Sunday’s election last chance for Erdogan to force 'executive presidency'

Turkish president seeks unprecedented control, but many see the beginning of the end.

Erdogan casts vote in Turkey's snap poll
ISTANBUL - Turks will cast their votes on Sunday in a snap election after their government failed to form a coalition for the first time in Turkish history following the June 7 election.
That election, the most important in recent memory, resulted in the formerly ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – the party of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - losing its majority for the first time since it swept to power in 2002, falling 18 seats short of the required 276. This was mostly due to losing Kurdish votes to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which garnered 80 of the 550 seats in the Turkish Grand National Assembly with 13 per cent of the vote.
Since then the country has been set ablaze in seemingly non-stop bloodshed and government crackdowns. More than 600 people have been killed in post-election violence. The two-year ceasefire between the state and the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is finished. Thirty-three died in explosions in Suruç on July 20 and 102 perished in Turkey’s worst-ever assault in Ankara on October 10. Both tragedies were committed by suicide bombers linked to the Islamic State and the dead were mostly government critics, leftists and HDP members and supporters.
HDP offices and Kurdish-owned shops have also been attacked hundreds of times since the start of the election period, including the IS-linked bombing of an HDP rally in Diyarbakır on June 5 that left four dead. Virtually no suspects have been brought to justice.
After the Ankara bombing the HDP cancelled all election rallies.
There have been allegations that police and security forces have simply stood by and watched as mobs attacked Kurdish-owned shops, while AKP politicians have given incendiary speeches to the mobs. Local press, breaking a media black-out forbidding reporting on the Ankara bombing, revealed that Turkey’s extremely robust security forces had been tracking the bombers yet did nothing to stop them.
“There are absolutely no prosecutions, no policing around these things, and they’re open targets,” Karabekir Akkoyunlu, an assistant professor of Modern Turkey and Southeast Europe at the University of Graz in Austria, tells The Media Line. He cautions that the evidence of state involvement in the recent violence is circumstantial, but such a thing wouldn’t be unprecedented. “We have a long history of state-triggered violence for political ends.”
“To what extent have the security forces turned a blind eye?” Aykan Erdemir, a former parliamentarian for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and current non- resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), asks. “To what extent does the AKP have political responsibility for not going after IS operatives? And the ultimate question: to what extent is Turkish intelligence complicit in these attacks?” The HDP has become the AKP’s primary target since preventing the latter’s majority in the June elections and dashing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s hopes of creating a much more powerful executive presidency for himself. Twenty-two HDP mayors have been removed from office and another twenty arrested. Over 1,500 HDP members have been detained or formally arrested since June. The party gets virtually no time on pro-government television channels, where most Turks get their news from. AKP Politicians and pro-government media outlets continuously equate the HDP with the PKK, which they say collaborated with IS and Syrian intelligence during the Ankara bombing.
“They planned this attack jointly, all together,” Erdoğan said on October 22 at a labor union meeting.
Analysts reject the claims as absurd, since IS and the PKK are sworn enemies and there’s no evidence or motive for PKK involvement. The HDP and PKK do indeed have close relations. The former emerged from the Kurdish movement that the latter began, but the two organizations are moving further and further apart and HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş has repeatedly condemned both state and PKK violence.
“The HDP’s rise did sort of rattle the government’s plans, Erdoğan’s plans, who then went on to use ready and waiting nationalist instincts in society, and either allowed [attacks] to happen [or] instigated them at certain points,” Professor Akkoyunlu says.
Critics of the AKP and Erdoğan, who violated the constitution and abandoned his non- partisan role as president to support his former party during the elections, accuse them of fomenting violence as a way to scare voters into giving them back their majority, and of threatening chaos if they don’t. During a television interview on September 6, Erdoğan said, “If a party had managed to secure 400 deputies or a number that could change the constitution [367 are required], the situation today would have been very different.”
“I think the general picture shows a systemic threatening mechanism that was established to achieve one and only one goal, and that is a single-party ruling AKP,” CHP parliamentarian and deputy leader Selin Sayek Böke tells The Media Line.
Much of the recent violence, including attacks against Kurds, opposition political party offices, and the headquarters of the major daily newspaper Hürriyet, has been blamed on the Ottoman Hearths, a pro-Erdoğan youth group rumored to have ties to the AKP.
“It was only recently that the AKP felt the need to build almost a brown-shirts, almost a paramilitary auxiliary, the Ottoman Hearths,” Erdemir says. “This is a dangerous game that Erdoğan and the AKP are playing. They are in a way playing with fire.”
Experts say Turkish politics is harder than ever to predict because so much depends on Erdoğan himself, and how he reacts to a society increasingly turning against him.
