Erdoğan’s stronghold revisited: The shaping of Turkey’s political landscape

By Fatih Kıyman

As the Turkish Parliament approves the controversial constitutional amendments seeking to transform its political system, let us take a moment to reassess how Erdoğan’s leadership tailored a limited-choice democracy, in which one agenda consistently prevails and a second choice is a rare concession.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan delivers an address to district governors at the Presidential Palace, January 10, 2017. Yasin Bulbul / Handout via REUTERS

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan delivers an address to district governors at the Presidential Palace, January 10, 2017. Yasin Bulbul / Handout via REUTERS

Since the election of June 2015, dreams of presidency have stopped Erdoğan from being a historic leader negotiating a peace deal with Kurdish factions, and turned him into a military commander aligned with the MHP’s ultranationalist reasoning: that disagreement is best solved through the full use of political and military power.

Ruling as a democratically elected autocratic leader is a tricky job. Choice is a difficult notion. However, time and again we have seen Erdoğan remind his close circle why they need him and in not so subtle ways. How the President managed to successfully carry the constitutional amendments – giving way to a presidential system that grants the president plenty of executive and legislative power, and a mandate to appoint many members of high jurisdiction – to a referendum expected to take place on April 16th is the perfect case in point.

Let us start with the simple arithmetic that enabled the ultimate passage of the amendments in parliament: The AKP, which de facto remains Erdoğan’s in all but name, holds 317 seats in the 550-seat Turkish Parliament, which falls 14 seats short of the 330-vote majority necessary to take constitutional changes to a referendum. Thus Erdoğan, the master-pragmatist, had to carefully manipulate the political landscape, one step at a time.  He had come a long way since the major hiccup known as the elections of June 7th, 2015 – a date that, considering the pace of Turkish politics, might as well be deemed ancient history. Let us go back and reassess how Erdoğan’s game plan, or the “will of the people” as he calls it, brought us here.

It was the June 7th, 2015: it seemed that the AKP’s heyday was over. The outcome of the parliamentary election shows that the AKP, for the first time since 2002, had lost its parliamentary majority, and a coalition would have to be sought to form a government. It is true, however, that it was not the resourceful campaigning of any of the opposition parties that brought about this outcome, but that of the ruling party itself. It was Erdoğan, after all, who calculated that negotiating a peace deal with various actors of the Kurdish movement would be lucrative business; the party would end up securing the votes of Sunni Kurds, and possibly even those of non-Sunni Kurds and other ethnic minorities.

Erdoğan rarely miscalculates, but miscalculate he did. The June 7th outcome was a stark example. As it turned out, the peace negotiations and the lack of violent conflict they had brought about provided the long-needed political niche where a pluralist, relativist, socialist, liberal-minded minority party could be established, and communicate that it would not represent the interests of the Kurdish minority only, but of all members of society that felt under-represented or discriminated against. This included members of the LGBTQ+ community, Armenians, non-Kemalist progressives, people with disabilities, independent women, environmentalists, and even hipsters, yuppies, BoBos (Bourgeois Bohemians) and other urbanite minorities.

Thanks to this sentiment, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – much to the surprise of Erdoğan and many others – mobilized unprecedented support from different segments of society that would otherwise have half-heartedly voted in desperation for the traditionally Kemalist CHP. It would be half-hearted because for years the CHP remained frustratingly sluggish in responding to the demands of the young and progressive. True, it was progressive in an old-fashioned, dispassionate way when it came to proposing legislation that would issue protection for LGBTQ+ communities or the environment; but this was old-school politics, always confined to the parliament and rarely poured out onto the streets. And more importantly, when it came to the largest minority group in the country, the CHP consistently maintained a distance – raising concerns that it was hostile toward Kurds and prompting worry about the reaction of its more sizeable, old school nationalist voters.

The result was a whopping 13 per cent for the HDP, comfortably clearing the 10 per cent threshold, which was seen by many as undemocratic, and securing 80 seats in parliament. The end result was that, despite still receiving 40 per cent of the vote, the AKP had lost the majority needed to form single-party government in the new, four-party parliament.

