How Low Will Erdogan Go?
Turkey’s voters are, once again, about to spurn their president. How he reacts will define the country’s future.
On June 7, Turkish voters went to the polls and denied President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (the AKP) a governing majority for the first time in over a decade. It appeared the AKP would have to negotiate with other political parties to build a coalition government -- a clear setback for Erdogan, who hoped to use an electoral victory to consolidate his increasingly authoritarian rule. Yet the elation among those worried what Erdogan’s success would mean for Turkish democracy quickly turned to despair. Over the course of the summer, commentators went from celebrating a “carnival of pluralism and liberalism” to declaring more recently that Turkey was “on the road to Armageddon.”
On June 7, Turkish voters went to the polls and denied President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (the AKP) a governing majority for the first time in over a decade. It appeared the AKP would have to negotiate with other political parties to build a coalition government — a clear setback for Erdogan, who hoped to use an electoral victory to consolidate his increasingly authoritarian rule. Yet the elation among those worried what Erdogan’s success would mean for Turkish democracy quickly turned to despair. Over the course of the summer, commentators went from celebrating a “carnival of pluralism and liberalism” to declaring more recently that Turkey was “on the road to Armageddon.”
Rather than accepting the challenge of building a coalition government in a polarized political climate, Erdogan, it quickly became clear, was more interested in forcing another election in which a more favorable result would return his party to power single-handedly. The voters had “made a mistake,” Erdogan declared, but the next round of voting would “correct the problems” it created. Playing on long-standing fears that coalition government would lead to chaos, Erdogan told voters that only an AKP majority could bring the country stability.
And indeed, fighting between the Turkish government and the PKK — a terrorist guerrilla group seeking Kurdish autonomy — has erupted with renewed fury in recent weeks. The AKP is now hoping the resurgence of Turkey’s war on Kurdish separatists will help woo back nationalist voters and that renewed PKK violence will discredit the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), whose success in June thwarted Erdogan’s ambitions. With violence spreading into cities and onto the streets and the value of the Turkish lira falling, Erdogan continues to insist this all could have been avoided if the AKP had achieved an appropriate majority in the last election. Now Erdogan will get his chance at a redo as Turkey goes to the polls again on November 1. But he may not get the result he wants: It appears the same people who voted against the AKP in June remain committed to doing so again.
A series of recent polls have all shown that, if a new election were held today, the results would essentially replicate those obtained in the last one. A majority of voters have blamed the AKP (and not their decision to vote against it) for Turkey’s post-election chaos, and see less, not more, Erdogan as the solution. The question now is whether their votes will be enough to set the country back on an even keel.
It is a sign of the cynical respect Erdogan enjoys as a politician that these survey findings have come as a surprise to the many pessimistic observers who feared that, one way or another, he would get the votes he needed. But they make sense in light of the factors that caused the AKP’s defeat in the first place. A small but crucial percentage of Kurdish voters abandoned the AKP for the HDP in June in response to Erdogan’s increasingly nationalist turn during the previous year. Erdogan’s defiant indifference to the fate of the Kurdish city of Kobani when it was besieged by the Islamic State last fall created widespread anger in Turkey’s Kurdish community. When Erdogan publicly denounced his government’s ongoing efforts to negotiate a peace agreement with the PKK, he further undermined his Kurdish support, alienating voters who had once backed him. Now, with violence escalating, the AKP’s nationalist rhetoric has only become more aggressive. Infuriated by what he sees as their refusal to support him in return for peace, Erdogan has lashed out against the HDP and its supporters. More recently, on the night of September 7-8, police watched while mobs attacked and burned HDP offices across the country. And this Wednesday, prosecutors launched an investigation of Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s leader, for insulting Erdogan. In short, Erdogan is doubling down on the strategy he used before the last election and Kurdish voters are doubling down in their response.
Many people, from the conspiratorially-inclined to the generally restrained, have argued that the government’s current war with the PKK is part of Erdogan’s plan to restore his party to power. The reaction among voters suggests that such a plan would not only be appallingly Machiavellian but misguided as well. Yet the perception that this is one of Erdogan’s games has further motivated those planning to vote against him, even if it is only part of the story. A closer look at this conflict’s origins hardly absolves the AKP, but it does help reveal why it will be so hard for them to benefit from the fighting electorally.
