Reuters Erdogan near Ataturk's mausoleum in Ankara, August 2005.

Erdogan's Tightrope Act

Between Democracy and State Monopoly in Turkey

On June 7, Turkish voters will head to the polls to decide the future character of the Republic of Turkey. On the surface, the parliamentary elections will pit Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) against three major competitors. The real question, however, is whether the ballots will supply the AKP with 330 parliamentary seats, which would give the party a supermajority and would allow Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s three-time prime minister and now president, to change Turkey’s constitution and establish what he calls a “Turkish-style” presidential system. Such an outcome would stand a high chance of rolling back the country’s democratic advances ushered in by the AKP’s original 2002 electoral victory.

Erdogan, who held the prime minister’s post from 2003 to 2014, seeks to transform his new position, currently largely ceremonial, into a role as the country’s chief administrator. He would have strong executive powers without the checks and balances of an American-style system. In a sense, therefore, Turkish voters will be deciding on the future of Turkish democracy—and on whether the government’s growing power over the people or the people’s growing desire for personal freedom will prevail.

Current trends do not look favorable for Erdogan. Three and a half weeks out, a survey by Metropoll, the Turkish polling company with the best track record of predicting election results, indicates that an increasing number of voters are growing tired of the AKP. Asked about their views on Erdogan’s plan for a presidential system, almost 55 percent of respondents opposed it, with just under 32 percent in favor. When asked to choose from a list of descriptions of Erdogan’s proposed “Turkish-style” presidentialism, including “a democratic form of government” and a system “more efficient in administrative matters,” 59 percent of respondents picked the option that described the potential system as one that “causes authoritarianism.”

Voters are also growing wary about the direction Turkey is heading. A full 50 percent thought that their country was changing for the worse; only 36 percent thought it was evolving for the better. The government’s handling of the economy—the AKP has presided over a two-year growth slump—partially explains this skepticism; almost 55 percent of respondents thought that the AKP had done a bad job trying to engineer a turnaround. Small wonder, then, that only about 36 percent said that they planned to vote for the AKP. If these trends hold on election day, they will translate into a serious blow to the ruling party, which got almost 50 percent of the votes in 2011, when Erdogan, then prime minister, won his third consecutive term.

University students protest against the AKP government in Istanbul, November 2013

THE CRUMBLING PLATFORM

Erdogan and the AKP came to power in the 2002 elections on an Islamic-based platform that emphasized greater government accountability and civic pluralism. This agenda attracted some secular liberals who opposed the Turkish military’s interference in domestic politics. It also energized the AKP’s core constituency: the working poor and lower-middle-class families in the countryside and smaller cities who felt neglected by the elites and yearned for economic and political empowerment. That constituency was more religiously conservative, and for them, the AKP’s openness to Sunni Islam was part and parcel of the new opportunities they were previously denied. Not hurting matters was the AKP’s promise to supply the most disadvantaged of them with reliable electricity and water services—improvements that eventually helped accelerate Turkey’s growth and broaden its middle class.

On June 7, Turkish voters will be deciding on the future of Turkish democracy—and on whether the government’s growing power over the people or the people’s growing desire for personal freedom will prevail. But the economic boom ended three years ago and, gradually, Erdogan began to abandon civic pluralism. Instead, he focused on empowering his core constituency through crony capitalism, particularly grandiose construction projects designed to enrich AKP-affiliated businesses. Concurrently, the government pushed through a series of polarizing measures for state enforcement of conservative religious mores. Simmering discontent exploded into nationwide protests over Gezi Park in May 2013, when riot police violently suppressed activists who demonstrated against the destruction of one of Istanbul’s last green spaces.

In response, Erdogan doubled down by portraying the clash as a conflict of the secular against the religious, a struggle between what he called “white Turks” (secular upper-class urban elites) and “black Turks” (socially conservative, lower-middle-class and working-class Sunni Muslims). This strategy came with a price: it discredited the AKP’s platform of civic pluralism and shattered the complex mosaic of Turkish Muslim traditions that favor accommodation. Ultimately, the AKP’s Islamic-based political discourse has become a tool of state control.

