Turkey’s AKP facing a watershed moment

Friday 12/06/2015
Dramatic turn of events

Perhaps the most telling single utterance in the immediate aftermath of Turkey’s historic June 7th elections came from the new players in politics, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). An HDP deputy said he and his fellow HDP members of parliament realise they were elected as a party for the first time only because of a protest vote against the sitting govern­ment. It was a refreshingly brave and honest statement.

The ruling Justice and Devel­opment Party (AKP), which won around 258 seats but needing at least 330 to call a referendum to change executive power from the parliament to the president, is still very much the dominant political force in Turkey.

However, it must realign its priorities: Does it opt for a full-steam-ahead policy of nasty and dangerous rhetoric that would di­vide Turkish society even further and put a nascent peace process with militant Kurds at risk? Or does it go back to what made it an unbeatable political machine in the first place — creating jobs and appealing to peoples’ religious motivations?

Not everything has been the AKP’s fault. As has happened in other emerging market countries, Turkey’s economic growth slowed significantly in recent years, to 3% in 2014. The cost of living has increased rapidly.

The millionaires, whom Presi­dent Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls on to finance massive develop­ment projects, such as Istanbul’s third airport and the Ilisu dam in south-eastern Turkey, are find­ing it harder to come up with the cash to carry out huge job-creating endeavours.

The government’s blocking of supplies to Syrian Kurds fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Kobane alienated many of Turkey’s Kurds. The HDP has been active in reach­ing out to conservative Kurdish tribes in Turkey, which have tra­ditionally sided with the state and fought Kurdish PKK rebels.

Immediately after a bomb attack at an HDP rally in the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, police charged the fleeing crowd in armoured vehicles firing water cannon. Er­dogan, even though, as president, barred from electioneering, ap­peared on live television soon after at one of a succession of “opening ceremonies” at which he ad­dressed a large crowd. No mention was made of the bombing.

With Kurds making up some 20% of Turkey’s population, it is a large section of voters to lose and the AKP will have to work hard to get those votes back.

The future of stalled Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) peace talks will likely be crucial for both the AKP and the HDP, which some nationalist Turks regard as the political arm of the PKK.

For now, at least, few Turks trust the HDP to put the country’s inter­ests above that of Kurds in the PKK peace process.

On the streets of eastern Is­tanbul the night of the election, the sense of where Kurds’ chief concern lies was evident: Dozens of young Kurdish men waved flags and pictures of PKK leader Abdul­lah Ocalan, jailed since 1999 on a Turkish island prison after being convicted of terrorism charges and sentenced to life in prison.

While many businesses, big and small, attribute their success to the AKP, some leftists say they expect a backlash and that Turkey may be headed towards political violence and instability.

Regardless of whether a snap election is called, which analysts say is more likely than a coalition government, this election is a vic­tory for the under-represented, those living on the margins of soci­ety, be they rural and urban Kurds, women or religious minorities.

How the chief players — the AKP, Erdogan, nationalist Turks and the Kurdish minority — react to events over the summer will determine whether Turkey has stepped away from the authoritarian cliff and en­tered a new age of mature politics.