Erdogan Isn’t Finished
The game isn’t over for Erdoğan and the AKP. Now would be a good time for the West to pay attention to what’s going on in Turkey.
The American Interest
The euphoria to which Turkey’s June 7 election results have given rise calls to mind an oncology ward patient learning that an experimental protocol might slow the advance of her tumor. The elation is warranted in rough proportion to the desperation of the situation. In other words, good news is, like most things, relative.
The Justice and Development Party, or AKP as it is known by its Turkish acronym, won nearly 41 percent of the vote in the election, but lost its parliamentary majority. The election was, among other things, a referendum on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s proposal to replace Turkey’s parliamentary democracy with a so-called presidential system. Exactly what this would entail has never been fully elaborated, but it would clearly bear scant relationship to a presidential system as Americans understand the term: It would be more like an elected dictatorship.
Had the AKP secured a majority sufficient to change the constitution, Erdoğan would have tried immediately and permanently to finish his project. The AKP would have become the permanent ruling party, one whose interests are presumed to be identical to those of the nation; by extension, all opposition to the Party would become treasonous. Turkey’s politicized courts and its harsh and arbitrary laws on terror and national security would have been institutionalized. Erdoğan’s remaining rivals would have been purged, and Turkey transformed into an unpleasantly authoritarian state characterized by Sunni chauvinism. All hope for the restoration of whatever democracy Turkey has at moments enjoyed since its first genuine all-party election in 1950 would have been lost, and with it hope of liberal reform in the foreseeable future.
Erdoğan had asked the Turkish people to send 400 of his party’s candidates to Parliament. Had they done so, it would have meant game over. But the Turkish people did nothing of the sort: Not only did the party fail to win the 330 seats required to submit constitutional changes to a referendum, it fell so far short of its past electoral triumphs that, for the first time in 13 years, Erdoğan fell into stunned silence. Turks reported this experience, variously, as eerie, blessed, or disconcerting in the manner of a routine broadcast from the cockpit switching suddenly to static. They began sharing a ticking online clock marking the minutes since his voice had last been heard.
But the game isn’t over, and it would be a gross mistake now to assume that the AKP’s trajectory is irreversibly downward. Since 2002, the West has been watching and saying little or nothing while Erdoğan systematically dismantled Turkey’s constitutional and legal checks and balances. So it should not surprise Western observers (although it will) that it remains in his power to keep doing so. That is why Western interlocutors, especially those in Europe, should now involve themselves in Turkey’s affairs in a more constructive way than they have heretofore done.
For example: Following a burble of outrage about the suppression of the 2013 Gezi protests, the European Commission lost interest in Turkey. It fell silent about human rights abuses and freedoms denied. So did most EU officials, save for their condemnations of the arrest of Gülen-affiliated journalists, who have hardly been the only objects of the Turkish media crackdown—merely the best-connected and loudest. One sensed that behind closed doors, the EU elites even welcomed these developments; it pushed Turkish EU accession off the table, making everything so much simpler, given that in most member states opposition to Turkey’s accession is overwhelming.
But the outsized focus on the harassment of Gülenists above all others made them appear easily manipulated and clueless: Of all the journalists harassed or locked up under Erdoğan, the Gülenists least warrant the West’s sympathy. They, far more than any other group in Turkey, had for years been the most enthusiastic enablers of Erdoğan’s rise, and the heartiest supporters of his instinct to purge his rivals and rid himself of turbulent journalists. There’s no reason to think their principles have changed, although naturally they do dislike being the object of these practices rather than the authors.
Should any outside party, including the American one, wish to be useful, it must start by grasping the fragility of Turkey’s post-election condition. The AKP must now preside over the forming of a coalition, forge on as a minority government, or call a new, snap election. This means at least three months of intense political turbulence in Turkey, during which everything can go wrong. Anyone remotely rational should expect it to. Everything that goes wrong will work to Erdoğan’s advantage. A failure to form a coalition, or the formation of a government unable quickly to prove its ability to manage things with reasonable competence, will result in a new round of elections—a “re-run”, as Erdoğan terms it—and in this new round he may well get what he wants. Then the game will be over.