Violence followed. On the June 20th, 34 of the 300 people about to depart for a reconstruction effort at ISIS-stricken Kobane were killed in a suicide bombing in Suruç. Two days later, reportedly in response to the ISIS attack, a clandestine Kurdish insurgent organization calling itself TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Falcons) assassinated two Turkish police officers in Şanlıurfa. Soon after, when the Turkish military force-bombed Qandil, the peace process had officially ended.

But something else had changed too. Stigmatization began, and pro-government media outlets and AKP officials spoke of the HDP and the PKK as if they were one and the same. Media outlets consistently misquoted one of the HDP co-chairs, Figen Yüksekdağ, as having said: “we have our backs against the PKK.” Erdoğan repeated this misquote every now and then, and Yüksekdağ’s correction that the organizations she referred to were the YPG, YPJ and PYD, all resistance forces operating politically and militarily in Syria, was popularly ignored.

Meanwhile, violent attacks towards HDP offices became commonplace as members of the AKP pointed to the HDP as the cause of violence. The AKP rhetoric was that the HDP was simply the “political wing” of the PKK and thus, criminal in essence. Ahmet Davutoğlu, prime minister at the time, duly noted that if the AKP lost control of the government, the eastern city of Van would once again be plagued by “terrorist organizations and white Toros.” This comment referred to the 1990’s, a period when if a white Toros, the patrol car of choice for Gendarmerie Intelligence Organization, picked you up, you disappeared for good.

The days went on and Erdoğan declared that if Davutoğlu’s negotiations to form a coalition government were to fail, he would not give the mandate to Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Erdoğan claimed that the head of the main opposition CHP, Kılıçdaroğlu “didn’t know the route to Beştepe,” where the controversial 1000-room “AK (white) Palace” presidential complex is located. And so it happened: Davutoğlu’s half-hearted negotiations came to a dead-end, and a date was set for a repeat election: November 1st.

The violence went on and so did the campaigning. It became increasingly difficult to hear the HDP’s voice. During the campaigning period, public broadcaster TRT gave the AKP 30 hours of coverage and Erdoğan received another 29, actively campaigning despite his constitutional impartiality, while the CHP and the right-wing nationalist MHP’s coverage stood at five hours and one hour respectively. The HDP received a mere 18 minutes.

The polls showed and pundits predicted that the outcome wouldn’t change to any significant degree. But in an atmosphere of panic and fear-mongering, people ended up making a choice: the AKP’s votes increased to 49 per cent while the HDP made it into the parliament within a hair’s breadth, at just under 11 per cent. The AKP’s days of accountable-to-none governance were back. It was as if someone had reminded the people not to take for granted what comes first in Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs: “safety before rights and freedoms, let us not get ahead of ourselves…

As mentioned earlier, all of this is now ancient history in the time bomb of Turkish politics, considering all that has happened since then. The Kurdish peace negotiations were abandoned altogether, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter-jet, many more terror attacks took place, counter-terrorism once again became a blanket-term for silencing dissent, huge media outlets were taken over by government-appointed trustees and later shut down, more journalists were arrested. Davutoğlu resigned in what has been seen by many as a dismissal by Erdoğan for having his own agenda, and was replaced by the “low-profile” Binali Yıldırım. And finally, the attempted coup of July 15th, 2016 occurred, which led to the current state of emergency, likely to continue at least up until the referendum.

What should be emphasized, however, is that the election of June 2015 marked the definitive turn towards what was long-evident to many sceptics: Erdoğan and his AKP were no longer the peace-negotiating, liberal-minded Islamists interested in reinforcing democracy and the rule of law. Instead they pursued an increasingly autocratic body of power that would not tolerate differences of opinion and would respect only the infamous ‘will of the people’, as long as it was in line with its own interests.

What these interests are, however, is an increasingly contentious question. Ever since the audio leaks leading to corruption allegations against the AKP in December 2013, fervently dismissed as being fabricated by Erdoğan and his supporters, many of Erdoğan’s opponents have time and again voiced allegations that the President’s main interest is to avoid prosecution by maintaining and consolidating power.

Thereafter, there was one major problem: taking the presidential proposal to a referendum by means of a 330-seat majority, a far-fetched dream even for the successful AKP. Polls showed there was not enough popular support for a presidential system, whatever that supposedly meant at the time. However, with economic growth losing momentum, the Turkish Lira rapidly losing value and having experienced the wake-up call that was the June 7th election, there was no more time to wait.

