Turkey’s just concluded elections produced an outcome which is to be applauded as a victory for democracy. This comes at a time when some professed democracies seem threatened by autocratic leadership. Even here in the United States, admiration has been expressed for strong rulers such as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who can impose his will on his people and get things done.
But as Washington Post foreign affairs analyst David Ignatius wrote yesterday , “The idea of the efficient despot got a sharp rebuff Sunday in Turkey’s parliamentary elections. In a turnout of more than 86 percent, voters denied President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the majority he wanted to re-write the constitution and give himself more executive authority.”
Although a conservative Muslim, President Erdogan was once considered good for Turkish democracy and a supporter of religious minority rights. Turkey is a member of NATO and in his effort to gain membership in the European Union, Erdogan seemed an advocate of liberal reform.
Tangible European resistance to that membership may have been a factor, but for whatever reasons, in recent years Erdogan became increasingly authoritarian. He’s used violent force against peaceful demonstrations and has run malicious campaigns of intimidation against those who have criticized or opposed him.
Although Erdogan was not on the ballot Sunday , the main issue was his plan to greatly enhance the president’s executive powers by transforming Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system. To legitimize these changes by national referendum, he needed to maintain his party’s majority in Turkey’s parliament.
But while Erdogan’s party remains the largest, not only did it lose its substantial majority - a new political force in the form of the pro- Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party won 13 percent of the popular vote. And with 80 seats, it will be represented in the parliament for the first time.
This represents a sea change in Turkish politics. The Kurds, who make up 20 percent of Turkey’s 76 million people, have waged a 30 year insurgency to demand fair treatment by the state.
For much of Turkey’s modern history, the state virtually refused to accept the existence of the Kurds, their language and culture. Yet now the Kurdish party is a key power broker, as President Erdogan tries to find coalition partners to form a governing majority.
It is not clear how or if that is going to work. There may have to be another election. And given Turkey’s pivotal role in a region plagued by civil wars and ISIS, instability in Ankara is potentially troubling. Nevertheless, democracy’s victory over autocracy in Turkey is still very good news.