Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Elections in Turkey: Erdoğan’s Juggernaut Continues
Elections in Turkey: Erdoğan’s Juggernaut Continues

Elections in Turkey: Erdoğan’s Juggernaut Continues

On June 24, citizens of Turkey voted in what was one of the most important elections in the nearly 95-year history of their republic. The election was unusually important for a number of reasons. It was important in part because voters cast ballots not in one contest but two: a presidential and a parliamentary contest. The fact that it was the first election under a substantially amended constitution that redefines the roles of president and parliament and assigns vastly expanded powers to the presidency was another. A third reason is that the election was in effect a referendum on Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has dominated Turkish politics for the past 16 years and who has had an impact on the republic second only to that of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The election unequivocally ended in a major victory for Erdoğan, and it positions him to pursue and perhaps fulfill his ambition to surpass in impact Atatürk, whom he regards not only as his competitor in the realm of historical influence but as an ideological opponent. Erdoğan’s ultimate ambition is to transform Turkey from the republic that Atatürk founded into the one that Erdoğan remade. Fulfilling this vision by the centenary in 2023 provides Erdoğan a tangible goal.

When Erdoğan in April of this year called for a snap election to be held in June, he did so out of a position of relative weakness. He had been elected president in 2014 and his five-year term was to expire next year. Previously, he had served as prime minister between 2002 and 2014. In the early years of his ministry, economic growth had buoyed his popularity, and later his ability to distribute patronage in the form of government contracts and other forms of largesse helped sustain a loyal base of support. Recent years, however, had seen the economy limp along and even contract, and the ability to redistribute wealth to keep constituents happy was bumping into limits.

Just as he was running low on economic resources, Erdoğan seemed now to be running out of political space in which to maneuver. He still held on to the core supporters he attracted in the 1990s and early 2000s: voters from the working class, the lower middle class, and businessmen from the Anatolian interior who identified proudly as Muslims. Uniting these supporters was a sense of alienation from the elites who ran the Turkish state and dominated the higher ranks of the economy. The working class lamented their lack of access to even basic government services, while the business and entrepreneurial class begrudged their exclusion from the access to government circles and the advantages that can accrue from such connections. These voters saw themselves as Turkey’s salt of the earth and possessed a historical and cultural consciousness rooted in Islam and Turkish folkways. They had resented the contempt of the self-described secular elites who saw them as backward and ignorant rubes. But there were warning signs that his hold might be eroding. In April 2017, he had managed to win a referendum to switch Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system, but just barely, winning only 51% of the vote. The poor showing led him to speak of “metal fatigue” in his political party and to encourage a slew of resignations at the municipal level. At the upper levels of the party, Erdoğan had over the years forced out or sidelined other leading party figures as Abdullah Gül, Ahmet Davutoğlu, and Bülent Arınç. The elimination of thee potential rivals came at the cost of weakening the party and deepening Erdoğan’s isolation.

The Rise of Erdoğan

If Erdoğan is one thing, however, it is a deft and enormously talented politician. He made his debut as a major figure on Turkey’s political scene in 1994 when he successfully ran for the mayoralty of Istanbul as a candidate of the Islamist Refah (Welfare, or Wellbeing or Prosperity) Party. He proved a formidable technocrat. He overhauled and streamlined municipal services and rescued the sprawling megalopolis of Istanbul from collapsing under the steady stream of migrants. The guardians of the Kemalist order recognized that that this young, capable, and energetic politician posed a long-term challenge, and sentenced him to jail in 1999 for having recited two years earlier a well-known poem of one of Turkey’s most famous poets. That poem blended militant religious imagery with calls to resist infidel rule, an obvious reference to the Kemalist authorities, and Erdoğan’s recital of it was judged to have violated the Kemalist strictures against mixing religion into politics.

The sentence was not especially severe—ten months in prison, of which Erdoğan served four, and a ban on politics—but it compelled Erdoğan to step down as mayor and out of politics. Yet far from torpedoing Erdoğan’s political career, the jail sentence propelled it forward by burnishing his image. The episode authenticated Erdoğan as a martyr, a man who for the sake of his faith was not afraid to defy the state and pay the price for it. When the courts also ordered the disbandment of Erdoğan’s Welfare Party for mixing religion and politics and for violating the precept of secularism, Erdoğan and several other young and promising colleagues left together to form the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials as the AKP) in 2001.

