All-powerful Erdogan now has to face the music

By bne IntelliNews November 3, 2015

Kivanc Dundar in Istanbul -


President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now has no real challenger and he alone will decide the future of Turkey. His decision to hold snap elections on November 1 enabled his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to make a stunning comeback, in which it increased its share of the vote by nine points to 49.5% and regained its parliamentary majority.

The elections may have ended the political deadlock since June’s inconclusive poll, but Turkey’s economic and political woes are far from over.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas resumed their attacks after the peace process collapsed in July, killing more than 100 soldiers and police officers. Hundreds of PKK militants have also died. Islamic State militants have carried out bomb attacks in Ankara, Suruc and Diyarbakir that resulted in the death of close to 140 people.

The country is deeply polarised and critics fear that the election results will only encourage Erdogan to push for a full presidential system and move further to weaken press freedom and other fundamental rights.

On the economic front, the new government must deliver long-delayed but badly needed reforms to restore investor confidence and to put the $800bn economy back on a growth trajectory.

Despite all these severe problems, according to unofficial results, the AKP’s vote increased from 18.9mn in June to 23.7mn in November, the highest ever for Erdogan’s party. So, in the first place how did the AKP win this election?

Unfair but not rigged

Yuksel Taskin, professor of political sciences at Marmara University in Istanbul, points to the AKP’s two-pronged strategy evident in Erdogan’s message to the voters ahead of the polls: it is either stability and security under the AKP or chaos.

“After the June elections, the AKP decided to manipulate Turkish nationalism and the need for stability. With the first tactic, it targeted the voters of the ultra-nationalist MHP; with the second, it targeted the conservative Kurdish voters and those who did not vote for the AKP in the June elections,” Taskin told bne IntelliNews.

Consequently, the leftwing and mainly Kurdish HDP lost about 1mn and the MHP nearly 2mn votes, mostly to the AKP. The MHP’s votes fell to 11.9% (40 seats) from 16.3%, while support for the Kurdish party dropped by nearly three points to 10.8% (59 seats), just above the 10% threshold.

The main opposition, centre-left secularist Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) also did poorly against its main rival AKP, which was supposed to be battered by corruption allegations, growing concerns over its authoritarian role and sectarian policies. The social democrats increased their share of the vote only to 25.3% (134 seats) from 24.95% in June.

Besides stealing votes from the HDP, MHP and smaller nationalist/Islamist parties, the AKP managed to appeal to first-time voters, Emre Deliveli, economic columnist for the Hurriyet Daily News, told bne IntelliNews.

The overall turnout increased to 85.8% from June’s 84%. This implies that the AKP also mobilised supporters who did not bother to cast their votes in June. AKP’s strong network of local branches as well as its dedicated and well-disciplined cadres might have played a role in this, according to Deliveli, who also notes a sharp decline in the number of invalid votes, by some 700,000 compared to June. He thinks the AKP probably worked hard ahead of the elections to make sure that not a single vote would get wasted.

“The PKK’s strategical mistake to re-start its armed struggle prevented the HDP from running a successful election campaign,” said Taskin, adding that another component of the AKP’s tactic was to criminalise the Kurdish party by identifying it with the PKK. “This created an environment of fear.”

The HDP cancelled all of its election rallies after the bomb attack at a peace rally in Ankara on October 10 that killed more than 100 people.

The nationalist MHP was also in a tight spot. Its leader Devlet Bahceli was claiming on the one hand that the country needed a strong government to counter PKK attacks, but on the other hand he rejected any coalition offers. This inconsistency that the AKP easily exploited alienated its supporters. Despite his party’s poor showing at the elections, Bahceli has refused to resign.

And there was the unlevel playing field. Pro-government media did not let the opposition parties reach out to the voters. The AKP successfully benefited from its command of state resources, according to Taskin.

Yes, the election was unfair, but not rigged. The opposition quickly admitted defeat on election night. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) slammed the government, saying a media crackdown, violence and other security concerns marred the polls. But counting procedures were assessed as transparent and well organised, although there were some instances where procedures prescribed by law were not followed, it said.

Erdogan once again proved that he is an impeccable strategist who knows how to feed the propaganda mill, and knows how and when to strike to push his opponents into a corner. He defied the opinion poll surveys and he even defied common wisdom that a government could not stay in power when the economy was doing so badly, when the authorities were failing to prevent attacks by the notorious Islamic State on the country’s soil, and when young conscripts fighting PKK were returning home in body bags.

Precious moment

President Erdogan now has the mandate to tackle the country’s pressing issues and he has a chance to reduce social tensions that he stoked with his arrogant style. But the question is whether he will use this precious moment to move the country forward or will see the mandate as a blank cheque to suppress his opponents.

One of the most important post-election questions is the fate of the peace talks with Kurdish guerrillas. Here government supporters are divided: many nationalists voted for the AKP believing that Erdogan’s party could end the violence by crushing the PKK, while some Kurds supported the party, hoping for a peaceful solution.

The government says it will return to the negotiating table only if the PKK lays down its arms, while the PKK says it doesn’t trust the government and needs legal assurances from it. This is a vicious circle that will be difficult to break.

