It would be nice to think that Turkey’s abrupt about-face on joining the war against ISIS was solely the result of President Tayyip Erdoğan’s long-delayed and agonized conclusion that the barbaric Sunni Islamic terrorist group was a threat to Turkey as well as Iraq and Syria. Alas, things in Turkey are never that simple or straight-forward.
Ever since ISIS appeared on the scene Erdoğan has been reluctant to commit his massive armed forces to stopping ISIS or allowing American fighters to use the large Incirlik air base in southern Turkey. His refusal to help the beleaguered town of Kobani last winter sent a message to the Kurds that he preferred ISIS to Kurdish control of northern Syria.
What happened to change his mind? Why did he suddenly see the light? Now, about six months after the successful Kurdish and American defence of Kobani, the proximate cause for his change of heart was the July 20 suicide bombing in the Turkish town of Suruç where at least 31 people – most of them Turkish Kurds -- were killed. The bombing was attributed to ISIS and finally caused Turkish policy makers to get off the fence and join the fight. So goes the Turkish government narrative.
The reality is a bit more complicated. It is not lost on many people in Turkey that this change of heart coincides with a nasty bit of domestic politics. Erdoğan and the AKP suffered a major set-back in the June 7 parliamentary elections. AKP, thanks in large part to the predominantly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) that polled far better than anyone suspected, failed to secure enough votes to form a government by itself for the first time since 2002. This dealt a severe blow to Erdoğan’s dream of changing the constitution to make the presidency a strong, unchecked, unchallenged position. Any coalition resulting from the elections would never allow that development.
This is unacceptable to Erdoğan. Few people doubt that he now spends more time plotting an early election this fall than working to form a strong coalition government. In order to get better results for the AKP he has do something to reduce the votes for the HDP that, in addition to the Kurds, is also supported by much of what is left of the Turkish liberal intelligentsia.
Bear with me while we do a little election math here. In order for any single party in Turkey to form a government it must win at least 276 of the 550 seats in parliament. AKP easily accomplished this in every election from 2002 – 2015. This year, however, a new party (HDP) entered the elections and had a real chance to win at least 10% of the total vote, a requirement to send any MPs to parliament. HDP surprised everyone by winning more than 13% of the vote and sending 80 MPs to parliament, thus depriving AKP of its controlling majority as it won only 258 MPs. This was a very unpleasant surprise for Erdoğan who was now faced with the real possibility that a coalition government would restrict his powers. Worse, such a coalition government could even start seriously investigating corruption charges against former ministers and Erdoğan’s friends and family.
Ever since the election Erdoğan and his anointed successor as prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, have dragged their feet on forming a coalition government. Erdoğan at least would much prefer to take his chances on a second election this fall in hopes that AKP would get more than 276 MPs.
The only real way for this scenario to work would be to somehow drive HDP below the 10% threshold and for AKP to reclaim those 80 MPs. There were a total of just over 46 million votes cast in the June election, and HDP won more than six million of those votes. Driving HDP under the 10% barrier would require a swing of almost two million votes away from HDP. It’s difficult to see any of the Kurdish voters changing their votes, and I don’t believe any of the liberals who voted for HDP would suddenly recant and send their votes elsewhere.
Erdoğan’s only alternative is to play the Turkish nationalist card and accuse the HDP of being nothing more than a front for the Kurdish guerrilla group the PKK. This entails ripping up his loudly publicized ‘peace process’ with the same PKK. Between now and November he would hope to drive home the image of AKP as the only hope for stability and peace by associating HDP with instability and terrorist violence.
By suddenly agreeing to work with the Americans against ISIS Erdoğan also opens the door for renewed Turkish air attacks against Kurds in northern Iraq and Syria – all in the name of preventing the spread of allegedly Kurdish-inspired terrorism to Turkey. It’s almost as if he is saying, “I told you so. This is what voting for the HDP gets you.” In addition to the guilt by association strategy, there are growing calls from Erdoğan loyalists and ultra-nationalists who loathe the Kurds to ban HDP altogether.
But will this transparent strategy achieve its goal? This is a very risky policy because it is not even clear that the AKP could hold onto the votes it won in June let alone increase them. And, unless HDP is banned, it is difficult to see its solid hold on the southeast weakening. Furthermore, there are threats of serious cracks within the AKP as some of the founders of the party strongly disagree with what has happened to their party under Erdoğan’s autocratic rule. Meanwhile the inconclusive, insincere coalition dance continues as the country faces another several months of instability in the run-up to yet another election.