“Turkey narrowly averted a disaster,” stated the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) leader, Selahattin Demirtas after Turkish voters pushed his party past the 10 percent electoral threshold necessary to qualify for seats in the parliament. The voting results will likely curb the authoritarian aspirations of President Recep Erdogan and his Islamist AKP Party. The pro-Kurdish HDP attracted votes from a broad swath of liberals, secularists, women and minority rights supporters in the historic June 7 election.
The election outcome is promising for a country that has, despite strong economic growth in the last 10 years, seen significant democratic rights eroded under the Islamist rule of the AKP. As many analysts have written, the AKP has of late used its power to undermine the military, censor the media, jail journalists and political rivals, restrict women’s rights, and block access to the Internet and social media to silence criticism, all the while building stronger ties with Islamist movements in the Middle East.
On April 9, 2015, for example, Erdogan came to the Muslim Brotherhood’s rescue, stating that Turkey would not consider improving relations with Egypt until ex-president Mohammed Morsi was released from prison, the arbitrary ban on political parties in Egypt was removed and the 18,000 jailed followers of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood were released.
The AKP’s defense of the Muslim Brotherhood is natural. In terms of ideology, neither Morsi, nor Erdogan or ISIS for that matter, differ in their worldview; they only differ in strategy. ISIS believes in force, while Erdogan believes in working through the system. As Erdogan said a few years ago, democracy is like a tram, "You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off."
Turkey’s stance in defense of the Brotherhood is not welcome in Egypt. Its president, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, in December implored Sunni Islam’s oldest theological seminary, al Azhar, to reform Islam. Sisi argued this was essential to combat growing Islamist extremism in the region.
Unfortunately, in most ways, Sisi’s, government has been as authoritarian as the AKP, making true democratic reform seem unrealistic in Egypt, at least in the near term.
As the Arab Spring has shown, men and women from North Africa to the Middle East support representation that recognizes pluralism. Despite the March terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum, only Tunisia has shown a sincere effort to chart a path toward freedom and inclusion and steer the country away from extremism. As the Atlantic reported after the terror attack in Tunis, even the Islamist Ennahda party has “at every crucial turn on the sometimes troubled path from dictatorship, embraced flexibility and moderation” to support a vision of “a republic of freedom, democracy, and social justice.”
The newly emerging pro-democratic coalition in the Turkish parliament will hopefully now focus on programs to educate and integrate all parts of Turkey. Voters in the rural parts of the country, as a result of AKP outreach and social welfare programs, formed the backbone of AKP’s support for more than 10 years.
The people of Turkey have spoken loudly in favor of freedom. We will have to wait and see how far that message resonates and whether it can be replicated elsewhere.