Leadership Gone Awry

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Two Turkish Elections

by Ümit Cizre
published in MER276

In representative democracies, elections allow the peaceful replacement of leaders, infuse government with new blood, legitimize both winners and losers, and restore public faith in democracy. More importantly, “the people’s voice” is cast as the ultimate check on national leaders whose power has grown too strong. In practice, there are a number of problems with this ideal—“the people’s voice” is identified with the majority, perhaps at the expense of minorities; it is inarticulate; and often it actually channels rather than challenges the wishes of rulers. [1] Do the twin general elections held in Turkey over the course of five months in 2015 confirm or rebut these key assumptions about representative democracy? How can we account for the fact that the popular will changed so radically over 140 days as to yield two starkly contrasting outcomes?

The natural question to ponder is how the losers in the June elections could turn out to be the winners just five months later. The earthquake that had rocked the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (or AKP, the Turkish acronym), in June looked like only a slight tremor by November. What had been a relatively quiet and prosperous country was suddenly engaged in a “war on terror” against both Kurdish militants and ISIS, its government cracking down on free speech, opposition parties and the media, calling them threats to national security.

Turkey’s two elections in 2015 will go down in history as connected moments generating serious questions about the true strength, substance and depth of the institutions, procedures and norms of democracy in the country. More to the point, Turkey’s annus horribilis highlights the vulnerability of the rule of law as a means of sustaining basic freedoms and rights for Turkish citizens or ensuring the commitment of Turkish leaders to modern democratic rules.

Erdoğan’s Penchant for Power

In the parliamentary elections of June 7, 2015, traditional notions of representative democracy were affirmed and the “people’s voice” interrupted the inexorable 13-year rise of the AKP, seeming to bring its decade in power to an abrupt halt. In the 69 years since the beginning of the multi-party era in Turkey, “the people” have lived up to the representative democratic ideal more than once, thwarting several governments whose program had deviated from the original platform or become out of touch with reality. What, then, was special about the June 2015 elections? Two concerns were uppermost in the electorate’s consciousness: first, to block the ambitions of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to expand the nature of his “leadership” of the country; and second, to enable the Kurdish party, the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), to act as a countervailing force to the AKP in Parliament. The voters succeeded in both respects, sparking widespread hope for change.

It is safe to say that the June elections were a referendum on the vision of Erdoğan, founder of the AKP, prime minister from 2002-2014 and, since August 2014, president of the republic. For a president who was elected with 52 percent of the vote, and who campaigned aggressively for the AKP, the results were shattering: The AKP won the most seats in Parliament, at 258, but lost 10 percent of the votes it had received in the 2011 elections, amounting to 69 seats. Thus the party fell short of the 276-seat majority it needed to form the government, as it has done since being swept into power in 2002. [2] There was a long list of criticisms of Erdoğan and the AKP to which this loss can be partly attributed. These complaints included the concentration of power in the executive; the AKP’s growing antipathy toward oppositional politics and convergence with the nationalist, statist and security-driven priorities of old; purges of perceived opponents in the judiciary and police; the political capture of the National Intelligence Organization; and Erdoğan’s proclivity for meddling in the day-to-day affairs of government even after he became president. In Turkey, the president is head of state, but the prime minister holds the most executive authority. Meanwhile, civil liberties were eroding. In its 2015 annual report, Freedom House found that Turkey was drifting away from democratic norms in such areas as freedom of expression and belief, associational life, rule of law and personal autonomy.

The issue that eclipsed all the others, however, was Erdoğan’s persistent calls for an “alla turca” system of government, one closer to the Ottoman than the Western model, and wherein the powers of the president would be enhanced to the detriment of the prime minister and Parliament. This aspiration alienated a vast number of voters, including within the AKP’s constituency, for the Turkish constitution lays out a role for presidents that is “above politics.” Erdoğan deepened popular suspicions by heading up the AKP’s campaign personally, lobbing spiteful charges at the AKP’s competitors with the titular head of the party, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, taking a back seat. Erdoğan fought to achieve three numerical objectives in Parliament: Ideally, he wanted the two-thirds majority (367 seats) needed to change the constitution as he desired; failing that, he sought the three-fifths majority (330 seats) needed to call a referendum on the issue; and, as a last resort, he aimed for the 276 seats required to form another majority government. He failed on all three counts.

