Turkish voters pulled the emergency brake on Sunday, derailing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign to centralize power in his own hands. He asked voters to endorse his form of arbitrary and authoritarian rule, and they refused.
Erdogan’s party, Justice and Development, took just 41 percent in the parliamentary election. It was a sharp slide from the 52 percent with which Erdogan won the presidency just 10 months ago. Voters punished him for his excesses.
The other big news of this election was the success of the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party in overcoming the forbidding 10 percent hurdle and entering parliament. This hurdle, which was imposed by the military in the 1980s as a way to keep Kurdish parties out of parliament, had succeeded – until now. But with 13 percent of the vote nationwide, Kurds have now moved into the mainstream of Turkish politics for the first time.
The entry of this party into parliament could have far-reaching effect. There is already a model for what it hopes to achieve: Erdogan’s party. That party rose to power as the political expression of a new social class, made up of pious Anatolian entrepreneurs. Now the Kurdish party has made itself the vessel for another newly emerging Turkish class: young, cosmopolitan, globalized voters who are frustrated with traditional political parties. They are looking for a social democratic alternative, and in this election the Kurds offered it. Their party reached beyond its Kurdish base. It is feminist, diverse, pro-environmental, and pro-European. Its young leaders were wise enough to broaden its appeal, and voters rewarded them.
By any measure, the big winner in this election was the personable 42-year-old leader of the People’s Democratic Party, Selahattin Demirtas. He is refreshing both in style and substance. On the campaign trail he smiled and told jokes, a sharp contrast to Erdogan’s aggressive snarl. He gave speeches about tolerance, and about dreams that Turks share across ethnic and confessional lines. Some voters are still skeptical of him because of his connection to armed Kurdish guerrillas, or because he is pro-gay, or because he accepts the fact of the Armenian genocide “without question.” Many voted for his party mainly to block Erdogan. Demirtas has the chance to emerge as a major Turkish leader, but he has dangerous shoals yet to navigate.
Because the ruling party won less than half the seats in parliament, it will probably have to seek a coalition partner for the first time since rising to power in 2002. In any case, it is weakened. Inevitably some party leaders will blame Erdogan’s polarizing tactics for their election setback. His ambition to create a strong-president system with himself at the center no longer seems realistic.
Voters dealt this reprimand to creeping authoritarianism despite an intense pro-government press campaign. Many newspapers and television stations have come under government influence, but their propaganda did not translate into votes. That was not the only sign that democratic culture is maturing in Turkey. The turnout was an impressive 86 percent. Votes were counted quickly and without challenge. Results were clear within a couple of hours after the polls closed.
A new Turkish government could mean changes both within the country and in foreign policy. A justice minister or foreign minister from another party would not allow Erdogan to dictate policy and prosecutions as he has in recent years.
At home, the biggest challenge is final resolution of the long-festering Kurdish question. The success of a Kurdish-based political party should mean that Kurdish voices will be accommodated more than in the past, though that is far from certain. A coalition government might also result in reduced pressure on Erdogan’s favorite targets, including the press, the Internet, and civil society.
In foreign policy, a coalition government would limit Erdogan’s ability to send clandestine arms shipments and other forms of aid to favored factions in Syria and elsewhere. It might calm some of the adventurous impulses that have strained Turkey’s relations with some nearby countries, and that have made it a prickly ally for the United States.
Sunday’s election showed a vibrant democracy and sophisticated electorate. It propelled a new and promising force to the center of national life. This does not mean an end to anger, intrigue, and provocation in Turkish politics. Erdogan will not fade quietly. New elections may come soon. But this is a result of which Turks can be proud.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.