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Erdogan: His setback in the June election has stopped him rewriting the constitution (photo: Mehmet Ali Ozcan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Sahin Alpay, a Marxist-turned-social democrat and longtime advocate of liberal democracy in Turkey, was profoundly anxious about the upcoming national elections when I met up with him at the upmarket Marmara Hotel in Taksim Square a few days before the June 7 vote. Though an early supporter of the Islamist-inspired Justice and Development Party (AKP), he became disillusioned with the increasingly autocratic rule of its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “It’s a life or death election,” he warned. “We are faced with the greatest danger.”

The danger, at least for the moment, has been averted. An upstart left-wing pro-Kurdish party, winning parliamentary representation for the first time,  thwarted the ambitions of the AKP by helping to deprive it of a majority in the national assembly. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu must either form a coalition government, try to govern without a majority, or submit to another general election.

While many commentators are stressing the political missteps of the AKP, it is important to reflect on the party’s met-eoric rise to power and the deep cleavages in Turkish society that made it possible. Hailed as a moderating force on political Islam, Turkey’s democratic experiment is by no means settled. In barely a decade, an openly Islamist party has challenged and transformed the nation’s secular political scheme — a fact left unchanged by the election results. Turkey could descend into religious militancy or civil strife, further weakening the cause of human rights and democratic ideals throughout the Muslim world.

Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, established the “conservative democratic” party, the AKP, with the help of some friends in 2001. The next year, the party won a stunning two-thirds of the 550 seats in parliament, catapulting Erdogan into the role of prime minister. The AKP went on to win three consecutive parliamentary elections, by larger margins each time. In 2014, after two terms as prime minister, Erdogan was elected president with just over 51 per cent of the vote. The June election awarded the AKP 258 seats in the assembly, nearly double the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), the main opposition party and historic defender of Turkey’s secular system.

Media attention has focused on the surprise showing of the progressive Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its charismatic young leader, Selahattin Demirtas. Founded in 2012, the HDP has positioned itself as a champion of minority rights, chiefly that of the Kurds, but also of leftists, feminists and gays. Although the Kurdish minority makes up some 20 per cent of the population, it has lacked a political voice: the HDP could not previously overcome the 10 per cent threshold in national elections to place members in parliament. But this time the party won enough popular support — nearly 13 per cent — to gain 80 seats, making it a critical player in Turkish politics overnight.

Yet the AKP remains the most widely supported party in Turkey. The reason is that the secular paradigm of governance imposed upon modern Turkey by its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, has proven to be problematic for an overwhelmingly Muslim population. “Turkey’s twentieth-century experience with Kemalism — a Europe-oriented top-down Westernisation model — has largely come to an end,” writes Soner Cagaptay in The Rise of Turkey: The Twenty-First Century’s First Muslim Power (£16.71, Potomac Books). “Hard as it might be, secularist Turks need to understand and accept this fact.”

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