This is where Devlet Bahçeli and his ultra-nationalist MHP, already pleased with the abandoned peace negotiations, came to the rescue—but not for free. For Bahçeli and his party, the peace negotiations were nothing short of treason. If any sort of basis for dialogue was to be established, Erdoğan and the AKP had to convincingly demonstrate that such negotiations were not going to be repeated. One year after November elections, Bahçeli declared: “In the face of the developments that threaten Turkey’s national security, implementing deterrence policies with the use of military force is unavoidable. Military operations should be launched when needed, and a safe-zone free of terror should be established. The MHP will support the security measures that our government will decide on.”

Conveniently, the MHP, or, to be more accurate, Bahçeli personally, found himself amid an intra-party crisis, with four party members declaring candidacy to lead the party. It was early 2016: the MHP had done only marginally better than HDP in the summer election, and as Bahçeli had led the party since its founder Alparslan Türkeş died in 1997, loud voices of dissent were increasingly heard within the party. The most concerning were those of Meral Akşener, Koray Aydın, Sinan Oğan and Ümit Özdağ – prestigious party members who were all younger than the 69-year-old Bahçeli, and had reasonable grassroots support.

Thanks to poor intra-party democracy, holding a party conference and re-electing a party leader turned out not to be that simple. While the four candidates had interpreted party rules and bylaws in one way, Bahçeli advocated another. Weeks had passed and various court rulings had been made when the four candidates announced a leadership election would take place on the May 15th, despite the fact that debates as to whether or not a party conference could take place lawfully were still ongoing.

On the day, some 5000 MHP supporters gathered on the streets of Ankara, 800 of whom were party delegates, fulfilling the sought-after majority of 607 needed to hold an assembly. The roads leading to the hotel where the congress was to be held were reportedly blocked by riot police, fences, and even riot tanks. A press declaration signed by the four candidates, read: “Upon the demands of the MHP headquarters, the police force under the AKP’s control is forcefully keeping us from holding our congress. A potential change in the MHP has become the AKP’s worst nightmare. Thus, this is no longer our internal issue. The intention here is to use the MHP headquarters as a prop to achieve constitutional change, and bring about a presidential system.”

Since then, Akşener, who was seen as the strongest candidate, has been expelled from the party, and Bahçeli, despite the lack of popular support at the grassroots level, declared his party’s support for the presidential system. His reasons appear to be obvious: First, the AKP had abandoned the peace process, to which MHP remained passionately opposed, and decided instead to solve the Kurdish issue through military campaigns. Bahçeli made it clear that the campaigns, which cost lives on a regular basis, had his “unconditional support.” Second, Bahçeli went through the intra-party crisis and, according to his rivals, managed to dodge it only due to the intervention of a highly politicized police force. However, the 339 votes with which the AKP-led constitutional amendments were passed in parliament are worrying, to say the least. They show that Bahçeli’s 39-seat-MHP, like the rest of Turkey, is torn in half, and that he was only able to mobilize just over fifty per cent of his MPs to vote in favour of the constitutional amendments.

What is worth noting though, is how Erdoğan, the accountable-to-none master pragmatist, seized yet another golden opportunity when he saw one, and he saw one from miles away. In this case, his golden opportunity came in the form of a 69-years-old right-wing politician having trouble keeping up with the times, who was never married but devoted his life to a political career, and feared losing control over the party he had been leading for nearly two decades. This is what ultimately tipped the scales in Turkey’s march towards a disconcerting regime change.

Seeing an irresistible opportunity, Erdoğan, the once peace-negotiating reformist, turned to the ultranationalist MHP for support, after the peace deal that failed to render him saviour of the Kurds ended in bloodshed. During the negotiations he was, at least for a while, the hero he wanted to be, and had the support he needed. Once that wore out, he took a sharp turn, stigmatized the HDP along with all it represented, and adopted the nationalist sentiment. Now, with the support of the ultranationalists of the political establishment, he is closer than ever to becoming the president he wants to be: sole representative of the “national will”.

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