Erdogan Is Down, But Not Out

Is Turkey’s president prepared to drag the country into a civil war?

There is a general sense of euphoria over Turkey’s election results on June 7. After a tireless campaign on behalf of the governing AK (Justice and Development) Party and wall-to-wall tv coverage, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally got his comeuppance when the AKP only received 41 percent of the votes instead of a hoped for 50 percent.

Although the AKP is still the leading political party – its rivals, the secular CHP (People’s Republican Party) and the nationalist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) gained 25 percent and 16 percent of the votes respectively - the real victor is the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) with 13 percent, overcoming the electoral threshold of 10 percent for parliamentary representation.

The reason for the HDP’s success is that it has, under the leadership of its co-chair, Selahattin Demirtas, a human rights lawyer, advanced from being an ethnic-based party to one with a broader appeal to include leftists and liberals, who have rejected the AKP’s dogmatic rule. President Erdogan’s refusal to come to the aid of the besieged Kurds in Kobani has also played a role.

The new Turkish parliament is also more representative, as six non-Muslim deputies have been elected, three Armenians, two Yazidis and a Roma. A Syriac has once again been elected. There has also been an increase in the number of female deputies, from 78 to 90.

When the AKP first came to power in 2002, the high electoral threshold made it possible for the party to hold almost two-thirds of the Turkish parliament’s 550 seats with a little over a third of the vote, whereas now it has only 258 seats despite its increased share of the vote. In fact, the AKP can only form a majority government in coalition with one or more of the other three parties.

According to the Turkish constitution, once the new deputies have been sworn in on June 23 or 24, the President will call on the leader of the largest party, in this case the AKP, to form a government, and if he is unable to do so, the leader of the second largest, the CHP, will be called on to do so. There is a limit of 45 days, after which the President will call for a new election. In Erdogan’s words: “I don’t call this a snap poll but a re-run.”

Turkey’s experiences with coalition governments have not been fortunate, and there are obstacles ahead. For example, the nationalist MHP will not form a coalition where the Kurdish HDP is included, and for the CHP and MHP there is a precondition for a coalition with the previously governing AKP, that charges of corruption once again be brought against four ex-ministers. The MHP has added the precondition that Erdogan’s son, Bilal, is also included.

Before the elections, in an appeal to the nationalist vote, Erdogan accused opposition CHP and HDP deputies of being “open supporters of terror,” and in a volte-face declared “There is no Kurdish question.” However, as Selahattin Demirtas replied, “If there is no Kurdish question, why is the peace process still continuing?”

Since February 1, when the election campaign began, until mid-May, the HDP registered about 120 attacks against its offices, members, volunteers and vehicles, and more have followed. After the elections, the HDP’s co-chair stated, “I fear that forces linked to ISIL and forces supporting ISIL [….] are waiting for the order to stage incidents in hundreds of places in Turkey.”

Last week a well-known Turkish whistleblower, Fuat Avni, claimed that President Erdogan had ordered steps to be taken to create chaos in southeastern Anatolia to force the PKK to resume violence as part of a strategy to weaken support for the HDP. Whatever the truth of this, there is no doubt that the failure to form a viable coalition government together with a discredited HDP can provide a convincing platform for an AKP comeback – of course, under the tutelage of President Erdogan.

More evidence has emerged of the cooperation between Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and ISIL. The secular daily Cumhuriyet has in a report described how MIT provides extremists and their weapons safe passage through Turkey to Syria. A weekly newsmagazine Nokta has also revealed how MIT’s trucks intercepted in January 2014 were on their way to Syria carrying ammunition destined for ISIL and the al-Nusra Front.

It would be unwise to underestimate the lengths President Erdogan is prepared to go to cling to power. In an interview given to the Turkish daily BirGün in March last year, Abdüllatif Sener, a former AKP deputy and founder of the AK Party, said he thought Erdogan would even be prepared to drag Turkey into a civil war.

Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.   

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