Erdoğan retains a certain mass appeal that has helped to underpin the AKP’s resilience under his leadership. But this grassroots strength has an enormous downside: Playing by no rules other than his own, accountable to no one, Erdoğan helped to portray the party as a personal vehicle, impotent in his shadow, rather than an institution. In fact, Erdoğan’s leadership style obscured deep divisions within the party, some of which emerged over the summer as the AKP licked its wounds. A party elder, Bülent Arınç, hesitantly led the way, but it was evident that there were plenty of other doubters who could not “out” themselves for fear of reprisal.

A vivid illustration of the dynamics of Erdoğan’s leadership comes from the foreign policy arena. Using an Islamic lexicon and drawing on ideas of Ottoman revival, Erdoğan speaks of restoring dignity and confidence not just to Turkey’s Muslims but also to the long-suffering Muslims of the entire Middle East. Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, however, Turkey has advanced no meaningful or credible ideas for solving the problems of the region, and so the country’s stature has fallen. Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s apparent disregard for basic values of democracy and his brash, confrontational rhetoric have raised eyebrows in the West. He pulls no punches regardless of his audience, confusing the rough-and-tumble battles of domestic politics with the hard, careful compromises of international relations.

The leader-as-party-and-country understanding of politics runs deep in Turkey, where the secular republican political tradition is built on a cult of personality. This tradition promotes an ideology of obedience among the citizenry; is intolerant of identities that are non-ethnic Turkish or non-Sunni; is obsessed with the security of the state; and depends on a party machine devoid of internal democracy. In other relatively democratic periods since 1946, memorable leaders like Süleyman Demirel, Bülent Ecevit and Turgut Özal set the national agenda, framed policy and ruled their respective parties with an iron fist.

But Erdoğan’s penchant for power cannot simply be said to be in the regime’s DNA. In his early years as prime minister, the AKP upended the old politics, curbing its authoritarian mentality and reducing the role of extra-political institutions like big business, the military, the judiciary and the civilian bureaucracy as the premise of a program for a new Turkey that could qualify to join the European Union. Why go to such lengths to turn Turkey into a regional model, welcoming of Islam but distant from jihadi militancy, with greater prosperity and better public services, only to reinvigorate the traditional dogmas and fears? Why first reform and then recreate the past? Why not follow the trail that Erdoğan himself blazed in 2002?

The Politics of Redress

Erdoğan’s reversal of his own democratic reforms is related to the real nature of his original mission. The grand purpose of the AKP was to restore freedom of expression and social standing to the religious conservative sections of the population, who were failed first by the secular state’s exclusionary policies and second by the recklessness of the AKP’s predecessor, the more overtly Islamist Refah Party. Refah’s brief tenure in power was terminated by military intervention in 1997. The AKP’s efforts to redress these wrongs have raised many party constituents into the respectable middle classes.

But the AKP’s success in this regard did not inject a craving for universal democratic rights and norms into the bloodstream of Turkey’s Islam-sensitive sectors. Since Erdoğan himself was not committed to those rights and norms, the politics of redress produced further opportunities for the AKP leader in his quest for power. It bifurcated the political field into “victims” of the past system and everyone else, making it necessary to erect barricades to guard the interests of the new pious middle classes. This genre of politics, in other words, reproduced the cleavages of the Ottoman-Turkish polity between secular and Islamic sectors, in a different modality but with even more segregation, animosity and anxiety between them.

In hindsight, the liberal, democratic and state secular critiques of Erdoğan and the AKP tended to assign their authoritarian traits to an “Islamist” character rather than purely political prerogatives of power, citizenship, state, society and exercise of popular will, independent of religion. Busy denouncing the AKP as religious reactionaries, critics did not digest the bitter reality that the AKP’s original reforms were instrumentally motivated by the grievances of the masses. Especially for the state secular critics, whose own commitment to democracy is dubious, religion served to explain everything.

