Turkey's Election and Its Firsts

06/10/2015 03:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

Turkey had a parliamentary election on Sunday with 87 percent voter turnout, meaning 45 million citizens cast their votes. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that won 41 percent of the votes came first. The Republic People's Party (CHP) became the second party, winning 25 percent of the votes. The other main opposition party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) received 16 percent of the votes. The Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) crossed the threshold to enter parliament, winning 13 percent of the votes.

What makes this election different from other elections is its firsts: A record number of women, 96 of them, won seats in the 550-member Turkish Parliament. This number was 79 in the 2011 general elections. Turkey's ruling party, the AKP, lost its majority in the parliament, ending its single-party government. This is the first major electoral setback for the AKP since the party came to power in 2002. A Kurdish party, the HDP, crossed the threshold, which is 10 percent required to enter parliament, for the first time in history. Another first is that a foreign leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin, made a congratulatory phone call not to the AKP leader but to the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is expected to be impartial, over the AKP's success in the June 7 general elections, which was criticized by opposition parties in Turkey as "unfortunate." Among these firsts, I will focus on two - the AKP and HDP election results.

Why Did AKP Votes Decline?

Although the ruling party, which governed Turkey alone for 13 years, failed to achieve a simple majority of 276 seats, it remains the biggest party with 41 percent in this election. The AKP's votes decreased in comparison to the votes it won in 2011 national elections, which was 50 percent. For the party, this means a decrease in number of seats in the Parliament from 327 seats to 258 seats.

The AKP has represented the conservatives that have demanded a share of the center's power. Inclusion itself manifested greater democratization of the system that followed the democratic reforms the AKP implemented its first term (2002-2007) that brought Turkey closer to democratic consolidation. The AKP was one of the defenders of democratic rights and liberties in its first term. With this policy it enjoyed broad popular support. However, the more power the AKP won at the polls, the less the democratization process came to the agenda, and even a de-democratization process arose.

As stated in Human Rights Watch's 2015 report, Turkey increasingly has faced criticisms due to a rise in broadcasting watchdog disciplinary fines applied selectively to anti-government media, criminal defamation cases against journalists, the firing of some prominent journalists, and blocking orders on particular accounts and content on social media. Through these measures, the government is impeding the ability or likelihood of media to hold government authorities to account.

President Erdoğan campaigned to secure 330 seats in 550-seat parliament that would have enabled him to convert Turkey into a presidential rather than a parliamentary system. The fear of consolidation of power by President Erdoğan, which was perceived as a shift towards a more authoritarian direction in Turkey, increased the votes of opposition parties, which are opposed to the presidential system. This election showed the limits of popularity of the presidential system in Turkey and President Erdoğan's hopes for changing the constitution and creating new presidential republic to replace the parliamentary system. The decrease in the AKP votes indicates that the party is losing votes from liberals and liberal segments of its own grassroots that seek for more freedoms and democracy and a more conciliatory foreign policy and more good neighborhood relations in Turkey.

Why Did HDP Votes Increase?

The HDP's rise reminds me of the first term of the AKP, which came to power as a party of not only its Islamist or conservative proponents but a party that also embraced all ethnic groups and liberals of Turkey. The party's rhetoric that it also supports the democratization process in Turkey and good neighborhood relations and membership in the European Union appealed to voters who support a more democratic Turkey. The HDP changed its rhetoric and discourses during the election campaigns and showed their party is not only a Kurdish party. The HDP also declared itself as the party of all minorities. It reflected this view by putting up even Christians, Yazidis, gays and more women candidates for parliament. The party's overt opposition to the presidential system appealed to voters whose aim is to curtail Erdoğan's power. A slowing economy also facilitated the victory of HDP. The HDP's election victory was described as "the victory of peace against war" by Sırrı Süreyya Önder, an HDP official. This result raised hopes for a final agreement on peace talks, which were first initiated by Erdoğan in 2009 to end the decades-old struggle that costs thousands of lives, but stagnated and had run into a deadlock after the Kobani demonstrations.

What's Next for Turkey?

Tough days await Turkey since it will not be easy to form a government after this election. The AKP is likely to need a coalition partner to form a new government. If the political parties fail to form a new government in 45 days, an early election will be called. Political uncertainty, which has emerged after the election and has a negative impact on Turkish economy, shows the necessity of compromise in forming a new government immediately.

The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which won 16 percent, shut the doors to any coalition with a statement made by the party leader, Devlet Bahçeli, after the election. Yet this does not mean that there are no other alternatives to form a coalition government. The Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş paved the way for a possible AKP coalition with other parties and played down the chance of an early election, saying it was the "most distant possibility." The AKP+CHP or AKP+HDP formulations are among the possibilities, although the formation of these coalition governments seems quite difficult.

The other important outcome of the election was the change in Erdoğan's rhetoric, which seems more conciliatory in comparison to election period statements made by him. He acknowledged that the AKP and other parties would not be able to govern alone. He urged political parties to show responsibility in this "new process" in a statement released by the Presidency. He also asked that "political forces show responsible behavior and the necessary sensitivity to preserve the atmosphere of stability and confidence in our country and our democratic achievements. Our nation's will is above everything." Whatever the outcome in the formation of a new government or early elections hold, this election result has the potential to make an impact on the AKP to rethink its domestic and foreign policy, but also the potential for a new, more democratic Turkey.