August 3, 2015 § Leave a comment
I have a new piece in Foreign Affairs on Turkey’s recent agreement to engage in the fight against ISIS, and what Ankara is really hoping to accomplish, namely an assault against Kurdish nationalism both at home and abroad. While it is evident that Turkey’s airstrikes have so far been directed primarily at the PKK rather than at ISIS, Ankara is at the same time directing a political assault against the HDP, Turkey’s Kurdish political party, in the hopes of killing two birds with one stone. Here is my argument in Foreign Affairs:
On July 23, Turkey finally joined the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and it did so with much fanfare. It began with a series of air and artillery strikes to push back ISIS forces in Syria and seal what has been a porous southern border. The Turkish government also gave the United States access to its Incirlik and Diyarbakir airbases, opening them up to support combat missions, not just surveillance operations.
This was a major win for the Obama administration, which, for months, had been negotiating with a reluctant Turkey to get it to recognize the ISIS threat. U.S. officials are now hopeful that ISIS can be set back on its heels, since Ankara will be able to wage a more robust bombing campaign given its proximity to the conflict. The U.S.–Turkish agreement about the Incirlik and Diyarbakir airbases apparently also involved the establishment of a safe zone in northwest Syria just north of Aleppo, something the Turkish government has long demanded, although Washington has refused to commit to it. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has argued that a safe zone would naturally emerge after removing ISIS forces from that part of Syria.
Yet all is not as it seems. Although Washington trumpeted the agreement as a potential game changer in the fight against ISIS, Ankara’s recent behavior suggests that its primary mission is to use the opportunity to simultaneously fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group that the government has been fighting for decades. The group, however, has also been on the frontlines battling ISIS.
As Washington celebrated Turkey’s new commitment, Ankara’s initial airstrikes last week targeted both ISIS and PKK positions, and, as some have noted, the United States has essentially enabled Turkey to cloak its primary objective—striking the PKK and its Syrian cousin, the People’s Protection Units (also known as the YPG)—in the general fight against ISIS. Turkey would also be able to ensure that U.S. strikes against ISIS positions do not benefit Kurdish fighters in the process by coordinating joint missions and moving Turkish troops into areas immediately following U.S. sorties. By conceding to Washington’s requests to do more against ISIS, Turkey is actually hoping to achieve its true goal, which is to prevent the autonomous Syrian Rojava canton currently controlled by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) from turning into a truly independent Kurdish state and additionally, using the Kurdish issue to bolster its political standing at home.
Turkey has also targeted its own Kurdish population through heightened policing after the July 20 terrorist bombing in the border town of Suruc. Linked to ISIS, the attack was directed at pro-Kurdish activists and left 23 dead. Since then, Turkey has been conducting an anti-terror sweep that as of July 29 has resulted in the arrest of 137 suspected ISIS sympathizers and 847 suspected PKK members. Writing in the pro-government paper, Daily Sabah, the influential presidential foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin explicitly linked ISIS and the PKK . He essentially argued that the PKK and ISIS are two sides of the same coin because both groups use terrorism to achieve their political goals, and that PKK attacks are just as big a threat to Turkey as those carried out by ISIS.
Fighting the PKK and thwarting Kurdish ambitions in Syria are not the only dynamics driving Turkish actions. In addition to all of this, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is head of the current caretaker government that will rule the country until a new coalition is formed (or, if one fails to form, until new elections are held in the fall), is attempting to reverse the political consequences of its Kurdish Opening policy, which granted Turkish Kurds greater rights in using the Kurdish language and expressing their Kurdish culture. It brought momentary peace, but appears now to have weakened the AKP’s hold on power.
To read the rest, please head over to Foreign Affairs.
June 8, 2015 § 1 Comment
If you read any of the coverage of yesterday’s Turkish election, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the AKP suffered a crushing defeat. Tayyip Erdoğan’s dreams of an imperial presidency appear to be dead, the AKP no longer has a majority of seats in the Grand National Assembly and will be forced into either a coalition or a minority government for the first time since coming to power in 2002 (and go read Aaron Stein for a great breakdown of the various possibilities), and the party performed far below nearly everyone’s expectations (including my own). At the same time, calling this a defeat seems bizarre given that the AKP beat the second place CHP by 15 points and 126 seats and will still control the government, albeit from a weakened position. I wrote about the election today for Foreign Affairs and argued that the election results should not give cause for instant jubilation to the AKP’s opponents:
Imagine a country in which the ruling party—having won three consecutive national elections over the past decade-plus—wins its fourth in a row, beating the second-place party by over fifteen percentage points, and yet nearly every outside observer declares the result to be a disastrous loss for that party. This is the situation in which Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) now finds itself following Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Prime Minister turned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still ensconced in his thousand-room palace, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will remain at his post, and the AKP is going to continue dominating the government as either a minority ruling party or as the lead party in an extremely lopsided coalition. Wherever you look, though, the AKP’s political obituary is being written.
