Surprising Election Results Uncover New Turkey

Election officers are seen at a polling station during Turkey's 25th general election in Kirklareli, Turkey on June 7, 2015. (Ozgun Tiran/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

“On June 7, is there going to be a new Turkey?” asked Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu days before the election at one of the largest rallies of supporters for the ruling AKP party. The people answered with a deafening, “Yes!” and they were right— the results of the general election uncovered a new Turkey. However, what was uncovered is quite different from what Mr. Davutoğlu, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and other leaders of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had in mind.

The AKP failed to secure a majority, forcing a coalition government with representation from the four major political forces. Three factors caused this shake up in Turkey’s political landscape: (1) the rise of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a movement with Kurdish roots that has successfully reached out to other constituencies; (2) a relative decline of support for the AKP, which remains by far the largest political party, but has lost more than two million votes compared to both the 2011 general elections and the presidential elections of August 2014; and (3) a very high turnout (86.94%) indicating that Turkish voters realized that there was a lot at stake in these elections.

The elections reflect a diverse Turkey that will be better represented; 95% of the voters opted for the four main political parties and the smallest of them (HDP) was successful in passing the 10% threshold. It is worth remembering that in 2002, only two political parties passed this threshold, and 45% of the votes were without representation; the AKP then enjoyed an absolute majority (363 seats out of 550) with less than 35% of the electorate support. Another sign of diversity and inclusion is that the new parliament will now have more women (97, versus 79 in the previous term) and seats with Christian, Yezidi, and Roma politicians. (Barış Sulu, an activist that joined HDP could have become Turkey’s first openly gay lawmaker but he failed to win the seat).

Two years ago, Turkey witnessed mass demonstrations, known as the Gezi Park protests, that were not only a reaction to Erdoğan’s authoritarian ruling style but also a symptom of the frustration felt by parts of society over the lack of viable political alternatives. The results of the June elections show that this may be changing. The HDP offered a political platform to some of those that sympathized with the 2013 protests. Even more importantly, citizens believed that their vote counted. The initiative “Oy ve Ötesi” (“Vote and Beyond”) mobilized thousands of volunteers to observe the general elections — another show of citizens’ attachment to democracy.

A less promising outcome is that Turkey could be entering a political minefield. Coalitions—or at least external parliamentary support—will be needed to rule the country. This represents a considerable change for a country that has been ruled by single-party governments with comfortable majorities since 2002. Each coalition combination entails risks, although of very different nature. For instance, a coalition between the AKP and the right-wing nationalist party (MHP) could put the peace process with the Kurds in jeopardy and bring a new wave of violence. A tripartite coalition excluding the AKP would bring together parties that are at odds and would certainly provoke a major institutional clash between the government and Erdoğan.

In contrast, a coalition between the AKP and the main opposition party, the CHP, or with the pro-Kurdish HDP, or with both of them, would be the preferred option for those looking for a certain amount of stability, but the parties have little incentive to move in that direction, and the result could also trigger divisions inside the AKP. Furthermore, if political leaders fail to reach an agreement, or the new government becomes too weak, the country could be heading for snap elections.  For some members of the AKP—and Erdoğan himself—this is tempting, as some of the votes lost in the June elections could be won back by invoking the need to preserve stability.

June 2015 was supposed to bring to a close a very intense electoral cycle through which Erdoğan aimed at consolidating his power. The results have certainly been a blow to his ambitions but this is not the end of the story. Erdoğan will fight back. The results of the general elections have opened a political period marked by uncertainty. The challenges the country will be facing are not new: political and social polarization, a volatile economy in a turbulent and insecure regional context, consolidation of Turkey’s democracy and the need to find a long-lasting, peaceful and inclusive solution to the “Kurdish issue.” What is new is that, to the surprise of the ruling party, Turkey will face these challenges under a different distribution of power.

Eduard Soler i Lecha is Research Coordinator at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.