Something for Everyone: Why Turkey's Vote Is Good for Democracy

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Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty

Supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan react as he delivers a speech in Istanbul, on June 11, 2011.

Turkish democracy is alive and kicking. Yes, conservative Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — under fire for his authoritarian leanings — won Sunday's elections with a landslide 50% of the vote, basking in the longest period of economic prosperity in the country's recent memory. But his Justice and Development Party (AKP) fell short of a sought-after two thirds "supermajority" which would have allowed him to change the country's founding principles without seeking the opposition's consent.

And, as a result of the vote, he finally has a robust, colorful opposition to contend with. The new Turkish parliament has more women, more Kurds and more human rights activists than ever before. Voter turnout was a record 87%.

"Turkish democracy is maturing. I am very optimistic about these results," says Sahin Alpay, a columnist and a professor of politics at Bahcesehir University. "Voters rewarded Erdogan for his performance, particularly on the economy, but they also signaled that they don't want him to be able to draft a new constitution on his own."

A new constitution is at the top on Erdogan's list of priorities; most Turks want to replace the current document which was drafted after a 1980 military coup because, among other things, it fails to account for other ethnicities such as the Kurds and enshrines a highly centralized state with limited individual rights. He had suggested he would seek changes in the constitution to create a more greatly empowered presidential system, a prospect which alarmed critics who like to compare him to Russia's Vladimir Putin.

In his victory speech on Sunday night, Erdogan spoke of humility and promised to work with his political rivals. "The people gave us a message to build the new constitution through consensus and negotiation," said the prime minister. "We will be seeking consensus with the main opposition, the opposition, parties outside of parliament, the media, NGOs, with academics, with anyone who has something to say."Under Erdogan, the military -once a powerful broker in Turkish politics- has lost much of its hold and now rarely comment publicly on political issues.

Here's the low-down on Sunday's results:

* The main opposition and social democratic People's Republican Party (CHP) saw its share of the vote increase from 21% to 26% under a revamped leadership, after finally shrugging off an age-old tacit alliance with the military. First-time CHP MPs include well-known liberal academics, human rights activists and youth leaders. "We wish the AKP all the success, but they must remember there's a stronger main opposition party now," said Kemal Kilicardoglu, the new CHP leader who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform.

* The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) saw its seats increase from 22 to a record 36 posts, inspiring hope for a peaceful solution to three decades of fighting in the country's mainly Kurdish southeast. The BDP is pushing a series of demands including greater regional autonomy, the right to Kurdish language education and an end to fighting. It has given the government until June 15th to address them.

* The far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) managed to scrape past a 10% national vote threshold required to post MPs to parliament, despite Erdogan's best efforts to co-opt MHP voters. "If the MHP had failed to cross the threshold, it would have meant a weaker, less representative parliament. Many people voted for them simply to make the point that they needed to be included," says Alpay.

After winning his last election victory in 2007, Erdogan emerged onto the balcony of the AKP headquarters in Ankara and spoke with a similar eloquence about building bridges and social consensus. But in practice, he proved deeply polarizing, antagonizing the European-oriented secular middle classes — dubbed the "anxious moderns" — who saw his moralistic agenda encroaching on their lifestyles. Issues such as the as-yet-unexplained arrests of well-known investigative journalists, increased police presence and a clampdown on opposition media have been worrying to his critics. The new, stronger, more representative parliament could prove to be the antidote needed to balance Erdogan's appetite for more power.