Shadow Government

Adieu, Turkish Democracy

How Erdogan held on to power in the November elections.

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It’s already become a cliché to say that the results of Turkey’s Nov. 1 parliamentary elections, officially confirmed on Thursday, were “stunning.” But that doesn’t make it any less true. Most observers believed that far and away the likeliest outcome would be a re-run of the June 7 elections, which saw the Justice and Development Party (AKP) lose the ruling majority that had empowered it to dominate Turkish politics since 2002. A few analysts allowed for the slim possibility that the AKP might yet eke out a razor-thin majority. But virtually no one — not the experts and certainly not the pollsters — foreshadowed what actually happened: a resounding AKP victory, a pickup from June of nearly 5 million votes and almost 60 seats. In just 5 months, the AKP had gone from badly weakened and on the ropes to triumphant and once again dominant. The sudden reversal of fortune was all the more shocking precisely because it was so unexpected.

Unexpected, that is, by everyone except President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the architect of the AKP comeback. After the June elections produced a hung parliament, it was Erdogan who scuttled coalition talks and insisted on going back to the polls to reclaim the AKP’s majority. When the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) assassinated two policemen in July, it was Erdogan who seized upon the provocation to declare the peace process dead, re-launch Turkey’s war on the PKK, and demonize the Kurdish-dominated People’s Democratic Party (HDP) as a terrorist front.

And it was Erdogan, of course, who in the weeks and months leading up to the ballot redoubled the state’s crackdown on all potential challengers to the AKP’s resurgence. A small sampling gives the flavor:

  • With police often standing by, nationalist mobs ransacked hundreds of HDP offices around the country, while police and prosecutors harassed and arrested scores of HDP activists.
  • In early September, club-wielding protesters led by an AKP member of parliament attacked the headquarters of one of the country’s leading opposition papers, Hurriyet. The AKP parliamentarian told the crowd that the paper’s owner, the Dogan Media Group, “will clear off from this country after the Nov. 1 elections.” He was also caught on video threatening Hurriyet’s editor-in-chief and one of its top columnists, declaring, “Those people have never had a beating. Our mistake was not to give them a beating early on.” Within weeks, a group of thugs consisting primarily of AKP members made good on the threat, assaulting the columnist outside his home, putting him in the hospital with a broken nose and ribs.
  • Just a week before the Nov. 1 vote, the state seized two TV stations and two newspapers owned by an opposition media group, appointing a new board of trustees dominated by pro-AKP figures. The broadcast stations went dark while the papers were transformed almost overnight into AKP platforms.

In short, Erdogan quite systematically pursued an electoral strategy of fomenting instability, insecurity, conflict, and violence. Manufactured chaos, if you will. His message to the Turkish people was clear, as much veiled threat as prediction: If you don’t revisit the June results, if you don’t return the AKP to a position of monopoly power, your lives are likely to get much, much worse. Only Erdogan — not some unruly, weak coalition government — can fight terrorism, enforce stability, and deliver the prosperity that Turks have grown accustomed to the past 13 years.

Most Turkey watchers perceived Erdogan’s gambit as a transparently cynical move that was doomed to fail, the desperate act of an increasingly paranoid despot, a wannabe sultan sensing his power slipping away. The prevailing assumption was that the Turkish public would see through it, too, especially after delivering such a stinging rebuke to Erdogan’s authoritarian ambitions just a few months earlier. Certainly, they wouldn’t now turn around and reward Erdogan’s arson spree by embracing him as the fireman, right?

Wrong. That appears to be exactly what happened. Erdogan’s decision to put a match to the Kurdish conflict had two main objectives. First, to whip up nationalist hysteria behind the AKP. And second, to drive down support for the HDP. He succeeded on both accounts, and quite spectacularly. The anti-Kurdish National Movement Party (MHP) hemorrhaged right-wing support to the AKP, losing 40 seats. At the same time, after defecting to the HDP in June in what appeared to be a tide of pan-Kurdish solidarity linked to the Syrian conflict, more than a million conservative Kurds returned to the AKP fold in November — apparently buying in to Erdogan’s narrative that the PKK was primarily responsible for the resumption of violence afflicting Kurdish cities and towns, and angered by the HDP’s seeming inability, or unwillingness, to rein it in.

