The Turks have always held the EU to impossibly high standards of democracy, often and rightly decrying the moments (and there are many) when it its members have behaved in less than democratic fashion both towards Turkey and amongst themselves. Reading years worth of newspaper articles from across the Turkish media landscape, one realises how idealised an image of Europe the country has had ever since its creation in 1923 and since the 1960s , when the EU accession talks and aspirations have taken hold among its population. I use to say that, often, Turkey seems more European than the EU in its hopes and projections for its democracy.
The country has periodically proven it throughout its history, and in the past two decades: in the 2000s it has brought to power a party (AKP) which had been side-lined and discriminated for years due to its ideological identity; recently, a judge has freed all the Gezi Park protesters from the abusive accusations that were hanging over them; and now, in spite of high political and physical pressure, and 13 years of effective erosion of democratic practices and rights, it has allowed a much maligned political force, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), to enter Parliament and end the corrosive political monopoly that the AKP (a party that came to power in virtue of democratic norms and rights) has been exercising since 2002 in the country.
It feels like a great victory, not least because in 2002, when AKP came to power, people invested many hopes in it: there was the underdog which had to fight for its rights every step of the way against an oppressive secularist army and against an untouchable Atatürk-stamped legacy. The taste was bitter when it turned out that AKP was using a democratic rhetoric only in order to enable a form of payback for past injustice.
The HDP victory was slow in the making, and did not only happen because of the adversary’s display of authoritarian rule. It happened also because the HDP has learnt from AKP’s mistakes: it turns out that after all, democracy is not a bus one can opportunistically board and quit, and it can never be served by narrow interests and soon to be forgotten promises. By extending its base and the series of issues to defend from the Turkish-Kurdish peace process to the discontents of globalisation and civil rights, the HDP shows it has learnt something from the years of exclusion, not least that democracy is not limited to elections and to people as voters. If anything, today, those who have voted have shown that democracy can prevail over an authoritarian political culture and it is possible to get over one’s own demons.
That is why today and the coming weeks are the time to emphasize that the violence and sacrifices the Turkish people (along their European counterparts) have endured in the name of modernisation and becoming a more democratic society since 1923 can be transformed in a strength that goes beyond partisan revenge.
That is also why today the nations of Europe, to which I firmly believe Turkey makes a valuable contribution, should salute the results of the elections as more than a mere achievement of electoral prowess. It is a much needed breeze of hope for a continent in search of a project for the centuries to come.