Saturday, 26 September 2015

Is Erdoğan Helping Or Hurting His Party In The Election Re-Run?

Something is missing from the early days of this re-run of the Turkish elections scheduled for Nov. 1. Maybe it’s the extended Islamic holiday, but the election seems somehow anti-climactic. All the polls indicate that, barring some major cataclysm or massive vote fraud, the results will not change very much from the first election in June.

            The ruling Justice and Development Party will once again fail to win enough deputies to form a single party government. The up-and-coming Kurdish-based Peoples’ Democratic Party will once again pass the 10% threshold to enter parliament. And the most likely coalition option remains as it was in June -- between AKP and the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

            So just why are the Turkish people being put through this trial yet again? Why have all key economic, foreign policy, and security issues been allowed to drift in a chaotic and dangerous fashion at a time when real leadership is required?

            Basically it’s because President Tayyip Erdoğan could not accept the fact that his fervent wish for a change of the constitution allowing him to become an all-powerful, unchecked president was simply not going to happen. No coalition government would ever allow that. Erdoğan could not accept this, and he scuttled all efforts to form a coalition in June. Better, he thought, to take his chances with a new election in November when the voters would be given a chance to correct the errors of their ways.

            But something strange is happening on the way to these elections. At one time it was unthinkable, but has Erdoğan’s once iron grip on the Turkish electorate  slipped a bit? Oh yes, he still rants and raves, and his house media still paints him as the modern equivalent of Suleiman the Magnificent. His circle of sycophants still lashes out at all dissenters. The large rent-a-crowds at his election rallies will give a misleading impression of deep support. But his Teflon coating seems to have become chipped. His version of reality was once unchallenged. No longer.

            If he is to have any chance at all he must push the HDP votes below the key 10% threshold. In the June elections the AKP was obliterated in the once-sure regions of the south-east and east as the insurgent HDP swept all the Kurdish votes that used to go to Erdoğan’s party. His tactic so far has been to whip up nationalist suspicion of all things Kurdish. He has tried to blame the HDP for the upsurge in violence that has cost dozens of lives.  According to Erdoğan’s rhetoric the HDP is merely a front for the outlawed PKK.  But according to the polls more people are holding him and the AKP government responsible for the violence. Funerals of slain soldiers and police officers are filled with people blaming the government, not the HDP, for this chaos. In this environment is hard to see AKP getting many of the vital Kurdish votes.

            His claims of a strong economy are also falling on deaf ears. The currency has depreciated almost 31% this year, growth is down, unemployment and inflation are up. Ayşe hanım may not grasp the finer points of macro-economic analysis but she knows very well when the prices of tomatoes and shoes for her kids keep going up. She also gets angry when her husband can’t find a job. Typically Ayşe and her friends take out their frustrations on the government in power.

            Erdoğan’s attacks on the few remaining independent media outlets have picked up steam. Thugs from the AKP attacked the daily Hürriyet building because of its alleged anti-Erdoğan stance. The leader of that mob was later elected to the ruling body of the AKP. Journalists critical of Erdoğan continue to be detained, and the hunt continues for anyone even vaguely associated with Fetullah Gülen, the Islamic scholar who was once close to Erdoğan but is now sharply opposed.

            Again, none of this so far seems to be having the usual impact of increasing AKP votes. Quite the contrary, many polls show declining support for the party. Not only has he lost the Kurdish vote, but an increasing number of anti-Erdoğan Turks are supporting the HDP. These polls may well be unreliable, but the widespread, uncritical popular support Erdoğan used to enjoy seems to be lacking.

            People are now starting to ask what happens after the election. Will there be a coalition? Will Erdoğan allow one this time? And what of the enigmatic figure of former president Abdullah Gül? So far he has disappointed those who had hoped he would take a stronger, more visible stance against Erdoğan and become an alternative leader of the party.  Cynics respond that such hopes are in vain because there is not that much daylight between Gül and Erdoğan, and that he never opposed Erdoğan when he had the chance as president.

Instead of taking an openly critical stance against his former colleague he has remained firmly on the fence by limiting his activities to almost dainty sentiments about how he would have done things differently, how he would have preferred to see more of an effort to bring people together rather than foster divisions. Nice words to be sure. But in the rough, hand-to-hand combat of Turkish politics they don’t count for very much. Will he abandon his Hamlet imitation and get directly involved to reclaim the party that has been taken over by the ‘Erdoğanistas?’

But the key question is how quickly after the election any new Turkish government can turn its attention to the country’s real problems of a declining economy, rapidly unravelling foreign policy, and restoring sustainable internal security.

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