 Turkey woke up to a new Turkey, but not the “New Turkey” that AKP leader and current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been promoting over the course of his party’s uncontested 13 years of leadership. Instead, as many Turkish pundits have noted, it is a return to the old fragmented political landscape that dominated the country in the 1990s that paved the way for the AKP’s rise to power in 2002. There are some bright spots of hope peaking through the clouds but it remains unclear if Turkey’s politicians have the wherewithal—or desire—to clear away the clouds of uncertainty.
The ruling AKP was looking to get 66 percent of 550 parliamentary seats that would have allowed them to get the 367 seats necessary to hold a constitutional referendum and change to a presidential system, allowing President Erdogan to raise the role of president from the largely ceremonial position it is now to an executive position. Instead, the AKP couldn’t even get the 276 seats necessary to rule on their own as the majority party; their share fell from the 49 percent they had in 2011 to 41 percent, giving them 258 seats as opposed to the 327 seats they now control.
This leaves three options. The AKP could seek to rule as a minority and go to new elections within 45 days if no government can be formed, as has been reported on the front pages of pro-government newspapers, but it is unclear as of now how the AKP can regain the votes they have lost to various opposition parties due to Mr. Erdogan’s polarizing rhetoric during the campaign and polarizing actions during his rule. In fact, this is the first time in the history of the AKP that they came away from an election having lost votes in all 81 of the country’s provinces. Therefore the AKP could continue to rule as a minority government past the initial 45 days with the other parties in question pledging their support but not looking for any ministries; still many pundits have said this scenario could lead to early elections in six to seven months.
The second option is forming a coalition government with one of the opposition parties, but that option seems unlikely given the sharp divide between all four parties. The main opposition, the secular and leftist Republican People’s Party (CHP), managed 25% of the vote and 132 seats but they stated before elections that they would not want to work with the AKP. As Ataturk’s party, this isn’t shocking. The election’s surprise package, the leftist and Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) that garnered 13% and 80 seats would be another option but their leader Selahattin Demirtas reiterated that they would not work with the AKP either, preferring to be a “strong opposition”. That leaves the right wing nationalist party—the Nationalist Action Party (MHP)—seemingly looking like the most likely partner for the AKP since they tend to get their support from Turkey’s conservative Anatolian heartland and many pundits think it was AKP voters moving to the MHP that allowed them to increase their representation to 16% and 80 seats from the 13% and 53 seats they won in 2011. Reality, however, is different and the leader of the MHP, Devlet Bahceli, is a veteran of Turkish politics and knows that to work with the AKP would mean effectively losing the 31 seats his party was able to gain. Unwilling to betray his voters, he said that his party was willing to be a main opposition and that “A snap election will happen whenever it will happen.” There is still, of course, room for maneuvering in the next 45 days and the MHP could be convinced to not give up a chance to be part of the country’s ruling coalition.
The third option would be a coalition without the AKP between the CHP, MHP, and HDP but that is even more unlikely. The HDP was able to gain votes from outside the Kurdish Southeast through traditionally CHP voters, shown by the fact that the CHP maintained a stable number of votes from 2011. CHP strongholds like Izmir Province (10.5%), Aydin Province(9.1%), Istanbul’s Besiktas district (13.2%), and Istanbul’s Kadikoy district (10.2 %) saw uncharacteristically large amounts of HDP votes and a drop in CHP votes from 2011. This is likely due to the HDP’s platform of appealing not only to Kurds but to other ethnic minorities, LGBT groups, and progressive liberals in urban areas. A voter in Istanbul’s traditionally CHP district of Sariyer said “In this election a lot of Turks abandoned their ideological preferences and voted strategically to derail Erdogan’s one-man rule.” But even if the CHP would consider working with the fellow leftist HDP (who, by the way, said they would support the CHP and MHP if they chose to work together) despite fears of Kurdish separatism, the ultra-nationalist MHP has implied that it would never agree to working with a Kurdish party. With the parties so divided it is worth looking at the few bright spots that are emerging as the dust settles.
The Bright Spots of Hope
The most obvious success of this election is the end of Mr. Erdogan’s megalomaniacal designs on controlling the Turkish political system. As many pundits have observed, this is essentially the end of any dreams of a presidential system. The AKP simply cannot count on the kind of support it saw in 2007 and 2011, and some have said that this represents the start of a downward trend for the AKP.
The AKP’s Neo-Ottoman designs have also been dealt a blow. Even if Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called to his supporters in the Balkans, Central Asia, and North Africa in his post election speech the AKP did not gather majorities from Turks living in many of these counties. In the Balkans Albania voted for the MHP, Macedonia voted for the HDP, and Bulgaria voted for the CHP. In Eurasia Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan voted for the CHP, while in the Middle East Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar all voted for the CHP as well. As an American I will also note that the AKP only managed 16.41 percent in the United States—the CHP got 44.32 percent and the HDP 24.05 percent.