Consider the numbers. The AKP remains by far the largest party in parliament, with 258 seats. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) took only 132 seats. The nature of the CHP remains a mystery: It’s the home of most Kemalists, whatever that means now, and it is nominally social-democratic, although it’s unclear what they mean by that beyond a traditional statist mentality. In any event, it is correctly viewed by most of the electorate as antediluvian and inept. Hence, it fared even worse than it did in 2011: It did not, in other words, gain ground. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) improved slightly on their 2011 performance by winning 80 seats. Some interesting and intelligent politicians hide in their midst, but they’re dominated by Turkey’s jackbooted and delusional nationalists. For reasons unclear, their campaign was premised on a strategy of hiding their smart guys in a basement and instead showcasing their decrepit old loons. Somehow, it worked.
The great wonderment of this election, as has been widely remarked, was the success of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which now claims to be a national party—they stress this—but is comprised, as everyone in Turkey knows, mostly of Kurds. The HDP is not at all unfriendly to the PKK, the banned Kurdish-nationalist separatist movement founded by Abdullah Öcalan, who now languishes like Napoleon in Elba on Turkey’s İmralı island. Their candidates had previously run as independents to bypass Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold, put in place in the wake of the 1980 coup precisely to prevent this outcome. Like the MHP, it won 80 seats.
The HDP has two nominal heads, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, but credit for this victory has properly gone to Demirtaş. The co-chairmanship of the party is designed to showcase the HDP’s feminist principles, but it was Demirtaş who literally and figuratively had the balls to risk jumping the hurdle. It paid off. Less romantically, he ran a campaign marked by the kind of flawless public relations professionalism that the main opposition CHP has never mastered, in part because its members view the hiring of slick, highly-paid Western political consultants as an abomination. So it would be no cynical asperity to suspect, in the wake of Demirtaş’s triumph, that some number of those consultants have been deservedly enriched.
That last point is one Western observers would do well to ponder. Those who remember the early days of the AKP ought to find all this Western enthusiasm about the HDP eerily familiar. “The HDP”, gushes Marc Pierini, the former EU Ambassador and head of its delegation to Turkey from 2006 to 2011, “is a political party with a truly European outlook: It has a man and woman as co-chairs (like green parties in the EU), the highest proportion of female deputies, an environmental policy, while entertaining the demands of minority groups and defending a clear democratic orientation.” The foreign media is romping right along: “Demirtaş’ campaign”, the English-language version of Al Jazeera has decided absent any evidence whatsoever, has “been embraced by left-wing voters because of his stance on a range of social issues, from LGBT rights to environmental conservation.” (It would be fascinating to know if this assessment was translated in full for their Arabic-language audience; one assumes it would sound to them rather less thrilling.)
Joining the chorus of gushing, Suat Kınıklıoğlu marvels in Foreign Policy that “[s]killful leadership has enabled [Demirtaş] to transcend his party’s traditional limitations and to shake up the political establishment like few other opposition leaders in recent memory. Demirtaş has managed to capture the imagination of many liberal Turks who are desperately in search for a strong opposition leader.” Kınıklıoğlu seems to have found his natural home these days at the Center for American Progress, where he’s now a senior fellow. When last I saw him—in 2009—he was the executive spokesman of the foreign affairs committee in the Turkish Parliament, then to be heard gushing about Erdoğan in identical, and I do mean identical, terms.
If Demirtaş is a Western liberal, his conversion was pretty recent. Until April 2014, when he and his intimates joined the HDP, Demirtaş hewed closely to the pro-PKK line—which is not so liberal (unless Maoists with a taste for ethnic cleansing sound liberal to you). That’s when their rhetoric changed and they started to sound like the Gezi protesters—all-encompassing, peace-loving, rainbows, lots of woo. So which one is the real Demirtaş?
