He is back.
Having won yet another election while displaying yet more of the impulse, gamble and victory that have been his remarkable career’s hallmarks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supporters were dancing Sunday night like there was no tomorrow.
Alas, when the dust settles, the dancers will learn that despite their Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) political reprieve, there indeed is no tomorrow for the country that has been maneuvered into intractable foreign conflict and internal strife.
The outspoken Erdogan did not technically run in this poll, where Turkey elected its parliament. Politically, however, the vote was over the future of the social, cultural, and political revolution he has been leading since becoming prime minister in 2003, a position he held until becoming president last year.
The Islamists’ fourth straight general-election victory makes it plain that the revolution will continue, and in earnest, considering the AKP’s restoration of the majority it lost last spring when it won only 40 percent of the legislature.
That setback was attributed to the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party’s (HDP) passage of the 10% electoral threshold, which landed in their bosom one-tenth of parliament.
Other political systems faced with similar situations understood such electoral statements as a call for dialogue and compromise. That, for instance, is what happened in Britain in 2010, when its voters gave no party an absolute majority, and the politicians in turn created a coalition between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. That is also what happened in Israel in 1984, when the voters gave no bloc a majority, and the politicians created a unity government.
That is not what happened in Turkey.
Faced with the voters’ verdict last spring, Erdogan resolved to change it rather than obey it, by having his puppet, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, derail coalition negotiations and announce a snap election.
On the face of it, the gamble worked. Erdogan’s early election, like Benjamin Netanyahu’s last winter, defied pundits and indeed resulted in victory.
Yet like Netanyahu, Erdogan stands to ultimately regret his gambit.
WITH 317 OF parliament’s 550 seats, the AKP has restored its grip on the political system.
This will suffice for Erdogan’s ongoing pressure on the judiciary, military, police and media to continue in earnest. While this leaves the Islamists 13 seats short of the special majority required for the constitutional reform Erdogan is seeking, chances are they will eventually find a way to overcome this technicality.
What will be left unbridged is the abyss that Erdogan has dug between his political machine and a critical mass of Turkish society.
First among the alienated are of course the Kurds, whom Erdogan effectively challenged to a duel when he called off the cease-fire with the PKK underground and began bombing Kurdish targets on both sides of the Turkish-Iraqi border.
Erdogan’s Kurdish ploy is an emblem of his broader political delivery, which combines tactical shrewdness with strategic dereliction. The tactic in this case, to impress nationalist voters by fighting a war he knew they would salute, worked wonders.
The far-right Nationalist Movement Party lost nearly half its seats, plunging from 79 to 40, with the balance falling in Erdogan’s lap, as the skirmish he provoked sparked patriotic feelings.
Strategically, however, Erdogan has opened a can of worms, as the renewed Kurdish violence is now bleeding the Turkish military, and can be counted on to continue and also intensify. Meanwhile, the Kurds’ political breakthrough was consolidated, as the HDP lost but a negligible 2.3% of its voters, and in fact replaced the nationalists as parliament’s third-largest faction.
Though its parliamentary presence shrank, due to Turkey’s complicated electoral system, from 80 to 59, the Kurdish cause is there to stay and will now haunt Erdogan indefinitely.
The electoral results also indicate Erdogan’s ongoing alienation of the secularist elite, which is led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Though it keeps losing, winning again a mere quarter of the electorate, the CHP defeated the Islamists in Turkey’s commercially vibrant European sliver and Aegean coastline.
While the secularists failed to wrest the financial capital, Istanbul, a megalopolis of 14 million people including large slums, it is clear that the rich and secular mostly oppose Erdogan, in many cases vehemently. Moreover, their numbers, like the Kurds’, are impossible to ignore, and alienating them, as Erdogan does daily, further unglues Turkish society.
It is the kind of situation that others would treat by sharing some power with adversaries and seeking ways to inspire a spirit of national appeasement. That is not Erdogan’s plan. The way he sees things, what Turkey needs is not more dialogue but more authority, his authority, which he hopes to bolster by creating an authoritarian, executive presidency.