In its first parliamentary election in 2002, the AKP enjoyed a stunning success, winning nearly two-thirds of parliament’s seats with a little over one-third of the popular vote. The new parliament promptly lifted the ban on politics imposed on Erdoğan. He ran for parliament in a by-election, won handily, and then ascended to the post of Prime Minister. Erdoğan’s dominance of Turkish politics has remained unbroken since then.

In his early years as prime minister and head of the AKP, he led a broad coalition that combined his base of socially conservative and religiously observant voters with businessmen who desired more open markets, Turkish liberals who sought to end the military’s stewardship of the republic, and others frustrated with Turkey’s status quo and its long history of weak governments and an anemic economy. Erdoğan’s bona fides as a believer neutralized criticism from Turkey’s more traditional Islamists, while his unapologetic identification with Islam and general pugnacity kept Turkey’s hardline ultra-nationalists off-balance. His opposition to the Kemalist establishment and his willingness to criticize its excesses openly, including those of the officer corps, who styled themselves as the ultimate guarantors of the republic, impressed both Turkish liberals and even Kurdish activists. Erdoğan, a politician from the Turkish fringe whom the establishment had conspired to keep penned in, had broken out, moved to the center of power, and started redrawing the Turkish political map in multiple, unexpected ways.

Erdoğan’s “Kurdish” Moment

The most daring and creative political initiative that Erdoğan pursued was to reach out to Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. Turkey’s Islamists—used here in the broad sense to refer to those who desired to see public life aligned more closely with Islamic norms—were uniquely qualified to do so. The Turkish military had identified “religious reaction” and “Kurdish separatism” as the most dire two threats facing the republic. As fellow targets of the Turkish national security state, Turkey’s Islamists were more skeptical than most about the claims of a Kurdish threat, sympathized with the Kurds as fellow targets of the national security state, and suspected that the Kurds might often have been unjustly treated. Moreover, they saw Kurds as fellow Muslims with whom they had shared a millennium of history, not as ethnic aliens. The Turkish Republic’s alienation of the Kurds was just one more example of how the Kemalist elite’s assimilation of Western ideas—in this case ethno-nationalism and the idea of the nation-state—had sundered Muslim unity and made Muslims worse off.

To the thrill of Turkish liberals and the satisfaction of many Kurds, Erdoğan in 2011 apologized for the brutal repression of the Kurds of the province of Dersim (today Tunceli) in 1937-1938. Public discussion of Dersim’s fate had been a taboo, and Erdoğan’s stance was controversial. As always, he was alert to the potential for real time political gains. He issued the apology in the name of the Turkish state, not his own name or that of the Turkish people, and used the moment to excoriate his contemporary rivals in the Republican People’s Party (CHP) by tying the Dersim massacre to them and shaming them for what their party forebears had done over seven decades earlier.

This moment came about during a broader “Kurdish Opening” in which Erdoğan and his fellow party representatives spoke openly of the propriety and need to accommodate Kurdish demands for cultural rights and to observe human rights more rigorously, both for their own sake and in order to bring an end to a chronic Kurdish insurgency that was over a quarter century old. This was bold and novel stuff, regardless of how Erdoğan sought to extract partisan advantage from it.

He refused to be cowed by either the military or the ultra-nationalists who warned against making any concession to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or its representatives, and in the new atmosphere there appeared to be the glimmer of a possibility of ending the conflict. Indeed, in 2012, Erdoğan acknowledged that the government was actively talking with the founder and leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, whom it had been holding in prison since Turkish soldiers had nabbed him as he was on the lam fleeing Kenya in 1999. Ocalan was easily the most reviled man in Turkey. Turks as a matter of course attached the epithet “baby killer” to his name. It is difficult to imagine that any other Turkish government other than Erdoğan’s would have dared to talk with him and admit it.

Ultimately, however, Erdoğan and his team revealed a facile understanding of Turkey’s Kurdish Question. A few magnanimous gestures, they thought, would suffice to make PKK fighters recognize their waywardness, repent, and resolve to live in concord and harmony with their fellow Muslim Turks. The PKK did respond to the overtures, but always ambiguously. Over the course of the next several years, it alternately declared ceasefires and broke them, sometimes negotiating in seeming earnestness, other times using the cover of a ceasefire to reorganize and strengthen its presence inside Turkish cities.

Further complicating matters was the existence of the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Kurdish political activists, like Turkey’s Islamists, had a long history of experience with party bans and arrests. The HDP was founded in 2012 as a successor to a string of previous Kurdish-oriented political parties. It was widely known to have ties to the PKK. The degree to which it was under PKK direction is debated. But in a fashion not wholly dissimilar to the AKP’s initial branding of itself as a broad coalition of mild social conservatives and economic liberals rather than an Islamist party, the HDP came to “market” itself as a party that transcends Kurdish issues and embraces an array of “left” issues such as anti-capitalism, environmentalism, and rights for ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities in addition to Kurdish rights.