It is easy to understand why schadenfreude reigns supreme among the 60 percent of Turks who voted for a party other than the AKP. In the span of one election, the AKP has gone from 49.8 of the vote and just three seats short of a coveted supermajority in the Grand National Assembly to having to rely on the backing of another party for the first time since it came to power in 2002. Six in every ten Turkish voters cast their ballots for an opposition party, and when taking into account Erdogan’s very public drive for the AKP to win 400 seats in order to give him the increased presidential powers that he so desperately covets, it is in many ways a devastating blow. The path to a formal presidential system—one that many feared would put Turkey on the fast track to full-blown democratic breakdown—has petered out. This in itself is plenty cause for celebration. However, the exuberance that reigns supreme in many quarters should be tempered; although the results of this election will prove good in the long run, the short-term aftermath may prove decidedly unpleasant.
To read the rest, including why I think the AKP’s disappointing performance may counterintuitively empower Erdoğan, please head over to Foreign Affairs.
June 4, 2015 § 5 Comments
When Turkish voters go to the polls this Sunday, it will mark the end of what has been an interminable 15 month long election cycle in Turkey encompassing municipal elections, a presidential election, and finally parliamentary elections. This would be have been taxing under the best of circumstances, but given the factors involved – including but not limited to the transition of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from prime minister to president, the fate of Erdoğan’s desired constitutional overhaul and prospective presidential system, the pending forced retirement of term-limited AKP legislators, the ongoing fallout from the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish peace process hanging on by a thread, the increasingly nationalist tone of the government following the 2013 Gezi protests, the war between the AKP and its former Gülenist allies, worsening assaults on freedom of speech and expression, and allegations of rampant AKP corruption – the last 15 months have been rough on Turkish society and Turkey’s political system, to say the least. Many of my Turkish friends are eager for Sunday’s election to be behind them and hope that this will mark a turning point of some sort that puts an end to what has been a volatile time by any measure.
Despite this fervent wish, not only are the parliamentary elections unlikely to bring much stability, but there is a significant likelihood that the immediate and medium-term aftermath will be even stormier than the past couple of years. There are too many variables in play that hinge on the election’s results, and many of them will create chaos irrespective of the outcome. Rather than do a deep dive into what the actual outcome of the elections themselves will be – for that you can read excellent previews from Carnegie Europe, the Center for American Progress, and my friend Aaron Stein, and your first and last source for polling and polling analysis should be the indispensable James in Turkey blog – I thought I’d highlight some issues to watch out for that are main drivers of Turkish political volatility and that will be magnified in the election’s aftermath.
The most immediately pressing issue is the role of Turkish Kurds going forward. The outcome of the election will primarily hinge on the success or failure of the Kurdish HDP in passing the 10% vote threshold – the world’s highest such threshold – that is required for a party to sit in the Grand National Assembly, and nearly everything that happens is going to follow from this result. When the last legal polls were published last week (publishing polls is prohibited within ten days of the election), the HDP was hovering between 10.2% and 10.6%. For comparison’s sake, the HDP’s candidate in the presidential election, Selahattin Demirtaş, received 9.76%, which surprised most observers as he was not expected to do so well, and most analysts attributed his success to his personal appeal rather than to the party’s. Demirtaş is the party leader and is thus the public face of the HDP for this election as well, but he needs to improve his party’s performance by pulling off two difficult maneuvers that are diametrically opposed. He has to simultaneously attract disaffected liberals who voted for the AKP or CHP in past elections and attract religiously conservative Kurds who voted for the AKP in 2002, 2007, and 2011. Without siphoning off voters in both of these groups, the 10% threshold is going to be hard to crack as there is not a large enough base for the party to rely on its traditional Kurdish supporters alone. While I hope that the HDP makes it into the Assembly since it represents a new and important voice, my gut tells me that it will not. Aside from having a tough uphill climb, it is operating in an environment in which the AKP has an enormous incentive to ensure that the HDP does not make it in (more on that below) and is close enough to the 10% line that some well placed election fraud – such as occurred in last year’s municipal elections – will guarantee that it falls short.
If this happens, Turkey is going to experience protests and unrest on a scale that equals and likely surpasses those that rocked the country during the Gezi protests of June 2013. The southeast of the country, where the majority of Turkey’s Kurds reside, is going to be a disaster zone, since it will be impossible to convince Kurds that the HDP lost fair and square. Turkish Kurds are highly distrustful of the government and believe that the government has been supporting ISIS in an effort to stamp out Kurdish nationalism. Kurds blame the government for not actively aiding Kurdish fighters in the fight against ISIS for the Syrian town of Kobane and for preventing the fighters from being resupplied, and this resentment is not one that will merely linger and eventually dissipate. Kurds also see the handwriting on the wall of a potential coalition between the AKP and the ultra-nationalist MHP if the AKP does not receive enough seats to form a government outright, and such a result will mean the cessation of any conciliatory moves in the name of the Kurdish peace process. In short, Turkish Kurds believe that the government has sold them out and will continue to do so in the future, and if the HDP does not receive a high enough vote share on Sunday, there is going to be unrest on a mass scale. It will also raise the question of how Kurds fit into Turkey’s political system, since the decision by the HDP to run as a party rather than as independents signals a Kurdish desire to renounce violence and separatism, and to work within the confines of Turkish politics. If this gesture is rebuffed in a way that convinces Kurds that the government is fraudulently trying to keep them out, it will be a terrible squandering of a historic moment in relations between Kurds and the Turkish state. It will tell Kurds that their grievances will never be redressed through politics, and it will empower the PKK and those who are inclined toward terrorism and separatism, unleashing a new round of violence similar to that which racked Turkey in the 1990s.
