Turkey’s troubles extend far beyond Erdogan’s ambitions

Turkey is heading to new elections but Caleb Lauer wonders what will happen if the country gets the same results

In Bertolt Brecht's poem Die Lösung ("The Solution"), written after the 1953 uprising in East Germany, a functionary hands out bulletins informing the people they have cost themselves the trust of the government and now must strive to regain it.

The poem concludes:

Would it not be easier

In that case for the government

To dissolve the people

And elect another?

The tragicomic and ironic mockery of a people’s sovereignty captured by Brecht more than six decades ago goes right to the heart of the latest manifestation of Turkey’s democratic deficit.

The country will have another general election this year, despite the fact that the one already held on June 7 had a clear result. It registered discontent with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002, and validation of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which represents the Kurdish national movement. The election saw the HDP surpass, for the first time, the 10 per cent national vote required to enter parliament. As the AKP and the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) together received more than 65 per cent of the vote, the election also provided a legitimate mandate for a coalition between those two parties.

But a coalition has not been formed and a minority government is unlikely. The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who is not contesting the parliamentary election) said yesterday he wants a new election on November 1 and will meet parliament’s speaker on Monday to make the arrangements, effectively dissolving one election result to force another.

That another election is necessary stands in contrast to the optimism with which many people greeted the election results in June. After years of headlines narrating the Turkish government’s stiffening authoritarianism, its turn from the West, its antagonising religious rhetoric and its curbs on rights and freedoms, analysts and observers in Turkey and around the world celebrated the fact that a fundamentally wise and decent Turkish electorate was able to deliver the government a trouncing.

Notwithstanding the preposterous claim made by Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu in a recent Washington Post opinion article – that Turkey has a "full-fledged democracy underpinned by all the necessary checks and balances" – faith in Turkey's system seemed, for a moment, to be not entirely delusional.

During the lead-up to the June election, many people focused on Mr Erdogan’s ambition to have the AKP win enough seats in parliament to amend the constitution and create for him a new “executive presidency”. Mr Erdogan had to resign his party affiliation when he became president, but he campaigned hard for his former party, and is expected to do so again. Outside the AKP universe, this proposed concentration of powers was considered a power grab of dictatorial proportions. The results of June 7 seemed to be Mr Erdogan’s comeuppance.

But all this was entirely too optimistic, as it seems that Mr Erdogan is about to get a second chance. This has become the conventional wisdom among government critics because the June election result checked Mr Erdogan’s ambitions. The results would not be allowed to stand and that, by blocking any potential coalition, Mr Erdogan engineered an election rerun.

To get a new election result, Mr Erdogan and the AKP want to lure back the former AKP voters who defected to the nationalist MHP and push the HDP below the 10 per cent threshold. In the latter case, most of the HDP’s 80 parliamentary seats would go to the AKP.

Accordingly, AKP leaders and Mr Erdogan have doubled down in denigrating the Kurdish national movement and have launched a massive military campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), all but formally renouncing the peace process between the government and the Kurdish rebels.

With the PKK in open conflict with Turkish security forces – a stark contrast to the ceasefire that was in effect for the more than two years preceding the June election – the HDP, as an affiliate of the PKK, will find it difficult to sustain the support it attracted from voters unsympathetic to the PKK. The AKP can campaign on an “antiterror” ticket.

It is a compelling explanation of recent events – which makes it especially useful to the critics and government opponents promoting it. And indeed, Mr Erdogan has made it clear that he will again campaign for a new presidential system. But several factors often left out of such accounts should not be overlooked.

First, the resumption of deadly conflict between the PKK and Turkish security forces was not conjured up by Mr Erdogan simply because the AKP lost its parliamentary majority.

As the PKK and its affiliates are the most significant ground force in the fight against ISIL, the “peace process” – that is, negotiations to disarm the PKK – have been little more than a facade for many months. As it can’t disarm, the PKK has little to offer at the negotiating table.

Boosted by its fight with ISIL, the PKK’s prestige has gone sky-high. Presumably, both sides understood that the Turkish government could not tolerate a rearming PKK with rising stature, and that a confrontation had been in the offing long before the June election.

If the HDP were barred from parliament, the AKP would surely get its parliamentary majority but might be ruling over a country on fire. Outrage among HDP supporters would be profound.

Is the AKP really so cynical as to desire such a pyrrhic electoral victory? It seems implausible. Especially, oddly enough, if one holds to the common view that Mr Erdogan has such a hold over the AKP that even the party’s nominal chairman and presumed nice-guy, Mr Davutoglu, is not strong enough to stand up to him. The theory goes that the AKP is simply facilitating Mr Erdogan’s personal quest for power or, less romantically, his efforts to avoid being indicted by prosecutors were he to lose power.

It seems less implausible if one considers this in the context of the AKP’s most significant achievement – getting the army out of politics. But many accounts of this achievement fail to note that the process did not also curb the power of the army-built state that remains in place.

The AKP’s achievement was less a democratisation of the state and more a commandeering. The election is not only about Mr Erdogan’s quest for power. It is about the mother of all vested interests: the AKP’s control of the state.

The Turkish electorate has already once this year blocked this quest and challenged this control. For its trouble, and despite generating much optimism, the electorate’s pronouncement has been dissolved.

With electoral calculations, regional geopolitics, and basic problems of political legitimacy all in play, what happens if the people again deliver the Turkish government the same rebuke? What if they don’t?

Caleb Lauer is a freelance journalist in Turkey