“I think the AKP is almost beside the point. What we’re talking about is one man,” says Professor Jenny White, a social anthropologist and Turkey expert at Boston University who spent time following and interviewing Erdoğan when he was mayor of Istanbul twenty years ago.
“The scariest thing is that nobody knows what’s going to happen next, because nobody knows which way Erdoğan’s going to jump,” White says, speaking to The Media Line from Boston.
“Something has happened to him that’s caused him to be afraid. [Russian president] Putin apparently once said that the most dangerous animal is a cornered rat because they’ll do anything to get out. I think that’s a fair description of where Erdoğan is now.”
Henri Barkey is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center and an expert on Turkey. He thinks Erdoğan’s time is finally coming to an end.
“This may be the beginning of the loosening of Erdoğan’s grip on Turkey, and I think that would definitely be a positive thing. He’s gotten too much power, the way he controls the press, the way he controls the state institutions,” Barkey says, speaking to The Media Line from Washington. “What he has created essentially is a sycophantic culture.”
Most polls predict the results on Sunday to be similar to those from the June election, with the HDP once again surpassing the 10 per cent threshold to enter parliament, and the AKP failing to win a majority. Funda Sancar, a 24-year-old clinical psychology graduate student who used to vote CHP, voted for the HDP in June, and will do so again on Sunday. She is ardently opposed to Erdoğan and the AKP, who she says are responsible for recent violence, and says the HDP is the only major party to support minorities and leftists.
“I see them not just saying bad things about Erdoğan, but also trying to do new things,” she says. “I think the CHP just says bad things about Erdoğan but they don’t do anything concrete.”
In June, many, including CHP head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, said that AKP leader and prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was prepared to form a coalition but was ordered not to by Erdoğan.
Professor Barkey says there’s a chance Davutoğlu and others within the AKP will break with Erdoğan and form a coalition regardless of what he says, or that current and former AKP members could form another party.
“I think there’s a very good chance that if Ak Parti doesn’t get a majority again this time, you will see a move to break up the party by [former president and AKP member] Abdullah Gül and his people,” Barkey says. “This will be their chance. If they do it, they’ll have to do it now, after the election.”
According to Barkey, the most likely coalition would be between the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which won 80 seats in June and has a similar voter base to the AKP.
“The question is, can MHP sell this to its people?” Barkey asks. “What the MHP will demand, first and foremost, is war with the PKK. And Erdoğan will give that.”
However, the secularist CHP, Turkey’s largest opposition party which won 131 seats in June, expressed its openness to join a coalition with the AKP at that time. Aykan Erdemir, the former CHP member of parliament, is hopeful that such a coalition will be possible.
“I think Davutoğlu will try to build a grand coalition because that’s the only way to prove and consolidate his leadership,” Erdemir says. “My guess is the key determinant of coalition talks will be whether Davutoğlu can feel strong enough and demonstrate leadership to override Erdoğan’s veto to enter into a grand coalition. If he wants it, I think the CHP is fully ready.”
Erdemir says CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu has helped pull the party from its rigidly nationalistic, severely secular past since he took over in 2010, “transforming it from a party that was associated more with negative and reactionary kind of feelings into a party that’s more positive, constructive, [and] open for business and dialogue.”
“The party has transformed into the true social democratic identity that it used to [have],” CHP parliamentarian Böke says. “I think this transformation is now bearing its fruit.”
Berk Esen, a 33-year-old international relations professor at Bilkent University in Ankara, will be casting his vote on Sunday for the CHP. “I’m very happy about the change in the party since Kılıçdaroğlu’s rise to power,” Esen says. “I’m very concerned by the authoritarian direction that Turkey has taken over the last six or seven years,” he says, mentioning allegations of high level corruption and attacks on civil liberties and saying the CHP has the best chance of stopping this. The government is currently engaged in one of the most severe media crackdowns in Turkish history, with critical journalists being detained, sued and investigated every week. In September the large Hürriyet newspaper’s headquarters was attacked twice, the first time by a mob led by an AKP parliamentarian. On Wednesday Koza İpek Holding, an opposition media company linked to Erdoğan’s former ally and current rival Fethullah Gülen was attacked by police and its two newspapers and television channels were shut down, and one paper was immediately installed with a new pro-government editor.
Harun Armağan, a 29-year-old member of a local AKP youth group, says that during desperate times the media should be careful about what it reports. “We don’t want any journalists to be in prison and we don’t want anyone to be punished because of their opinions, but we also need to consider that Turkey is under attack by two terrorist organizations and such times are more sensitive in terms of national security,” he says.
Armağan points out that despite losing popularity, the AKP remains Turkey’s most popular party, winning 41 per cent of the vote in June. “It’s still a huge number. There’s no party in Turkish history that’s gained this much [of the] vote for four elections in a row. Ak Parti won eight elections.”
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