If the HDP does not crack the threshold, Kurds are not the only ones who will be upset. HDP votes will be reapportioned, with the AKP receiving most of them as the largest overall vote getter and the only other party that receives votes in the HDP’s stronghold of southeastern Turkey, and this could boost the AKP’s share to a 3/5 supermajority of 330 seats (the party currently has 311). This matters because Erdoğan’s single-minded focus since becoming president last summer has been on remaking Turkey’s political system into a presidential one, and 330 seats is the number he needs in order to submit a new constitution to a referendum. It is for this reason that he needs the HDP to fall short of the magic 10% number, and without that happening, not only is his dream of an empowered presidency dead in the water, the AKP is not guaranteed to reach the 276 seats it needs to form a government outright and may be forced to form a coalition for the first time since coming to power in 2002. The incentive for the party and for Erdoğan personally is to suppress the HDP’s vote, which is why both Erdoğan – who is constitutionally not allowed to campaign for any party and is prohibited from being a party member, but who in reality is still the de facto leader of the AKP – and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have been striking hard at the HDP and Demirtaş every chance they get. The prospect of an even more powerful President Erdoğan terrifies many non-AKP supporters, which is why if the HDP does not make it into the parliament, protests and unrest will not be limited to Kurds and southeastern Turkey. Anecdotally, there are a not insignificant number of erstwhile CHP supporters who are planning to vote for the HDP, and Istanbul and Izmir are likely to erupt should the AKP receive a supermajority on the back of a failed HDP bid. If I am right about the HDP ultimately falling short, Turkey is going to be in for a long and contentious summer, with all of the now-familiar scenes that have accompanied recent summers – tear gas, TOMA water cannons, police beating protestors, and mass arrests on vague and undefined terrorism charges.
Even if the HDP does garner 10%, another prevailing source of instability will be the continuing unraveling and unpredictability of Erdoğan, whose behavior has become nuttier as time goes on. If he does not get his presidential system, he is not going to react well to what will be his first real loss in over a decade, and for a guy used to getting what he wants – thousand room palaces, gilded drinking glasses, having his spy chief remain in his post despite said spy chief resigning and announcing a run for parliament – this will be a new reality for him. Erdoğan has built an independent power base of advisers and sycophants that make up a parallel government and that Turks now refer to in shorthand as “the Palace” and he intends to use it. If his presidential dreams are dashed, there is no telling what he will do and to what lengths he will go to try and get what he wants, but one can guarantee that whatever he does will be divisive and damaging to Turkish democracy, which as Erik Meyersson points out, is hanging on by a thread as it is even in the context of the very elections that purportedly legitimate Turkey as democratic. The perpetuation of Turkey’s current parliamentary system also means that the maneuvering between Erdoğan and the Palace on the one hand and Davutoğlu and the prime minister’s office on the other will continue, with jockeying between the dueling power bases. The AKP is already divided between the two camps, as personified by the spat between deputy prime minister and co-AKP founder Bülent Arınç and Ankara mayor “Mad” Melih Gökçek, and a setback for the prospective presidential system is not going to end this fight. It will continue to divide the AKP and prolong the Twilight Zone aspect of nobody knowing who is actually in charge and whether Erdoğan or Davutoğlu is running the country and the party. So long as the party controlling the government is unstable – and the AKP is as unstable as it has ever been – it is going to filter down into every aspect of governance, and while it may lead to the AKP’s downfall, which many will welcome, it may also lead to chaos for Turkey itself.
If the HDP does not get enough votes and the AKP does get to 330, this does not guarantee stability either. While Erdoğan has cowed dissident party members for years, there is significant dissension in the ranks. There is no guarantee that the AKP will march forward in lockstep toward unlimited Erdoğan despotism, and certainly the other parties are not going to lay down quietly without a fight. There will be nastiness ahead during the struggle over the terms of the new constitution within the Assembly, and then the real fighting will take place in the run-up to the referendum. As bad as things have been during the perpetual campaign of the past year and a half, it will be that much worse during the campaigning over the very future of Turkey’s political system. The talk of lobbies – Jewish, Armenian, interest rate, Greek, robot, preacher’s, blood, chaos, gay, atheist, and Alevi are among Erdoğan’s greatest hits – and foreign conspiracies will only intensify as Erdoğan seeks to paint all of his opponents as enemies not of him but of the “New Turkey” and of Turkish progress. If you think what has come up until now has been bad, just wait for what comes once Erdoğan really turns on the afterburners.