Demirtaş—and Turkey’s Kurds, not to mention its Turks—have everything to gain if this conversion is real. We ought not to be so cynical as to say this is impossible, but we ought not be so stupid as to at least wonder what these guys will do with their well-earned PKK indoctrination. We would approach wisdom if we would simply remember how similar the trajectory of his fortune has been to Erdoğan’s. Erdoğan was schooled from the start in political Islam, which took him quickly to the interior of a Turkish prison cell. He rose to power when he took a sharply liberal rhetorical turn, to which the electorate, the media, and hopeful diplomats the world around thrilled. After all, that’s what credulous people do best.
Still, given the choice between explaining the complex and not-necessarily-liberal history of the Kurdish national movement in Turkey and calling Demirtaş Turkey’s Obama, the press corps dutifully walked through the door with a goat behind it. Look, it’s not so hard: Turkey does have a liberal, democratic party. It’s led by Cem Toker, who is a liberal and a democrat to the core. But the LDP won 0.06 percent of the vote. It is irrelevant.
Demirtaş is not Obama; Kurds are not black; and Turkey is not America. Indeed, one would be better off reading nothing about Turkey at all than to imbibe these useless and misleading analogies. Certainly, some Turkish liberals voted for Demirtaş, either hopefully or tactically. They assure me there are legions more like them in their faculty lounges; they sound just like Pauline Kael wondering how on earth Nixon won. Our hearts can be with them, but sensible people should repose their confidence in the numbers. These show clearly that the HDP’s constituency is comprised overwhelmingly of conservative Kurds and Kurdish nationalists.
In the southeast, the AKP has long been in uneasy collaboration with the Kurdish tarikats and clans. (Please note the word “clans” is meant here in a literal way; it is not a metaphor, and grasping this helps to explain why analogies between Turkish and Western electoral events tend to fail with alarming regularity.) The political economist Erik Meyersson rigorously studies Turkish electoral statistics, a feat that regularly eludes most who write about the country, and, after examining the recent results province by province, he concluded the HDP had been pushed into parliament by a shift among socially conservative Kurds in the east and the large cities. His argument is easy to follow, and I’m afraid it’s irrefragable.
The AKP’s vote share shrank substantially in the Kurdish areas, where the HDP did unusually well. Yes, some CHP votes went to the HDP, but not a rate suggesting that Turkey has swung to the Left (whatever we mean by that, these days); and anyone who imagines the southeast of Turkey has now come under the political sway of the Scottish Enlightenment is just out of his ever-loving mind. “Despite the liberal and leftist appeal of HDP frontpersons”, Meyersson notes, “they’re likely up for a significant challenge in steering a party that is secular and progressive at the top whilst pious and socially conservative at the bottom. . . . [O]bservers hoping that the Kurds will provide the liberal alternative that the existing Turkish parties have so far failed to provide are likely to be disappointed.”
So here is what we really have: Sharply raised expectations among leftist and nationalist Kurds; pious, conservative Kurds who’ve had it with the AKP; and the rest of Turkey. The rest of Turkey has obviously, to some extent at least, also had it with the AKP. But it isn’t at all apt to share the aspirations of the HDP’s chief constituency.
Meanwhile, Islamists in Turkey who truly wish to see the country under Islamic law remain reasonably thin on the ground, although not absent. But after years of AKP governance we know that Turks are willing to accept a large dose of Islamist and authoritarian nonsense in exchange for a modicum of economic growth, stability, and the shy hope of a Turkish-Kurdish modus vivendi so long as it doesn’t end up violently sundering the country.
Beyond the AKP’s hardcore base, most Turks voted for the party because they trusted it more than they did the others with the economy and thought it more apt to keep their conscript sons from being killed in the southeast. And they’ve probably been correct to think that the AKP—governing as a majority party—was best poised to deliver these results, at least in the short-term. To be sure, they ended up getting a good dose of Islamist nonsense, thuggery, and corruption in the bargain, but for most, that was a bug, not a feature, of the program. They wanted some internal political peace, for a change, and a bit of economic hope—and they got it.
