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Erdogan Seeks ‎to Reclaim Power in Early Elections

Monday, August 24, 2015

After a prolonged and unusually drawn-out post-election process, acting Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoǧlu announced last Tuesday that he had exhausted all options for building a coalition government and relinquished the mandate back to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The August 23 deadline to form a coalition government has passed and Turkey now has no choice but to head to the polls within 90 days. Although the exact date is still unknown, last week Turkey’s high election board and President Erdoğan proposed holding elections on November 1 while others speculate November 22 to be more likely.

Shortly after the June 7 election, Davutoǧlu asserted that snap elections would be “disrespectful to the peoples’ will,” and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) would be “open to any scenarios”—ostensibly to maintain an image of willingness and compromise. Now, with an impending election, Davutoǧlu has begun to unabashedly recant his earlier statement claiming, “I’ll say it openly, AK Party will benefit the most from an early election. Why? Because if we win 18 more deputies in parliament, we have a single-party government. None of the other parties have such a chance.”

Turkey’s 2015 post-election process has been largely overshadowed by a dual security threat: Ankara’s offensive against ISIS militants along its border and escalated violence with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated Kurdish terrorist organization in Turkey. Critics argue that Erdoğan and the AKP purposely ramped-up military efforts against ISIS and the PKK in an effort to raise security concerns and stoke nationalist and anti-Kurdish sentiment. Having lost a sizable vote share, it appears the AKP is cracking down on militants in order to court nationalist voters who may have switched to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in the June election, and discredit the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) whose momentous gains deprived the ruling party of seats.

This strategy appears to be working. Turkish pollster MAK recently found that, in 20 Turkish provinces, more than half of those polled thought it necessary to carry out attacks against ISIS and Kurdish militants. A separate poll by SONAR indicated a strong possibility that the AKP could regain its parliamentary majority, increasing its seat share by a 4 percent margin.

Next Steps

In anticipation of a snap election, Erdoğan will call for an interim power-sharing government to be formed, which, as mandated by Turkish law, must include all represented parties. The HDP has already expressed a willingness to partake in the provisional government.

In the event of an interim government, cabinet ministries are distributed according to each party’s vote share. As such, the AKP would be expected to hold 10 ministries, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) six, and the MHP and HDP would each hold three. If the CHP and MHP refuse to participate, their ministries would be held by non-partisan figures chosen among academics and former lawmakers.

Fractious party politics, however, have already begun over forming an interim government. Acting Prime Minister Davutoǧlu called on the CHP and MHP to form a three-party coalition for the next two months, noticeably excluding the only party willing to participate: the HDP. In forming the interim cabinet, Davutoǧlu has begun to exhibit foul play toward the HDP, reportedly saying he would select individuals to hold ministry seats technically allocated to the HDP. Despite a seemingly intentional drawn-out post-election process, it appears Erdoğan and the AKP will attempt dirty politics again in forming the interim government.

So far, both the CHP and MHP have shown unwillingness to partake in an interim government, and the CHP has made explicit that its participation is contingent on the presence of both the HDP and MHP, which seems unlikely. Negotiations to form a power-sharing interim government, therefore, could prove as challenging as attempts to build a coalition government. If opposition parties fail to come to the table, however, Erdoğan will gain leverage over the power-sharing interim government and appoint AKP-friendly “non-partisan” cabinet ministers in their stead.

What Four More Years of AKP Rule Could Mean

If the AKP regains its parliamentary majority in the upcoming election, there could be lasting repercussions for Turkey’s political and social landscape:

First, though Erdoğan’s ambitions of establishing a strong presidential system is widely unpopular, he has wasted no time in reasserting his plans to change the constitution and bring Turkey in line with what he considers to be a de facto presidential system. Erdoğan justifies this change by arguing that the current constitution is illegitimate after being established under a military regime. Yet, many opponents, including all of the opposition parties, view this move as a way for Erdoğan to further cement his grip on power.

The AKP would need 330 parliament seats to put the new constitution to a national referendum and 367 seats to change it unilaterally. The party holds only 258 seats now. While it is unlikely the AKP will gain this kind of super-majority in a snap election, or even enough for a referendum, Erdoğan’s growing influence and systematic weakening of state institutions—control over the bureaucracy, judiciary, parliament, and media as well as curtailing the military—has played into his strategic calculus of cultivating a de facto presidential system. The question is, how will he use these next four years to somehow legalize or legitimize it?

Second, in light of a broken ceasefire, renewed attacks against the PKK, and stalled peace talks, Turkey will encounter more turmoil with the Kurds and an uptick in violence under AKP rule. With such regress boosting their resolve, Turkish Kurds and the PKK may push even harder for Kurdish autonomy seeking the help of connected groups in neighboring Syria and Iraq. An emboldened—and possibly transnational—Kurdish movement would further destabilize Turkey’s security, which is already facing the effects of ISIS militants along its border, especially if PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurds opt to stop fighting ISIS. This has also complicated Turkey’s relationship with the United States, which relies heavily on Kurdish involvement in its anti-ISIS coalition.

Third, if the AKP wins another four years of single-party rule, Turkey will continue to experience creeping authoritarianism and Islamization of Turkish society. Erdoǧan’s heavy handed politics came to light most demonstrably during the Gezi Park protests, which were launched to oppose his unilateral plan of building a shopping center over one of Istanbul’s last parks. Erdoğan, in turn, responded with a violent and deadly crackdown against protesters. Later that year, he launched a widespread crackdown on independent media and investigators within state institutions, after a corruption scandal implicating his son and three AKP cabinet ministers broke. When Turks took to social media to spread word about the leaks, Erdoğan subsequently blocked key sites including YouTube and Twitter.

Not only has Erdoğan rolled back Turkey’s democratic gains, he has also shaken up the country’s secular foundation. Erdoğan and the AKP’s increasingly radical and Islamist rhetoric has begun to pervade the socio-political scene, moralizing on anything from abortion to traditional women’s roles to alcohol consumption. With mandatory religious education already instated in schools, AKP co-founder, who later abandoned the party, Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat states, “The ‘New Turkey’ will not be somewhere where democracy and freedom are celebrated. It will be a place dominated by Islamic thinking.”

Under AKP rule, Turkey has been on a downward democratic trajectory for the last few years, which is poised to continue if the party regains its parliamentary majority in the snap election. While the AKP’s damaging 69 seat-share loss in the June 7 election signaled a democratic course-correction and repudiation of the AKP mandate, the same outcome is unlikely to happen in the upcoming election due to Erdoğan’s fear-mongering and ability to manipulate the security threat in Turkey. What is certain, however, is that the result of the snap election will be crucial for Turkey’s democracy and security, as well as its increasingly tenuous relationships with regional actors and Western allies, including the United States.

KEYWORDS: AHMET DAVUTOGLU, AKP, CHP, HDP, KURDS, PKK, TAYYIP ERDOGAN, TURKEY, TURKISH ELECTIONS