31 October 2015

Turkey is on the verge of social turmoil and polarisation


On 7th June, 2015, the legislative elections in Turkey took place as scheduled. The results revealed a fragmented party-system without a single party controlling the majority and thus being able to form a single-party government –unlike what was the case during the past 13 years. Indeed, as seen from the percentages of each party (Justice and Development Party (AKP): 40.98%; Republican People’s Party (CHP): 24.82%; Nationalist Movement Party (MHP): 16.27% and People’s Democratic Party (HDP): 13.44%), the electoral outcome necessitated the formation of a coalition government. Nonetheless, any attempt of forming a coalition between the AKP and the other parties (CHP, MHP) have been inconclusive. In addition, high-ranking party members of the AKP highlighted how AKP’s core constituency preferred to call an early elections for this autumn instead of forming a coalition government.

Thus, on Sunday, early elections will occur in Turkey (1st November, 2015). According to many polling agencies, the final outcome is unlikely to be dramatically from June’s result – barring the case of electoral fraud. So the question that comes to mind is why did the AKP and Erdogan decide to call for an early election at the end of August?

This analysis attempts to illustrate the reasons behind the decision to go to the ballot box once more by tackling the domestic and foreign policy issues of Turkey and by highlighting how they are linked to AKP’s ultimate ambition to establish a single-party government that will pave the way for a de facto presidential system with Mr. Erdogan at the helm.

As stressed above, the main reason behind the call for an early election was Erdogan’s and the AKP’s dissatisfaction with the outcome of the June 7 legislative elections. As a result, the call for an early election naturally followed after the inconclusive completion of coalition talks amongst the parties. During those talks President Erdogan – whose long-term aspiration and goal is to establish a strong presidential regime with him in the executive office and dominate Turkish politics until at least 2023 – made it very clear to his party cadres, and PM Davutoglu in particular, that he strictly preferred a re-run of the election with the hope of AKP securing this time an absolute majority of seats in the parliament.

It is also important to remember that Erdogan’s desire for unchecked power has even intensified over the past couple of years as increasing signals of his authoritarian turn demonstrate (e.g. Gezi protests, twitter bans, restrictions in the freedom of press and prosecution of journalists. Turkey outperforms China in the amount of journalists currently in jail). In addition, it may be important to highlight that one of the reasons behind the AKP’s and Erdogan’s craving for power can be the fact that Erdogan and the AKP want to avoid prosecution over their inner circles’ corruption cases that have surfaced the last two years. Thus the stakes are genuinely high in the case of loss of power.

Erdogan’s attempts and struggle for obtaining the majority at the elections were even observed during the period preceding the elections of 7th June when President Erdogan actively participated in the pre-electoral debate and campaigned fiercely for the AKP –leaving aside his constitutionally mandated impartiality. He expected that after the legislative elections of 7th June, the Kurdish problem solution focused party (HDP) would fall under the 10% electoral threshold thus enabling his party – the AKP – to return to power and govern alone as it did since 2002. However, as the party’s power eroded due to various socio-economic dynamics  and electoral fatigue, this did not happen.

In line with the above, the domestic dynamics and increased polarisation that ensued between 7th June and 1st November have to be understood along Erdogan’s ultimate aspiration to establish an executive presidency under his auspices and to govern the country single-handedly until at least 2023 (the centennial anniversary of Republic of Turkey).

In order to achieve their electoral goal, the AKP and Erdogan may have decided that the only way was to polarise the society along the deep Kurdish-Turkish cleavage in an attempt to keep HDP below the electoral threshold and to capitalise on the ultranationalist votes. To this aim, he and the AKP have been consistently trying to equate the solution and peace focused Kurdish bloc – the HDP–  with the armed guerrilla group of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and terrorism. For instance the resurgence of the PKK-Turkish army conflict from the beginning of July till August resulted in the killing of 24 soldiers . Erdogan linked the killed soldiers and many other veterans – which is a very sensitive topic since the conflict began back to 1983 in Turkish society – to a lack of political stability which he claims can only be corrected by a stronger mandate, or, more precisely, 400 more MPs for his political party. In addition due to increasingly violent action from the PKK, Erdogan escalated his assault on the HDP and asserted that peace process was frozen. In this manner Erdogan and his party took a stance in order to re-capitalise its ultranationalist votes and votes of Kurds who do not want to be equated with the guerrilla group PKK.

Turkey’s foreign policy in Syria has been instrumentalised for the AKP’s vote hunting over the last six months. Erdogan has verbally fought against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, he was never willing to step in. For instance, during the siege of Kobane, it took him too long to help the Kurds and only after talks with US did Turkey step in.

The Kurds and their political party are the only obstacles that stand between Erdogan and his goal for untamed political power. For him and the AKP, the Peoples’ Protection Units in Rojava (YPG) in Syria and the PKK – which shares common grassroots with HDP – are one and the same.  While supporting Sunni rebel groups as a matter of foreign policy in Syria, Erdogan has also taken a similar stance in domestic policy by securitising the fight against Kurds in order to achieve his goal of a presidential system.

With ISIS fighting the Kurds in Syria, President Erdogan does not seem to be overly concerned. With implicit support for ISIS in Syria and in Iraq, Turkey got involved in Syrian civil war and took a position more critical of the PKK and less vocal against the atrocities of ISIS.

The suicide bombers at the last three incidents (Diyarbakir bombing before 7th June, the Suruc massacre on 20th July and 10th October in Ankara) had linkages with ISIS. Although these were not directly plotted by the state and government itself, AKP’s inability to prevent attacks and Erdogan’s inaction and reluctance to resolve or investigate the massacre must be seen under the same lens.

Whether AKP’s strong adherence to Sunni Islam and Erdogan’s nationalist discourse will they be enough to capitalise on its lost votes of conservative circles and nationalist is still unknown. However, one thing is obvious: the HDP should remain adherent to peace and continue renouncing violence, and should not be tempted to fall under the trickery of the PKK or any other terrorist group.

Dr. Sevinc Bermek is Managing Editor at the Centre for Research and Policy on Turkey.