Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the most formidable vote-winner and election conjurer Turkey has ever seen. He founded his own party, led it to three absolute parliamentary majorities as prime minister, then last year performed a Putinesque sidestep to become the country’s first directly elected president with more than half the popular vote.
But on Monday, Erdoğan stared defeat in the face. He had forsaken his famously intuitive feel for the popular mood, miscalculated in his highly aggressive election campaign and paid the price.
Even if his AKP (Justice and Development Party) retained the biggest parliamentary presence with 41% of the vote, many of his longstanding supporters deserted him, concluding he was out of touch with their lives and the country’s mood.
And in what turned into an unforeseen carnival of pluralism and liberalism, voters hoping to rein in the president turned to a new pro-Kurdish party that oozed youthful exuberance and optimism during the election campaign.
The failure of the AKP to secure a parliamentary majority, the backlash against Erdoğan and the electorate’s embrace of the leftist pro-Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party) under its charismatic young leader, Selahattin Demirtas, represent a watershed in Turkish politics.
Erdoğan campaigned to make himself the all-powerful president of what he called “the new Turkey”. The election result brought forth an embryonic new Turkey, but not the one the president wanted.
Referendum instead of ballot
“The attempt to block his plans for the presidential system in Turkey made voting for the HDP the most rational choice,” said Ahmet Insel, a political scientist. Erdoğan’s push for an executive presidency in effect turned the election into a referendum on his plans instead of a choice between political parties. “The HDP took at least one million votes from the [main opposition] CHP. Many of those voters opted to change in order to stop Erdoğan.”
The point was driven home by Demirtas, the moral victor of the election. “The debate on the presidency, the debate on dictatorship has come to an end in Turkey,” he said.
Instead, the election produced what is tantamount to a cultural revolution in Turkish political life. Women will fill 96 of Parliament’s 550 seats, up from 79. Openly gay candidates won seats for the HDP. Most of all, the long-repressed Kurdish minority (one in five of Turkey’s citizens) will be properly represented for the first time, with 80 seats.
“This is the first time that feminists in Turkey actively supported a political party,” said Mehtap Dogan, a feminist activist. “Up until now we have always done politics on our own, away from Parliament. But this time we ran a campaign supporting the HDP because we believed in their sincerity when it comes to defending the rights of women, LGBTs [lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders] and ethnic minorities.”
The HDP was the first party to introduce a quota of 50% female politicians and all party offices and HDP-run municipalities are chaired by both a man and a woman.
The party’s successful attempt to break out of ethnic identity politics and broaden its appeal well beyond the Kurdish issue owes much to Demirtas’s magnetism and his message of outreach. But the mass protest movement, which was born in a central Istanbul park two years ago and mushroomed into national protests that Erdoğan crushed mercilessly, also fed into the HDP’s support.
“During the Gezi protests, many got an idea of what Kurds had to go through for years: the violence, the repression, the unjust arrests. It opened our eyes to the Kurdish suffering,” said Dogan. “At the same time, we saw how the pro-government press tried to turn our legitimate, peaceful protests into acts of terrorism.”
Just as Erdoğan branded the protesters two years ago “riffraff”, “terrorists” and “foreign agents”, in the election campaign he stoked division and malice by repeatedly smearing his HDP opponents as “terrorists, marginals, gays and atheists”. He asked religiously conservative voters not to cast their ballots for “such people who have nothing to do with Islam”.
The Justice and Development Party of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (left) and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will have to come to an agreement with another party in order to be able to govern. (Reuters)
The tactic backfired as many religiously conservative Kurds shifted their votes from the AKP to a party that promised to represent everyone’s interests.
In the religiously conservative eastern town of Batman, Burhan Saran, an influential local politician, switched from the AKP to the HDP last month. He said he was “not bothered” by the fact that the HDP sent Yazidi, Christian and gay candidates into the race for Parliament. “This party welcomes everyone, and this is what we need now,” he said.
Insel, the political scientist, said: “The HDP became the synthesis of the Gezi Park movement. All Gezi Park activists became activists for the HDP. Erdoğan’s new Turkey has lost, and the new Turkey of Gezi Park has won.”
Erdoğan’s violent response to the 2013 protests revealed a leader at odds with large parts of his country. The election confirmed that shift in the public mood. But the president’s relatively magnanimous reaction to his defeat on Monday was very different to the riot police and teargas tactics of two years ago.
Although he will bitterly resent the result, the president can also take some of the credit for creating a Turkey that let it happen. Erdoğan is frequently compared with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
But there is no chance under Putin of Turkey’s election result being replicated in Russia. Despite fears of ballot rigging and the overwhelming advantage enjoyed by the government in the national mass media, Sunday’s election proceeded smoothly, freely and relatively peacefully.
“Turks and Kurds are well ahead of the political leaders of the country, and they have a lot of expectations of the democratic process that they have well bought into,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Turkey. “This is a very impressive outcome. It shows that Turkey is going through an important political maturing process, and that an increasing number of people are interested in a pluralistic society.”
None of the four parties in the new Parliament are able to form a single-party government, meaning Turkey is entering a period of volatility. Erdoğan approaches politics as a binary contest between winners and losers in which the decisive aim is to secure a majority. On Sunday he lost one. – © Guardian News & Media 2015
Charismatic ‘pop star’ thwarts president’s naked ambition
When Selahattin Demirtas shrugged off the formal traditions of Turkish political campaigning and went on a TV talk show equipped with a saz, a Turkish stringed instrument, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sensed an opportunity to land a blow.
The co-leader of the Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP), he sniffed, was a mere “pop star”. But, far from hurting Demirtas, the remark merely served to highlight Erdoğan’s fear of the 42-year-old’s youthful, telegenic appeal and sense of humour.
His musical performance was just one of the ways in which Demirtas – the man who has done more than anyone to thwart Erdoğan’s aspirations to build an all-powerful presidency – achieved electoral breakthrough by thumbing his nose at political convention.
In Sunday’s parliamentary elections, the HDP broadened beyond its Kurdish roots, to become a liberal umbrella group with particular appeal to women, gay men and lesbians, all anxious about Erdoğan’s growing power and deepening conservatism.
In May, Demirtas invited the TV cameras into his home, where he made a leisurely Turkish breakfast for his wife, Basak, and their two daughters. “Breakfast is the only time we truly enjoy each other’s company,” he said. “After that everyone goes to either school or work.”
Born in the majority-Kurdish town of Elazig in 1973, Demirtas did not, however, grow up as a separatist. He says he only became aware of his ethnic identity at the age of 15 when he went to the funeral of a prominent Kurdish politician believed to have been murdered by security forces in Diyarbakir, the country’s main Kurdish city. Unidentified gunmen opened fire on the mourners, killing eight.
“This was when I learned what it meant to be a Kurd,” he told Turkish media in an interview last year. Although his brother Nurettin joined the insurgent nationalist PKK party, and was jailed for his membership, Demirtas remained a moderate. When history repeated itself and an HDP rally was bombed in Diyarbakir last month, Demirtas appealed to his followers for calm.
He studied law at Ankara University and began his career as a human rights activist, becoming a founding member of the Turkish human rights association. He entered politics eight years ago as a member of the Democratic Society party, a forerunner to the HDP, which was closed down by an order of the supreme court two years later. – Julian Borger © Guardian News & Media 2015