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2015: The Year for Turkey

For a generation that has been disappointed one too many times by the promise of participatory democracy to anticipate any real change, elections of real consequence can be quite startling. That is why the results of Turkey’s general elections on Sunday, June 7 left the entire country, and especially Turkish youth, simply startled.

As counting came to an end and the final votes were announced on Sunday evening, the leading Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since Recep Tayyip Erdogan led it to its first sweeping victory in 2002, had gotten 40.8 percent of the vote, with the leading opposition party, People’s Republic Party (CHP), following at 25 percent, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) at 16.3 percent and the newcomer to the race, People’s Democratic Party (HDP), at a shocking 13 percent. Now, with AKP forced to share power for the first time in over a decade, Turkey is looking at the possibility of a coalition, a government that will be formed by a partnership in one of several unlikely political groupings, or an early election. Either way, the results of the June 7 election have already proven to be a harsh but much needed reality check for Erdogan and the AKP, as well as an undeniable if slightly unexpected win for liberals and especially the Kurds, who will be partaking in parliament for the first time in the history of the country.

A Crash Course: Who, What, When, How?

The Turkish Republic is governed by a parliamentary system in which multiple political parties compete for seats in parliament in nationwide general elections. While the parliament, lead by the prime minister — the president of the political party with the highest number of votes in the general elections — has most of the jurisdictional power in the country, the president of Turkey is symbolic of a multifaceted model of government built on the principle of the accountability of power. For much of Turkish history, general elections were held every five years and the sitting parliament members voted to elect the president of the Republic to seven-year terms.

However, since a 2007 referendum confirming changes made to the constitution by the AKP-lead parliament and signed off on by President Abdullah Gul, general elections are held every four years and the public votes every five years to determine the president, who is permitted by the law to serve two consecutive five-year terms at the post.

Hence, amid a much-contested public election in 2014, Erdogan became the Turkish Republic’s first publicly elected president after serving as prime minister from 2002 to 2014. He was replaced as prime minister by Ahmet Davutoglu, who had served as minister of foreign affairs in the AKP cabinet from 2009 to 2014.

A Look at the Recent Past: Tired of the Games

With that in mind, we now turn to the 2015 elections to understand why the results are so shocking and how they have already made monumental changes to the way Turkish politics is expected to look in the near future. In the last general elections in 2011, the AKP, under Erdogan’s leadership, had collected a stunning 49.95 percent majority in votes. This seemed to make sense because since AKP’s rise to power nearly a decade earlier, Turkey had survived the 2008 financial crisis relatively unscathed while also gathering immense momentum in its rise to a leadership position in the Middle East. As the Arab Spring swept over the region, Turkey was left to stand out as a politically stable anchor and a strong ally of the West amidst the winds of change.

Still, political unrest brewed from within and the Gezi Park protests exploded in 2013, mobilizing widespread opposition to the increasingly authoritarian rule of Erdogan and the AKP-led parliament. The movement garnered support from all corners of the country, targeting the increasingly oppressive, religiously and socially conservative values Erdogan tried to impose on Turkish society. In addition, scandals of corruption, malpractice and bribery erupted in December 2013 regarding several AKP cabinet members. Therefore, the regional elections in 2014 were largely expected to show AKP’s popularity taking a large hit from increasing civil unrest.

Yet, to the surprise of many, and not without rumors of rigged elections, the AKP managed to receive 44.19 percent of the vote in the regional elections, maintaining a clear majority and proving to many who disagreed with their politics that it would take more than scandals and protests, perhaps even more than democracy could offer, to reverse the changes Erdogan and his disciples had brought about to once-secular and democratic Turkish politics.

Hence, in 2015, the political arena in Turkey looked menacingly dystopic as the date marked the thirteenth year of majority-AKP rule in the country. Many had already forgotten what civil life was like before the party took over and even the most staunchly liberal voter-base had lost faith in the main opposition party (the CHP). In effect, the 2015 elections were seen more as a formality than a possible turning point; after all, Erdogan and his party had proven, not once but over and over again, that they were indeed all-powerful and immune to all political abrasion, and the public was tired of political showcasing.

The Curious Case of the 2015 Elections: A Sore Loser and a Dark Horse

Yet, a newcomer to the race changed everything, causing the AKP to fall short of its vote predictions by nearly 10 percentage points. HDP, a continuation of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) that had appealed to the Kurdish minority in the southeast of the nation, was formed in 2012 with a vision not too different from that of the newly budding leftist parties in Europe such as Syriza and Podemos. The anti-nationalist, left-wing party identifies with the women’s, workers’ and minorities’ movements in Turkey, and was seen as a leftist alternative to the archaic general opposition party CHP, which, despite attempts to remake its image in the 2011 elections, has failed to incite trust and faith in its voter base since pre-AKP days.

Widely criticized by the AKP and the right-wing nationalist party MHP for its pro-Kurdish rhetoric and its undeniable, in fact self-admitted, ties to the separatist terrorist organization PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), HDP was barely expected to pass the threshold of votes required to occupy seats in parliament. A legacy of the post-coup d’état constitution of 1980, political parties are required to gather a minimum of 10 percent of votes in general elections to get seats in parliament, a standard which is seen by many as an obstruction to a multi-party, representative democracy. Even as the results from the first ballot boxes were coming in on Sunday morning, it was considered unlikely for HDP to pass the 10 percent mark.

Nevertheless, HDP ended the day with a truly remarkable 13 percent while AKP lagged behind the anticipated majority of 45 to 50 percent. Prime Minister Davutoglu left his native city of Konya on Sunday evening in a campaign bus where the atmosphere was far from celebratory, leaving many wondering what had happened to lead to this unlikely turn of events.

