from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Turkey: Past Is Present

November 1, 2015

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When this post goes up Turkish electoral officials will likely still be tallying the results of Sunday’s do-over parliamentary elections. Like the voting that took place on June 7, this round is widely regarded to be crucial. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s quest for the executive presidency, the coherence of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the integration and normalization of the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP), and the quality of Turkish politics going forward are all thought to be riding on the outcome. If the pre-election polling is accurate—and they have been stable for months—Turks will be faced with the same, inconclusive result that they produced five months ago, resolving nothing. Then again, anything can happen. I have been told that Turkey’s political institutions are both robust and meaningful, giving them the capacity to process people’s grievances and prevent excesses of both winners and losers. I have my doubts. Last June’s elections were supposed to have proven the resilience of Turkey’s democracy, but Erdogan demonstrated his ability to manipulate the political system because the elections did not go his way. Turkey is actually more fragile than people believe.

One of the paradoxes of the AKP era is that it has reproduced many of the pathologies it sought to resolve thirteen years ago. In 2002, but certainly by 2007, Erdogan, with the help of Abdullah Gul and other party leaders, took a badly split electorate and forged a broad coalition of religious Turks, Kurds, big business, cosmopolitan elites, and average Turks to political victory on the promise of a wealthier, Western-integrated, and more pious society. Part of the AKP’s appeal at the time was its potential to resolve what had been, in the context of Turkish politics, the inability to reconcile the competing desires to be part of the West and reaffirm its Muslim identity. When the European Commission offered Turkey a formal invitation to begin European Union membership negotiations in October 2004, the economy was growing after a wrenching financial crisis in 2000 and 2001. Moreover, Turks were given an opportunity to explore their Muslim identities with greater freedom and Erdogan rallied millions of Turks around what seemed like his Islamist “third way.”

Yet almost immediately after voters returned the AKP to power in 2007 with another parliamentary majority, Erdogan’s political strategy shifted. Consensus was out and confrontation was in. Erdogan was likely never a democrat, but the context in which the change came is important. In June 2007, the Turkish General Staff sought to prevent Abdullah Gul—who had been foreign minister from 2003 to 2007—from becoming president. The following summer the Constitutional Court found that the AKP was at the center of anti-secular activity, but was one vote short of closing the party. Erdogan, who had served jail time in the late 1990s for allegedly inciting religious hatred, was the product of an Islamist movement whose political parties had been routinely banned and closed since the 1970s. Deeply paranoid—as many good politicians are—and then some because of his past experiences, Erdogan pressed his political advantage to keep his opponents on the defensive.

The AKP’s victories were now mandates to govern with little consideration of the still-large numbers of Turks who disagreed with the party and its leaders. The party won again in 2011 with its high watermark of almost, but not quite, 50 percent of the vote, proving that there were political benefits to a confrontational and divisive approach to politics. Erdogan and his party governed half the country that supported him and sought to intimidate the other half into silently accepting the AKP’s vision for Turkish society. When people refused to be silent, they were called marginal, terrorists, and not authentically Turkish. They were also fired from jobs and even arrested. Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that a Pew Research Center poll conducted last spring found that Turks were evenly divided between the 49 percent who are “satisfied that Turkey’s democracy is working” and the 49 percent who believe otherwise.

The result of Erdogan’s retreat to majoritarianism and populism is not just the “polarization” that has been repeated ad infinitum over the last few weeks. The term actually tells us little about the multiple conflicts roiling Turkish society, much of which can be traced to politicians seeking to benefit from them. The most dangerous of them is, of course, the conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has once again become a hot war. The tragedy is that the AKP was best positioned to resolve what is euphemistically referred to as the “Kurdish question.” The party’s emphasis on development and worldview, which de-emphasized the ethnic component of Turkish identity in favor of religious solidarity, held out hope that Turks and Kurds could accommodate each other in Anatolia. Erdogan tried to do so with a massive investment package in the Kurdish southeast in 2005, by undertaking a “Kurdish opening” in 2008 and 2009, and by launching a peace process with the PKK in 2013.

All of these initiatives failed, but it was the only the latter that Erdogan himself undermined. He no doubt had help from the PKK leadership that was negotiating with guns under the table and that had lost interest in the talks, but the Turkish president bears responsibility for creating an environment that made the new round of violence possible. In the past year and more, Erdogan tacked hard to the nationalist, anti-Kurdish right after the local elections in late March 2014; he sat on the sidelines as the self-proclaimed Islamic State pounded Syrian Kurds in Kobani, enraging their Turkish cousins; and he sought to link the HDP with the terrorism of the PKK after it became clear that the HDP had a genuine chance to break Turkey’s 10 percent parliamentary threshold, thereby denying the AKP a fourth majority in the Grand National Assembly. The result is the opposite of what the AKP, whose constituency of religious Kurds has disappeared, hoped to achieve when they came to power in 2002. Instead of peace, parts of Turkey’s southeast look like the war zones of the late 1980s and 1990s.

If Erdogan has pursued polarization as a political strategy and renewed warfare with the Kurds is one of the consequence, then so is the return of the military. I am not suggesting that a coup is in the offing. The military does not seem inclined to take on the responsibility, and there seems to be little interest among Turks for the officers to intervene. According to last spring’s Pew poll, 56 percent of Turks believe that democracy “is the best way to solve their country’s problems,” but that is down from 68 percent in 2012, and the number of people who say that a strong leader is preferable to democracy is growing. Among those who hold this view, almost two-thirds are AKP supporters, which means that the strong leader they want is Erdogan and not General Hulusi Akar, the chief of staff of the armed forces. That said, the Pew Research Center also found that 52 percent of Turks regard the armed forces as the most trusted national institution. That has got to be a historic low, but against the backdrop of social tensions, economic troubles, terrorism, war, and Kurdish political gains in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, it may help pave the way for the return of the Turkish General Staff as an actual political player. In the past, the officer corps justified their routine intervention in politics in part on the military’s popularity. I can hear my fellow Turkey analysts groaning. I have no idea how many times I have heard the refrain “the era of coups is over,” but I am not suggesting that the Turkish General Staff is going to surround the Ak Saray—the White Palace—with tanks and troops. Rather, as violence continues and the military takes on greater responsibilities and a more public role, political paralysis sets in, and the economy slides, the officers may find that the current environment is a propitious opportunity to assert themselves once again. If this does not sound like the 1990s, I don’t know what does.

The outcome of the elections is irrelevant to the larger story in Turkey, which is how familiar the violence, tawdry politics, and economic uncertainty all feel. This is the astonishing irony of the AKP era. The president’s political needs in the service of personal and national ambition have actually brought Turkey full circle. Erdogan is a towering figure in comparison to Turkey’s 1990s-era political leaders—with the exception of Turgut Ozal, who died in 1993—but for all of his talents and all the changes he has wrought, it is hard to overlook the fact that, in important ways, Erdogan’s Turkey today looks like the country he inherited when he first became prime minister in March 2003.

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