Although the HDP’s constituencies were small, its ideology more aspirational than coherent, and its project filled with contradictions, the potential it had to shake up Turkish politics was perhaps revealed in the Gezi Park protests of the following year. When in May 2013 police moved in with tear gas to expel a small group of environmentalists attempting to block developers from bulldozing one of Istanbul’s few parks and building a shopping mall, images of that crackdown sparked a fury, tapping into previously diffuse but wide-ranging dissatisfaction with the government that blew into mass demonstrations and protests in Istanbul and several other cities. Erdoğan, rather than try to defuse the situation as some of his colleagues urged, was unyielding. He dismissed the wide array of protestors as nothing more than looters, haughtily rejected their claim to represent the popular will by threatening to unleash street fighters of his own, and ordered police to contain and suppress the protests. Eventually, by the end of the summer, the protests died down, but they had energized the multiple factions of Erdoğan’s opponents on the left by demonstrating their unity of a sort. The HDP began to attract the attention of left-leaning urban Turkish voters, a first for a predominantly Kurdish party.

Gülen’s Rise and Break with Erdoğan

It was also at this time that a latent fissure on the right between Erdoğan and the followers of the religious figure Fethullah Gülen continued to widen in public, as Gülen publicly criticized Erdoğan’s handling of the crisis. Gülen was an unfamiliar rival to Erdoğan. He was neither a politician nor a state employee. He was a Muslim and had been supportive of the AKP since its emergence. His followers had formed a key constituency for Erdoğan’s government. Gülen commanded an empire of businesses, institutions, media companies, civic organizations, and, above all, schools. Over the course of three decades, Gülen’s followers had used their enormous network of schools of all levels, test preparatory centers, and dormitories to recruit, train, and indoctrinate followers loyal to him and his vision of creating a pious generation of Turkish youth who would restore proper Islamic norms to Turkish society.

The common desire for a more faithful Turkey and a shared animus toward the military and other bastions of Kemalist secularism had put Erdoğan and Gülen in alignment. When it came to power, the inexperienced AKP found itself heavily dependent on Gülen for well-trained and skilled personnel for staffing government posts. Gülen and his followers, however, had their own ambitions, and those eventually came to include unseating Erdoğan. Gülen may have presented no electoral threat, but his followers were well organized and inside the government; outside the government, they had at their disposal abundant monetary and other resources, including the media. They had used their positions in the police and elsewhere inside the state to frame and jail several hundred military officers and others in the sensational Balyoz and Ergenekon trials between 2008 and 2012, and Erdoğan understood that there was no reason they could not do the same to him. Before the end of 2013, Erdoğan and Gülen were in open conflict, with Erdoğan moving to shut down Gülen’s network of profitable test preparatory centers, break his media empire, and uncover and expel his followers from within the government. Meanwhile, Gülen’s followers worked to bring down Erdoğan through revelations of corruption and through mobilizing international and domestic opinion against him.

Erdoğan won an easy victory in his first presidential election in 2014, but in 2015, he found himself isolated and uncharacteristically vulnerable. Erdoğan had disappointed and alienated Turkish liberals and centrists, was at war with Gülen’s Islamists on his right, and had seen his Kurdish Opening disintegrate with nothing to show for his effort, and indeed only embarrassment before Turkey’s hardline nationalists. Unsurprisingly, given the context, the AKP failed to secure a majority in the general election that June. Only the inability of the other parties to cooperate prevented a new government from forming, allowing Erdoğan to call new elections in November.

Erdoğan Pivots to Keep Power

Indeed, it was now the PKK that felt emboldened. Sixteen years earlier, the organization had hit its nadir when Turkish special forces captured Ocalan and distributed video footage of the man PKK members revered as a semi-deity begging to cut a deal with the Turkish state. The defeat caused even some hardened PKK fighters to quit the organization in disillusion. Since then, however, it has recovered and proven its resilience. The fracturing of Syria had allowed the PKK’s affiliate there to establish a de facto autonomous region called Rojava, a potential platform from which to mount raids into Turkey and /or build a PKK-led Kurdish state. In comparison to the bloodthirstiness of the Islamic State and other jihadis inside Syria and the mercilessness of the Syrian government, the PKK’s fanaticism appeared non-objectionable, and the affiliate began to win favorable attention in Europe and the United States. The skill and discipline of its fighters further attracted American interest and even material support. Not least important, Erdoğan’s appalling and short-sighted decision to stand-by as Islamic State forces besieged the heavily Kurdish city of Kobani in northern Syria put the lie to his rhetoric of solidarity between Turks and Kurds rooted in a common faith and historical experience, and thereby alienated even a great many religious Kurds in Turkey who had been loyal AKP voters.

