Erdogan again

Print edition :

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greeting supporters from a balcony at the headquarters of the AK Party in Ankara on June 24. A handout photograph. Photo: KAYHAN OZER/AFP

Supporters of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party hold up pictures of their jailed leader, Selahattin Demirtas, as they celebrate the results of the presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24 in Diyarbakir in south-eastern Turkey. Photo: ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP

Muharrem Ince, the candidate of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, at a news conference in Ankara on June 25, a day after the election. Photo: Burhan Ozbilici/AP

Recep Tayyip Erdogan wins a tough election to become the President of Turkey again, this time with executive powers, though for the first time in almost a decade the ruling party will face a strong opposition in the parliament.

Despite eleventh-hour predictions by pollsters that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was facing a tough electoral battle, the final results showed that the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party had retained the confidence of the majority, albeit by a very narrow margin. In the presidential election held on June 24, Erdogan got around 52.3 per cent of the votes polled. His closest rival, Muharrem Ince of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), got more than 33 per cent. In the days before the vote, Ince, a brilliant orator, had drawn huge crowds at his rallies. There were misplaced hopes that the opposition would be able to force a run-off, but Erdogan easily surpassed the 50 per cent cut-off required to avoid a second round. The other candidates had pledged their support to the opposition in case there was a run-off. There was a 90 per cent voter turnout on election day.

The results showed that Erdogan’s mass base remained intact despite the faltering economy, double-digit inflation and growing unemployment. The electorate, as the latest results have confirmed, still gives him credit for reviving the Turkish economy after he came to power 15 years ago. The economy was booming until 2016, and the government had tremendously improved Turkey’s economic infrastructure. On the campaign trail, President Erdogan blamed vested foreign interests for the downturn in the economy. Many Turks believed him. When he asked his countrymen to exchange their gold and dollar assets to boost the country’s currency, there was a huge response. All the same, it has not stopped the Turkish lira from sliding further against the dollar.

The AK Party, in alliance with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), won the majority of seats in the parliament, too. The only good news for the opposition was that the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), representing the minority Kurds, got more than 12 per cent of the votes polled, although Erdogan had urged his supporters to ensure that it did not cross the 10 per cent threshold required to get representation in the parliament. Turkish electoral law mandates that the party coming second will then fill the seats. The AK Party is the second most popular party in the Kurdish-dominated regions. In the last election, held in November 2015, the AK Party gained more than 60 extra seats in the parliament because the HDP fell short of the 10 per cent mark.

This year simultaneous polling was held to elect a new President and a new parliament, for the first time in Turkey’s modern history. President Erdogan had announced the holding of the snap elections two months ago. A deteriorating economy, rising food prices and the falling value of the currency could have prompted the rescheduling of the elections, which were earlier scheduled for November 2019.

Last year, Turkey narrowly approved constitutional changes in a referendum. The opposition charged that there was widespread fraud in that vote. Parliamentary democracy has been replaced by a new system in which most of the important powers will be in the hands of the elected President. The President will now have executive powers. There will no longer be an office of the Prime Minister, and the parliament will play a token supervisory role. It will be the President’s job to appoint Vice Presidents, Ministers and senior judges. The President also has the authority to impose a “state of emergency”. Turkey has been under a state of emergency since an attempted military coup in July 2016.

Opposition parties formed a united front under the banner of the “Nation Alliance” to defeat the AK Party in the June 24 elections. It comprised the CHP, a leading Centre-Left party, and an assortment of other parties ranging from the right-wing Good Party (IYI) to the ultraconservative Felicity Party (SP). Though these parties fought the parliamentary election together, the Nation Alliance fielded two candidates for the presidential election for tactical reasons—the CHP’s Muharrem Ince and the IYI’s Meral Aksener.

The HDP, which fielded Selahattin Demirtas, its jailed leader, as its presidential candidate, also announced that it would support the opposition candidate in the event of a presidential run-off. A few days before the country went to the polls, the HDP leader, in an article written from jail, described the elections as crucial and said Erdogan had pushed the country “to the brink of political and economic crisis”.

Curbs on opposition

The opposition was forced to campaign under several restrictions. The government had further consolidated its hold over the media in the last two years. Pro-government businessmen and media barons control around 90 per cent of the media. This gave Erdogan much more television time than his opponents.

The state of emergency has given the government draconian powers to jail politicians on flimsy charges. Hundreds of journalists and intellectuals are either languishing in jails or living in exile. Some of them belong to the media controlled by loyalists of Fethullah Gulen, Islamist preacher and a former close ally of Erdogan and the AK Party, but many others are independent journalists. As many as 1,50,000 civil servants and army men have been dismissed from their jobs. The jails overflow with student activists, army men and civil servants.

Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics since he first became Prime Minister in 2003. One by one, he has cast aside rivals and even some allies. Abdullah Gul, Erdogan’s comrade in arms and one of the founders of the AK Party, is now in the political wilderness. Gul was the President of Turkey from 2007 to 2014. The military, which until the last decade was a key player in Turkish politics, has been shown its place after the attempted coup two years ago. The process of weeding out the mutinous elements in the army started after the AK Party got an absolute majority in the parliament for the first time in the 2007 election. Since the middle of the last century, the army in Turkey has staged four coups to overthrow democratically elected governments. The 2016 coup attempt almost succeeded. But Erdogan, who escaped in the nick of time, successfully mobilised the support of the Turkish street to thwart it.

