The Return of the Dispossessed

The Return of the Dispossessed

Turkey had its 18th multi-party general election last Sunday. The results bear repeating: our governing party of last 13 years, has come out 18 short of a parliamentary majority. We now have a 4 party parliament. The last time this sort of thing happened was when we used dial-up internet connections, and cell phones had actual antennas on them. 

As a result, almost none of our leaders in parliament today knows the dynamics of consensual politics, and for the few who do, it is a distant memory. Yet the people demand that the country go back to consensual politics. This fundamentally changes the political dynamics. Final decisions on legislative matters will now be made in parliament, not at the PMs office, or “New Çankaya.” 

And the new parliament is a strong one, representing 95.3 percent of the electorate. That is despite the exorbitant 10 percent threshold, a legacy of the 1980 military coup in Turkey. Sweden, Belgium, Poland have all parliaments where more than 95 percent of the electorate is represented, but the threshold to be represented in the Parliament in those countries is only 5%. So Turkish voters have overcome unusually great odds to be represented fairly in their parliament. 

How did that happen? I think there are two reasons for the HDP’s big showing. The first is the strategic voting of young urban professionals. They wanted to dislocate the AKP from power, and they realized that the best way to do that was to make sure that the HDP passed the threshold. That is how the HDP became the first party in Bebek, an upscale district on the Bosphorous, and in Nişantaşı, another chic neighborhood on the European side of Istanbul. Many millennials across Turkey’s big cities followed this trend, delivering a small, but critically placed blow. Before Gezi, these boys and girls were an apolitical crowd that barely bothered to vote. Two years after the protests, they were furiously discussing parliamentary calculus on web forums and counting votes until late at night on June 7. I suppose we have to thank the heavy hand of the law enforcement for inspiring this surge in civic virtue.

Secondly, there was an exodus of religious Kurds from the AKP to the HDP. In the religiosity index we calculated at TEPAV, we found that these were Sunni Kurds of the Shafi School, the most pious community in Turkey. The AKP went out in a last-ditch effort, Koran in hand, to retrieve these votes. To no avail. Even the most assimilated Sunni “Kurdish Turks” following mainstream Hanefi tradition seem to have voted for the HDP. Note that the HDP is a self-declared “leftist” party, which in Turkey often implies a Communist-tinted secularism. Did these votes suddenly shift because the HDP had an irresistible ethno-nationalist election platform? No. Neither the HDP, nor the MHP, the Turkish nationalist party, campaigned on an ethno-nationalist ticket. I think Kurdish voters fled the AKP because of its insensitive stance on the Roboski massacre, and its recent inaction in Kobane. It was becoming an oppressive power, rather than an inclusive one that saved the Kurds from Kemalist repression. That’s why the HDP didn’t have to pull pious Kurdish Turks on ethnic grounds, they were already being pushed away by the arrogance of the AKP. All the HDP had to do was to open its arms to more than 50% of the Kurdish vote. They now represent “Kurdish Turks.”

Thus, a leftist, Kurdish party got the votes of both pious Kurdish Muslims and wealthy Turkish yuppies. It passed the 10% threshold, making Turkey’s parliament as representative as the Swedish one. Consecutive episodes of bad decision making in Gezi, Roboski and Kobane ultimately came back to haunt the AKP at the ballot box.  The dispossessed –those that were stripped of their fundamental rights and freedoms– decided to punish the incumbent.

So, what did we learn from this experience? A system with free and fair elections can iron out its own failings in unimaginable ways. The people, it turns out, are the ultimate safeguard of Turkey’s institutions.