Finally, there is the question of whether the end of this seemingly perpetual election season will restore some stability to Turkey’s foreign policy and its relations with its once and future allies. There is certainly an argument to be made that if Turkey has some space to strategically reorient itself with regard to the U.S. and to the Middle East, it will undo some of the damage that has been done. Unfortunately, while Turkish domestic politics and the over-the-top rhetoric that has served the government’s domestic political needs have contributed to its foreign policy disarray, I don’t think that the end of Erdoğan and the AKP’s permanent campaign mode is going to be enough. Jon Schanzer and Merve Tahiroğlu take a quick glance around the region and convincingly argue that Ankara’s isolation is a permanent feature rather than a bug of its quest for regional dominance given the constraints under which it operates. I myself argued in World Politics Review earlier this week that Turkey’s relationship with Israel is doomed to the status quo for the indefinite future, and despite the nascent cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey on training and arming a subset of Syrian rebels, there is too much dividing the two countries for the relationship to be as robust as it appeared during President Obama’s first term. As much as Turkey is trying to create a new normal for itself in its neighborhood, its efforts can only go so far.
In sum, whatever happens on Sunday, Turkey is not about to enter a newly stable period. Turkish politics are in flux in ways that haven’t been seen in decades, Turkish society is reaching a boiling point, alarm bells are going off all over the economy, and Turkey is involving itself in proxy wars all over the Middle East. While it would be nice to chalk up the last couple of years to the constant electioneering, the fact is that Turkey is in a bad place, and nobody can confidently predict that it will get better with the advent of a new government.
April 23, 2015 § 1 Comment
With the Turkish parliamentary election a little more than six weeks away – and being cognizant of the fact that I’ve been ignoring the Ottomans side of the blog in recent months – today’s guest post comes to you from Selim Koru, who is a research fellow at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) in Ankara. He focuses on Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia, and his post delves into some of the policy changes the CHP has made in an effort to be more electorally competitive and cut into the AKP’s vote share in June. You can follow him on Twitter @SelimKoru
It is tempting to write the CHP campaign’s obituary before the June 7 elections. Turkey’s main opposition party has racked up one spectacular loss after another in the past two decades. It has been clinging to a bankrupt ideology, was consumed by internal squabbling, and blinded by a stubborn sense of entitlement that comes from being Turkey’s founding party. It survived on its core of ideological supporters, who are concentrated in big cities and the Western coast. In the absence of a viable opposition, the AK Party dominated the scene.
It appears however, that the CHP is now squinting into the light of electoral politics. Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu introduced his platform last weekend, and to the country’s surprise, his more than 70-minute speech was not focused on the threat of creeping Islamization, or corruption under AK Party rule. He talked mostly about economic policy. His party seems to have come up with an overall economic plan, then dissected its electorate into groups and targeted each one in offering some reasons to vote for the party. Retired people get holiday bonuses, young people get their credit card interests lowered, farmers get lower fuel prices, newlyweds get lower housing prices and family insurance (delivered to women’s bank accounts) and so on. In other words, planners and strategists at the CHP seem to have done something resembling their actual jobs. They have tried to go beyond their core of 20-25 percent of the electorate, and to convince the middle to vote for them. And they haven’t done that through ideological tricks, like posing for photos with headscarved women, but with actual policy proposals.
Of course this brings problems with it. The Minister of Finance joked the next day that if the CHP showed him how they were going to pay for their promises without exploding the budget, he would vote for them. His point was well received. Turkish politics has a history of big promises, and people haven’t forgotten. In 1991, Tansu Ciller promised every farmer a tractor; the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan was going to abolish interest rates across the board; Süleyman Demirel said everyone would have “three keys” – to a home, a car, and a workplace – and once, that he would give “five liras more than whatever anyone else is giving.” That is why Kılıçdaroğlu’s election promises summoned the specter of the 1990s, a time of dysfunctional coalitions governments and debts to the IMF, remembered today as imperialist overlords. The AK Party press of course, has lost no time to accuse Kılıçdaroğlu of “exhuming old Turkey.”
That means that Kılıçdaroğlu treads a narrow path. He needs to grab people’s attention with ambitious promises, but remain credible. So far, things have been a little shaky. CHP spokesmen have said that the money for their election promises was there, but that the AK Party’s corruption kept it off the books. Kılıçdaroğlu himself has tried to reassure people by reminding them of his past as a star bureaucrat at the Ministry of Finance, where he managed the social security budget. He has been uncharacteristically confident on fiscal matters, recently responding to the Finance Minister’s comments by saying that “he doesn’t know how taxes are collected, I do.” He will have to stay on the offensive in the run-up to June 7.
The party leader is getting help from an eclectic team. He has chosen an unusual number of new parliamentary candidates, which should enliven the party’s base. The CHP leadership has also been fed polls and ideas by the Benenson Strategy Group, an American firm that has worked for Obama and is said to be working with the 2016 Clinton campaign. The real firepower however, comes from Ali Taran, whose advertising firm is known for its role in the rise of the “Genç Party” (Youth Party), which was founded right before its first and last elections in 2002. The party is infamous for having raised its vote from zero to 7.25 by making promises like free textbooks, or fixing the price of diesel gas to one lira. The CHP should not abandon responsibility, but it could well benefit from that kind of skill to liven up its base.
In the end, however, the CHP will have to pick off disillusioned AK Party voters if it wants to improve on its recent underwhelming performance, which should be possible in this election. Polls place the AK Party vote around the low 40th percentile, which is lower than usual. The party has lost much appeal in the past year, as even senior members have been chafing under President Erdoğan’s domineering presence. On the other hand, the AK Party continues to have by far the best grassroots organization and a superb communication strategy. Erdoğan has developed a grand narrative of Turkey as a rising regional power, which makes him impervious to external shocks. A slowing economy can be chalked up to the “interest lobby” and corruption allegations are mere “tricks of the parallel state.”
