Fair elections remain rare among Middle Eastern nations, one reason so many of them still settle their internal disputes by force. Turkey has long been an exception. It has often been a model for its Muslim neighbors in how a democracy can reconcile domestic differences over religion, ethnicity, or basic rights. This was especially true in a June 7 election. It showed Turkey can still inspire the region for the better with high levels of trust and pluralism.
In a vote for a new parliament, Turks sent a few powerful messages that should resonate in a region trying to overcome a democracy deficit four years after a faltering Arab Spring:
First is Turkey’s enthusiasm for democracy itself. Turnout at the ballot box was 86 percent. In addition, voters punished President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for his attempts to curtail freedoms and to take on more powers for himself. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has held power since 2002, lost its majority in parliament.
Voters remember how he violently suppressed the antigovernment protests that began in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013. And until recently, Turkey had the highest number of journalists in jail, a sign of how much Mr. Erdoğan tries to prevent dissent.
Second was the surprise political embrace of Turkey’s large ethnic minority, the Kurds. The Peoples’ Democratic Party, which is Kurdish based and was formed only a few years ago, took nearly 12 percent of the vote, gaining seats in parliament for the first time. It also attracted many non-Kurds for its economic and political stands. Just a few years ago, Turkey was at war with Kurds in many parts of the country. In addition, parliament now also includes two other minorities, Yazidi and Roma, as well as four Christians.
Third, despite the AKP’s conservative Islamist stand on the role of Muslim women in society, the election saw a big jump in the number of women deputies in parliament, from 79 to 98. This is a signal of a more inclusive society. “We do not want division in this society. We want to grow and develop together,” said Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the secular Republican People’s Party, which fielded many female candidates.
Turkey’s history as a dominant force in the Middle East, along with its large population and geographic proximity to other regional powers, gives it a special influence. It has many internal tensions, as do other countries, but so far it is trying to resolve them through peaceful politics. With wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, and with Egypt sliding back to dictatorship, the Turkish example is more necessary than ever. Turkey’s voters delivered.