When Erdogan’s formula stopped working
LONDON - Since the neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) won Turkish parliamentary elections in 2002 it has embarked on an ambitious political project that has transformed Turkey. Headed by the charismatic Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP achieved a number of successes.
Economic reform initially posted impressive growth, the army’s tendency to interfere in politics was decisively curbed and a more mature democracy appeared to be taking shape.
The electoral success that allowed this ambitious agenda to be implemented was based upon a simple majoritarian formula: Energise the roughly 50% of conservative Turks to whom the AKP’s political agenda appeals and ignore the rest of the electorate. Increasingly, however, this abrasive style appears to be uniting Erdogan’s opponents and worrying the AKP’s electoral base.
One of the most striking features of Turkey’s June 7th general election, which saw the AKP lose its parliamentary majority, was the flood of tactical voting that allowed the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP) to cross the threshold of 10% of the national vote necessary to be represented in parliament.
The 10% threshold, widely viewed as a mechanism for preventing organised Kurdish representation, was reached with support from secular, middle-class Turkish voters who might otherwise vote for the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP). The main factor motivating these voters seems to have been fear of Erdogan’s political ambitions.
Erdogan has relentlessly campaigned to turn Turkey from a parliamentary into a presidential system, pushing through measures during his last term as prime minister to turn the presidency into a directly elected post. Erdogan won election to the now directly elected post of president with 51.97% of the vote.
However, since his election Erdogan has played fast and loose with the constitution, making a mockery of provisions stipulating that the presidency be a politically neutral post.
The directly elected presidency has been used by Erdogan as a platform to accrue powers. He increasingly used the judiciary as a means to intimidate political opponents and the media, with newspapers editors threatened with prosecution for running stories not to the president’s liking.
The use of the judiciary as an offensive weapon was also accompanied by a hectoring tone, accusing the HDP of being a front for Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists and refusing to condemn more than 70 violent attacks on HDP offices and candidates.
Two days before the latest election, two bombs tore through an HDP rally in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, killing three and wounding at least 200. Erdogan’s muted response to the attacks was seen as being in keeping with his ultra-partisan style.
“He should go to Diyarbakir. Is he not the president of 77 million people? He ought to leave flowers where people were killed,” said HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas.
With such a charged atmosphere before the vote, and with Erdogan pursuing his traditional formula of energising his base by launching vicious attacks on his political opponents, many Turks came to view the vote as a means of stopping an increasingly frightening political project.
“In the end the AKP was running an almost revolutionary programme, just going extra-judicial to establish a new regime.
So they started using the judiciary as a tool… Turkish society believes in independent arbiters in the form of judicial regulatory institutions and the media,” says Mehmet Muderrisoglu, Turkey analyst at Eurasia Group, a political consultancy.
“This result shows Turks do not prioritise political stability over everything. “This was essentially a rejection of an executive presidency, the one President Erdogan was hoping to establish… Turks want more cooperation, even at the expense of returning to the coalition governments of the ’90s.”