The evidence thus shows that most Turks will accept a great deal of compromise on democratic principles in exchange for a modicum of short-term stability. In the wake of the 2010 referendum—the one arguably most responsible for slamming shut the greatest number of democratic doors—I encountered not a single Turk, beyond the educated elites, who had given the constitutional traps it contained any thought. Most knew that they were voting to give the AKP all the power, and many understood that they were voting against the principle of separation of powers. But they reckoned this a good thing, or at least the lesser of evils. They feared that any serious challenge to single-party rule would result in chaos and the extinction of all economic hope.
Now consider, on the basis of this sketch, what’s about to happen to Turkey. A minority government is formed when no party has a parliamentary majority. The magic number for a majority is 276. Turkey’s 63rd government must be formed within 45 days of the formal issuance of a mandate; failing that, snap elections ensue. No party can form a government on its own, and Turkish law prohibits the formation of pre-election party alliances, making it particularly difficult for parties quickly to negotiate a post-election coalition. This tendency is aggravated by the rancid rhetoric of a typical Turkish election campaign; it was aggravated still more by this one, in which the vitriol caused Anglophone observers to be saddened by the comparative poverty of their lexicon in all matters concerning, say, the excretory organs of a donkey.
There is just no natural coalition here. The key point is that those willing to take steps that might satisfy the aspirations of Turkey’s Kurds don’t necessarily support a secular state. Those who want above all the preservation of secularism tend to be a peculiar and uniquely Turkish admixture of hyper-nationalist and anti-imperialist leftists. (No, that’s not ideologically coherent; but it’s real nonetheless.) They do not support the kinds of concessions to the Kurds that the AKP might be willing to make.
So how can any coalition govern? Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the head of the CHP, has called for a coalition of “60 percent bloc”, that’s to say, of the CHP, MHP, and HDP. He has said, reasonably so given the mathematics of it, that “if we are going to take some steps to be in power, we have to act with our reason and logic. In that context, we cannot ignore any party or any citizen who voted for that party.” But the MHP explicitly ran on its opposition to the AKP’s so-called peace process, which MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli calls the “dissolution process.” He has outright rejected Kılıçdaroğlu’s suggestion: “How can we stand together with a party affiliated with a terror organization that killed newborn babies in their cradles?” Now, one never knows with Bahçeli, but even if he changes his mind, this would obviously be a government that would—in effect—leave voters waiting impatiently for Lyndon LaRouche and the Black Panthers promptly to sort out their petty differences and begin collecting the garbage. They’ll tire of it as fast as the garbage piles up, and it will.
There are really only a few plausible options left: An AKP-CHP coalition, an AKP-HDP coalition, an AKP-MHP coalition, or a minority government. They’re all bad. Bahçeli has promised not to enter a coalition absent guarantees that the presidential-system proposal will be scrapped. Now, Bahçeli is the Turkish politician least likely to be described as constant as the Northern Star—he’s able to paint unnumbered sparks into a single syllable, in fact—so we’ve got no idea what he or his party really wants. He’s also said his party would enter a coalition with the AKP only on the condition that Turkey’s huge corruption cases, engulfing four former ministers and Erdoğan’s son Bilal, are re-opened: “Give us Bilal and take the government”, he actually said. Erdoğan’s not going to sacrifice his son, obviously; and the bluntness with which Bahçeli put this is but one reason among many that many Turks wonder whether Bahçeli really wants to govern.
But they won’t benefit, for it will only take a few good, and perhaps deliberately administered shocks—economic or to Turkey’s security—to send voters running for stability. When they do, given that most of the recent swing vote came from the AKP, that’s where they’ll go back. All the AKP has to achieve in a snap election is a slightly better result: That 10 percent barrier to entering parliament ensures that a tiny shift in voter sentiment will result in a completely disproportionate reassignment in power. The AKP will then be in position to form a new government without coalition headaches.
