A Turning Point in the Turkey-EU Relationship
The people of Turkey have voted for change. On June 7, they ended an absolute majority power which had lasted for 13 years, and called for a new era of coalition governments in Turkish politics. This increase in democracy means that accession talks with the European Union can now be reinvigorated with Turkey, giving the EU a chance to grow not shrink, and helping the Turkish people solidify the power of their voices.
With a remarkably high turnout of 86 percent, Turkish voters have shown the strength of their democratic spirit and the electoral maturity of their country. Despite fears of electoral fraud, the uneven distribution of election finance funds, and a ten percent threshold to gain seats, the elections took place in a relatively calm and peaceful environment. More importantly, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) drew votes not only from the Kurdish minority, but also from other groups, such as urban liberals, ecologists, feminists and intellectuals. The HDP gained parliamentary representation by winning 80 of the 550 seats, stripping away the AKP's majority.
Turkish voters ended the debate over a new presidential system favored by the AKP and indicated their support for the sustainable and peaceful finalization of the Turkish-Kurdish peace process. Alongside the Turkish electorate, domestic civil society organizations coordinated themselves perfectly and monitored every single phase of the elections remarkably closely at a time when Turkish people's trust in fair elections had been on the decline. "Oy ve Ötesi" [Vote and Beyond], an independent election-monitoring initiative, founded in the aftermath of the 2013 Gezi Protests, observed the elections in 46 cities and scanned the results of 180,894 ballot boxes into its electronic system supported by approximately 55,000 volunteers. The Turkish people's commitment to democracy and the relatively transparent administration of the elections reveal that the democratic institutions of Turkey are still strong and legitimate, and that Turkey very much differs from its neighboring countries, in terms of both domestic politics and of democratic credentials. The election results indicate that despite its existing constraints and shortcomings, Turkey is likely to serve in its turbulent neighborhood as a model that reconciles Islam with civilian rule, and democratic and economic reforms.
Whatever coalition ends up in power, the new parliament will be the most pluralistic, inclusive, vibrant and representative one in Turkey's contemporary history. In the aftermath of the elections, all four major political parties obtained representation in the parliament. More importantly, the elections also heralded a win for the country's non-Muslim minorities. For the first time in the country's history, Turkey's Roma and Yazidi populations will be represented in the parliament, and for the first time in 54 years, three Armenian deputies won seats. A record number of female deputies also won seats in the Turkish parliament, increasing the proportion of female deputies to 17 percent compared with 14 percent after the 2011 general elections. A more representative parliament, which reflects the voices of all corners of society, will be likely to initiate and implement more reforms to comply with the EU acquis.
Ambiguity continues over which parties will form the next government, and running an effective and stable coalition government will presumably be a challenge for the Turkish political elite following 13 years of single-party rule. That being said, the election results certainly brought about something resembling a political earthquake disrupting electoral behavior patterns in Turkey. However, these results also sent a strong message to the EU: Turkey differs from its neighboring countries in the South and the East in its democratic credentials and its ability to adopt the universal values that the EU promotes.
That Turkey's decade-long negotiations with the EU over full-membership have not been broken has significantly contributed to Turkey's distinctness in the region. The attractiveness of full membership in the EU, accompanied by the EU's strict accession conditionality, provided the initial trigger for democratic consolidation in Turkey. The EU should be mindful of this and hail the Turkish electorate's call for change and a new vision of an inclusive democracy by opening negotiations on chapters 23 and 24 related to the rule of law and fundamental freedoms. In doing so, the EU could confirm that it still serves as a fundamental and credible anchor for democratic reform in Turkey at a time when Turkish accession talks have reached a stalemate and Turkish public support for EU membership has remained remarkably low. The modernization of the Customs Union, intensification of the visa liberalization dialogue and introduction of new mechanisms for foreign policy cooperation should be used as additional instruments alongside the accession process by the EU to deepen bilateral economic, political, and societal relations, and anchor Turkey within European values and principles.
Dr. Ebru Turhan is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Sabanci University's Istanbul Policy Center.