Erdogan’s politically-motivated decision to abandon the peace process undoubtedly helped set the stage for this conflict, and he’s certainly trying to profit from it politically. But this isn’t quite the same as saying he started the war himself; the PKK has also appeared eager to escalate. This round of fighting began when Kurdish guerrillas, responding to what they believed was AKP complicity in an Islamic state attack, murdered two off-duty police officers. Over the past decade, Erdogan’s government has proved capable of ignoring similar provocations in the interests of pursuing peace. But they have also retaliated on other occasions, operating on the belief that negotiations with the PKK could only be carried out from a position of strength. This time, AKP leaders may have concluded that June’s election results, as well as the situation in Syria, again made retaliation strategically necessary as well as politically expedient.
The AKP also had reason to fear that failing to respond forcefully to PKK attacks would have exacerbating their June losses by further alienating nationalist voters. Ironically, many Turkish nationalists were always suspicious of Erdogan because of his efforts to find a peaceful solution to Turkey’s Kurdish question. If some may be reassured by Erdogan’s new enthusiasm for a military solution, others insist that the AKP’s history of what they call perfidy and accommodation with the PKK make it responsible for the current bloodshed. Recently, a policeman killed in a PKK attack left a letter saying he did not want any AKP officials at his funeral, as they had “turned a blind eye to PKK terrorist acts” during negotiations with the group in 2012. In short, some of the AKP’s political opponents are insisting its pro-peace policies are responsible for today’s violence even as others claim it manufactured the conflict for political gain. Against these contradictory charges, the party will struggle to regain lost ground.
Turkey’s recent history hints at additional challenges the AKP might face in convincing voters to reverse last June’s election result. A recent study by the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet revealed that six parties have called early elections in the country’s history, and every one of them lost votes when the election occurred. More famously, in 1974, the Turkish government that had overseen the wildly popular invasion of Cyprus sought to capitalize on its success by holding new elections. The plan backfired, and voters held the party to blame for the messy coalition politics that ensued after the vote.
Turkey’s recent history also contains several well-known cases where undemocratic efforts to strong-arm Turkish voters produced electoral backlashes. After Turkey’s 1980 coup, voters — even many who had supported the military’s initial seizure of power — nonetheless turned against its preferred political candidates when given the chance to vote. Subsequently, it was the AKP that benefited from this phenomenon. In 2007, the Turkish military published a late-night bulletin on its website widely seen as a challenge to AKP leader Abdullah Gul’s presidential ambitions. Turkish voters responded by going to the polls and increasing the AKP’s vote share by 10 percent, securing Gul’s election.
Most recently, in June, a majority of Turkish voters gave their support to parties who promised to prevent Erdogan’s continued consolidation of presidential power. Some AKP members concluded that his political overreach and heavy-handed campaigning had hurt their party at the poll. Erdogan apparently felt differently. Continuing to trumpet his ambitions, he recently declared that it was time to update the constitution to recognize the de-facto authority he had already secured as president. On November 1, voters will decide if they agree.
If Turkey’s next election turns out like its last one, the big question is how Erdogan and the AKP will respond. How far will Erdogan go in violating Turkey’s democratic norms — and how effective will they prove in constraining him? Up until now, consistent victories at the ballot box have enabled Erdogan to claim a popular mandate for everything he does, whether curbing press freedom or presiding over political witch-hunts. We won, he has frequently argued, so democracy means we get to do what we want. Though this convenient understanding of democracy has certainly set a dangerous precedent, it makes it harder for the AKP to justify an effort to blatantly cancel, fix or somehow ignore the manifest results of November’s election.
But that still leaves other options for trying to subvert the will of a voting public determined to oppose the AKP. Turkey’s constitution, put in place by the military after its last coup, gives Erdogan plenty of quasi-constitutional ways to manipulate the electoral process. Moreover, credible evidence has emerged of pro-AKP fraud in the country’s most recent local elections. Fears of widespread vote-rigging that circulated before the June election proved unfounded, but now violence will make it harder to replicate the massive monitoring effort that may have prevented it. So will recently-taken decisions that make parts of the Kurdish southeast off-limits military zones. And the this week’s arson attacks against HDP buildings and an opposition newspaper are crimes that in and of themselves forestall the possibility of a truly fair election.
The Turkish voters appear confident in their choice. Now Erdogan and the AKP, too, face a crucial choice: They could persevere in trying to consolidate power by promoting Erdogan’s ambitions at the expense of democracy and stability. Or, by pulling back from the brink and deferring to Turkey’s democratic tradition, the AKP could benefit well into the future from the position it has already established for itself as Turkey’s dominant center-right party. This option would not in itself resolve Turkey’s violent polarization, but it would help ensure that a resolution remains possible.
In the photo, President Erdogan looks on prior to casting his ballot in Turkey’s legislative election at an Istanbul polling station on June 7, 2015.
Photo credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images
Nicholas Danforth is a nonresident senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @NicholasDanfort
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