The Spell of More Power

The AKP was entrenched from 2002 onward through three spectacular electoral victories with no serious competition and no debate that was not completely leader-driven. As the AKP fulfilled its core mission, the party became a state-like institution with increasing neo-patrimonial power. Erdoğan became the most powerful “chief executive” since the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, ruled the country under a single-party system from 1923-1938. Erdoğan’s endless utterances are always made to friendly crowds or media cartels. No one can remember a public appearance in which he was challenged in a genuinely democratic way. Nor does the Turkish legislature have the British-style question time, where the prime minister must respond impromptu to the deputies’ queries. The Turkish people have no idea how the indomitable Erdoğan would perform in such a freewheeling setting.

Leaving principled objections aside, it is hard to understand Erdoğan’s insistence on maximizing presidential authority. The chief argument the president and his team have put forward is that this measure would eliminate “the multiple centers of power” that preclude efficient decision-making and hinder Turkey’s progress toward global economic might. But the bulk of “the multiple centers of power” to which the president refers—state bureaucracies, the courts, the police, the domestic intelligence agency, the military—have already been coopted, purged or packed with partisan appointees. The only other “center” that has some oppositional weight is the parliament with its legislative and investigative capacities. It seems clear that Erdoğan wants to craft a system that can bypass the parliament, where the AKP’s majority is not a given. The AKP leader has called the checks and balances of the parliamentary system a “multi-headedness” that disrupts effective governance.

On another level, an argument could be made that Erdoğan favors a stronger presidency because his style of rule has produced social protest. In June 2013, the government’s top-down attempts to restrict personal liberties and media freedoms as well as design urban renewal projects with little or no input from residents were resisted in Istanbul’s Gezi Park by a new cadre of young urban activists forming a bloc with liberals, democrats, leftists, secularists and Kurds. These protests compelled the government to revise its assumption that Turkey’s youth are anti-political, transfixed by social media and lacking in ideas of their own. Erdoğan’s crackdown on the demonstrators and finger pointing at the West were harbingers of his demand for more “discretionary” dispatch.

Running the country with a small coterie of bureaucrats and advisers, becoming distanced from society, making no time for reading and contemplation, disguising his lack of intellectual curiosity and disconnection from democratic values with pragmatism and arrogance, the only thing that could humble Erdoğan was the ballot box. There was little prospect of smashing the unhappy status quo, but the AKP’s opponents hoped the June 7 elections would at least warn the party to temper its power-centered majoritarian logic. Therein lay one part of the importance of the election results.

The Kurdish Party Becomes More Turkish?

The second significance of the June 2015 elections was the change in the trajectory of Kurdish identity politics and Turkish responses to it. During the campaign, Erdoğan explicitly asked the electorate to help him reach two interdependent ends: Give the AKP the number of seats in Parliament necessary to amend the constitution, and keep the vote of the Kurdish HDP under the 10 percent threshold required for seats. Instead, the HDP passed the 10 percent threshold, winning 80 seats, on par with its nemesis, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which doubled its percentage of votes and number of seats. Not only did some Turks overcome their nationalist reflexes and vote for the HDP, but they also enabled the HDP to make a historic break from its narrow Kurdish nationalist posture and move toward a more progressive discourse embracing the totality of Turkey.

Kurdish deputies from a series of parties representing the Kurdish nationalist movement have sat in Parliament since 1991, but they had to run either as independents or on other parties’ lists. Kurdish demands evolved over time, but in general entailed greater cultural freedoms, as well as full equality and citizenship rights. The power of these claims is rooted in their opposition to the republican system that has long defined the Kurds as the “other.”