The rhetoric of the HDP has also been refreshing and it looks as if they are trying to distance themselves from the violence of the past that took the lives of over 20,000 people in conflicts between the Kurdish separatists of the PKK and the Turkish military. As I hoped in the wake of the Gezi protests of June 2013 it seems that some of the CHP are beginning to empathize with the oppression minorities have faced under previous Kemalist governments after facing the same kind of oppression under the AKP. With the HDP’s rise to parliament there is hope that Turkish politics can move away from the zero-sum game that it has been and become more inclusive. The fact that HDP officials have recognized that they “will not betray their borrowed votes” is a good step, since the HDP took votes not only from a few CHP supporters but also a large number of AKP supporters, especially in the southeast, as shown in the graphic below.
The onus will be on them to match their words with concrete actions and put the days of violence in the past. Mr. Demirtas—unfortunately dubbed the “Kurdish Obama”—will certainly have a lot of work to do in order to clear up the image of Kurds as terrorists, with his brother currently living in northern Iraq as a PKK member.
The presence of a few minorities in parliament is also a step in the right direction and represents a step away from the push for Sunni Islam that the AKP has supported in recent years. 4 Christians—one from the AKP, one from the CHP, and two from the HDP—were voted into Parliament, along with two representatives of Turkey’s Yezidi community as well. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the CHP, had said in April that “We do not want division in this society. We want to grow and develop together,” when introducing the CHP’s Armenian candidate Selina Dogan. It is worth noting that his words mirror the rhetoric that has come from the HDP. Despite these glimmers of hope, however, there still remains much more to be done.
The Clouds of Uncertainty
The most obvious sign of uncertainty following the elections came from the economy, and pundits have begun focusing on the possibility of economic instability in Turkey. The Lira weakened 5 percent against the Dollar on Monday morning, exposing long-standing vulnerability in the economy, but there is still some optimism that the central bank could regain independence.
Economic instability is to be expected after any election in a divided polity, so it does not come as a surprise. The more vexing uncertainties that have been uncovered by this election are political. If the AKP is unable to form a coalition government they could play up the instability caused by the election results and campaign for a return to single party rule if early elections are called for. Burhan Kuzu, the AKP deputy and head of the parliamentary constitution commission, stated his opinion in no uncertain terms: “The parliamentary system is a curse for the whole world. In Turkey only majority governments ever worked, coalitions always destroyed it.” He then said that the only solution would be an executive presidency, and if AKP supporters are conned by this type of rhetoric it could lead to more instability—after all, election results showed that 60 percent of voters effectively rejected Erdogan’s push for an executive presidency.
Unfortunately, the three opposition parties may not be able to come together soon enough to forestall such a plan. The MHP does not want to deal with the Kurdish HDP and, sadly, neither do the hardliners of the CHP. Social media has been ablaze with articles like this one labeling the Kurds as, variously, “terrorists” and “murderers”, among other things. Mr. Erdogan himself called them “Atheists” and “traitors” during the election campaign in order to appeal to his conservative support base. Even if many liberals see the HDP’s rise as healthy for Turkish democracy it is still worrying that the one thing that the CHP and AKP hardliners—as divided as they are on opposite ends of the political spectrum—can agree on is a hatred for the Kurds. But what can be done? They were told to join in politics instead of taking up arms, and now they are being rejected from politics as soon as they have been able to get involved. It is also true that the violence inflicted on the Turkish state by Kurdish terrorists in the PKK during the 1990s is unforgiveable and left its mark on the Turkish people; understandably such memories die hard. Indeed the zero-sum nature of Turkish politics is solidifying and with this kind of mentality no one—except Mr. Erdogan, perhaps—will win.
We can only hope that cooler, rational, heads prevail and that true inclusive democracy can rise out of this difficult situation. The only road to a healthy—and strong—Turkish society rises in putting the hatreds of the past in the past, in order to heal the rifts created by the 13 year AKP policy of divide and rule. But the political situation is clear. There is no consensus but there are four main camps: The conservative Islamists, the Turkish nationalists, the Turkish liberal nationalists, and the Kurdish liberal nationalists. In fact, when you combine the two leftist parties (ignoring for a moment the ethnic divide) their 40% matches the amount of votes won by the conservatives of the AKP. In order to bridge the gap ethnic and religious identities must be respected but not underlined. Easier said than done.
Football also played its part in this election. Hakan Sukur, the former AKP deputy who resigned from the party and ran as an independent failed to enter parliament this election. Another footballer—and former strike partner with Hakan Sukur at Galatasaray (They were called the “twin towers” in the 1990s)—Saffet Sancakli was elected as an MHP representative from Kocaeli province. As the party’s fortunes go, so too do the footballers. With the Gulenists and AKP on a downward trend their representative from the footballing community bows out while the MHP, on an upward trend, provides another politician from a footballing background with a shot at a career in politics.