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A Victory for Democracy in Turkey

Posted June 8th, 2015 at 1:04 pm (UTC-4)
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By Barbara Slavin

His name was not on the ballot. But Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Turkey were all about President Recep Tayib Erdogan and the results revealed growing disenchantment with his authoritarian, divisive rule.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority in parliament and with it, Erdogan’s bid to revise the constitution to formally endow the presidency with Putinesque powers. With only 41 percent of the seats, the AKP lacks the strength to push through such changes and will now have to form a coalition government or seek new elections.

Erdogan, who was elected president in 2014 after a decade as prime minister, remains the dominant figure in Turkish politics and the bureaucracy he reshaped may be slow to shift course, particularly on foreign policies.

Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert who is about to become director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told VOA News in an email from Istanbul that Erdogan will try to continue support for the Sunni Muslim opposition to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Foreign fighters will continue to flow through Turkey to join anti-Assad groups in Syria, Barkey predicted, “until a new government gets its act together, but the bureaucracy has been so penetrated by AKP supporters that it may be difficult for the new government to get all the facts and then its act together.”

In domestic terms, Erdogan has sidelined rivals in the military and the judiciary, including an Islamist group that follows a U.S.-based leader, Fetullah Gulen. But it may be harder for him to continue prosecuting independent journalists  and other critics of his rule.

Tightening his grip

When the AK party first came to power in 2002, Erdogan was hailed for a more inclusive style of governance including greater respect for human rights and outreach to Turkey’s large Kurdish minority. Turkey enjoyed an economic boom that tripled its GDP  and made the country a magnet for foreign investment and tourism. Turkey also began the process of applying for membership in the European Union.

But the longer he stayed in power, the less tolerant Erdogan became. In recent years, he has sent police to beat up and tear gas demonstrators in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, jailed scores of journalists and blamed protests and Turkey’s slower growth on alleged foreign conspiracies. He built himself an ostentatious presidential palace and purged the judiciary to remove officials who sought to prosecute corruption by close associates of Erdogan and members of his family.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds his ballot as he prepares to vote at a polling station in Istanbul on  June 7, 2015.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds his ballot as he prepares to vote at a polling station in Istanbul on June 7, 2015.

Abroad, Erdogan became the target of ridicule for efforts to cloak himself in the glory of Turkey’s imperial Ottoman past, including dressing up presidential guards as janissaries.

Erdogan dismissed all criticism as illegitimate and the product of conspiracies. In the run-up to Sunday’s elections, he inveighed against The New York Times, asserting that a negative editorial about him reflected the paper’s Jewish ownership.

Such anti-Semitic outbursts have alienated members of the U.S. Congress already angry at Erdogan for his vocal support for the militant group, Hamas. Once a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, Erdogan forfeited that role after incidents such as storming out of a meeting with then Israeli President Shimon Peres in Switzerland and allowing a Turkish ship to try to break an Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Erdogan also bet wrong on the outcome of Arab uprisings.

He was quick to hail what turned out to be a pyrrhic victory by the Muslim Brotherhood after the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and condemn the coup that led to the rise of the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Erdogan’s backing of Arab groups espousing political Islam caused strains in Turkey’s relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other key Arab states.

His government did make headway in peace talks with Turkey’s Kurds but his refusal to allow the Obama administration to use the NATO base at Incirlik to bomb Islamic State forces in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani angered Turkish Kurds.

They joined with secular Turks upset by Erdogan’s efforts to “Islamicize” Turkish society to give the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party 13 percent of the vote – enough to pass a 10 percent threshold for parliamentary representation.

The party’s young, charismatic leader, Selahattan Demirtas, told a press conference in Istanbul on Sunday, “The discussion of executive presidency and dictatorship have come to an end in Turkey with these elections.”


No one wants Turkey to return to the instability of the 1990s, when it was run by a series of short-lived coalition governments and the military intervened against democratically elected officials. But Sunday’s results are a healthy wakeup call for Erdogan and evidence that democracy is still alive in a crucial country on the dividing line between Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

With so much news about death, destruction and instability emanating from that part of the world, it is gratifying to see Turks embrace peaceful political change.

Erdogan, in his initial comments, sounded conciliatory, saying “Our nation’s opinion is above everything else … I believe the results, which do not give the opportunity to any party to form a single party government, will be assessed healthily and realistically by every party.

Now the question is whether and how he will accept his people’s verdict.

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