by Özlem Altıok
Like millions of others in Turkey, I went to the ballot box on Sunday, June 7, 2015. Eighty-six percent of eligible voters participated. Grassroots organizing against electoral fraud was extraordinary. I saw more excitement and engagement on Sunday than I had seen in any other election in my adult life.
The results of the election are mixed. First, the bad news:
Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has ruled Turkey since 2002, received nearly 41 % of the vote. The center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) received only 25% of the national vote, a slight decline compared to 2011 elections. The right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) increased its vote by 2 %.
During the last seven years of its 13-year rule, the AKP government gave voters many good reasons to kick it out: increasing authoritarianism; regressive gender discourse and policies; corruption scandals that implicated current president Erdoğan, his family and ministers; and the brutal repression of the Gezi Park protests. It is bad news that nearly 41% of Turkey’s voters chose to support a party that would have been severely punished at the ballot box in most liberal democracies.
Now the good news:
For the first time since 2002, the AKP is unable to form the government by itself. Despite the unfairness of the race – AKP used public media and state resources to its advantage – the ruling party suffered a significant decline in votes. The results are a slap in the face to President Erdoğan, who wanted to change the country’s constitution and institute a presidential system, which would add to his existing powers. Erdoğan was punished for his hubris on Sunday’s elections, and it is likely that he will have to relinquish his dreams of a presidential system.
Plainly, the decline in AKP’s power is good news for feminists, who have been critical of AKP’s authoritarianism and anti-egalitarian policies. The decline in AKP’s power is in no small part a result of the labor of women’s activists most of whom consistently critiqued the government, and subsequently supported the main opposition party CHP, and the real winner of the elections: Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
This was a very interesting election, indeed. Some feminist friends of mine found HDP’s rhetoric disingenuous, and believed that the party was instrumentalizing ethnic and gender identities. Like millions of others, they thought that the CHP is the best of the available options. Many long-time CHP supporters, on the other hand, voted for the HDP for strategic reasons. To their credit, the center-left CHP leadership did not do much to stop them. This was because of the peculiarities of the proportional representation system by which Turkey’s parliament is formed.
A political party must win at least 10% of the vote nationwide to be represented in Turkey’s parliament. Thus, smaller parties can do well at municipal and regional levels, but remain under- or even completely unrepresented at the national level.
The most notable example is the HDP (and its predecessors), which have strong support in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces. Had the HDP not succeeded in passing the critical 10% mark, AKP would, once again, have secured a parliamentary majority. So progressive forces in Turkey, whether or not they voted for the HDP, are very happy that the party will be represented.
Often framed as “pro-Kurdish,” the HDP ran on a platform of a permanent resolution of the Kurdish problem (we could also call this the Turkish problem), and increased liberty and democracy. Throughout their campaign, HDP’s charismatic co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş, and its female co-leader Figen Yüksekdağ, deliberately addressed all voters, not just Kurds.
Nevertheless, HDP supporters and offices were attacked more than 70 times, culminating in a bomb attack that killed four people and left 400 injured two days before the election. HDP was the underdog in this race. Including Alevis, openly gay people, and Christians among their candidates, the HDP promised Turkey’s laborers, marginalized and oppressed people a voice. Notably, forty-five percent of the HDP’s candidates – more than double its rivals’ – were women. Some of these candidates were from within the women’s movement.
Women’s political representation in Turkey’s 2015 general elections
So it is good news for democracy and women’s representation that the HDP is represented in Turkey’s parliament. As a direct result of the nearly equal representation of women among HDP’s candidates, the number of women in parliament increased from 79 to 97 (of 550 total MPs). An increase from 14 to 18 % is hardly a reason to celebrate.
Women’s representation in Turkey’s parliament after the 2015 general elections
To be sure, most women and men in Turkey breathed a sigh of relief on Sunday night. However, whether and what kind of a coalition government will be formed, or whether there will be early elections, is not yet known. Things will get even more interesting in the next six weeks. Stay tuned for more news from Turkey.
Ӧzlem Altıok is a Lecturer in International Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Texas – Denton.