The HDP began to reinvent itself even before the June votes were tallied, adopting a broader and “Turkified” allegiance to democracy with its stand against Erdoğan’s scheme to strengthen the presidency. In so doing, the HDP showed itself to be a serious contender for power, either as an active partner in a coalition government or a passive outside supporter. Although it was not yet clear whether the party could forge a new identity without abandoning the specific needs and preferences of the Kurdish population, the campaign of Selahattin Demirtaş, the HDP’s leader, helped to fashion a new profile for the party and presented a much-needed inspiring leader for Turkey. From a provincial Kurdish background, Demirtaş turned into a star performer by exhibiting qualities opposite to Erdoğan’s: He came across as humble, not proud; honest, not prone to secrecy; cool and collected, not angry at the world; democratic, not autocratic; calm, not aggressive; articulate, not tripped up by poor grammar.

Turkey’s Podemos

The label “Kurdish nationalist” does not do justice to the HDP that emerged from the June balloting. In fact, the HDP storm can be likened to the unexpected rise of Podemos (in Spanish, We Can) on the left in the local and regional elections in Spain on May 24. Podemos was hailed as an expression of mounting outrage, during an economic recession, against the outdated order of Spain’s two established parties, the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the Popular Party, as well as against corruption, inequality and the incompetence of the political class. Parallel to the strategy of the HDP, Podemos represented a new progressive coalition rekindling the leftist spirit that was extinguished within the PSOE when it adhered to EU-imposed austerity measures. Just like the HDP in June, Podemos finished behind the two established parties but ahead of the right-wing Ciudadanos (Citizens) Party, which resembles the Turkish nationalist MHP ideologically.

Another point of convergence for the tales of Podemos and the HDP is that although the two social democratic parties, PSOE in Spain and Republican People’s Party (CHP) in Turkey, got larger pieces of the electoral pie, it was Podemos and the HDP that were perceived as energizers of the leftist political imagination and agents of hope and change. The HDP’s rise to replace the CHP, the main opposition party on the left for the 13 years of AKP rule, confirms that Erdoğan’s undermining of key democratic freedoms cannot be blocked by the CHP’s stale party structure and ideology despite the symbolic corrections of its mandate.

The June elections came at a critical juncture in the peace process the AKP initiated with the Kurds in 2009. It is probably safe to say that Erdoğan’s governments launched this process out of necessity rather than genuine engagement with democratic ideals, which require granting cultural rights to the Kurdish community. The AKP felt it had to address a relentlessly violent and intractable conflict that could damage the image of the new Turkey they were intent on creating. The big question has always been whether the legacy of violence and mistrust could give way to authentic reconciliation. Judging by Erdoğan’s intensified negative rhetoric about the Kurdish movement during the spring campaign, the leader’s commitment to a peace process is cyclical, depending on if, when and how much he needs the votes of the Turkish conservative-nationalist bloc. He denigrated the HDP and the peace process, showing that despite his promises to end the conflict with the Kurds, he still subscribed to the same old one-dimensional logic of state security. Small wonder that when the votes were counted the AKP was wiped out in the southeast, the majority-Kurdish region.

The Road to November

Although in June voters did forcefully reject leadership based on a cult of personality, it was hard to imagine Erdoğan abiding by this outcome for his four remaining years as president. When it became clear that the June elections had wrecked Erdoğan’s grand presidential project, he began steering the country toward another round of general elections. Soon the coalition talks with opposition parties ground to a halt, and elections were indeed scheduled for November 1. “We want early elections; we will make you the head” was the chant that echoed in the square where Erdoğan addressed his diehard loyalists in his hometown of Rize on August 12. Two years earlier, he had received 93 percent support from Rize in the presidential race. The chanters captured their favorite son’s fundamental motive. In a TV appearance on September 6, seeing no reason to stay “above politics,” the president blurted out: “If a political party had been able to secure 400 deputies to make a new constitution, the situation would be very different today.”