Kılıçdaroğlu will have to pierce that fog of inevitability and convince people that his party is a viable alternative. Given recent history, nobody should expect miracles. If his team stays focused, they might manage to move their vote a bit closer to 30 percent. Depending on how the CHP and other opposition parties perform, we might be looking at a coalition government come June. That could freshen up government, or it could bring back the paralysis of the 1990s. Whatever happens, a little political competition after a long rut is welcome.
April 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
Guest poster extraordinaire Dov Friedman is back with some inside baseball on the political prospects of Turkey’s Kurdish party and how its success or failure might determine Erdoğan’s future power inside and outside the AKP.
For 14 years, Tayyip Erdoğan has answered every doubt and challenge in Turkey’s political realm. Yet, two months shy of new parliamentary elections, analysts continue to speculate about whether the Turkish President stands poised for a political decline. In the past, this speculation has represented hope—or perhaps mere wishful thinking. These days, though, it feels laden with unease. Perhaps it grasps at a sense that in the near term, Turkey faces a political future with several, highly divergent potential outcomes.
Much of the political talk in the election run-up revolves around Selahattin Demirtaş and the HDP—the People’s Democratic Party. The HDP is an evolutionary phenomenon in Turkish politics. In one sense, it is the latest iteration of the Kurdish-oriented parties, with their locus of power in Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated southeast. At the same time, under the charismatic leadership of Demirtaş, the party has a burgeoning following within the democratic left—among those uncomfortable with the old guard Kemalists of the mainstream opposition CHP.
Last August, when Erdoğan was elected president, Demirtaş surprised many with his strong showing—drawing 9.76 percent of the vote. His tally was particularly noteworthy because of Turkey’s 10 percent entry threshold for parliament. Historically, Turkish governments have maintained an uncommonly high threshold as a mechanism to keep the Kurds politically marginalized. To date, Kurdish deputies enter parliament as individual candidates and caucus together—meaning they lose a significant number of seats relative to their proportional share of the overall voting.
Demirtaş’ showing not only changed the way voters saw the HDP; it also changed the HDP’s own election calculus, as the party decided—for the first time ever—to run as a unified list in June 2015. The stakes could not be higher. If HDP passes the 10 percent threshold, it will increase its representation in parliament and—equally importantly—ensure that the AKP remains below the two-thirds supermajority threshold in parliament.
Since his third term as prime minister wound down, Erdoğan has made noise about transitioning Turkey to a presidential system. When he won the presidency in August 2014, he assumed a nominally ceremonial post, anticipating that he could convert the system while in seat. With a parliamentary supermajority, Erdoğan can ram through a drastic overhaul that will rapidly increase presidential powers. The HDP’s possible clearance of the electoral threshold stands in the way of that goal.
For Demirtaş, the challenge remains in convincing liberal voters that he will refuse to be an AKP tool. Ever since the AKP reinitiated peace talks with the Kurdish opposition, speculation mounted that the Kurds would support Erdoğan’s presidential system ambitions in exchange for a negotiated resolution and increased local autonomy. Whether the Kurdish parties initially intended to strike that deal obscures the HDP’s present view. Not only has the AKP dragged its feet in the peace process, but Demirtaş sees an opportunity to strengthen politically without the AKP. At a regular HDP parliamentary group meeting in mid-March, Demirtaş delivered a stinging rebuke of Erdoğan—designed in part to distance his party from any perceptions of a corrupt grand bargain.
If the HDP clears the threshold, Erdoğan may already have reached the zenith of his power. The AKP rank and file would then consider who might best secure their political future, and—for the first time—the answer might be someone other than Tayyip Erdoğan. That calculus might touch off the internal AKP maneuvering that could produce new leadership of the Islamist center-right.
Here, we must briefly mention Mansur Yavaş. In the 2014 municipal elections, Yavaş stood as the CHP candidate for mayor of Ankara against the AKP’s Melih Gökçek. Last April, economist and Turkey-watcher Erik Meyersson published clever analysis indicating that the AKP stole the election from Yavaş through massive invalidation of CHP votes. If HDP just barely passes the threshold, can we rule out similar election rigging to bring the HDP under the threshold? Given ongoing tensions, the risks would be enormous. One hopes the AKP might be chastened by the risks of further disenfranchising the Kurdish minority, but with Erdoğan, one can never be certain.
The more interesting question for Turkey watchers is, what happens if HDP does not pass the parliamentary threshold. A series of polls have shown HDP straddling the 10 percent barrier. This is where opinions diverge.
Even with HDP’s failure to enter parliament, some argue, Erdoğan’s power stands to decline—within the party, and thus nationally as well. Gareth Jenkins argued as much in a recent article for Turkey Analyst. Even if the AKP won the 330 mandates necessary to put Erdoğan’s favored system to a referendum, Jenkins explained, party unity, contentment, and discipline are weakening.
Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç’s outbursts at Erdoğan loyalist Gökçek—and his subtle critiques of the president himself—provided a rare glimpse behind the curtain of the normally lockstep AKP. This came on the heels of Hakan Fidan’s bizarre resignation as national intelligence chief, declaration of candidacy for parliament, withdrawal, and reappointment as head of national intelligence. Even if the AKP secures a parliamentary majority, its star is dimming. The process may simply move more slowly—Erdoğan’s “long goodbye”, as Jenkins terms it.
But there’s another, darker view of the AKP’s future. In Istanbul several weeks ago, I asked a Turkish friend with keen political insight about the bizarre Fidan episode—why had the intelligence chief made his move if he was not prepared to stand by his decision? “It was not the right time”, my friend replied. “Erdoğan can still damage him.”
As president, Erdoğan could veto ministerial appointments, and Fidan was not running to be a parliamentary back-bencher. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has shown no inclination to spar with the combative president. Though nominally he controls the parliamentary list, the ostensibly apolitical Erdoğan held enormous sway in—and some say, direct control over—its construction.
Davutoğlu’s meek, ineffectual performance as nominal leader of the government drives much of the skepticism that Erdoğan’s grip on power is loosening. Davutoğlu has made former President Abdullah Gül seem commanding by comparison. As one seasoned observer put it to me, both of these ostensible leaders are docile. Gül enjoyed flying around as a figurehead, putting a bright face on Turkey abroad. Davutoğlu enjoys his current role—able to posture as de jure leader while ceding key decision-making power to Erdoğan. If June 7 produces the status quo—a solid AKP majority without the power to overhaul the system—, why would Erdoğan not merely carry on as de facto leader?
The internal AKP reshuffling that many predict would require many more party heavyweights willing to stick their necks out—much as Bülent Arınç began to in March. The dividing question is whether such bravery exists in a party that rose and prospered under the domination of Erdoğan.
On one of my last days in Turkey, a friend who believes change is coming remarked that Erdoğan would see death by 1000 cuts. If so, who will be so bold as to draw first blood?
February 5, 2015 § 7 Comments
For political scientists interested in political development, it is in many ways more interesting to study why democracies break down than how democracies form. After all, the best predictor of whether a state is democratic at any given time is whether the state was a democracy previously, so delving into how and why authoritarian reversals occur is a fun field (for a deep dive into the subject, Jay Ulfelder does really good work, such as this). Democratic breakdowns come in a few flavors, but the two most common are military coups and incumbent takeovers (this latter category being when an elected government undermines democracy and the future electoral process). Writing in the British Journal of Political Science last year, Milan Svolik compellingly argued that we should be paying attention to the different categories of breakdown because doing so can give us a sense of where a state might be heading before breakdown occurs. The most interesting insight in Svolik’s article to me was his contention that democracies consolidate against military coups but not against incumbent takeovers. In other words, as a democracy ages and democratic rule becomes institutionalized, the risk of a military coup occurring substantially decreases at some point (according to Svolik, this happens somewhere between the 17th and 26th year of democratic government), but the risk of an incumbent takeover does not decrease. He also points to factors that make incumbent takeover a greater or lesser possibility, with a presidential system ten times more likely to break down than a parliamentary or mixed system, while having a history of past military rule makes incumbent takeover less likely because, in Svolik’s words, “In a democracy that lacks a history of military rule, an incumbent may succeed in accumulating enough power to subvert democracy, especially if aided by a presidential constitution and natural resources. But in a democracy that was preceded by a military dictatorship, these factors may be insufficient for a successful incumbent takeover because any such attempts will be preempted by a military coup.”
Why do I bring any of this stuff up? Because various happenings in Turkey make it look like the country is dangerously on the brink of an incumbent takeover, and Svolik’s piece is a useful guide in assessing what might be going on. It will come as no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog (or really anyone who keeps on top of international news) that things in Turkey have been going downhill for awhile. The question is not whether Turkish democracy has suffered, since it unquestionably has, but rather at what point do we cease talking about Turkey as a democracy and call it a flat out authoritarian state. I have never liked terms like illiberal democracy or quasi-democracy or troubled democracy, since I think of democracy similarly to the way I think about pregnancy: either a state is a democracy or it isn’t. Just as you can’t be sort of pregnant, you can’t be sort of democratic. So if Turkey has ceased to be a democracy, how will we know and what will that reversal look like?
My friend and erstwhile co-author Steven Cook has a piece in Politico comparing Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule to that of patrimonial Arab dictators, and laying out the ways in which Erdoğan has accumulated power and dominated politics. I’d add that since assuming the presidency, Erdoğan has done so in ways that subvert the Turkish constitution by taking over powers accorded to the prime ministry without formally amending the constitution. While it is true that the president has the constitutional power to preside over a cabinet meeting if he so chooses, this power is supposed to be reserved for extraordinary situations such as wars or other crises. And yet, there was Erdoğan last month chairing a meeting of the cabinet and purposefully not ruling out doing so again. Erdoğan has assembled a shadow cabinet of advisers around him that in many ways mimic Turkey’s actual cabinet, and he has asserted himself in all sorts of areas that are reserved for the prime minister. The biggest power play was actually symbolic but spoke volumes, when Erdoğan announced that Prime Minister Davutoğlu was to reside in the Çankaya presidential palace because Erdoğan was taking for himself the newly built, monstrously large palace that had been intended for the prime minister.