The success of Erdogan’s gamble was really quite breathtaking when you think about it. By collapsing the peace process and unleashing war on the PKK he did something that, intuitively, seemed almost impossible: he rallied to his side not only anti-Kurdish nationalists, but a significant bloc of Kurds as well. No mean feat that. Especially given the fact that the flight of Kurds from the AKP in June had been widely thought to be irreversible, a function of their deep sense of betrayal at Erdogan’s hostile response to the plight of Kobani, the Syrian Kurdish village on the Turkish border that came under the Islamic State assault in late 2014. The aftershocks of Kobani were supposed to have been felt in Turkish politics for years to come. As it turned out, they seem to have lasted for all of five months.

What Erdogan appears to have sensed better than anyone is the premium that conservative voters, both Turks and Kurds alike, were prepared to place on stability. Faced with a rising tide of chaos, which included horrific bombings in Suruc and Ankara perpetrated by the Islamic State, they returned en masse to the one power — Erdogan and the AKP — that they believed might plausibly be able to restore order if granted sufficient authority. The fact that Erdogan may have played a major role in stoking the violence in the first place seemed of secondary importance at best — if it was considered at all.

At any rate, by November, the hung parliament delivered by June’s elections; the voters’ indulgence of Turkey’s notoriously feckless opposition parties; the democratic impulse to push back against Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism — all that seemed like something of a luxury, a passing summer fancy. Now confronting crises across multiple fronts — the PKK, the Islamic State, the Syrian war, a mass influx of refugees, and a currency in free fall — it was time for voters to get their priorities straight. Stability first and foremost. And if stability was the question, the only credible answer for at least half the voters was an empowered AKP and its capo dei capi, President Erdogan.

It was a potent reminder, if any were needed, of Erdogan’s singular mastery over Turkish politics. The notion that the setback he suffered in June might mark the beginning of the end of his reign was proven to be so much wishful thinking. In hindsight, it was at most a temporary stumble. When it comes to manipulating, browbeating, intimidating, seducing, and demagoguing the Turkish public to serve his political ends, Erdogan simply remains without equal. A giant among dwarves who can never be counted out. Willpower, resilience, and sheer ruthlessness personified.

The question now is where does all this leave us? The Turkish people may have voted for stability, but are they likely to get it? I’ll admit to not being particularly optimistic. Perhaps there’s a chance that Erdogan interprets the past five months as a cautionary tale of sorts, a warning about the risks of political overreach, of a majoritarian approach to power that treats one half of the country as an enemy to be crushed rather than a loyal opposition to be debated and engaged. Perhaps he backs off his megalomaniacal obsession to transform Turkey’s constitution by establishing an all-powerful executive presidency with himself at the helm, and instead focuses on an agenda of easing political tensions, encouraging much-needed economic reforms, and re-establishing the rule of law, freedom of the press, and judicial independence. And perhaps he moves quickly to resurrect a settlement process that genuinely seeks to resolve the Kurdish question within the context of Turkey’s democracy and a more generous conception of Turkish citizenship.

Or perhaps not. Unfortunately, based on Erdogan’s record, this seems to me the far more likely scenario. Magnanimity has simply not been part of the repertoire. Instead, my fear is that the lesson Erdogan takes from these elections is the need to move even more aggressively than heretofore to neutralize all those who might challenge his rule — in the media especially, but far beyond it as well, including the business sector, civil society, opposition parties, and any state institutions that remain even nominally independent. Get them before they get him. The victory he won on Nov. 1 is not a reason to scale back his zero-sum approach to politics, but a vindication of it, and a mandate to pursue his agenda even more forcefully going forward.

