Thursday, 29 October 2015

Are The Elections Enough To Restore Stability In Turkey?

The election results this weekend in Turkey will resonate far beyond the borders of this country that finds itself at a critical fork in the road. Will Turkey continue to be a country aspiring to establish a real rule of law and a vital democracy with normal checks and balances? Or will it take the well-travelled authoritarian road used by most countries in the region, the road that tolerates no dissent and no challenge to unbridled power?

Most of the polls indicate that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will fail once again in its attempt to win enough deputies to form a single-party government, frustrating President Tayyip Erdoğan’s goal of creating an all-powerful presidency. Normally such an outcome would result in a new government being formed as a coalition of two or more parties. But these are not ‘normal’ times, and there is real doubt that Erdoğan would be any more amenable to a coalition now than he was in June. The personal and political stakes are too high for him to surrender easily the total control he has exercised for the past 13 years.

In large part the election hinges on the success of Erdoğan’s efforts to demonise the Kurds inside and outside Turkey as the main threat to the country’s stability. As Turkish journalist Cengiz Çandar noted last night in a lecture at the Middle East Centre of St. Antony’s College Oxford, Erdoğan blames the Kurds for blocking an absolute AKP majority and thwarting his goal of a strong presidency. The Kurdish-based HDP party won 13% of the vote in June, capturing not just its base of about 8% but also much of the Kurdish vote that had previously gone to the AKP.  Analysts estimate that what’s left of the Turkish liberal intelligentsia added another 1% - 1.5% of the HDP total.

Since the June elections Erdoğan has done everything he can to blame Kurds in general for the dramatic increase in violence since then. Forget the inconvenient fact that two of the major atrocities killing more than 100 people in Suruç and Ankara were caused by ISIS elements within Turkey where Kurds were the targets, not the instigators. This strategy might not win him many more Kurdish votes but it might help him win back enough of the nationalist votes to attain his absolute majority.

Violence in Syria comes to Turkey
   As Çandar pointed out, the Turkish Kurdish problem is complicated by the coexistence of the legal, political HDP and the long-standing Kurdish guerrilla movement called the PKK. Until recently the Turkish government was engaged in a so-called peace process with PKK aimed at ending decades of violence. These negotiations fell apart when the HDP emerged as a serious threat to Erdoğan’s political goals. The PKK says it resumed its military activities in response to attacks by the state. Other analysts say the PKK’s resumption of violence is a message to the HDP as well as the Turkish state. “Don’t forget that the road to peace in this region goes through Kandil,” the mountain in south eastern Turkey that is the symbolic home of the PKK. This is just a hint of some of the intra-Kurdish issues frustrating anyone trying to understand the Kurdish problem, let alone resolve it.

The Kurdish question has been further complicated by the emergence just across the border of a strong Syrian Kurdish group receiving international support for its fight against ISIS. The Turkish state sees the potential development of an autonomous Kurdish region next door in Syria as a threat to the very concept of a unitary Turkish nation state because of its links to Turkey’s own Kurds. This fear of a large Kurdish autonomous region encompassing Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq causes many sleepless nights in Ankara and explains in part why Turkey is much more interested in stopping the Kurds than in fighting ISIS. This anxiety is only increased as Turkish leaders recognize that they may not have much say in the matter if an autonomous Syrian Kurdish region is accepted by the international community as part of any resolution of the Syrian civil war.

Sunday’s election has been played out in the context of this increasing instability with ordinary citizens avoiding large crowds for fear of another bomb. These incidents used to be limited to places like Baghdad or war-torn Syria. Now they are closer to home as the mess in Syria spills over into Turkey. Erdoğan has been successful in turning this election away from normal political issues and into a question of Turkey’s security and stability. The question is who will the voters blame for the widening divisions.

Erdoğan is doing everything he can to lay the blame at the feet of what he calls a cocktail of terrorist groups – the PKK, the Syrian Kurds and ISIS. The underlying message is that any vote for the HDP is a vote for this volatile cocktail, and that the only way to guarantee the safety and security of Turkey is to return AKP – and himself -- to absolute power.

The opposition lays the blame at the divisive, authoritarian figure of Erdoğan himself and blames the instability on AKP’s failed domestic and international policies – especially its muddled Syrian policy. The way forward, according to the opposition, is to create a more democratic, open Turkey that relies on a real rule of law rather than the rule of one man.

Sunday’s election might answer the immediate question of who is to govern the country. But resolving the longer term question of how to reconcile the diverse groups within Turkey will require far more statesmanship than the bombast we have been hearing for several years.