There is no question that Erdoğan is amassing power in what are unprecedented ways for Turkey since the death of the unapologetically all-powerful founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. As former AKP parliamentary foreign affairs chief Suat Kınıklıoğlu writes, “Not a day goes by when our president is not to be seen on television, sometimes three times a day. Close to a dozen TV channels broadcast his speeches live. Even a prominent music channel cuts its broadcast and televises the speech. Total control. It is rather ironic to see how a political movement that aspired to break the authoritarianism of the old order has come to establish an even more effective authoritarian regime itself.” Everyone knows what is going on, as it is taking place in broad daylight and over the vociferous opposition of anyone not connected to the AKP. It is also in many ways completely and unabashedly shameless. Look at the government’s takeover of Bank Asya just yesterday, for example, which everyone knows is being done to punish Erdoğan’s current designee as Public Enemy Number One, Fethullah Gülen. The Gülenists in Turkey have hounded their own enemies for years, and their anguished cries of complete innocence are laughable, no matter what Gülen himself claims in the opinion pages of the New York Times (for a pitch perfect takedown of the op-ed, look no further than Claire Berlinski’s rejoinder to Hocaefendi yesterday). Nevertheless, whatever the Gülenist movement’s actual sins, nobody credibly believes that the “Bank Asya decision has no political dimension, it is a completely legal decision,” as Davutoğlu claimed with a straight face. This is a bill of attainder, pure and simple, and the fact that the people and institutions being targeted are themselves unabashed power-grabbers who subvert Turkey’s legal system for their own ends does not make the government’s actions democratic or legal. In a more candid moment, Davutoğlu said at a political rally yesterday that he doesn’t see why a religious movement needs a bank. Neither do I, but two wrongs don’t make a right.
The reason Svolik points to presidential systems as being prone to takeover is because presidential systems can be dangerous. The United States is a remarkable exception to this rule, but new democracies largely try to avoid them these days because of their instability. The only presidential democracy with an extended history of constitutional continuity is the U.S., and parliamentary democracies generally last more than three times as long as presidential democracies. A presidential system promotes a strong figure at the top of the food chain with an independent power base, which can be dangerous in divided societies or states without countervailing strong legislative and judicial institutions. Part of the argument against presidential systems comes from a sort of selection bias, in that they were adopted (and failed) in states where the conditions made them especially prone to failure, but the numbers also back up the fact that they lead to more short-lived democracies. Yet, just yesterday Davutoğlu had the following to say: “There is an argument that the presidential system will create authoritarianism. What’s your proof for that? Those who have little knowledge of politics and political science know that democracy is implemented both under presidential and parliamentary systems. These are both described as democratic systems in comparative political studies. Inclinations for authoritarianism can come from parliamentary systems as well.” Yes, it is true that democracy is implemented in both types of systems, but it is also true that one breaks down at a rate ten times that of the other. Surely the prime minister does not think this is a mere coincidence.
The transformation of Turkey to a presidential system is worrying when it comes to incumbent takeover, but so is the military component, because Svolik’s reason for why a military past tends to prevent incumbent takeover does not apply here. The threat of a military coup is supposed to deter an incumbent from amassing too much power and eroding the democratic system, but Turkey’s military has been so hollowed out and beaten down by the AKP (and its former move-along-nothing-to-see-here Gülenist allies) that the chances of a coup are close to nil. In fact, in many ways Erdoğan is primarily motivated by Turkey’s military past and sees his attainment of more and more power as the ultimate victory over the era of military tutelage. The unique history of the relationship between Erdoğan and the military in the pre-AKP era and the relationship between the AKP and the military since 2002 – and particularly since the failed coup by memorandum attempt in 2007 – actually make Turkey’s military past an exacerbating factor rather than a mitigating one. Combined with what Erdoğan has been doing since his election last summer, I don’t think any warning about what is coming down the road can possibly be strident enough.
The long and short of it is that Erdoğan is trying to institute a presidential system, and he is determined to do it one way or another. If he (meaning the AKP, his “former” party) passes the magic 330 seat threshold in the June election, he will attempt to do it by using his parliamentary supermajority to amend the constitution without a referendum, and if the AKP falls short, he will just keep on doing what he’s been doing until it is a fait accompli. But presidential systems are dangerous vehicles for shaky democracies, and that is even more so when the president is vocal and open about his contempt for liberal and democratic norms, views the entire country as something to be controlled by his personal whims, and sees checks and balances as nothing but a minor inconvenience. I don’t know if a complete incumbent takeover has yet happened, but I do know that if we ask that question again five or ten years from now, it will likely be too late.
August 14, 2014 § 5 Comments
Now that Prime Minister Erdoğan is set to take over as President Erdoğan, analysts are pivoting to figure out what comes next. While many are speculating about who the next PM will be (I still think it comes down to Ahmet Davutoğlu or Numan Kurtulmuş), Soner Cagaptay has an op-ed in the New York Times looking at a much longer time horizon. He argues that Turkey’s future after Erdoğan will be a liberal one because the AKP’s support has peaked, and while the last great wave to sweep over Turkish politics was a conservative religious one, the next wave will be a liberal one. Thus, Cagaptay predicts that once the younger and more liberal generation turns its grassroots angst into political power, the AKP’s time at the top will be over.
