Turkey’s Erdoğan Divides to Conquer

To win an election, Turkey’s leader has stretched communal relations almost to the breaking point.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan observes a military ceremony, July 9, 2015 (Turkish Presidency)

Turks vote on Sunday in a contentious election that is unlikely to change the political map dramatically from the last time they went to the polls.

The most recent election campaign has deepened the polarization of Turkish society, however, to the point where some commentators are fearful of the country’s democracy.

Polls predict President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) will once again fall short of a parliamentary majority. It lost absolute control in June when the left-wing and pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) crossed the 10 percent election threshold for the first time and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) ate into its conservative heartland support.

Erdoğan, who still leads the AKP despite nominally occupying an apolitical office, had hoped for a mandate to make his an executive presidency and could not accept the election result. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu held pro forma coalition talks with the opposition parties through the summer but Erdoğan had set him up to fail. He refused to allow the AKP to concede any of the important ministries and conditioned a coalition deal on support for his presidential reform plan — which all other parties have dismissed as an powergrab.

While calling snap elections, Erdoğan launched an assault on far-left and Kurdish “terrorists” — only some of them genuine — in the process exacerbating the divide between the 40 percent of Turks who still voted for the AKP in June and the rest of the country. The former are mainly ethic Turks and Sunni Muslims living outside the major coastal cities. The opposition includes Turkey’s pro-Western, secular elite, the Kurds and members of religious minorities.

The Financial Times says that under Erdoğan, Turkey has started to “dangerously resemble southern neighbours Syria and Iraq, riven by ethnosectarian strife.”

This election is also therefore a chance to pull back from what would be a disaster for the country, for the region and for Europe.

Melik Kaylan similarly argues at Politico that Erdoğan is taking his country to the brink.

In largely Kurdish southeastern towns, plumes of smoke rise from combat-ridden abandoned buildings, tanks besiege rubble-strewn neighborhoods and “liberated zones” are manned by masked men bearing Kalashnikovs. A full-scale insurgency trends toward civil war while opposition politicians are smeared as terrorists and their rallies are suicide-bombed even in the capital city.

Many Turks don’t see any of this, though, Kaylan points out, because the government has muzzled the free press.

Just this week, two of the last remaining independent news channels in the country were shut down.

Erdoğan’s supporters said the networks were backed by a former ally of his, Fethullah Gülen. The mildly Islamist preacher, who lives in the United States, has been accused of running a terrorist organization since he started speaking out against the president’s authoritarian tendencies.

The blog Atatürk’s Republic reports that it was only the latest in “a series of brazen attempts to swing the upcoming election toward an AKP majority.”

Since June 7, among other undemocratic measures, the government has moved and consolidated ballot boxes in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, arrested opposition politicians and journalists and daily spread blatant lies about the nefarious deeds of Gülen, the connection of HDP politicians to terrorism and the supposed PKK-ISIS partnership.

Aaron Stein reports for World Politics Review that the HDP has been accused of participating in attacks on Turkish security forces and the AKP has tried to link the self-declared Islamic State’s terrorism to the PKK’s, the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

“This description is a cynical attempt to manipulate the electorate into thinking that the two warring substate actors have found common cause to attack Turkey,” according to Stein.

The HDP reports some two hundred attacks on its offices since the last election. 42 of its recently-elected mayors have either been removed or arrested.

Stein argues that the AKP’s electoral setbacks suggest that its appeal as a pan-Turkish party, “capable of attracting votes from all parts of the country, may now be over.”

It has become synonymous with Erdoğan’s own personal political ambitions, many of which are now out of step with the Turkish electorate. But by retaining overwhelming influence among the party’s rank and file, Erdogan can put pressure on politicians ensuring that his priorities take precedent over other party members more willing to compromise with the opposition.

There are sign of dissatisfaction with the AKP ranks, though.

Quinn Mecham writes in The Cairo Review of Global Affairs that Erdoğan has also fallen out with his co-founders in the party, former president Abdullah Gül and former deputy prime minister Bülent Arinç, over concerns regarding democracy and the rule of law.

Gül recently told the Financial Times the HDP’s victory in June was a “positive” for the country. “Diversity and different voices are important,” he said.

The former president wouldn’t go so far as to criticize Erdoğan openly but did call for an “upgrade” of Turkey’s democracy.

Erdoğan, meanwhile, “is increasingly retreating into an inner circle of supporters and has failed to bring the full party along with his controversial and self-serving political choices,” according to Mecham.

Atatürk’s Republic still has hope. If “democracy somehow wins in Turkey,” the blog writes, and the AKP fails to win back its overall majority, Erdoğan “may have succeeded at only further alienating all but the most hardcore of his supporters and driving together previously hostile components of the opposition.”

Gülen’s movement, hardly pro-Kurdish, has started expressing support for the beleaguered HDP. So has the Kemalist Republican People’s Party which once refused to recognize the Kurds’ very existence as a separate people. Even the MHP, more anti-Kurd and anti-leftist than the AKP itself, has denounced Erdoğan’s equivocation of the HDP and PKK.

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