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Instability aside, Turkey's election result is a victory for democracy

For the past 13 years, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been gradually amassing power. The Justice and Development Party (generally known by its Turkish acronym, AKP) that he helped to found has won a parliamentary majority in every election since 2002. Erdogan has been prime minister three times and last year was elected to the largely ceremonial post of president. He had planned to rewrite the constitution to give himself far more wide-ranging powers.

However, the general election in Turkey on Sunday produced a result that changes Turkey's political landscape. The incumbent AKP did not win an overall parliamentary majority, and the country's large Kurdish minority won its largest ever share of the vote. The AKP is still the largest party, with 41 per cent of the vote, but this is down from 49 per cent in 2011, meaning that it's the first election since 2002 in which the party has lost support. Combined with the rapid rise in support for a new pro-Kurd group, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the AKP was deprived of a clear majority. It will be forced to negotiate a coalition, potentially with extreme nationalists, since the AKP has little in common with the other major parties. The secularist Republican Peoples' Party (CHP), for example, was the second biggest party after the AKP. If no parliamentary majority can be cobbled together within six weeks, a fresh election will be called.

While the final outcome is still very much up in the air, it seems that voters have turned against Erdogan and his increasingly dictatorial behaviour; the result is a blow for his ambitions. In order to hold a referendum on the constitutional changes that Erdogan wanted, to create a US-style executive presidency, the AKP needed to win two-thirds of the 550 seats available, or 330 seats. As it stands, they did not even meet the 276-seat threshold for a simple majority. In its present form, the presidency is supposed to be a neutral, ceremonial post, but Erdogan disregarded this when he campaigned for the AKP during this election. Some analysts have suggested that the result shows the Turkish public turning against Erdogan, even though he was not on the ballot paper himself. Erdogan is Turkey's most popular modern leader, but also the most divisive, particularly for what many see as his undermining of Turkey's secularist tradition in favour of a moderate Islamist agenda. Certainly, it seems he may have overreached, not only by seeking to grant himself more powers as president, but also imprisoning and intimidating members of the press and his political opponents, and attempting to block YouTube and Twitter.

The HDP mainly represents the Kurds – a minority of 18 million people, or about 20 per cent of the population – but it also gained the support of Turkey's disillusioned left-wing liberals and secularists, who were alienated by Erdogan's increasingly undemocratic behaviour. The party deliberately tried to break out of the identity politics that have long dominated Turkish elections, and ran on a platform that defended the rights of ethnic minorities and women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. During the campaign, Erdogan dismissed the HDP as a party of gay people and atheists, a comment clearly intended to pander to his conservative religious supporters.

In order to enter parliament in Turkey, parties must win at least 10 per cent of the vote. This steep threshold dates back to the military-authored constitution of 1980, and was intended partly to hinder Kurdish representation in the parliament. The HDP won 12 per cent, which would translate to about 80 seats in the 550 seat chamber. Of course, this is not enough to form a government, but the HDP now looks likely to play a significant role in parliament. It is expected to focus first on trying to advance the peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a militant group which took up arms in 1984. In 2013, a ceasefire was agreed and a peace process started, but talks have stalled and sporadic violence has returned.

What happens now depends on Erdogan, who is hardly known for being a good loser, although he did strike an unusually conciliatory tone in his first speech to the public after the result, saying, "Our nation's opinion is above everything else." Early signs suggest that the AKP would prefer to form a coalition than to call further elections, but this may be difficult in practice. "We expect a minority government and an early election," a senior AKP official told Reuters. Tradition in Turkey dictates that if the biggest party is unable to form a coalition, it offers the opportunity to the next biggest party before calling elections. However, there is no absolute requirement to do so.

The next few weeks will be dominated by coalition negotiations and political wrangling. While Erdogan's supporters have warned of a return to unstable government, economic uncertainty and fragile coalitions, many in Turkey will be seeing this result as a victory for parliamentary democracy.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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