It’s a compelling theory, and certainly one for which I am hopeful, but I’m not entirely convinced just yet. For starters, Cagaptay relies on the fact that the AKP has plateaued in order to argue that it will be replaced, and he cites the fact that 48% of the country voted against Erdoğan on Sunday as a measure of the country’s polarization. I agree that the AKP has almost certainly reached the apex of its support and that the only direction in which its voteshare can go is down, but the relevant question is not whether more people are going to start voting for someone else; it’s whether enough people will start voting for the same someone else. Based on the presidential vote, Turkey is not close to being at that point. The 48% who were opposed to Erdoğan voted for two candidates from three parties, with CHP/MHP candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu receiving 38% and HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtaş receiving 10%. There is still a 14% gap between Erdoğan and Ihsanoğlu, which is obviously lots of ground to make up. Furthermore, CHP and MHP do not see eye to eye on a number of issues and banded together for this election, but the parties are not going to merge and are going to fragment the opposition vote even further come parliamentary elections in 2015. So while 52%-48% makes it sound like the AKP could be imminently be in trouble, the real story is quite different.
The crux of Cagaptay’s argument though is that the next big trend in Turkish politics will be liberalism as a response to AKP rule, and I partially agree with him on that count. Many Turks are fed up with AKP authoritarianism and demagoguery, and at some point soon the economy is going to crater thanks to Erdoğan’s bizarre ideological obsession with low interest rates, which will cut hard into the AKP’s electoral support. Much as the conservative and religious wave that the AKP rode to victory was a logical response to Turkey’s history of military coups and enforced secularism, a liberal backlash to AKP rule makes sense in a host of ways. The question, however, is whether this liberal wave will be enough to overcome Turkey’s religious and conservative majority. As I wrote with Steven Cook last week, the notion of Muslim-ness is well-entrenched in Turkey and the AKP is the only party poised to capture the gains from this dynamic. While a liberal opposition can tap into discontent on other fronts, I find it difficult to imagine a liberal party easily grappling with the majority of Turks who strongly feel this Muslim identity. While secularism and liberalism do not always go hand in hand – and in fact, they traditionally have not in Turkey – let’s not forget that the CHP in its current incarnation has attempted to meld these two together and has failed miserably.
Let’s set this aside for the moment and assume that a liberal party can manage to appeal to strongly self-identified Turkish Muslims. There is the larger problem of turning this liberal undercurrent that has mobilized for protests into concrete political action. Cagaptay’s conclusion is instructive here:
The liberals do not yet have a charismatic leader or a party to bring them to power, as Mr. Erdogan and the S.P. eventually did for Islamists in the 1990s. The country’s opposition, the Republican People’s Party, or C.H.P., is a mix of secularists and die-hard leftists. It needs to undergo a metamorphosis to become a real force. And although the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party, or H.D.P., has promoted a decidedly liberal message and increased its share of the national vote from 5 to almost 10 percent, it’s still a small party and having violent Kurdish nationalists among its ranks won’t help win broader support.
Turkey’s future liberal movement will have to bring together liberal Kurdish nationalists and liberal secular Turks. Its leader is yet to emerge. But the energy and ideology are there, and he or she will one day step forward to transform Turkish politics the same way Mr. Erdogan revolutionized the country after surfacing from the youth branch of his party.
He will go down in history as the leader who transformed Turkey economically, but the liberals will transform it politically.
There is an enormous gap right now between energy and action. I see it with my Turkish friends, who are primarily young, secular, liberal, and outraged at Erdoğan and the AKP, but do not know how to translate that into political power, or even political change. Some vote for the HDP despite not being Kurdish because they view that as the only appropriate way of expressing their electoral liberalism, but a plurality of Turks are never going to vote for a Kurdish party with a history of too-close ties with the PKK. Most simply express apathy with the entire system. Translating energy into action is the phase where protest movements and nascent political groundswells die. Look at Egypt, where millions of Egyptians went into the streets to oust Hosni Mubarak – and where a vast majority of protestors were not affiliated with or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood – and yet could not translate that into political organizing or electoral victory. Think about the dearth of new parties right here in the U.S., where granted the barriers to electoral victory for a new party are enormous due to the first-past-the-post voting system, yet massive discontent with both parties has not turned into a serious third party organizing effort. It is one thing to be outraged, another to spend all of your time recruiting candidates, writing party platforms, organizing voter drives, raising campaign money, building support, amassing a party organization of professionals and volunteers, and on and on.
I think Cagaptay is correct to highlight liberalism as a significant trend, but it’s far too early to assume that this means a liberal future for Turkey. New parties have enormous barriers to entry (not to mention the 10% vote threshold in the Turkish parliament), and the CHP is so feckless that despite being Turkey’s founding party, it has not been the leading vote getter in a parliamentary election since 1977. Many in the party believe that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempt to infuse liberalism into the CHP has been an electoral disaster, and the electoral results do not contradict this view. How a vehicle for the significant subset of liberal Turks functionally emerges I’m not sure, but Cagaptay is a bit too sanguine about its inevitability. He is right that the mood is there, but unfortunately when it comes to politics, the right mood is never enough.