Democracy wins in Turkey

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Democracy can be a slow and frustrating process. It often requires gradual change; it is sometimes shaken by turbulence and faces occasional setbacks. It is not perfect, and it does not run at the same speed everywhere and all the time. But one thing is certain: Democracy does work, and for those who are willing to observe and learn, this fact will always be borne out in practice.

On June 7, the citizens of Turkey voted in another general parliamentary election. The results surprised many: The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002, and will now be forced to look for a coalition partner to enable it to stay in government for another term. On the other hand, the traditional major opposition parties, including the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), are now able to consider forming a minority government, backed by the biggest surprise of the election, the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which for the first time managed to cross the very high 10-percent threshold as a party and not a group of independent candidates. Moreover, the HDP managed to increase the votes which its independent candidates won in 2011 by around 3 million.

{mosads}While many did indeed find these results a shock, we at the International Republican Institute (IRI) did not: The trends had been emerging clearly for some time. Still, when witnessing such dramatic changes in a matter of several hours of Sunday voting, one has to ask oneself: What caused this significant reshuffling of the cards at this point in time? My answer is simple: It was Democracy 101.

For a large part of the last 13 years, the AKP has successfully dominated the political world of Turkey. It implemented successful economic and structural reforms, improved the healthcare system and helped raise the standard of living of millions of citizens. However, most importantly, it listened to the people. There was no ambiguity between the AKP and its voters. Party officials were very ambitious and very capable in interpreting the needs of the ones who put trust in them. They often turned these needs into viable policies, and the voters knew how to reward them in every election cycle. This, of course, is the main principle of a sound democracy: a direct and uninterrupted relationship between the voters and their representatives. IRI saw this relationship reflected in its public-opinion polling conducted in Turkey over the years. In general, the majority of people in the country recognized the AKP’s intentions to work for the good of the people, but more importantly, to also listen to them.

Fast forward to 2015. In March and April of 2015, it was obvious things had changed and that the understanding between the AKP and its voters had changed. IRI conducted two public-opinion polls during these months, ahead of the general election on June 7. The results clearly pointed to one conclusion: The implicit mutual understanding between a majority of voters in Turkey and the political establishment of the country had started to weaken. A solid majority of people (54 percent) believed that the country was moving in the wrong direction, while a similar number (48 percent) believed that Turkey was doing worse economically when compared to five years ago. Sixty-four percent believed that the government had not made progress in solving the issues of citizens’ greatest concern. Every other person in Turkey did not believe young people could have a good future in their own country. Moreover, 54 percent of the people were either very or somewhat unsatisfied with the fact that recent corruption allegations against four former government ministers would not be resolved in court.

Perhaps most important in the ongoing campaign was the fact that a vast majority (around 60 percent, including around 40 percent of AKP voters) agreed with the opposition’s argument that the proposal by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP to change the constitution and turn Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system would lead the country to an overly centralized and authoritarian form of government.

The entire underneath-the-surface dynamic pointed to one thing: Democracy was suffering, and this was reflected in public opinion. At every presentation of its research numbers in Turkey, IRI stressed the importance of addressing these gaps in understanding between the political establishment and the people. If left unanswered, they would sooner or later have to affect what happens on the surface. This is another simple rule of democracy.

As I said, the June 7 results came as a surprise to many. It is sometimes not easy to observe exactly how democracy works, especially if it works in a slow and subtle manner and if it can be recognized only in changes reflected deep in the opinion of the people. With over 30 years of experience in similar systems and situations around the globe, IRI is often fortunate to see these shifts begin to emerge. This is why we are sure democracy works. This knowledge did not come from a book, but from decades of work in different environments helping people grow and nurture their democracies.

With this election, Turkey has proven that it has not lost its core democratic focus, although for some it may have looked like it had disappeared in the last couple of years. Despite a history of numerous military interventions in the democratic process, Turkey once again showed it can hold fair and free elections. Voters have sent to the new Grand National Assembly more female members (97, across all parties) than to any other Assembly in history. They have also selected a much richer diversity of ethnic representation than ever before.

The ultimate democratic platform has not disappeared in Turkey, and this time it allowed the people to have their say about 13-year, one-party rule. It is now time for something different. And this may mean a period of some political instability, as parties strive to meet the 45-day deadline for forming a government. But in the end, Erdoğan, after receiving a strong blow, himself acknowledged the most important outcome of the election and was quoted as saying: “The esteem of our nation is above everything else … it is important 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.”

President Franklin Roosevelt said: “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a president and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.” Turkey reminded itself of this ultimate truth in a remarkable way this past Sunday.

Green is president of the International Republican Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania and former member of Congress representing Wisconsin’s 8th District.

Tags AKP CHP HDP Justice and Development Party MHP Nationalist Movement Party People's Democratic Party Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Republican People's Party Turkey

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