Whether or not he manages to pass this reform, Erdogan is leading Turkey into a social dead end that might go down in history as the tragic aftermath of an Islamist electoral success.
The country’s diplomatic prospects seem no better.
Erdogan’s diplomacy has maneuvered Turkey into a three-ring siege: the borders, the region and the powers.
On the borders, Erdogan made an early choice to take sides in the Syrian civil war. It is unclear what kind of consultations, if any, preceded his harsh and personal attacks on his former ally Bashar Assad.
While Erdogan’s sincerity in attacking Assad on moral grounds remains debatable, there is no debating his Syrian policy’s strategic failure. It was clear all along what Erdogan wanted removed, but it was never clear what he wanted installed.
The closest thing to the Sunni alternative with which he presumably wanted to replace Assad is Islamic State. Suspicions indeed abound that Ankara secretly backed the fanatic organization’s struggle.
If that was the plan, it was obviously a nonstarter, considering Islamic State’s provocation of the entire world; and if that wasn’t the plan, then one must wonder what the plan was, besides fingering Assad day and night.
Erdogan’s lack of a constructive Syrian policy exposed him as an impulsive talker and ineffective statesman while more than a million refugees flocked into Turkey, at least 100,000 of them crowding into Istanbul and pressuring Turkey’s already oversupplied labor market.
This is besides the fact that Turkey’s malignant Syrian border is lined with disciplined Kurdish militias whose battlefield successes against Assad might draw them to their brethren across the border, the Kurds with whom Erdogan has just started a war for reasons that serve his personal ambitions at the expense of Turkey’s national interest.
Beyond his borders, Erdogan’s statesmanship pales compared with that of his Iranian neighbors.
Unlike Turkey, Iran never left any doubt concerning whom it was backing in Syria. It backed Assad – openly, generously and consistently.
And now, after four years of a brutal civil war, Tehran has apparently stemmed the tide, as Assad and his minority-rule survive, albeit militarily bloodied, geographically shrunken and politically dwarfed.
Erdogan’s regional failures are further underscored by his squandering of Ankara’s long-standing friendships with Egypt and Israel.
It is a splendid regional isolation in which Turkey ces Russia.
While the political model Erdogan craves reminds many of Vladimir Putin’s, Putin’s arrival in Erdogan’s backyard is hardly welcome from a Turkish viewpoint, and in fact constitutes a strategic fiasco.
News last month of a Russian military airport’s construction outside Latakia, and of the Kremlin’s fresh posting there of jets and pilots, which lost no time joining the fighting on Assad’s side, made it plain that Erdogan the statesman was once again outflanked.
Not only has Assad won a powerful ally’s game-changing involvement, that ally is Turkey’s most consistent and potent historic enemy, one with which it fought 12 wars.
Worse, Erdogan is now also at odds with Brussels, which feels Ankara is passive in the face of Syrian refugees’ passage into the European Union, and also with Washington, which doubts his sincerity in joining the global struggle against Islamic State.
Finally there is the economy, where a decade’s growth gave way in the past two years to capital flight, as investors suspected Turkey is losing its hard-won stability.
The lira’s loss of 40% of its dollar value since police stormed protesters in Istanbul two years ago, and foreign investments’ plunge from $22 billion in 2012 to $2.9b.
in this year’s first half, mean that the markets long for the stability Erdogan first built and then destroyed, just as Turkish society begs a measure of the hope he once represented and then undid.
In Jerusalem, some forecast this week that the re-empowered Erdogan will now turn to mend walls with Israel, whose newly found gas he sorely needs, due to the growing tensions between Ankara and Moscow.
That may be, assuming that when time for this decision comes, the aspiring sultan will think of nothing besides Turkey’s national interest.
Precedent, unfortunately, makes this assumption doubtful at best.