Sunday, 16 August 2015

Erdoğan Doubles Down With Another Electoral Gamble

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan reminds me of desperate gamblers who have lost their original stake and now are putting everything they have -- the kids' college funds, the rent, family shopping money -- into one more spin of the wheel, one more roll of the dice in hopes of recouping all their losses.

Not satisfied with the results of the June 7 where his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost sole control of government he has spent the intervening two months maneuvering to force another election – an election where voters will be sharply encouraged to correct the errors of their ways.

Half-hearted talks about a coalition government with the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) broke down last week, and the only question now is who will run the country until elections in November.

These elections are a huge gamble for Erdoğan, and an even bigger gamble for the country as a whole. But this is a gamble he has to take if he ever wants to realize his dream of a strong, unfettered presidency. The stakes could not be higher. He has already said the he is a de facto strong president and that a new constitution would merely ratify this new reality. Others differ -- strongly. Yes, the AKP may pick up enough additional MPs to form a single party government and reinforce his authoritarian rule. But, just as easily, the plan could back-fire badly and leave the AKP with even fewer MPs. This would create the scenario for another attempt at a coalition government with a partner who would force the president to operate within the tightly limited restrictions of the present constitution.
Not accepting a coalition, he rolls the dice on another election
It is not at all clear just what Erdoğan would do if he fails a second time to get his required majority. It is difficult to see him going quietly into the night. Therefore, he cannot afford to leave the campaign to his handpicked, low key prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. He will play a dominant role in the campaign, circumventing constitutional restrictions by appearing at ‘opening ceremonies’ from one end of the country to other. This tactic is also a gamble because post-election polls in June showed that his polarizing personality alienated a large number of voters. Furthermore, voters might just hold him responsible for the collapse of coalition talks and dragging the country through more uncertainty.

He is also gambling with critical issues like the economy that will drift aimlessly as the president and the ruling party focus exclusively on the election in a fight for their political lives. The possibility of at least three more months of political instability has already driven the Turkish Lira to record lows against the US dollar. Turks have developed extremely sensitive antennae for political troubles and react at warp speed by buying foreign currency at the first sign of instability. Retailers and other merchants report that business is stagnant at best as people conserve their cash and while waiting for further developments.

For Erdoğan this will be a one-issue campaign – national security. He will never forgive the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) for winning enough votes to drive the ruling party below the number of MPs required for a single-party government. In the June elections HDP won 13% of the vote and sent 80 members to parliament, 80 members that used routinely to go to AKP. The charismatic leader of the HDP also committed the unforgiveable sin of proclaiming loudly that his party would never make Erdoğan the strong president he so strongly covets.
Can the HDP repeat its June electoral success?
Therefore Erdoğan is doing everything in his power to win additional nationalist votes by attempting to tie HDP to the outlawed Kurdish guerrilla group, the PKK. If he is going to win he must eliminate the HDP members of parliament by driving HDP votes in any new election below the barrier of 10% of total votes cast required for sending MPs to parliament. The other strategy would be to ban the party altogether on the very tenuous grounds of its alleged links to the PKK. Both of these strategies, however, promise to re-kindle tensions that many Turks had hoped were long buried.

It is no coincidence that the level of violence in Turkey has picked up dramatically since the election with almost daily clashes between government security forces and an eclectic group of terrorists. The deadly bombing in the town of Suruç was blamed on the barbarians from ISIS, a bizarre group of anarchists was blamed for the hapless attack with a few shots fired at the fortress-like American consulate in Istanbul, and then the PKK has stepped up its attacks against police and the army. 

The PKK, for its part, is playing right into Erdoğan’s hands with the revival of its militant tactics that caused so much bloodshed over the years. The head of the Kurdish-based political party HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, must be tearing his hair in despair. Just as the Kurds had achieved their long-desired political break through with strong parliamentary representation the guerrilla group threatens to undo all those gains with its renewed violence.

Even with the renewed violence, a number of pieces have to fall into place for Erdoğan’s gamble to pay off.

1.      Closing the HDP  - ironically this has been made more difficult by changes instituted by Erdoğan’s own political party. The closure could happen, but it would be difficult. Would infuriate a significant portion of the Turkish population.
2.      Drive HDP votes below the 10% threshold. Very difficult. Hard to see the Kurds switching their votes back to the AKP. HDP might get less than 13%, but will still pass the 10% threshold.
3.      Attract more nationalist votes to AKP – Possible. Votes lost to the nationalist MHP party could swing back to the AKP.
4.      Reduce the number of non-Kurds voting for the HDP – Very difficult. These voters dislike Erdoğan intensely and will vote for anyone who promises to derail his ambitions.
5.      AKP must remain united behind Erdoğan – This is not a given. There are a significant number of original AKP members unhappy with Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic tendencies. It’s not at all clear how this faction will vote. Also not clear if former President Abdullah Gül will finally get off the fence and openly declare his opposition to Erdoğan. So far he seems to prefer issuing vague pronouncements while seated firmly on the fence ready to go in any direction.

My prediction is that unless HDP is shut down the election results will not differ very much from June. Even if AKP scrapes in with just enough votes to form a single-party government it will not have enough MPs to change the constitution the way Erdoğan wants. Meanwhile the economy will stutter along and internal security threats will raise their ugly head again. It’s one thing to gamble with one’s own political life. It’s quite another to include the entire country in that throw of the dice.

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