In addition, the rise of the HDP under a young, charismatic, and well-spoken chairman named Selahattin Demirtaş unsettled the PKK leadership sitting in exile in the mountains of northern Iraq. Just as Turkish nationalists feared that Erdoğan might sell out Turkish interests in the name of Islam, the PKK leadership undoubtedly worried that the HDP might in the name of democracy sell out the Kurdish national cause. They had fought, bled, suffered, and sacrificed for that cause for over three decades and would not leave its fate in the hands of a charming lawyer who claimed to speak for those other than Kurds. Resuming hostilities would undercut the HDP, put Demirtaş in his place, and reposition the PKK as the key Kurdish actor.

Thus, as relations with the PKK were breaking down and war with the PKK heating up again in 2015, Erdoğan executed another round of political acrobatics and reached out to the hard-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). It was in some sense a natural alliance. AKP and MHP voters are generally socially conservative and both value Islam as a defining aspect of Turkish identity. But the two parties had been wary of one another. As its name suggests, the MHP exalts Turkish ethnic identity, so much so that Turkish Islamists sometimes deride the MHP for engaging in a form of paganism. For their part, MHP members had vociferously objected to the AKP’s willingness to seek an accommodation with the Kurds and were deeply skeptical about the AKP’s flirtation with liberal policies and its comfort with multiethnicity, including the AKP’s celebration of the Ottoman legacy as a multiethnic one. Yet, Erdoğan’s gamble paid off. In the snap elections of November 2015, an AKP now seen as committed to fighting Kurdish separatism recaptured its parliamentary majority. Although the MHP failed to gain anything in those elections, the alliance has served both parties well. The MHP achieved its chief goal, putting an end to any accommodation with the PKK or even negotiations with the HDP, and Erdoğan found a reliable new partner. Support from the MHP was absolutely essential to Erdoğan’s narrow victory in the 2017 referendum to amend the constitution and introduce a new presidential system to replace the previous parliamentary one—a cherished project of Erdoğan’s.

The attempted coup of July 2016 was one expression of how desperate some of Erdoğan’s opponents had become to stop him. Although a great deal remains unknown about the coup and what and how it transpired, it is beyond any reasonable doubt that senior members of the Gülen movement played key roles alongside elements of the Turkish officer corps. The coup did not fail for want of trying. The putschists employed substantial violence, killing nearly 200 civilians and 67 pro-government police officers and soldiers. Indeed, the vigorous response shown by Turkish civilians, heavily but not exclusively AKP supporters, to Erdoğan’s call to turn out in the streets in defiance of the putschists was the decisive element in defeating the attempted takeover. The defeat of the coup added another chapter to the legend of Erdoğan as the courageous defender of the people.

Although the response of Erdoğan’s government fell well short of the military government’s crackdown in the wake of the 1980 coup in its severity, it has been stunning nonetheless. It is also clear that the reprisals and security measures targeted not just members and associates of the Gülen movement—regardless of whether or not they had any role in the coup or otherwise subverting law and order in Turkey—but also critics and opponents of Erdoğan guilty only of criticism. The attempted coup left the country in substantial institutional disarray and confusion, and, many feared also with even fewer and weaker centers of organized opposition to Erdoğan, legal or otherwise. Erdoğan had subdued the AKP to his personal will, and now it looked ever more likely that he would do the same to Turkey.

Erdoğan Survives His “Toughest” Election

Going into the 2018 election Erdoğan resembled a juggernaut, but some among his manifold opponents speculated that he had run out of room to maneuver and there was a chance that he could be stopped. In October 2017, the MHP split when its leading female politician, Meral Akşener, quit the party to start her own, the İyi (Good) Party. The obsequiousness of the MHP’s chairman, Devlet Bahçeli, toward Erdoğan had frustrated Akşener and her followers. Their hope was that by establishing a new party on the right, one that was solidly nationalist but not rabidly so, and secular but not Jacobin, they could challenge Erdoğan by presenting an alternative from the right. The new party attracted prominent members of both the MHP and CHP, and it seemed possible that Akşener would eclipse Bahçeli, who is simultaneously shrill and dull.