The 2016 coup attempt was different from the earlier ones, which were launched by secular army officers who viewed themselves as defenders of the Kemalist ideology and Cold War politics. The Left parties were brutally suppressed when the army took charge in different periods from the 1950s. The failed coup of 2016, on the other hand, seems to have been masterminded by officers and soldiers owing allegiance to Gulen. Gulen and Erdogan fell out in 2012 after bureaucrats and judges owing allegiance to Gulen started targeting Erdogan and his close allies. Erdogan’s family, including his son, was accused of corruption. Residences of Cabinet Ministers were raided in 2013.The army and the police were deeply infiltrated by Gulenists.

Earlier, however, Gulenists in the judiciary had helped Erdogan and the AK Party to purge the military by orchestrating the “Ergenekon” show trials at the end of the last decade. Top officials, leading businessmen and media figures aligned with secular opposition parties were caught up in the trial and sentenced to lengthy jail terms on trumped-up evidence, most of it concocted by Gulenists and their allies in the AK Party. All those sentenced were accused of being part of the “deep state” out to destabilise the democratically elected government of the day. But as Erdogan became more self-confident and started sidelining the Gulenists, the rift came out in the open. Gulen himself, ensconced in his safe house in the United States, was unhappy with Erdogan’s tough diplomatic response to Israel after it launched its first war on Gaza.

The attack on a Turkish aid flotilla to Gaza by Israel, which resulted in many deaths, led to a worsening of relations with Israel. Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Israel in protest, a move that Gulen criticised. The Gulenists were also upset with Erdogan’s refusal to fall in line with the U.S.’ diktats to end all commercial ties with neighbouring Iran. Until Turkey decided to become the key motivator of regime change in Syria, it pursued a foreign policy that aimed at “zero problems with neighbours”.

Relations with Armenia and Greece had considerably improved during the second term of the AK Party rule. Relations between Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were excellent before 2012, with both leaders spending quality time together on joint family vacations.

Syria: a foreign policy mistake

Syria was Erdogan’s first big foreign policy mistake. The sudden fall of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi caught Erdogan by surprise. The Western powers had not kept him in the loop about their machinations.

After Libya, the West had moved its attention to Syria. Erdogan signalled that he was prepared to be a willing accomplice in the regime change plan in Syria. He had become a vociferous supporter of the Arab Spring movement in Egypt and elsewhere, but that did not stop him from closely cooperating with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies in their plans to subvert the last remaining Republican governments in the region, such as the one in Syria. Erdogan also allowed terrorist groups a free run as they went about their sponsored task of overthrowing the secular government in Damascus. Most of the weapons, money and jehadi fighters from foreign countries entered Syria through Turkey.

The Kurdish problem

The “zero problems with neighbours” policy became the first casualty of Erdogan’s Syrian misadventure. Instead of getting Assad overthrown, Erdogan found himself facing a more serious enemy on the border with Syria. The U.S., when it saw the tide of war quietly turning in Syria, started planning the creation of a buffer state on the border to be controlled by sections of the Kurdish people owing allegiance to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Such a state, if it comes into being, will form the nucleus of a Kurdish state, encompassing sizeable parts of Turkey, which has the largest number of Kurds living on its territory.

Erdogan broke off the dialogue process with the Kurds three years ago and ended the ceasefire after his party failed to get a majority in the parliament in the June 2015 elections. The pro-Kurdish HDP got around 12 per cent of the votes and a strong presence in the parliament in that election. Since then, the Turkish army has been carrying out a military offensive against the Kurds. Erdogan called for new elections in the same year, and the HDP failed to make the 10 per cent mark in the November elections. With the Kurdish populace cowed down, the AK Party once again regained its majority in the parliament and ever since has been bent on consolidating its power at all levels.

As the recent election results have shown, many Kurds, especially those who are also devout Muslims, keep on voting for Erdogan and the AK Party. It was only after the AK Party came to power that the Kurdish language was allowed to be used freely. Erdogan had also got a dialogue process going with the PKK for the first time. It is unlikely that the stalled dialogue process will restart any time soon as Erdogan and the AK Party fought the latest election in alliance with the ultranationalist MHP. The MHP is a votary of a hard-line policy against the Kurds and was critical of Erdogan’s dialogue with the PKK leadership.

The AK Party does not have a majority of its own in the new parliament and is dependent on the MHP, which has bagged 50 seats in a performance far exceeding expectations. The AK Party saw its numbers considerably reduced and has got only 293 seats in the 600-member parliament. The HDP is the third biggest party, with 67 seats. The main opposition party, the CHP, has 157 seats. For the first time in almost a decade, the ruling party will face a strong opposition in the parliament.

Erdogan’s victory has been welcomed in a rather lukewarm manner by his Western allies and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) partners. If media reports and editorials were a reflection of official thinking, the Western governments would have preferred an opposition victory. Erdogan had extracted big financial concessions from the European Union (E.U.) to keep migrants from using its territory to cross over to Europe. Erdogan knows that the E.U. will never admit Turkey as a full member as that would involve the dilution of what basically is a Christian club.

Turkey has also been straining at the NATO leash by signing political, hydrocarbon and military deals with Russia. Turkey, under Erdogan, remains a backer of the Palestinian cause and political Islam in general. It has established military bases in Qatar after the Gulf alliance led by Saudi Arabia issued threats and imposed sanctions on the wealthy Gulf emirate. In his victory speech, Erdogan promised to continue with his muscular foreign policy and transform Turkey into a “reputable, honourable and influential country in all areas in the world”.