For Turkey’s center-right voters, especially the younger ones, the state’s growing control over their lives and the country’s economic institutions has caused mounting concern. Erdogan’s retort has been to pin the blame for the economic slowdown on the country’s central bank and to wage a one-man war to abolish its independence. These developments have so severely damaged business confidence that the head of the Turkish Industry and Business Association recently criticized them as “disturbing” and “confusing the minds of the business community and the public.”

JOSTLING FOR POSITION

Erdogan’s vision for a new presidential system is further complicated by stiff political competition, including from the Kurds, who constitute approximately 20 percent of the population. The Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has vowed to cross the required ten percent electoral threshold needed to be seated in parliament; if it succeeds, it could receive 60 of the 550 seats. Even without the HDP, the combined parliamentary strength of Turkey’s two main opposition parties (the Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Movement Party) equals that of the AKP, according to most polls. The HDP’s entrance into the parliament would make it mathematically impossible for the AKP to garner the 330 seats it needs for a supermajority. If the HDP falls short, however, the AKP will prevail. Turkish electoral law dictates that when a party fails to cross the ten percent threshold, leftover seats go to the next most popular party among the first party’s constituency—which in this case would be the AKP, since it’s popular with more conservative Kurds. 

The HDP campaign is led by Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic lawyer whose advocacy for democratic rights across Turkey has earned him some support among Turkey’s non-Kurdish left. During the August 2014 presidential election, Demirtas walked away with a surprising 9.76 percent of the vote—a feat that spurred the HDP to stop registering its candidates as independents and to instead set its sights on crossing the ten percent threshold as a party. Most recent polls, including Metropoll’s, show the HDP hovering just below or just above the magic percentage. For his part, Demirtas has made a point of emphasizing his unwavering opposition to Erdogan’s plan to change the constitution.

Demirtas’ unique position—as a leader capable of bringing a Kurdish-led party into the parliament for the first time—could allow him to win over some of the AKP’s Kurdish supporters. Erdogan has worked hard to build up that support base, initiating a “Kurdish opening,” advocating for teaching Kurdish in schools, and removing the taboo of publicly using the word “Kurdistan.” Moreover, the AKP has been in talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which might halt its 30-year insurgency after Ocalan’s declaration of peace this past March. Still, for many Kurds, who demand full language and cultural rights as well as some form of local autonomy, Erdogan’s slow progress fails to meet their now heightened expectations. Their frustration may work to the HDP’s advantage.

Erdogan attends a ceremony marking the 92nd anniversary of Victory Day at Anitkabir in Ankara, August 2014.

That is not to say that the HDP will sail to victory, of course. Just one challenge for Demirtas is that many ethnic Turkish voters—those who’d otherwise be inclined to support him—still doubt that his platform is fully divorced from the influence of Ocalan and the PKK. Besides, even if the HDP crosses the electoral threshold, it might fail to stop Erdogan from changing the constitution. In fact, there is a realistic possibility that the AKP could still muster the necessary 330 seats by enticing Demirtas’ party into a political coalition. For all of Demirtas’ opposition to Erdogan’s agenda, he might feel compelled to join an alliance if Erdogan offers significant concessions to the PKK, and especially if he promises to release the iconic Ocalan from prison.

COUNTERPRODUCTIVE AMBITIONS 

Although one shouldn’t underestimate Erdogan’s considerable skills as a campaigner, it’s hard to envision the AKP easily attaining a supermajority in free and fair elections. True, Erdogan has helped change Turkey for the better as prime minister, particularly in the early years of his tenure. The irony is that he has already created the “new Turkey” of which he speaks today—back in his old guise as a transformational prime minister. He did that by breaking the monopoly of an insensitive, statist elite that had mismanaged the country’s economy and hampered growth.

Now, however, a growing share of the electorate is beginning to regard the AKP as yet another party of the insensitive, statist elite. Erdogan’s effort to further concentrate power may well fail at the ballot box this June thanks to the very forces that his earlier efforts at economic and political empowerment have unleashed.

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