Akşener, however, never quite caught fire. Erdoğan’s domination of the media and the denial by the same of significant coverage to Akşener certainly played a role in limiting the appeal and impact of the Iyi Party. A more interesting and unexpected challenge to Erdoğan, however, came forth from the long moribund CHP, formerly the party of Atatürk and still the representative of Turkey’s old establishment and coastal elite. For its presidential candidate, the party chose a combative parliamentarian named Muharrem İnce who, unusually for a CHP candidate, has religiously observant relatives. Erdoğan could not easily deride him as effete or out of touch. İnce, moreover, had no qualms about calling Erdoğan out for corruption and for enriching his family at the public’s expense. In another rare gesture for a candidate from the strongly nationalist CHP, İnce made it a point to visit the HDP chairman Demirtaş in jail. Notably, İnce’s willingness to reach out to the right and left of the CHP’s traditional electorate did not dilute enthusiasm for him. To the contrary, his rallies attracted enormous crowds, and the energy he generated among them was real. In addition, the CHP, Iyi Party, and the Islamist Saadet (Felicity) Party successfully formed a coalition called the “National Alliance.” In the weeks leading up to the elections—both presidential and parliamentary—there was increasingly excited speculation that perhaps Erdoğan’s luck had run out. Erdoğan’s opponents had solidarity, and with İnce as the new face of the CHP and Akşener providing a real alternative to the MHP, even conventional AKP voters had alternatives and might be expected to break with Erdoğan.

Notwithstanding the opposition coalescing against Erdoğan, the elections demonstrated once again Erdoğan’s formidable skills as a politician. This is not to suggest he won a fair election. Space does not permit discussion of the ways in which Erdoğan hamstrung his opponents from the denial of media coverage to putting them under arrest, as police did with much of the HPD. Erdoğan managed easily to win the presidential election on the first round, garnering 52.59% of the votes, more than the 50% mark needed to win on the first round, and leaving his competitors İnce and Akşener far behind at 30.64% and 7.29%, respectively. Notably, the AKP’s victory in the parliamentary election was not as impressive, with 42.56% of the popular vote, down not only from Erdoğan’s count but also from the 49.50% that the party had garnered in 2015. Still, its performance remained substantially better than the CHP’s and Iyi Party’s tallies of 22.64% and 9.96%, respectively. The MHP proved to be one of the bigger surprises of the vote. It received 11.1% of the vote, down slightly from the 11.9% it won in 2015 but well above expectations given the competition from the Iyi Party.

With the AKP taking 295 seats and the MHP 49, their People’s Alliance has a safe majority in the 600-seat assembly, and is well ahead of the Nation Alliance’s total of 189 seats (146 CHP, 43 Iyi). The HDP managed to clear the 10% threshold needed for independent parties to make it into parliament, winning 11.7% of the vote and taking 67 seats. The HDP thus improved slightly on the 10.76% it won in 2015. Curiously, the HDP actually underperformed in its ostensible stronghold, the heavily Kurdish southeast, suggesting either disillusionment among Kurdish voters or a disruption of their voting. The HDP owes its success to an increased share of ballots in the rest of Turkey, likely from former CHP voters.

The presence of the HDP in parliament is a small victory for pluralism. But with the war with the PKK ongoing, Syria in unstable disarray, the AKP dependent on the MHP for a parliamentary majority, and the CHP in league with the Iyi Party, the HDP may well remain isolated, a pariah party, and ineffective and impotent.

This is unfortunate because the involvement of the HDP is likely a necessity for the resolution of the Kurdish Question, arguably the single biggest problem haunting the Turkish Republic. The Kurdish Question was woven into the fabric of Turkey at its founding. It is a dilemma with difficulties on the Turkish and Kurdish ends alike. The dimensions external to the Turkish Republic—persisting turmoil in Syria, instability in Iraq, the uncertain future of Iran in the region, and the role of outside powers such as the United States and Russia—complicate matters further. To untangle the Kurdish Question would require leadership that possesses enormous political talent, creative ambition, unusually farsighted vision, and sincere concern for the wellbeing of the population of Turkey. Erdoğan has demonstrated that he possesses the first two qualities. His initial foray into the Kurdish Question and especially his determination to reshape the Turkish Republic fundamentally through both institutional and ideological reform indicate that he has creative ambition. He has managed to refashion Turkey into a presidential republic and achieve election as president with his party in effective control of parliament. He has inarguably done well for himself. But the same record gives little reason to think he will do nearly as much for Turkey.