Indeed, Erdoğan’s pitch for snap elections was predicated on simple math, which told him that the party lost its parliamentary majority due to the defection of some of its conservative-nationalist voters to the hardline nationalist MHP. More importantly, conservative Kurds and the liberal-democrat opposition had voted for the HDP en masse. As the MHP and AKP share more or less the same conservative-nationalist voter base, the government and the AKP leadership (dominated by Erdoğan) has always thought that pursuing peace with the Kurds means losing votes to the far right.

Erdoğan made calculated moves to win back conservative Kurdish and Turkish nationalist votes. The armed forces resumed extensive operations against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants, ostensibly because the peace process had become impossible for the state to sustain. Turkish warplanes struck PKK bases in the southeast and in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq, causing massive destruction and fatalities estimated in the hundreds. The PKK retaliated in bloody fashion, killing at least 100 members of the security forces between June 7 and late August. Special security zones were declared in 15 provinces in southeastern Turkey, where nearly 100,000 people were said to have fled their homes to escape the violence.

The reignition of the three-decade conflict was clearly an attempt to link PKK militants, who are branded as terrorists by the US and many European countries, to the HDP. As the tenuous two-year ceasefire and, more importantly, the peace process in the region fell apart, Erdoğan was out to discredit and demonize the HDP, particularly in the eyes of conservative Kurds who had voted for the AKP in the past. He hoped thereby to push the HDP back below the 10 percent threshold needed for parliamentary representation.

The HDP vehemently denies accusations that it favors armed struggle as the way to achieve Kurdish demands. On August 23, Selahattin Demirtaş called for a ceasefire with no “ifs or buts,” to no avail. For those Kurds worried by the renewal of violence, events testified to the chilling reality that although the HDP has some affinity with the PKK, neither actor controls or is controllable by the other.

The “Red Phones” of ISIS and the PKK

The government’s decision to launch an offensive against the PKK was made almost simultaneously with its decision to take a more active role in the fight of the US-led coalition against ISIS. To justify the two-pronged war, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu claimed that the PKK poses a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity equal to that posed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Davutoğlu added that though ISIS and Kurdish militants “seem to be fighting against each other, they went into action together to disrupt Turkey’s peace as if connected by red phones.” [3]

This assertion needs some fact checking, to say the least. It is common knowledge that the Turkish government dragged its feet when faced with Western demands to stop foreign fighters from crossing Turkey’s borders to join ISIS. Although the government had no real sympathy for ISIS, it was reluctant to act due to fear of ISIS retaliation and its policy that Bashar al-Asad’s regime must be overthrown by any means necessary, including turning a blind eye to jihadi extremism. And the most compelling reason why Ankara took its time was that it considered ISIS a force that could weaken the PKK. The PKK and its Syrian Kurdish allies were fighting hard—notably in Kobane—to push ISIS away from Turkey’s southern border. When they began to succeed, and to carve out autonomous zones for the Syrian Kurds, the government saw Kurdish nationalist forces becoming stronger rather than weaker. A suicide bombing by ISIS in the Turkish town of Suruç in July finally ended the wait-and-see policy regarding the ISIS-PKK link.

Many feel that the decision to wage war on two fronts was designed to conceal the president’s strategy regarding the November 1 elections: The stand against ISIS was meant to neutralize any Western criticism of scrapping the peace talks with the Kurds and starting an all-out war against the PKK.

At the same time, Erdoğan was pulling strings during the coalition negotiations led by Davutoğlu. It did not take long after June 7 for the CHP, MHP and HDP to find out that they were up against the president’s machinations. Only two weeks after those elections, the president hinted at his impatience: “If egos take priority then the coalition negotiations will be prolonged. If the politicians cannot resolve the issue of forming a government, then, as the president, I will have to take it to the nation.” [4] Erdoğan made this statement knowing that the CHP and HDP were willing to enter into a coalition government with the AKP. Only the MHP rejected negotiations outright, because it is focused singly on the Kurdish issue, and thought it could chip away at AKP support as the conflict escalated.

After the talks collapsed, the president was constitutionally obligated to ask the leader of the runner-up, in this case, the CHP, to start a second round. But Erdoğan handed back to Davutoğlu a mandate to form an interim power-sharing government pending new elections on November 1. Kemal Kılıcdaroğlu, the CHP leader, called it a “civilian coup.”

