The worst kept secret in all of Turkish politics is that Prime Minister Erdoğan wants to revamp Turkey’s political system in order to create a strong presidency and make himself the first newly empowered president. Turkey’s constitutional commission had been meeting for the greater part of 2012, and it was expected to recommend that Turkey adopt a presidential system. The idea was for all four of the parties in the Grand National Assembly – AKP, CHP, MHP, and BDP – to come to a consensus, but because this was always going to be extremely unlikely, Erdoğan had plotted out an alternate path toward achieving his goal. He repeatedly warned that if there was no unanimous agreement on what the next constitution should look like, he would drop the consensus requirement and simply advance a draft constitution written by the AKP. In order to do this though, he was going to have to band together with another party, as the AKP is three seats short of the number it needs to have an automatic referendum on the constitution. The assumption that many people – myself very much included – made was that Erdoğan had cut a deal with the nationalist MHP, in which it would provide the votes to give Erdoğan his presidential system and in return Erdoğan would sell out the Kurds and not make any real moves toward recognizing Kurdish rights or Kurdish identity.
For awhile, this appeared to be exactly what was transpiring. Arrests of lawyers, journalists, and politicians sympathetic to the Kurdish cause were up, the government was not making any moves to revive its Kurdish Opening of a few years ago, and the AKP in collaboration with the MHP was refusing to even hold a parliamentary debate on the military operation against the PKK in the southeast of the country. All signs pointed to a new constitution rammed through with MHP votes that would maintain the fiction of one overarching Turkish identity as a reward to the MHP for supporting Erdoğan’s invigorated presidency.
Yet, the constitutional commission’s December 31 deadline came and went, and there has been no move on Erdoğan’s part to follow through on his public threats of abandoning the process and imposing his own vision of what the new constitution should look like. Instead, there has been little talk of what comes next, and haggling over the AKP’s proposed presidential system is delaying agreement on other proposed constitutional articles. More interestingly, the government has begun negotiating with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, which has infuriated the MHP to no end. This is not quite a renewed Kurdish Opening, but in some ways it is even more surprising and remarkable given the view of many Turks that Ocalan is an unrepentant terrorist who should not be lent any credibility through negotiations with the government.
Reading between the lines of all this, it is fairly obvious that Erdoğan’s plan to remake Turkey’s political system and give himself more power in the process has so far failed. I speculated in September that Erdoğan was facing some internal AKP discontent for the first time in his decade as PM, and my strong hunch now is that he does not have the support within his own party that he needs in order to create a strong presidency and force out Abdullah Gül so that he can take over the position. He also clearly does not have the MHP on board, since if he did he would never risk alienating them in the way that he has through the Ocalan negotiations. His dream of creating an imperial presidency is on the ropes, and it might even be entirely gone for good at this point. The only chance he has of rescuing it is trading MHP support for BDP support, and hence the out of the blue approach to Ocalan and the PKK. The AKP has always attempted to compete for Kurdish votes, and in this way it has a more natural partner in the BDP than the MHP since its approach to Kurdish issues is not the hardline one expressed by Turkish nationalists. Faced with the defeat of his ultimate political ambition, Erdoğan has done a complete 180 turnaround and decided that the road to a new Turkish constitution and presidential system is one that embraces Kurdish rights and identity rather than one that flouts them.
This is a good outcome for two reasons. First, any productive move on resolving Kurdish rights and recognizing Kurdish identity is one in which everyone wins and Turkey becomes internally stronger and more cohesive, rather than less so. The Kurdish issue has been dragging Turkey down for decades, and Turkish Kurds have a fundamental right to be able to speak their language and promote their rich cultural heritage free of restriction and discrimination. Second, it shows that Erdoğan is not quite as powerful as we though, which is a victory for Turkish democracy. As his prime ministry has progressed, Erdoğan has demonstrated an increasingly authoritarian side and has not been faced with any real challenges to his power. That he cannot just ram through a new presidential system at will is hopefully a harbinger of things to come and a sign of some greater checks on his power, and this too will ultimately make for a stronger, more prosperous, and more successful Turkey.