President Erdogan needs the country’s hard-right nationalists to form a government. But will they play ball?
- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — Gulhan, 30, carries a gray Salvatore Ferragamo bag and wears a blue dress, a blue headscarf, and matching blue eyeliner. A day before Turkey’s election, she sips coffee in Hassan Pasha Hani, an Ottoman-era caravanserai that has been turned into an upscale market for cafes and restaurants.
“I was giving my vote to the AKP [the ruling Justice and Development Party] without any doubt,” she said, before pausing. “But I’m proud to be a Kurd, and as a Kurd they didn’t improve so much our life … if they gave us 1 percent of the investment that occurred elsewhere, we would be thrilled.”
Voters like Gulhan took center stage in Turkey’s recent election. They were pulled in opposite directions by events affecting the country: On the one hand, Gulhan is pious and upwardly mobile — the very sort of voter on whom the AKP counted to sustain its 13-year hold on power. On the other hand, she was bitterly disappointed with what the government had delivered for the Kurdish population, complaining about the lack of economic progress, and what she saw as the AKP’s unwillingness to confront the Islamic State as it attacked Kurdish lands in Syria.
When it came time for these voters to cast their ballots, they swung decisively against the government. As a detailed analysis produced by visiting Harvard University professor Erik Meyersson showed, socially-conservative Kurds who abandoned the AKP were responsible for giving the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) the momentum necessary to enter parliament, and deal President Recep Tayyip Erdogan his first electoral setback in over a decade.
The bitter irony for these voters, however, is that their success could end up empowering the political force most hostile to their goals. Because the AKP failed to win a majority in parliament, it will be forced to form a coalition government — and its most likely partner is the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which has built its agenda on opposing the peace process with the Kurds.
The MHP has its roots in the right-wing paramilitary groups who fought running street battles with leftist forces during the 1970s. Today, it rails against the influx of Syrian refugees into the country and any steps that would grant Kurds greater cultural rights. During the recent campaign, for example, MHP voters fueled rumors that Syrians were being bused in to vote for the AKP, while party leader Devlet Bahceli castigated the government for spending money on Syrian refugees and humanitarian efforts in Somalia and Myanmar. During the battle of Kobani last year, he also criticized the government for allowing Iraqi Kurdish fighters to traverse Turkish territory to defend the besieged Syrian city, declaring it an “act of treason.”
The MHP is likely to demand control over Turkey’s domestic security services as a condition for joining a coalition government, which would allow it to influence the Kurdish issue on the ground level.
“Historically, you could quite easily bribe the MHP [to join a government] by giving them the Ministry of Interior,” said Akin Unver, a professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “I don’t know if they are going to be easy to bribe right now, but the first thing that the AKP may try is to offer them that.”
If the party does secure control over the security services, it threatens to undermine the cease-fire with the Kurds that has persisted in the southeast in recent years. Unver noted that the MHP would likely push for the prison release of party members convicted of extrajudicial killings and other abuses during the war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the 1990s.
“If those people get out, it’s going to send a very dangerous message to the security apparatus,” Unver said. “If that happens, Turkey’s Kurdish question could assume another violent phase.”
While this would perhaps be the most destructive scenario for Turkey’s domestic peace, it is far from a foregone conclusion. There are good reasons that the AKP and the MHP may never end up forming a coalition at all: Bahceli, for starters, has spent the last two years railing against the Kurdish peace process launched by Erdogan and accusing the AKP of treason; he risks being abandoned by his voter base if he quickly joins hands with the president. The ultra-nationalist leader has so far shown no signs of attempting that political U-turn, instead raising the prospect of early elections and saying that Erdogan should play a non-political role or resign from the presidency.
The AKP would also face great risks in allying itself with the far-right movement. Such a step could mean the end of the peace process with the Kurds, which the party has long supported — ending its hopes of winning back the socially-conservative Kurdish voters that it lost in the recent election. Some analysts also argue that the rapidly graying MHP also represents the past, and that the long-term political advantage lies with those eager to see the opening with the Kurds succeed.
“The party ranks are aging, it’s a very old party,” said Unver. “They’re not totally irrelevant, but the political momentum and the demography is on the HDP’s side.”
With no good options for any of Turkey’s main political players, the stage seems to be set for either a fragile coalition or snap elections, if the parties cannot form a government within 45 days. Voters like Gulhan may have cast their ballots for change — but all they may get in the short term is deadlock.
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