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Turkey Just Had A Monumental Election. Here’s Everything You Need To Know.

Supporters of the pro-Kurdish HDP at an election rally in Istanbul CREDIT: AP
Supporters of the pro-Kurdish HDP at an election rally in Istanbul CREDIT: AP

On Sunday, Turkey held an election in which voters could have handed authoritarian power to their current president and moved into autocracy. Instead, something surprising happened. They denied their president’s power grab and forced his party out of the majority for the first time. The results are a decisive victory for Turkey’s emerging democracy.

The Stakes

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s religious Justice and Development party (AKP) sought a two-thirds super-majority. This would have given his party the power to force through constitutional changes to give President Erdogan executive presidential powers. President Erdogan has been in the news lately for the arrests of journalists, the banning of social media sites and for building himself a palatial new residence — which would dwarf the White House. He has also accused disagreeable judges of corruption and removed them from the bench, gutting the power of the judiciary. Although he argued for a U.S.-style presidency, paired with single-party rule and a lack of checks and balances, opponents said what was at stake was a dictatorship.

Turkey is a long-standing U.S. ally and a member of NATO. It has been a crucial haven of stability in increasingly unstable region. Bordered by Syria, Iraq and Iran, ISIS creeps ever closer to its edges and often gains both weapons and fighters through its porous borders. Turkey is also home to a U.S. airbase and some two million Syrian refugees. Once a beacon of secular democracy in the Middle East, under Erdogan’s tenure the United States and Turkey’s relationship has become increasingly tense. An authoritarian Erdogan presidency could have further strained relations between Turkey and its western allies. It also could have further complicated the international response to ISIS.

What Happened On Sunday?

Turkish voters delivered a sharp repudiation of Erdogan’s power grab.

Instead of the sought-after super-majority, with 99.9 percent of ballot boxes counted and an 86 percent voter turnout, the Erdogan’s AKP’s party share overall dropped 10 percent. Though the party still earned 40 percent of the total vote and holds on to 258 of Turkey’s 550 parliamentary seats, for the first time in 13 years, it will have to join with one of the other parties to form a coalition government.

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Leading up to the election, Erdogan flouted a constitutional requirement to remain neutral and instead campaigned for his executive presidency throughout the country. That makes this loss a personal one, and a pointed attack on his authoritarianism.

As reported in local media, after the election the Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the AKP’s primary opposition, the leftist, secular CHP, said “We have ended an oppressive era through democratic ways. Democracy has won; Turkey has won.”

The co-head of the left-leaning, Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, said: “At this moment, the debate on the presidency, the debate about dictatorship, has come to an end in Turkey. Turkey has returned from an edge of a cliff.”

What Else Happened?

In another win for its democracy, Turkey’s largest minority — ethnic Kurds — for the first time will be represented in the government. Kurds form 20 percent of Turkey’s population and are its largest minority. However, they have been excluded from its government and, historically, even prevented from using their native language.

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Turkey’s current constitution was written by a military junta after a 1982 coup. It is a parliamentary democracy, where citizens vote for local representatives of political parties. However, a party must earn 10 percent of the national vote in order for the representatives to win their seats. When parties win seats locally but fail to win 10 percent of the national vote, those seats are allocated to the larger parties.

While other countries, including Spain, Israel, and Russia, use this system, Turkey’s 10 percent requirement is the highest threshold in the world. It was implemented largely to keep the majority-Kurdish regions of the southeast from attaining government representation. It is also part of why Erdogan’s AKP has held its single-party majority for so long.

This election was the first one to feature the new People’s Democracy (HDP) party, a populist and pro-Kurdish party that also appeals to left-leaning voters fed up with Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism. The party’s message is staunchly democratic, it is co-led by a man and a woman, and it focuses on environmental issues, LGBT rights, and promoting gender equality. The party also fielded Turkey’s first openly gay candidate.

On Sunday the HDP obtained 13 percent of the national vote and 80 parliamentary seats. This is the first time that Turkey’s largest minority will have a voice in its government. It is also a big part of the increase in women parliamentarians — Turkey’s governing body will now include 98 women, up from 79 in the last election.

What Happens Now

As none of the parties won an outright majority, they will have to work together to form a coalition government. Although the AKP received their lowest percentage of the vote in years, the party is still the most powerful coalition partner. However, post-election all three opposition parties — the right-wing, super-nationalist MHP, the secular, leftist CHP and the newly ascendant HDP denied the possibility of a coalition with the AKP. While the three could conceivably band together and form a government, opposing policies make that unlikely.

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This means that Turkey is facing a period of political instability — a prospect which sent the Turkish Lira plummeting to record lows against the dollar. If the parties are unable form a government within 45 days, a second set of elections will be held.

Nonetheless, the election has put an end to Erdogan’s steady consolidation of power and expanded the diversity of the governing body. It signals a democratic and inclusive new direction, and a possible shift in domestic and foreign policy.