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How the Kurds upended Turkish politics

- June 8, 2015

Turkish voters delivered a crushing blow Sunday to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which lost its 12-year majority in parliament and saw its vote share drop from 50 percent in the 2011 general election to 41 percent. Although the party still earned a plurality of votes in the election, the result has all but doomed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambition to rewrite the Turkish constitution and transform his office into a super-presidency, consolidating his grasp on power.

The elections also represented a significant victory for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which passed Turkey’s required 10 percent electoral threshold, increasing its vote share from 6 percent in 2011 to nearly 13 percent. HDP broadened its appeal by reaching out to secular and liberal Turks, especially those who coalesced during anti-government demonstrations in 2013. In addition, the party appears to have attracted former Kurdish AKP supporters, who had become disheartened by Erdogan’s increasingly hostile attitude towards the Kurdish peace process and disillusioned by widespread corruption and extravagant spending on the part of Erdogan and his inner cadre.

Voters who defected from the AKP may have also been responding to Turkey’s deteriorating economic situation. The country’s growth rate, which was 7.5 percent per year on average between 2003 and 2006, decreased to 2.58 percent by the end of 2014. On April 24, the Turkish lira reached a record low of 2.742 against the U.S. dollar, and levels of foreign direct investment have also been on the decline. These economic issues have been amplified by the erratic behavior of Erdogan, who has been interfering with the independence of regulatory bodies in an effort to determine central bank interest rate policies ahead of the election.

HDP was able to capitalize on mounting dissent by emphasizing a rights-based platform and urging the electorate to vote strategically. In particular, the party’s campaign materials argued that a vote for HDP was a vote against the presidential system and against a single-party AKP government. One campaign poster read, “In this election, a vote for HDP does not have to be a vote for those who comprise HDP. In such critical elections, voters can vote strategically. The most fruitful, most assured and shortest road for those citizens who want to get rid of the AKP and Erdogan regime is to vote for HDP and to help HDP pass the threshold.”

Although Turkey’s Kurdish population expressed jubilation over the election results — setting off fireworks and waving HDP’s flag in the streets of the primarily Kurdish city of Diyarbakir on Sunday evening — other voters in Turkey appear conflicted, if not angered, over the result. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas’s post-election speech, in which he openly thanked Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) founder Abdullah Öcalan, set off a wave of incensed comments across social media as some Turkish voters wondered whether HDP’s assurances regarding inclusivity and democracy were just empty promises.

In coming days, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will be tasked with the job of forming a coalition government. Turkish law stipulates that if a coalition is not formed after 45 days, Erdogan will be able to call for a new election. Pundits are already predicting that an early election is likely, as the leaders of the major parties have all stated in public speeches that they will not form a coalition government with the AKP.

Interestingly, whereas the AKP was able to form a single-party government in 2002 with only 34.28 percent of the vote, today the party will be unable to do so with a greater percent of the vote. The AKP’s unlikely rise to power in 2002, despite its relatively small share of the vote, occurred after all existing parties but two failed to pass the electoral threshold. As editor of the English-language Hurriyet Daily News Murat Yetkin shrewdly pointed out, the AKP may have been a victim of its own dependence on the unfair 10 percent threshold rule. If the threshold had been lowered to 5 or 7 percent, argued Yetkin, the AKP still would have been prevented from adopting Erdogan’s presidential system, but its parliamentary majority would have been salvaged.

Whatever the result of the forthcoming coalition negotiations, one thing is clear: Erdogan and the AKP no longer have the enthusiastic, broad-based popular mandate the party enjoyed during its heyday. At the hands of the Kurds, we may finally be witnessing the beginning of the end of Erdogan.

Kimberly Guiler is a PhD candidate in government at the University of Texas at Austin.