The president’s efforts to derail the coalition talks confirm the constructed nature of the post-election impasse. In a speech in Rize on August 14, he stunned the public once more by saying that far from accepting the June 7 results as binding, he was as determined as ever to advance the idea of an imperial presidency. “Whether it is accepted or not, Turkey’s system of government has changed”—because the president is now elected by popular vote unlike in the past. “What needs to be done now is to clarify and confirm the legal framework of this de facto situation with a new constitution.” [5]

The Twilight Zone

As the November 1 elections approached, pollsters predicted that the balloting was unlikely to alter the balance of political power created by the June contests. [6] But when the results started to roll in, it became clear that the AKP’s support had spiked from 40.9 percent of the electorate to nearly half, while voters had turned away from both the nationalist MHP and the pro-Kurdish HDP. The MHP’s share of the vote plummeted from 16.5 to 11.9 percent (from 80 deputies to 40), with most of the defectors shifting to the AKP. The HDP barely passed the 10 percent threshold, dipping from 12.7 percent of the vote to 10.7 (from 80 deputies to 59). The CHP was stuck with the same result as in June.

The AKP, meanwhile, increased its number of deputies from 258 to 317. Although still lacking the muscle required to pass a constitutional amendment on its own, the AKP was able to form a majority government.

In a way, the explanation for the reversal of fortune is shockingly simple: President Erdoğan, stung by his party’s loss in June, manipulated the system to produce a victory in November. The fact that he was able to do so points to the main malady of Turkish politics: the absence of strong, independent institutions—notably in the judicial system—that can stand up to unchecked power and anti-democratic practices.

The AKP victory in November raises concerns about the elections were free and fair—particularly in view of the clampdown on newspapers and television stations and restrictions on freedom of expression in general. [7] Many feel that the absence of a vibrant media and the unequal distribution of resources among the parties impeded the access of voters to the information they needed to choose between political alternatives. In the southeast, the ongoing army operations threw up additional obstacles, such as curfews, and created security concerns for politicians on the campaign trail. [8]

There is also a debilitating polarization in Turkish politics. It is widely acknowledged that many AKP supporters rally around the party out of existential fear: If the party were to fall short of the majority it needs to form a government, the anti-AKP forces would engage in retribution. The twin elections of 2015 also expose the absence of competent opposition parties capable of moving beyond the safe zone of identity politics to focus on issues. Campaigns in Turkey are a crude war of words between party leaders.

But the stunning renaissance of AKP power on November 1 would not have occurred without the stimulus of the dual war with the PKK and ISIS. The president’s electoral strategy was based on the notion that the alternatives facing Turkish voters were an AKP majority government or PKK and ISIS terrorism. Fears about public safety sidelined concerns that the leader had overstepped his constitutional bounds. The prospect of returning to the 1990s—when incompetent, divided coalition governments seemed overwhelmed by war with the PKK—convinced even the most critical AKP voters to overlook Erdoğan’s obvious disregard for democratic practices. Then came the shock of two massive suicide attacks mounted by ISIS at a pro-Kurdish peace rally in Ankara 20 days before the elections, taking 102 lives. The CHP and MHP accused Erdoğan of security lapses, while HDP leader Demirtaş suggested that the Ankara bombing was the work of a conspiratorial “deep state” serving the president’s interests. He connected it to July’s deadly attack in Suruç, a mainly Kurdish town on the Syrian border, which killed 33 Kurdish activists. “The state is a serial killer,” Demirtaş charged. Nonetheless, the Ankara atrocities probably secured the elections in favor of the AKP and Erdoğan. [9]

What of the HDP’s hemorrhage of about 1 million votes in November, the biggest losses coming in the provinces where it had made the strongest gains in June? There seems to be consensus among critics that “some Kurds who voted for the HDP on June 7 moved to supporting the AKP on November 1.” [10] Despite the HDP’s efforts to dissociate itself from PKK violence, the PKK’s escalation over the summer seems to have served Erdoğan’s purpose of labeling the HDP as controlled by ruthless militants. It is worth noting that on the day of the Ankara bombings, the PKK pledged to suspend all the offensives it had launched since mid-July. The move was viewed as designed to boost the electoral chances of the HDP. It is clear, however, that even before the Ankara bombings, the PKK’s killings of civilian security forces had already done irreversible damage to the peace-loving, cheery image that the HDP had carefully crafted before the June elections. The PKK ceasefire proved too little, too late.