And the shocks are coming, for sure. Foreign investors are spooked. Turkey’s risk premium has climbed to the top of the fragile five. Turkey’s foreign debt is U.S. $403 billion—53 percent of its national income—and 40 percent of its debt is due in the coming 12 months. It simply can’t attract foreign capital the way it did in the heady early years of the AKP; the economy is now running on reserves and strange bookkeeping practices. The lira has lost 30 percent of its value against the dollar in the past year. The Istanbul Stock Exchange plunged after the election, the euro-to-lira rate broke records (in a bad way), and so did the currency basket. All of this uncertainty takes place against a background of tightening U.S. monetary policy, which will not help.
Erdoğan’s strident Sunni discourse has not only alienated secular nationalists, liberals, and leftists, but also the non-Sunni sects led by the Alevis, who probably represent a fifth or maybe even a quarter of the population. Many have expressed solidarity with Syria’s Alawites (with whom they are not theologically close, despite the similarity in names), making sectarian tension within Turkey a more acute prospect than in any prior period of Republican history.
Meanwhile, the southeast is already in flames. During the campaign, Demirtaş claimed ISIS had been linked to a string of bombings targeting the HDP. On June 9, jihadi luminary Aytaç Baran, head of the Islamist Yeni İhya-Der, was shot dead, presumably in reprisal for the June 5 bombing of the HDP’s election rally in in Diyarbakır, which killed a still-uncertain number of people, but at least four. The PKK denied killing Baran and accused Turkish state security of perpetrating the attack as a provocation. Baran’s murder was immediately followed by the murder of three PKK/HDP supporters. (Reporting on the cause of the bombing has, typically, been banned, and three Turkish reporters were wounded, one critically, when masked assailants attacked them with meat cleavers as they attempted to cover these incidents.) “Some circles have mobilized to instigate a civil war,” said Demirtaş, attributing (at best) malign and deliberate negligence to the AKP when he added, “Prime Minister [Ahmet Davutoğlu] and President [Erdoğan] are not around.” Needless to say, a government that looks as if it is losing further control of this situation—and by this point, no matter what, it will—will not be popular.
Images from the border at Tell Abyad look all-too-similar to those from Kobani last fall, infuriating Kurds: Fugitives gathered on the southern side of the barbed wire, begging for entry; Turkish troops watching as ISIS drove them back. As fighting between Kurds and ISIS across the border intensifies, the possibility that the Kurds who switched to the HDP from the AKP in the elections will return to the AKP fold diminishes.
So there are two particularly bad ways, among others, that this could go. The most advantageous and natural alliance for the AKP is with the HDP, but to attain this it would now need to offer them massive concessions—the most extreme of which might be freeing Öcalan. Such concessions would utterly outrage the rest of the country. Or it could spurn the Kurds and try to cut a deal with the MHP. This would pour kerosene on the fires of the southeast.
There are other groups to consider, too, with what political scientists call “extra-parliamentary” clout. What of the Turkish military, for example? Since they don’t officially talk, we can’t be sure what they want or, indeed, if they think alike. They do leak, however, and it sounds as if they may be unhappy. The officers who spoke to Al-Monitor, reports Metin Gurcan, “were dazed by the HDP’s achievement. . . . Most of them see its success as a disturbing development that could lead to security chaos in the country. According to this group, the PKK now has the strategic upper hand. In many eastern and southeastern provinces, where the majority of Kurds live, the PKK holds de facto field supremacy and the state’s authority and is severely impaired. They fear the PKK’s perceived upper hand may well turn into a permanent political supremacy following the HDP’s electoral success.” While the military certainly knows better than to intervene overtly these days, that doesn’t mean it has no impulse or ability to intervene in other ways.