That certainly means pressing ahead with the extremely polarizing effort to build an imperial presidency — whether de facto as he’s been doing for the past year in contravention of the existing constitution, or de jure by force feeding a new constitution to the country whether it wants it or not. It’s true that the AKP’s new majority of 317 seats in parliament leaves it at least 13 votes shy of the 330 required to submit a constitutional referendum to the public. But with strong political winds now at his back and all the inducements of state power, as well as the punishments of state coercion, at his fingertips, securing the cooperation of a handful of self-interested parliamentarians hardly seems like mission impossible for an aspiring despot of Erdogan’s caliber.

As for the peace process, it’s hard to be optimistic. It’s true that Erdogan did more to address Kurdish grievances than any previous Turkish leader. But the suspicion lingers that the effort was always more instrumental in nature, designed in the first instance to serve Erdogan’s broader political ambitions rather than actually dealing with core Kurdish demands.

If anything, the experience of the past several months has only underscored the importance of the nationalist right-wing to Erdogan’s power base. Pursuing the settlement process almost cost him dearly on June 7, while the collapse of that process appears to have been the key to victory on Nov. 1. While Erdogan almost certainly appreciates that his interests would not be well served by the high political, economic, and security costs of a drawn-out war, the same cannot necessarily be said of a persistent, low-level conflict that keeps tensions simmering and allows him to strike a nationalist pose against those who would threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity.

That harder line on the Kurdish issue may also augur problems in Syria, where the United States is counting on the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the Popular Protection Unit (YPG), to play a major role in fighting the Islamic State — including by leading a Kurdish-Arab coalition in pressuring Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital. Erdogan has made clear that Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist group, whose military advancements along the Turkish border and close links to the PKK pose a clear and present danger. As does, the Turks warn, any budding U.S.-YPG military alliance. How far the Turks are prepared to go in pressing this point is not certain. There have already been isolated incidents of Turkish artillery and air attacks on YPG positions. It’s known that many Turkish Kurds are fighting in Syria, and Turkish officials have warned of the crisis that could be triggered in U.S.-Turkish relations should U.S. weapons supplied to YPG-aligned forces start showing up in the PKK’s arsenal for use against Turkish targets.

No doubt reaching some better understandings on the way forward in Syria will be at the top of the list of subjects that President Obama will want to discuss when he visits Turkey early next week for the G-20 Summit in Antalya. The Turks may oppose the growing U.S. reliance on the YPG to battle the Islamic State, but what’s their alternative? The answer can’t be the equally dangerous non-Islamic State jihadists that Turkey’s lax cross-border policy has done so much to empower in recent years. Are the Turks themselves prepared finally to step up and play a more direct military role, including perhaps by deploying troops to police a possible safe zone?

Setting aside these differences, U.S. officials almost certainly felt some relief with the AKP’s election victory and the prospect of a strong government in Ankara that’s capable of making decisions — including allowing the United States to continue ramping up its combat operations against the Islamic State from Turkish bases. While elements of the Obama administration issued periodic squeaks of concern over Erdogan’s more egregious media attacks, both in the run-up to Nov. 1 and in its aftermath, its shown no stomach whatsoever for developing a sustained, medium-term strategy — backed by the president and his secretary of state — to bolster Turkey’s democracy in the face of Erdogan’s systematic efforts to dismantle it.

Given the priority of managing the mess in Syria, and prosecuting the war against the Islamic State, that may be understandable. But it’s also probably shortsighted. It’s hard to believe that over time Turkey can be the reliable and stable ally and NATO partner that America so badly needs if it continues hurtling toward despotism. Putinism with a very nasty Islamist twist.

But that, unfortunately, is where we now seem headed after Nov. 1, and at an accelerating speed. In retrospect, my guess is that we will look back on these past five months as an historical hinge point for Turkey, a moment in time after June 7 when the Turkish electorate might still have taken the last-chance exit ramp off of Erdogan’s superhighway to dictatorship. But it failed to do so and may now have ended up in the express lane instead — with democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech, and human rights all receding further and further into the rear-view mirror.

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.

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