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Sunday’s Turkish Election Was A Blow To Strongman-Style Islamism

The party that has controlled Turkey’s parliament since 2002 lost its majority in Sunday’s election, crushing its plan to expand an Islamist president’s power.

The Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish abbreviation AKP, hoped to capitalize on voters’ traditional Muslim social attitudes and a record of economic prosperity under its rule. But a law designed to exclude the AKP’s competitors instead wound up sinking the party’s plan to strengthen its political grip.

An upstart political party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), won support from more than 13 percent of Turkish voters. Under the law, which only grants parliamentary seats to those parties that win at least 10 percent of the popular vote, the Kurdish-led HDP destroyed the AKP’s long-standing majority. (RELATED: Golden Toilets, Mystery Bombs And Evil Gays: Inside Sunday’s Turkish Election)

Sunday’s election made the HDP Turkey’s first Kurdish party to win seats in the parliament. Kurds make up about 15 percent of Turkey’s population, with millions more in adjacent parts of Syria and Iraq. After spending decades fighting for independence from Turkey, Kurdish nationalists are now engaged in peace talks with the central government.

The HDP’s electoral strategy depended on this good will. In its rallies, instead of Kurdish separatist symbols it brandished Turkish flags and portraits of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. And its platform appealed not only to Kurds, but to all social and political minorities discouraged with years of AKP rule.

The HDP will bring a number of female, non-Muslim and ethnically non-Turkish lawmakers that is unprecedented in recent years. AKP rule has been associated with a socially conservative brand of Sunni Islam, which some Turks say clashes with the fundamentally secular framework of the country’s constitution. (RELATED: Turkish Students Demand Jedi, Buddhist Temples Alongside Campus Mosques)

The election was also a rebuke of the AKP’s intention to empower President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been at the top of the Turkish political pyramid since the AKP ascended 2002. After serving for 11 years as prime minister for the AKP, he has retained an unusual amount of power in a role which is meant to be apolitical. Erdoğan’s AKP has cracked down on journalists and private civic groups, all while leaving a 500-mile Syrian border open to armed Islamist groups in efforts to oust President Bashar Assad.

If the AKP had strengthened its grip, it would have tried to pass a constitutional amendment to make the president an even stronger executive with direct control over certain parts of the government. (RELATED: Turkish Election Might Change The Balance Of The Entire Middle East)

As it is, the AKP will have to enter a governing coalition with at least one other party — a weaker option that it has never before had to pursue. The HDP and other runner-up parties all initially rejected an alliance with the AKP, but the 45-day negotiating period may change their minds. In particular, the Kurdish-led HDP could strike a deal with the AKP, continuing the government’s negotiations with Kurdish leaders while extracting key policy concessions from the AKP’s strongmen.

In any case, many pundits correctly predicted that the election would be a referendum on Erdoğan’s “haughtiness” and heavy-handed leadership. In one of their most significant elections in years, Turks have decided they would rather spread power out than entrust it to one man.

Follow Ivan Plis on Twitter

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