Assessing Turkey's Most Consequential Elections

06/09/2015 09:07 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

Turkey's election, held last Sunday, will go down in history as one of the most consequential for the young democracy. After months of listening to candidates and pundits, millions of Turkish citizens flocked to the polls to cast their votes in an election many saw as a foregone conclusion. Despite widespread fatalistic perceptions going into the vote, Turks seemed to have surprised themselves, not just by the 86% turnout of eligible voters, but by the results, which show a vibrant and strong democratic culture in spite of the many recent challenges.

Unlike the dramatic story of David Cameron's surprise triumph in Britain or the renewed mandate for Shinzo Abe in Japan, where expectations were kept low, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) were handed only a tepid victory. Erdoğan was not on the ballot but was a ubiquitous force throughout the campaign with his apocalyptic rhetoric denouncing the other parties and the ruin they would bring for Turkey. But most voters were unconvinced. For the first time in its 13 years of governance and after four national elections, the AKP was unable to win a simple majority, meaning that a coalition will be needed to form a government and Erdoğan is unlikely to get a presidential system - which would have increased his powers even more - through the parliament. Still, breathless pronouncements that the AKP is finished and Erdoğan has been soundly defeated are premature.

After the elections, each party in order of the votes received will seek to form a government through a coalition representing at least half of the parliament at 276 seats within 45 days. While theoretically the AKP could easily pull this off by partnering with any of the other three parties that enters the parliament, each swore to not join during the elections given the divisive and polarizing nature of Turkish politics. Conversely if all of the opposition parties came together they could also form a government which is even more unlikely given the dynamics of ethnic nationalism between them. Thus the inconclusive results take Turkey into unchartered territory for the 21st century of an unstable political system in the short-term and increases the likelihood of early elections no matter how a government is formed.

Party Share of Vote Seats

Justice and Development Party (AKP) 40.6% 257
Republican People's Party (CHP) 25.3% 131
Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) 16% 83
People's Democratic Party (HDP) 12.7% 79

In the absence of strong alternatives and given the fear of what might come next in a region in flux, the AKP remains the single largest party and will continue to shape Turkey's future. The rise of the People's Democratic Party (HDP), that for the first time saw a Kurdish party officially enter parliament and represents the strongest opposition, is the most intriguing Turkish political development since its foundation. The need for political compromise to solve Turkey's long festering Kurdish issue has never been more pressing for any Turkish government and parliament entering office given terrorist attacks as recently as two days before the elections on a HDP rally. Rather than another election marking a continuation of the status quo, this election reveals a subtle but major shift in the future of Turkish politics and in its foreign relations.

The most optimistic results of the elections are in Turkey's changing demographics represented in the HDP vote share of 12.7% that translates to 79 seats - just a few less than the seats won by the Turkish Nationalist Party (MHP). By not just barely crossing the world's highest parliamentary threshold (This refers to the minimum number votes a party must receive to take seats in parliament. Turkey's is 10%.), but more than doubling its previous pro-Kurdish vote share through a coalition with liberal Turks, the election is a triumph for all minorities in Turkey and for Kurdish aspirations across the region. The emergence of Kurdish political power grants a voice not only to the Kurds, but to the dozens of non-Turkish minorities.

The election results validate the path towards a political solution to Turkey's Kurdish issue and point towards further Kurdish unity in Turkey and across the region's borders. As Middle Eastern borders are being undone by the so-called "Islamic State," the Kurds in Turkey - still the largest of the Kurdish communities - will have an increasing voice in determining regional state contours along ethnic, confessional, or national lines.

But what of Turkey's international alliances and partnerships? Even as its relationship with the European Union has remained on life-support and Erdogan's "bromance" with President Obama seems to be over, America remains Turkey's most critical partner; the United States is the only major power that has the will and strength to be a security provider for its allies in the region. However, new opportunities in the reemerging Silk Road, such as a major, Chinese-led trade initiative, and an easing of historic tensions with Russia are tempting Turkey back towards its Eurasian roots. Stronger partnerships with countries such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have clear potential for a Turkey that feels rebuffed by Europe and surrounded by increasingly chaotic neighbors. Turkey may yet look to champion its common Turkic heritage to capitalize on the tremendous potential and geostrategic value of its Central Asian allies.

As Turkey emerges from Sunday's elections, Ankara would do well to refocus its foreign relations near and far by mending fences in its own neighborhood first. Focusing on areas of pragmatic interest shared with Cairo, Jerusalem, and Nicosia, whether over shared economic, energy, or environmental concerns, are issues that Washington would be all too eager to support--along with an alternative to Assad in Damascus. Standing above the sectarian fray continually championed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, Turkey - through these elections - has a chance to demonstrate its regional importance, its democratic values, and reset its relations with Europe. Given the necessity of strong economic and political ties, the European Union, Turkey and the United States now can grow relations through a fresh push for the Customs Union, resolution in Cyprus, and transparency in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Having fundamentally reshaped Turkish foreign policy from being merely an instrument of the West to being a catalyst and regional power in its own right, it is dangerous to write off the AKP. The election results may mark the beginning of the end for single-party rule and breathes new life into a democracy that has been struggling with freedom of the press, urban protest movements over Gezi Park, Kurdish unity over Kobani and Syria more broadly to name but a few challenges. Yet Turkish leadership still has numerous global opportunities, not least of which is its hosting of the G20 this November. Turkey's elections did not happen in a vacuum and the results are already leading to a series of unpredictable consequences, including economic and when the next election could now be called. However unlikely, given the tenor of Sunday's elections, building pragmatic coalitions and globally repositioning Turkey as an inclusive model of political compromise would distinguish the new parliament and reap the seeds that have been sewn for a new Turkish future. No matter what, the results of this election will fundamentally reshape the president's party, the presidency and legacy of Erdoğan , and the future of the Turkish state. Turkey is still moving towards a strong strategic future - though, perhaps, not on the exact course Erdoğan or the West once imagined.

Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow for the German Marshall Fund of the United States and longtime watcher of Turkey including as a Fulbright Scholar in Ankara who has also served at the US Embassy Ankara, Turkey Desk Officer, and Senior Advisor to the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed are his own.

Cross-posted from War on the Rocks