Turkey celebrated a major political milestone Monday – the peaceful ousting of the Justice and Development party after 13 years of controlling the government. The giant killer was mainly a Kurdish party that captured enough votes in Sunday’s general election to enter Parliament for the first time.
Selahattin Demirtas, a 42-year-old Kurdish human rights lawyer, became the kingmaker of Turkish politics after his People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, captured 13.6 percent of the vote. This was well over the 10 percent hurdle required to enter Parliament and ensures 82 of the 550 seats.
HDP’s victory deprived the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, founded by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of its majority, giving it only 40.7 percent of the vote or 255 seats, well below the 271-seat majority required to rule alone.
It also will block Erdogan, who was prime minister for 12 years until elected president in August, from turning his largely ceremonial post into that of “executive president” with powers like that of an American chief executive.
“The debate on the presidency, the debate about dictatorship, has come to an end in Turkey,” Demirtas said Sunday night as the results rolled in. “Turkey has pulled back from the edge of a cliff.”
The Republican People’s Party, set up by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, finished second with 24.99 percent of the vote, or 132 seats, followed by the Nationalist Movement Party in third, with 16.33 percent of the vote or 81 seats.
By keeping a cool demeanor despite election violence – an HDP rally was bombed Friday, killing three and injuring 100 – and by broadening the party’s appeal and campaigning for the rights of other minorities including Christian Armenians, Muslim Alevis, gays and lesbians, the charismatic Demirtas won crossover votes from other parties.
On Monday, Erdogan kept an uncharacteristically low profile as he issued a statement calling on all the political parties to assess the outcome of Sunday’s vote responsibly. “It is necessary for all political parties to show the necessary sensibility and responsibility to preserve stability and the environment of trust in the country as well as the democratic gains,” he said.
The vote result is not expected to be confirmed for a week or more, and then Erdogan will call on the top vote-getter, his own party, to form a government. If that fails, he will give the mandate to the second place finisher, the Republican People’s Party, and then the other two parties in turn. The process is to be completed in 45 days, and if it fails, there is the possibility of either a minority government or of new elections.
Turkey could face weeks, possibly months, of political uncertainty.
Under the Turkish constitution, Erdogan is supposed to be above politics. But he made up to five campaign appearances a day in the past month, angering politicians across the political spectrum. An election monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said Monday that Erdogan had attended an “extraordinary number of public events, which were used as opportunities to campaign in favor of the ruling party and to criticize opposition figures.” It said his “dominant role” had “partially undermined fairness in the election.”
But it didn’t cite any major instances of irregularities or fraud in the conduct of the vote itself.
As Kurds danced in the streets, set off fireworks and fired rifles in the air in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Kurds in Turkey, there was little mention of the role the HDP had played in a wave of violence that swept southwest Turkey early last October, in which at least 40 people died.
Demirtas, who mocked and denounced Erdogan’s active role in the election process, said a coalition was the only way out, but not with his party. “We will not form a coalition with the AKP, and we stand behind our words. We will be in parliament as a strong opposition.”
Demirtas has emerged as one of the most adept and capable politicians on the scene, but he is likely to continue facing question about the violence in autumn 2014.