Turkey’s Next Move

The voters have rejected President Erdogan’s authoritarian ambitions. Now it’s time to press ahead with urgent reforms.

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As Turks went to the polls this past Sunday, they knew that they weren’t just choosing representatives for the next national parliament — they were also issuing a verdict on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans to rewrite the country’s constitution and transform his post into a strong executive presidency that would concentrate vast powers in his own hands. Now the result is clear. The voters’ decisive rejection of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has now lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years, has — at least for the moment — frustrated the president’s ambitions, underscoring the distance that he has put between himself and his people.

The decisive loss for Erdogan is a major win for Turkey and its democratic future. Erdogan’s vision of the so-called Turkish-style presidential system would have further eroded the country’s independent institutions, curbed freedom of speech, and increased the polarization of the Turkish public. In rejecting it, the voters reiterated their commitment to the political system that has characterized the country since its founding as a modern nation. The president was steering his country down a highway toward autocracy, but voters opted to take the last exit. They have shown that they value preserving Turkey’s democratic institutions and reviving its economy far more than fulfilling Erdogan’s wishes for greater personal power.

With Erdogan’s ambitions sidelined, it is now time for Turkey to address the priorities that voters have so clearly established. Yet this will remain a challenge, as the outcome of the elections has produced a complex political landscape.

The AKP, the current governing party, took 40.8 percent of the votes, significantly lower than its share in the last two parliamentary elections. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) won 24.96 percent, while the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) won 16.29 percent. But the game changer was the performance of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), representing Turkey’s Kurdish minority. The HDP won 13.12 percent of the vote, up from 6.58 percent in the previous election — exceeding for the first time the 10 percent threshold required for entry into parliament. And it did so with a campaign aimed not only at Kurds, but also liberal and secular voters. For the first time since 1999, four political parties will be represented in parliament.

There are several possible scenarios for what happens next. The first is that the AKP will form a minority government with its 258 seats. This course of action is, however, only possible if one of the other three parties in the parliament is willing to support it.

The second scenario relies on the assumption that the AKP will seek a coalition partner. But the leaders of the CHP, MHP, and HDP have all already ruled out a coalition with the AKP.

The third scenario would arise if the AKP cannot find a coalition partner and has to hand the responsibility for forming a government to the CHP. In this case, the CHP might look to the MHP as a coalition partner. However, the total number of seats belonging to these two parties would still fall short of the amount required to form a government. They would require the HDP’s support, which might be tricky to secure given the MHP’s history of Turkish nationalist rhetoric. Yet the broader support enjoyed by the HDP has pushed that party into a new era, and larger concern for Turkey’s economic and security concerns, among other things, make this pragmatic course of action the most likely outcome.

The political shift pulled off by the HDP, indeed, signals longer-term hope for national unity. Once a solely Kurdish-focused party, it has managed to broaden its support base; Turkish flags were seen waving in crowds at the party’s pre-election rallies, something unthinkable in the past. And Erdogan proved to be a useful foil; the HDP positioned itself as a mainstream alternative to the president’s imperious vision, drawing protest votes from people seeking to help them pass the AKP-supported parliamentary threshold. The party’s new status as a player in government could give a new impetus to efforts to overcome the long-running conflict between the government and the insurgent Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in the majority-Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey.

The results did not come as a complete surprise to the AKP leadership. During the campaign, party leaders focused their message on the efficiency of a single-party government and warned about the prospects for chaos during the effort to form new coalitions. The alarmism is, of course, overblown. Most of the reforms that led to the “economic miracle” of 2002-2007 were carried out during a coalition government under the leadership of Kemal Dervis, then-economy minister, who recently took a leadership role within the CHP’s economic team. Coalitions require dialogue, consensus, and a healthy system of checks and balances — things that looked more attractive to voters the more the AKP sought to curb them.

The government can start by tackling electoral reform. The current high threshold of 10 percent is clearly detrimental to a diverse and healthy democracy. As parliament moves to pursue corruption investigations of the AKP regime and improve the transparency of public agencies, lowering the electoral threshold is urgently needed.

Economic reform is also high on the agenda. Turkey has a long list of problems, varying from high unemployment to loss of export competitiveness, and growth expectations in 2015-2016 are not promising. The International Monetary Fund expects GDP growth of 3 percent, but Turkey must grow 6 percent a year to avoid the so-called “middle income trap.” Achieving this will require reforms to eliminate vulnerabilities, such as heavy reliance on capital inflows from abroad, and create a more sustainable economic-growth road map.

Then there is the threat across the southern border: Islamic State extremists. The border region, already beset by the flood of Syrian refugees (which the United Nations Development Program predicts could reach 2.5 million by the end of 2015), also faces security risks, as Turkey has become a gateway for militants traveling from Europe to Syria. The election results are almost sure to limit Erdogan’s influence on foreign policy, which could allow cooler heads to design a more effective response to the crisis.

After the election, Erdogan finds himself in a position that is still largely that of a figurehead, despite his efforts to change it. His party originally gained power not because of his authoritarianism, but because its center-right, social-conservative vision appealed to voters. Those who continue to support the AKP — still the largest party in parliament — cast their ballots for that vision, not for Erdogan’s personal ambitions.

In any event, early elections within the next two years are a likely scenario. The best path for Turkey would be to spend that time addressing economic and security issues, reinforcing civil rights, and strengthening the transparency of institutions. If the electoral threshold is lowered, the next vote could bring an even greater diversity of views into parliament.

Unfortunately, there is a risk that these are not the lessons the president took from Sunday’s vote. He could attempt to intervene in the coalition formation process, which would throw Turkey into chaos. Instead, it is time for him to put his country — not himself — first.

Photo credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

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