The answer rests with the votes of two demographics that are key in Turkish elections: the Kurds and the liberal social democrats. Every major political party in Turkey has an unwavering voter-base that remains pretty much stable every election: AKP has the conservative, religious voter base, CHP the veteran Republicans (not related at all to the partisan sense of the term used in American politics) and MHP the right-wing nationalists.

Yet at every election, the Kurdish minority and the younger, more dynamic, left-leaning population determine the way results are swayed. This time around, HDP promised a brighter, more idealist, more ambitious and perhaps even utopic future that appealed to both of these voter demographics, pushing it well above the 10 percent line and leading to an inspiring, brave and even provocative speech by the co-president of the party, Selahattin Demirtas.

Eloquently summing up the source of HDP’s success and its vision of what to do with this hard-earned success, Demirtas’s speech captured the essence of why the 2015 election results are of historical importance for Turkey. Demirtas emphatically stated that his party’s victory was a product of the shared success of the working class, the poor, the peasantry, the minorities and the marginalized communities in Turkey.

He added, as his co-president Ms. Figen Yuksekdag, who spoke after Demirtas, stood proudly next to him, that this victory was most importantly a victory of and for Turkish women. This is striking because very rarely since the disastrous Prime Ministry of Turkey’s first and only female prime minister Tansu Ciller have women been a significant factor in political agendas or significant actors on the political stage. Furthermore, rape, domestic violence and violence against women have been on the news agenda quite prominently for the past few months.

“The Turkish democracy has gained HDP today, thanks to you,” Demirtas thanked his constituents. “Today, Turkey has turned, at the last minute, from the edge of a cliff with dictatorship awaiting at the bottom of the fall,” he added. Condemning the acts of ISIS and provocatively thanking Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of PKK, Demirtas made it clear that he considered HDP’s success a win for Turkish democracy, displaying a sort of passion and courage that has long been absent from the discourse of opposition in Turkish politics.

Charting New Waters: Coalitions, Early Elections and a Changing Political Scene

HDP’s success not only means a new leaf in Turkey’s political book for ideological purposes, but it also means important structural changes since the most likely outcome of the election results seems to be a coalition government, which, on a fundamental level, ensures a more representative democracy than has been present in the past decade.

The AKP needed an almost-impossible 330-seat majority in parliament to instigate the ambitious changes to the constitution envisioned by President Erdogan that had dominated the political debate for months leading up to the election. The most important and controversial of these changes would have been to transition Turkey from the current parliamentary political system to a presidential system, and with HDP entering the picture, such a scenario is no longer possible.

A coalition is a complicated political process and makes for a very fragile, divided parliament, one that rarely agrees on any major issue and hence slows down political processes in the country significantly. But even before the troubles of a coalition government are discussed, the nature of the coalition must be settled and this is the next big challenge facing Turkish politicians in the upcoming weeks.

The best-case scenario for the AKP would be what is called a “minority government” in which a political party that doesn’t have a clear majority of seats in parliament comes to an agreement with other political parties and still forms a majority one-party government. This, however, does not seem likely in the divided political climate of modern Turkey. Therefore, the only possibilities with the election results at hand, which grant AKP 258 seats in parliament (a sharp decrease from 326), CHP 132 seats, MHP 81 seats and HDP 79 seats, are two-party coalitions for AKP, or another alternative involving a three-party coalition.

The AKP is anticipated to attempt coalitions with MHP, HDP and, least likely of all, CHP. MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, who has spoken quite fervently about the corruption scandals of December 2013 and the immorality of the AKP cabinet’s fraudulent activities, has stated previously that his party will not consider such cooperation with AKP. His speech after the elections doesn’t indicate a significant change of heart. HDP has previously stated openness to cooperate with CHP on a coalition government, but has strongly condemned AKP’s response to the Kobane crisis where Syrian Kurds were held hostage and killed by ISIS as Turkish tanks on the border sat and watched. Therefore, an HDP-AKP coalition government is also quite unlikely.

With CHP’s spokesperson Haluk Koc calling the election results a “big failure of AKP and of Mr. Erdogan specifically,” an AKP-CHP coalition seems a far-fetched idea as well, which leaves only one option, no more likely than the others: a three-way coalition government. Considering putting the extremely nationalist ideology of MHP in the same coalition as the Kurdish-separatist friendly creed of HDP is no different than pouring gasoline all over an already strong flame. Turkey finds itself facing a strange political deadlock, much different than the lackadaisical political ambivalence of the past decade, but no less irresolute.

A Chance at Redemption: Turkish Politics’ Makeover

There are already talks of an early election, which is in fact likely to be requested in the case of a failure to create a coalition government in due time. If early elections were to happen, the voting threshold may come into question, voting campaigns will be seriously reconsidered and new doors will surely open in political debate.

However, until an early election is confirmed, Turkish politics must do what it has not done in way too long: Turkish democracy must rise from its 13-year-old ashes, shake off the dust and start to re-educate itself in the disciplines of cooperation and political dialogue. Political platforms that have so long relied on antagonism and sharp divides on key issues must bend in order not to break and look to a coalition that will perhaps force the mutual compromise and tolerance that has long been absent from the parliamentary building in Ankara. So now, the question remains: Will Turkish politics rise to the occasion?

About the Author

Naz Akyol '17 is an International Relations concentrator on the Political Economy and Society track. She is Associate Content Director and an Associate Editor for the Brown Political Review. She is interested in the global economy, foreign policy and political philosophy.