Just two weeks before the general election in Turkey on 7 June the New York Times ran an editorial ‘Dark clouds over Turkey’. It reported rising tensions in the country and that opposition supporters were fearful of a new crackdown to ensure that the ruling Justice and Development Party not only won the election, but increased their strength in parliament from 326 seats to 330, to the two thirds majority needed to change the constitution (subject to a referendum) and turn Turkey from a parliamentary democracy into a presidential system headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Some even feared that election itself would be rigged which explains why tens of thousands of people signed up to safeguard ballots on Sunday as part of the Civilian Initiative Vote and Beyond, to monitor voting and counting in 41 of Turkey’s 81 provinces.
Two weeks later the dream was shattered. The gamble failed when his party, the AKP got only 41 per cent of the vote and some 258 seats in the 550 seat parliament, well short of a majority. Second was the centre left CHP (Republican People’s Party who got 25 per cent of the vote (132 seats) while the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) on 16.5 per cent (81 seats). The real winners were the pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) who broke through the 10 per cent electoral threshold to enter parliament winning 79 seats, some 13 per cent of the vote..
The writing was on the wall for Erdogan two years ago when the police brutally attacked protestors and other peaceful demonstrators protesting at development plans for Gezi Park in the centre of Istanbul. They along with protestors in other towns and cities were physically attached and denounced as terrorists and riff raff. The lessons were not lost on what was becoming an increasingly radicalised protest movement who clearly took their revenge at Sunday’s poll. While the averages of opinion polls conducted in May showed the AKP on 42 per cent down from 50 per cent they achieved in the 2011 election.
Other sections of civil society were also concerned at the worsening events and the crackdown on dissent. Critical journalists and journalism were under constant attack, sometimes physically during this period. Last December the authorities struck with a massive police raid in Istanbul on Zaman newspaper and threats of anti terror laws were used to shut down both Zaman and Hurriyet newspapers – the two main independent media sources and their parent companies as well as on the TV media network Samanyolu (see previous blogs).
So the danger of one party rule has been defeated for the time being by the electorate, but multi-party politics has it’s problems as the opposition parties to the AKP do not agree on much and may not be able to work together in parliament. What’s more the election should signal a reversal of the crack down on independent journalism and dissent, but there are many continuing trials and new ones in the pipeline (as reported in earlier blogs). Social movements in the country would have gained confidence following the election results – it’s Erdogan’s first defeat – and need to step up campaigns to increase democracy and freedom of expression. A friend of mine from Turkey connected to the OdaTV trial (which ressumes on 12 June – see earlier blogs) has offered the following post election view: “Contrary to popular belief, I believe these elections will result in a more chaotic bureaucratic conflict within various bodies of government including the judiciary system. Simply put the judges and prosecutors of a certain ideology or political inclination will most probably work to undermine the work of judges that have other ideological inclinations. It is quite more depressing than the hopeful attitude people have about the state of the country, but I thought you may want to keep this perspective in mind, as well, for the next few years.”
It’s not clear what Erdogan will do next. Under the constitution the role of president is suppose to be neutral with power resting with the prime minister and parliament. That has not been the Erdogan experience and needs to be challenged. He will think otherwise, but will he be challenged by the prime minister and sections of his party angry at the election outcome? Having made the election campaign a personal matter and caused his party to suffer a humiliating result he will not be easily forgiven by some. The shine has worn off, maybe for good, but never underestimate Erdogan.
Power has returned to the people. Now it is the time for them to act to build a real democratic and diverse society so that there is no return to authoritarian rule. A tall order, but it can and must be done.