Fear and loathing in Turkey

Fear and loathing in Turkey

Commentary

What are the consequences of Erdoğan’s surprising landslide win?

“Don’t tell my wife but I voted for AKP,” whispered a businessman, a self-declared hater of Turkey’s ruling party, explaining why he joined the 4.5 million extra voters that gave the Justice and Development Party (AKP) its unexpected – and meteoric— rise in Turkey’s snap elections on 1 November.

That the party completely recovered the near 20 percent drop in votes in the elections of 7 June is a near miracle as far as electoral politics is concerned, especially given that Turkey’s hottest summer preceded the elections: with Islamic State attacks, a freefalling lira, an insurgency in key Kurdish towns and the resumption of the war with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

But arguably, this “hot summer” is precisely why “fear” emerged as the dominant factor in Turks deciding to give AKP its fourth consecutive term.

For many voters, it was the sudden onset of economic stagnation, for others the five months of violence that left nearly 300 dead or perhaps the bitter memory of dysfunctional coalitions from the 90s—but one way or another, 49.5 percent of Turkish citizens from different walks of life decided that the country needed political stability, or as AKP leaders like to call it, “strong leadership.”

In many ways the snap elections were the brainchild of Turkey’s strongman, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and he stands to benefit most from the outcome. By artfully preventing the formation of a coalition government last summer Erdoğan took a huge gamble by pushing for new elections. He now has a huge win behind him and his supremacy inside the party (run by Erdoğan’s hand-picked successor Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu) remains uncontested. And his international appeal – weakened by Turkey’s authoritarian drive— could be rekindled once again.

There are short and long-term consequences of AKP’s win – the most immediate one being the status of Erdoğan. The previous elections had effectively ended the Turkish leader’s dream of pursuing a US-style executive presidency (since AKP was well below the 330 seats required to make such a constitutional amendment.). This time, Erdoğan’s allies wasted no time in introducing the idea of a super-presidency—called “başkanlık” in Turkish— as an immediate goal and part and parcel of a new constitution. Drafting a new constitution around the idea of a presidential system will likely dominate AKP’s parliamentary agenda over the next term.

With such a strong win, Erdoğan will also find it easier to mend strained relations with western allies, most notably Barack Obama who will be visiting Turkey next week as part of G20. Unhappy about the burgeoning US-Kurdish cooperation in Syria, and worried about an autonomous Kurdish buffer on its southern flank, Ankara now wants to play a more active role in the fight against the Islamic State. While Obama is expected to raise Ankara’s suppression of independent media in his talking points, strong criticism from Washington is not expected. Turkey’s strategic value and military capabilities once again make it a crucial asset for US interests in the region.

With the onset of refugee crises, Turkey’s relationship with Europe is also looking more “transactional” – and hardly in the spirit of real membership negotiations. Gestures like Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey right before the elections and the EU’s decision to postpone Turkey’s progress report were warmly received by AKP.  Over the next few months, and depending on the temperature of negotiations on Cyprus, Ankara is hoping that the EU will lift the blockade on one or two accession chapters.

Grave domestic problems, however, will continue to shadow AKP’s electoral victory. Turkey’s state institutions look weaker as the ruling party dominates all aspects of civic and public life. In the absence of a serious democratisation package, Erdoğan is unlikely to win the appreciation of “the other half”, which is divided politically but united in its opposition to Turkey’s strongman. Debates on the new constitution will almost inevitably revert back to a feud about Erdoğan himself, possibly lurching Turkish voters into another election cycle— this time a referendum on presidency— in a polarised atmosphere. The PKK ended its three-week ceasefire this week and fighting has resumed in parts of southeast. Typically, declarations of self-governance in Kurdish towns are followed with arrests and military operations, resulting in week-long curfews and further alienation of Turkey’s Kurdish population in southeastern parts of the country.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: Wider Europe, Turkey, The Middle East and North Africa

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