The Kurdish question, meanwhile, has become more complicated to resolve because of the ongoing conflict in Syria. The US is now cooperating with the PKK-linked Kurdish militias – which the Turkish government considers as terrorist groups – in its fight against the Islamic State in northern Syria, just across the Turkish border. That represents a dilemma for the AKP, says Taskin. “It is the most rational step for the government to re-start the peace process. However, such a U-turn should not be expected immediately, as the AKP has really intensified its nationalist anti-Kurdish rhetoric.”

Erdogan’s second challenge is the end the country’s polarisation, but few believe prospects there are promising. In a sign of what may lie ahead, on November 2, only a day after the election, police raided the offices of Nokta, a weekly news magazine, and arrested two of its editors over a cover saying that the election results would cause a civil war in Turkey. Prosecutors also banned distribution of the magazine’s latest edition.

And in a government crackdown on alleged supporters of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a previous ally of Erdogan now turned arch enemy, the police on November 3 detained dozens of senior bureaucrats and police chiefs. In October, the authorities had seized companies of Koza-Ipek Group, including newspapers and TV channels linked to Gulen. Erdogan accuses Gulen and his followers of infiltrating the country’s police force, media and judiciary, establishing what he calls “a parallel state” to overthrow him and the AKP government. Gulen denies the charges.

“There are no reasons to believe that Erdogan’s authoritarianism will gradually diminish, as he has won another victory against his rivals. His populism is the one that cannot exist without ‘enemies’. His style cannot be expected to reduce tensions,” says Taskin. He expects even the hitherto critical media to take a more pro-government line now out of fear.

The other question everybody is asking is whether Erdogan is feeling strong enough to push for an all-powerful presidential system. The fact that the AKP did not bring this controversial subject up during its election campaign suggests the ruling party and Erdogan might prefer to put the issue on ice until they think the time is right to reopen the debate.

Based on unofficial results, the AKP is projected to get 317 seats in the 550-seat parliament, more than the 276 seats needed to form a government. The ruling party, however, failed to secure a super-majority – 330 seats – that would allow it to hold a referendum on giving more executive powers to Erdogan.

But, in fact, the presidential system that Erdogan wants for himself almost already exists. Erdogan and everyone in the country knows he runs the whole show, but he just wants to seal this de facto situation with constitutional amendments.

To win 330 votes for the constitutional change the AKP needs to seek a compromise with the opposition parties. Erdogan may want to take his time to test the waters because he now has until the next parliamentary elections in 2019. “Even if he wants to put the presidential system debate back on the country’s political agenda, Erdogan will not do that in the short term,” Ismet Akca, associate professor of political science and international relations at Yildiz Technical University, tells bne IntelliNews. “Neither the HDP, nor the MHP would back his bid.” 

Akca thinks some MHP deputies could defect because of the party’s internal problems and join the AKP’s ranks, and in this case the AKP would reach enough seats in parliament to put the presidential system to a referendum. “But I think people will reject an all-powerful Erdogan-style presidential system at the referendum,” he says.

No challenger

Since Erdogan is both an unpredictable and a pragmatic politician, it is difficult to say which path he will choose, but it will be his choice alone. There is still nobody within the AKP prepared to stand up against Erdogan. “[Prime Minister  Ahmet] Davutoglu will try to empower his faction within the party, while avoiding any direct and visible clashes with Erdogan,” says Taskin.

The consecutive elections in June and November have also proved that the political opposition is still weak and fragmented. Moreover, civic movements and non-parliamentary opposition groups have not been able to organise large-scale anti-government protests, even after the Ankara bombing. People are tired of going out to the streets for demonstrations which the police suppress with brutal force.

“Because of this protest fatigue and fear, a repeat of Gezi-like mass protests do not seem very likely in the short-term”, says Akca, referring to the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations. But he adds that tensions may build up over the medium term. Erdogan and his party have to satisfy the expectations of people who turned to the AKP in search of stability and better living conditions.

The AKP made lots of promises during its election campaign: ending the PKK violence, raising the minimum wage, and a better economy. Prime Minister Davutoglu even offered matchmaking services to the voters. Now people want to see the AKP deliver on its promises. Economic growth needs to pick up, inflation should be brought under control, unemployment must be reduced. The AKP now must demonstrate that it is capable of delivering what it has promised.

But it will be difficult for the governing party to end the violence overnight. The conflict in Syria will remain a threat to the country’s national security as long as the Islamic State thinks it should continue to punish Turkey for the government’s support for the US efforts in Syria. It is also unclear whether or when the PKK would escalate violence.

On the economic front, in the short term the government needs to take precautions ahead of the  expected US Federal Reserve interest rate hike. This will require a competent and professional team – including former deputy premier Ali Babacan and finance minister Mehmet Simsek, both well-respected by international investors – and a truly independent central bank free of political pressure.

If the government fails to weather the economic storm that could be triggered by a Fed hike, coupled with potentially worsening sectarian violence, Turkey may yet plunge deeper into turmoil. 

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