These are unusual times in Turkey. This is not just because Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a new round of voting after the June 7 general election, in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002 or because of the renewed violence with the Kurds. These are also unusual times because there is a great deal of confusion in Ankara: Who actually runs the country, the Prime Minister or the President?
If we were to judge by appearances—namely Erdogan’s forceful personality—then we would conclude that it is the President who is fully in charge, whereas Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu seems to be just a functionary executing the former’s orders. The Turkish Constitution makes the President an impartial, yet powerful, above-party leader. Executive power resides with the Prime Minister. However, because of a modification to the constitution, Erdogan in 2014 became the first President ever to be elected directly by the people instead of by Parliament. Erdogan has repeatedly said that this change is tantamount to a regime change in Turkey, because a popularly elected President is de facto imbued with greater powers.
Still, the informal control he exercises—through his influence over the AKP stalwarts, allied or fully controlled media organs, and his control over the bureaucracy through years of careful appointments of loyalists—is not enough for Erdogan. He wants to amend the constitution yet again to replace the parliamentary system with a presidential one—probably one that resembles France’s.
In the run up to the June 7 elections, Erdogan threw all caution to the wind and campaigned for his former party, the AKP. At one point he even pleaded with the public to give him—or rather his party—400 seats in parliament so that he could change the system. His power grab elicited a backlash as some people rallied around the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party, HDP, enabling it to cross the 10 percent national threshold needed to elect members to the parliament. HDP obtained 13 percent and eighty seats, most of which were at the AKP’s expense and were necessary for Erdogan to carry out his agenda.
For Erdogan, the setbacks of the June elections were not the end. He has availed himself of every tactic at hand to ensure that Davutoglu would not succeed in forming a coalition government with an opposition party, because such an outcome could open the door to corruption investigations targeting his family and close associates, as well as put a hold on his hopes to construct a presidential system. Erdogan made it clear that he preferred either an AKP-run minority government or new elections.
New elections are what he got. However, if the AKP fails to win a majority in the coming vote in November, then Erdogan’s hold on the AKP and Turkish politics will begin to erode—and erode quickly. This represents an impressive gamble for someone who doesn’t believe in gambling.
Undoubtedly, Erdogan will take to the campaign trail just as he did before the June elections, especially given Davutoglu’s charismatically challenged public persona. Erdogan will argue that the post-election chaos that Turkey experienced (mind you, chaos to which he contributed) could be avoided if his AKP were returned to power. Also, he will argue that the flare-up in violence between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish security forces, after a hiatus of more than two years, was the fault of the Kurdish HDP in an effort to reduce that party’s appeal and perhaps push it below the 10 percent threshold.
In other words, Turkey is gearing up for two months of intense, no-holds-barred electioneering, in which anything could happen. Security forces have already arrested HDP officials at will in the countryside. Some Kurdish towns have been under siege with their inhabitants unable to leave their homes to avail themselves even of needed are essentials. There is a real danger that, between the violence and the illegal campaign tactics, this election will be stripped of its legitimacy in the eyes of many, potentially leading to a prolonged period of uncertainty. Erodgan faces a lose-lose situation. If the November 1 elections do not produce results that are significantly different from the June 7 polls, Erodgan and the AKP will be humiliated. If on the other hand, he succeeds in eliminating the pro-Kurdish HDP by pushing it below the ten percent threshold, then it is quite likely that Kurds, especially the young, will react to disenfranchisement through civil and active disobedience in major cities such as Istanbul, Adana, and Mersin that is bound to turn violent. For a country that relies on tourism and foreign direct investment, nothing could be worse.
This is unfortunate. In their early days Erdogan and his party made great strides. The Turkish columnist Metin Munir summed up the public’s frustration best when he wrote, “Erdogan helped get rid of the military. Who will help now to get rid of him?”
Turkey’s tumult does not come at a propitious moment for Washington, which has just managed to get Ankara to open its air bases for use in a future intensive bombing campaign against ISIS. To make matters more complicated for the Obama Administration, the Americans’ most effective ally on the ground in Syria against ISIS is the Syrian Kurdish group, PYD, which is a close affiliate of the PKK. The combination of the PYD fighters and the U.S. Air Force has proven to be an effective tactic for liberating chunks of territory from ISIS. The next phase of the campaign consists of further weakening ISIS to provide an opportunity for Iraqi forces to recover lost territory there.
Nothing is easy in the Middle East.