A related view is that “the HDP was made to pay for the problems” caused by the PKK’s youth wing in predominantly Kurdish cities, where the youths disrupted business by digging ditches and erecting barricades to prevent security forces from entering their neighborhoods. According to one shopkeeper, “At least half of the vote loss in Diyarbakır was because of those ditches. People suffered, lost much financially because of them. They blamed the HDP for their losses and penalized it by not voting for it.” [11]

The HDP embodies the new “civilian version” of the rebel spirit that historically has animated the Kurdish movement. Whatever the root causes of the HDP’s election day disaster, the question is whether the party will continue to move toward being a “Turkified,” multi-issue party when the head of the Turkish state seems uninterested in reviving the peace process. More serious than the HDP’s electoral fortunes is its own existential question: Can the party carry out an effective pro-Kurdish policy independent of the PKK, which seems to be unhappy about the HDP’s new global image? The answer will emerge amidst the dilemma facing the Turkish government, which now has to sustain its balancing act of siding with the US-led anti-ISIS coalition while fighting the PKK and its Syrian brethren—the key partners of the anti-ISIS alliance on the ground.

A New Catalyst?

There is a sense in Turkey that, in the big picture, the November 1 elections were the AKP’s last hurrah. For one thing, there are huge leadership problems: Prime Minister Davutoğlu is overshadowed by the president, and the premier’s quiet struggle to chart his own path ensures that he will not have free rein to blaze a new trail for Turkey. Though Davutoğlu is seen as more moderate and thoughtful than the president, his future is far from certain.

The outcome in November also made it next to impossible for party elders who dislike Erdoğan’s heavy-handed style to reel him in. No party figure since Bülent Arınç has risked defying the leader for fear of destroying his or her career. Thus, rather than confining himself to his constitutional role, there is every reason to think that Erdoğan is reheating the project of an executive presidency.

In a crisis-ridden region, it seems more than likely that the president’s restrictive policies at home will be linked to his search for a more assertive role abroad. But the shift of focus to foreign policy spotlights the weakening hold of the party on the popular imagination. Once a symbol of hope and democratic reform, the AKP has turned into a party with no vision or substantive ideas. Its November victory cannot disguise the larger truth that it has lost its position at the center of the political spectrum. That is why, in contrast to the aftermath of the June 7 elections, there is not much palpable excitement in the country about the November outcome—even among AKP loyalists.

Endnotes

[1] For a comprehensive critique of representative democracy, see Jeffrey Edward Green, The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
[2] The full results are posted at the website of the Supreme Election Board.
[3] Hurriyet, August 20, 2015. [Turkish]
[4] Milliyet, June 21, 2015. [Turkish]
[5] Hurriyet Daily News, August 18, 2015.
[6] Hurriyet Daily News, August 26, 2015.
[7] Such concerns were expressed by Ignacio Sanchez Amor, head of the OSCE observer mission. Yahoo News, November 2, 2015.
[8] Tarhan Erdem, “Seçimin Temel Ilkelerine Saygı Gösterilmedi,” Radikal, November 9, 2015.
[9] Express Tribune (Pakistan), October 25, 2015.
[10] Cengiz Çandar, “Kurds in Post-Election Turkey: Silver Lining or Tough Times?” Al-Monitor, November 10, 2015.
[11] Mahmut Bozarslan, “After Big Win in June, Why Did HDP Lose This Time?” Al-Monitor, November 5, 2015.

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