October 30, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Turkey on the Eve of Elections

• On the eve of November 1 general elections, Turkey is rife with political divisions and security challenges

• Erdogan’s confidence in his direction for the future of Turkey is not shared by the Turkish people at large

• Erdogan is increasingly autocratic and has taken steps to silence all opposition, with a focus on demonizing Turkey’s Kurdish minority

• As a result, the country is increasingly apprehensive about its future and is divided as it approaches its second general election in five months.


It is unlikely that President Erdogan is nervous about the outcome of Sunday’s elections in Turkey. He is not given to self-doubt, and his aggressive self-confidence has been one of the main reasons that he and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have dominated Turkish politics for the last 14 years. The party has transformed the country into an economic powerhouse and firmly established it as a major regional power. It has overseen change that some, including Erdogan, have compared to the achievements of Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. But if Erdogan has no doubts on the eve of the elections—and whatever happens, it is clear that his party will remain by far the biggest in Parliament—the Turkish people may be less confident about where he will lead them next.

Although the AKP has won all four of the national ballots held since its foundation in 2001, the election in June of this year saw its share of the vote fall for the first time. The drop of around 9% was enough to deny the AKP the majority of seats needed to form a government. Erdogan had hoped that his party would do rather better; to achieve a majority large enough to allow him to push constitutional amendments through Parliament that would effectively change the nature of government from a parliamentary to a presidential system.

Erdogan blamed the thwarting of his plans on the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which was participating in elections for the first time. Its charismatic leader, a Kurd from Diyabakir, had managed to persuade competing pro-Kurdish parties—along with others who feared Erdogan’s relentless march towards autocracy—to join together, and as a result, managed to pass the 10% hurdle that had previously kept all of them out of Parliament. The HDP's 13% of the vote won it 80 seats. But although the pro-Kurdish parties managed to deny the AKP a majority as a result of joining forces, it was also Erdogan’s own behavior that enabled them to do so.

Opposition to Erdogan had begun to grow well before June 2015. In 2013, there were major demonstrations in Istanbul and other towns in the west of the country against the growing authoritarianism of the Turkish state. The following year, Erdogan was tarnished by reports that close members of his family and inner circle might have been involved in tax evasion, bribery, and kickbacks. Rather than allow any investigation, Erdogan took what has become his default line of action: using the police and prosecutors to force his accusers into silence. This use of state institutions to muzzle criticism was in evidence again this week; a strike against the offices of a media group linked to his former political ally, Fethullah Gülen, saw the police break in with chainsaws, while their colleagues kept protesters back with water cannons and tear gas. So consistent have attacks on the press become in Turkey that the country now ranks 149 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index—below countries like Myanmar and Zimbabwe, and only a notch or two above Russia.

Erdogan has come to see himself as synonymous with the state, regarding criticism of his behavior—or that of his close allies—as tantamount to treason. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Turks regard the excesses of the state as a direct consequence of Erdogan’s personal politics. As part of his campaign to root out supporters of Gülen, Erdogan has precipitated a major purge of the police, many of whom had passed through Gülen movement schools. With considerable political acumen, Erdogan had earlier used these same policemen to break the power of the Turkish army, which had always been ready to intervene if it thought that the secular ideals of the country—as interpreted by the generals—might be at risk. Subsequently, he has rehabilitated the Army and won its acquiescence, while politicizing the police and judicial system. There is now no state institution that has the power to stand up to him.

The growing political divisions in the country have even attracted comment from Erdogan’s predecessor as president and co-founder of the AKP, Abdullah Gul, who has generally been careful to avoid criticizing his successor. Gul has pointedly referred to the importance of diversity of opinion in Turkey, and has subtly reminded people that the role of president is to remain above the political fray. This is not Erdogan’s vision. Apart from his contemptuous remarks about the political opposition, and his harsh response to critics in the media, Erdogan has invalidated years of patient work with Turkey’s Kurdish minority that had led to a ceasefire with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2012, after almost 30 years of intermittent violence.

Internal security is now a major problem in Turkey, alongside a growing threat from instability in neighboring Syria and Iraq, and worsening relations with major powers. Erdogan was anything but presidential in his reaction to a devastating bombing of a pro-Kurdish and Trade Union rally in Ankara on October 10, failing to commiserate with the families of the victims and unconvincingly blaming a combination of his enemies: the PKK, the so-called Islamic State, and Syrian intelligence agents. The people of Turkey are confused and likely frightened. The upward trajectory of their country seems to all of a sudden have plunged into a vertiginous descent. If Erdogan does not get the answer he wants from Sunday’s elections—which seems likely—he will just ask the question again, leading to more trouble ahead.


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