And what of the Gülen movement? Unlike the military they talk incessantly, but we have just as little idea what they really think. At this point, most of them probably just want to get out of jail or avoid joining their comrades in the clink. Before the elections, rumors were circulating that the intelligence services had sent a list of another 1,200 suspected Gülenists to be purged to the chief of general staff. It isn’t clear how much power they retain, but it’s safe to assume both the military and the Gülenists will defend their own in the coming months—in their special ways and with their special instruments—and that neither favors an AKP-HDP alliance. Their behavior will not be transparent, but it would represent a triumph of hope over experience in the extreme to expect either group to step back and play by Marquess of Queensbury rules.
As an aside, it’s also worth wondering what state Erdoğan might be in now, psychologically speaking. It seems to be a law of politics that after about a decade in power, leaders start making terrible mistakes. Erdoğan’s post-election silence was so atypical that one wonders whether he’s mentally well. After all, as far as he understands things, when he laughs, respectable Senators burst with laughter; and when he cries, the little children die in the streets, so these disobedient voters must seem to him very strange. He holds himself to embody the Will of the People; so who knows what he might imagine upon learning that the People have a Will of their own. He could even decompensate from the discovery, as some narcissistic personalities do. This possibility should be kept in mind by anyone hoping to be useful.
The AKP-HDP alliance scenario is the one most apt to forestall this. Demirtaş has sworn up and down that he’ll never do it, but we’ve got to ask which Demirtaş we’re talking about: the new, improved, green, young, handsome, and LGBT-friendly Demirtaş, or that other one? Because the pre-2014 Demirtaş was indeed the kind of guy who would have been highly motivated to cut a deal, and most of the people who voted for him don’t give a toss about the liberal-sounding horseshit Western observers down so enthusiastically. It would be in both Erdoğan’s interest and Demirtaş’s to work out something like this: Autonomy for the southeast—that’s yours. In exchange, you give me what I want: an enhanced Presidency. For life.
Don’t rule it out. Demirtaş brings home the bacon, so to speak; and Erdoğan gets his elevation to the sun-in-permanence of the Turkish Sunni political firmament. Of course, the MHP would literally die (or much more likely, kill) before signing off on this. So would many CHP voters. But it could happen anyway. And no Western (or Turkish, or Kurdish) interest would be served by this outcome. Nor would the outcome be liberal, nor would it be democratic. So if any influence can be exerted to forestall it, it should be. The prospect that any Western mediation or encouragement toward maturity could forestall this is slim, but it is zero if no one tries.
What would serve Turkey best is any kind of coalition that is stable and functional enough to fend off the Erdoğan-style presidency, forestall snap elections, and discredit the idea that only an elected dictatorship can keep Turkey from turning and turning in this widening gyre. If the center doesn’t hold, things will fall apart; and if anyone on the outside has influence sufficient to impress this upon the various players and offer them incentives to political maturity, clearly they should try.
Genuine friends of Turkey could do no harm in trying. That said, most Turks would agree that Türk’ün Türk’ten başka dostu yoktur (“The Turk has no friend but the Turk”), and most Kurds would say they have no friends but the mountains. They’re probably both right, but just as hope is not a policy, neither is despair. Washing our hands of the lot of them is an indulgence we cannot afford. There is, too, perhaps one recent instance of modestly hopeful precedent. In 1999, the MHP joined the Democratic Left Party (DSP) and the center-right Motherland Party (ANAP) despite their thoroughgoing tripartite aversion. The coalition was designed to counter the military’s increasing hold on Turkish politics—an analogous condition, in some ways—and it was not a wholesale failure. It undertook many of the administrative and economic reforms for which the AKP subsequently took credit, the latter with the help of a press corps possessed of an allergic aversion to rudimentary fact-checking.
But those who imagine the recent election as a sign that all is now on the right path should remember this Turkish joke: Upon being despatched to hell, a man discovers a dark plain of vats filled with boiling liquid. Inside them are the damned, surrounded by watchful devils who plunge them back in whenever they claw and scrabble their way out. There is, however, a vat left unattended. When asked why, the guide explains: “That’s the Turkish vat. No need to keep an eye on them. They pull each other down.”