Turkish elections: Each vote, worth of gold

It came as a great moment of relief for Turkey. In what can be described as a historic decision on Sunday, Turkey’s voters came in between Erdoğan and his nightmarish ambitions to grab power, blocking his once seemingly unstoppable move toward “one-man rule.”

Increasingly distrustful of the country’s direction, and apparently alarmed by Erdoğan’s constant fear-mongering rhetoric, the national vote also put an end to the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) domination of Parliament — terminating a 13-year-long cycle of single-party governments.

The result comes as a trauma for the AKP, and in particular for Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Falling short of the crucial 276 seats (of 550 in total), his party ended up with 258 seats

Various aspects of Sunday’s vote showed surprising maturity at a time when domestic and international anxieties have culminated over the future of a key country — a negotiating partner with the EU and a NATO ally.

Demonstrating once more an exemplary engagement with their future, with a turnout above 86.5 percent, Turkish voters have embraced any risks associated with a coalition government, but even more importantly, their instincts have helped thwart fears — if any — of an Egypt-like disruption of democracy and normalization.

Further manifesting an impressive maturity, secular-center segments of the electorate, having been somewhat allergic to Turkey’s “Kurdish reality” over the past decade, have visibly supported the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) by voting tactically, carrying it into Parliament with 80 deputies. Their historic decision means that the notorious 10 percent election threshold has been passed by a large margin, with the HDP gaining 13.1 percent of the vote, and that a “dam” built 35 years ago by military rulers has been demolished, probably for good, in the minds of the people.

So, the overall message is clear: Turkey has again showed signs of hope to the world that a free vote can endorse peaceful continuity in an Islamist-based, majoritarianist environment, and that, with the spirit of reform and hope for democracy revived, the country may once more stand as a source of inspiration.

Turks waking up on Monday, June 8, had no difficulty sorting out who the loser of the election was: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lost, and Turkey won.

The stakes were very high.

As I wrote in a column for Today’s Zaman three days before the polls:

“In a nutshell, the June 7 election has turned out to be a simple choice between giving approval or not for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for all that he now stands for: introducing to Turkey an arbitrary rule, disrespect for human dignity, rejection of supremacy of the rule of law, eradication of rights and freedoms, unaccountability and impunity, and construction of a new system in which there will be no separation among the three powers.”

The voter patterns in Turkey are wrapped up, often, in enigma. They have been rather hard to predict. Yet, in crucial times, the voters have always been alert, rational and wise. At times of perceived crisis, they have kept Turkey from the edge, as they did in 1983, defying the military and bringing liberal Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party (ANAP) to power, and again in 2002, in the midst of a crisis, by choosing the then-reform-minded AKP.

The element of the voters’ “heavy-handedness” was on display this time as well. Erdoğan apparently miscalculated their sensitivities and made a series of mistakes.

It had already begun when he decided to defy the Constitution — which demands an impartial stance for presidents — and immediately placed himself at the center of the vote. At that moment, the elections turned into a referendum on Erdoğan’s fierce political engineering toward autocratic rule. Apparently the voters were dismayed — at best, confused — about his violation of the Constitution.

There was more. The huge, legally disputed palace in Ankara with 1,150 rooms, and a similar one in İstanbul, stood as symbols of excess and corruption, of arbitrary rule and impunity.

The bureaucracy was also long irked by his interventions, and both the judiciary and the military showed signs of discontent after officers, judges and prosecutors were detained in operations related to their pursuit of graft allegations, as well as their pursuit of trucks that allegedly carried weaponry to murky opposition groups in Syria.

But his biggest error was his reversal on the Kurdish issue. In a 180-degree turn, Erdoğan loudly proclaimed, rally after rally, that “There is no Kurdish issue, and whoever says otherwise is a traitor.” This policy of denial, coupled with hundreds of violent attacks against the HDP and, days before the vote, the bombing in Diyarbakır at an HDP rally, seems to have alienated the entire bulk of the pious Kurdish vote, which shifted en masse to the HDP. Erdoğan lost the Kurds, probably forever.

The winner of the elections is surely the HDP, which conducted a flawless campaign. The vote means a go-ahead for peace and calm, and a solution to the Kurdish issue. Furthermore, Turkish politics has gained a new rising star, the co-leader of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, whose rational, peaceful rhetoric helped normalize the perception of the long-oppressed Kurds so that they have become part of the legitimate political game in Ankara.

The third and final message of the vote is for the AKP itself. The electorate still favors it as the largest force in politics, but the loss of nine points since the last elections means that, probably, this is the final chance for the party to do deep soul-searching and moral cleansing, to determine accountability and distance itself from the vertical rule symbolized by Erdoğan, who many across the table now see as a huge liability, rather than an asset, to Turkey’s progress.

The message also contains hints about what’s next. Given the sharp differences between the extreme-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the HDP, there seems to be no possibility for a three-party coalition, pushing the AKP into opposition. The MHP has made clear that it will not form a coalition with the AKP, either.

This leaves Erdoğan, who now dreads isolation and accountability, pushing for early elections in autumn. Yet he may lose more control. The discontent within the AKP will surface soon, and the party may, in its congress in late summer, undergo a reshuffling, ending up with the reform-minded Abdullah Gül as the new chairman.

In my last articles before the polls I argued that each vote in the election was worth more than gold. It proved to be true. The election has released the immense cabin pressure at home, putting the brakes on obstinate authoritarianism, refreshing hopes for a democratic future and keeping the gates open for the Kurdish peace process.

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About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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