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?