Turkey at a crossroads under all-powerful Erdogan
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ruled Turkey for 15 years, first as prime minister from 2003 and then as president from 2014. In May this year, he called for snap elections on June 24, nearly a year-and-a-half before they were due. The elections would take place in a state of emergency, declared in the wake of the attempted coup in July 2016.
Erdogan had already obtained popular support for major changes in the country’s constitutional set-up, which have now been realized thanks to these elections. The country now has a presidential rather than a parliamentary system; the size of the national assembly has increased from 550 to 600; and the minimum age to stand as a candidate is now 18 instead of 25. Not surprisingly, Erdogan’s critics at home and abroad saw in these changes an attempt by the president to consolidate his authoritarian rule in the country.
Opposition parties made a major effort to present a united front. Though there were six presidential candidates, Erdogan’s principal opponent was Muharrem Ince, who heads the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and campaigned on a secular platform. The other candidates included Meral Aksener, of the newly formed Good Party, and Selahattin Demirtas, of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who has been in prison since 2016 as he is accused of backing a Kurdish insurgency.
The opposition campaign consisted of severe criticisms of the president’s dictatorial approach and promises to return the country to parliamentary rule, end the state of emergency and, in the case of the Kurdish candidate, establish local democracy in place of strong central rule.
In the event, opposition hopes were dashed: In a voter turnout of 87 percent, Erdogan obtained 53 percent of the vote, while Ince got 31 percent. In parliament, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) got 295 seats, just short of a majority. However, his electoral ally, the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) got 49 seats, giving Erdogan a comfortable majority in parliament. The CHP and Meral’s Good Party got 146 and 43 seats, respectively. The Kurdish party did well to get 67 seats.
Erdogan had already obtained popular support for major changes in the country’s constitutional set-up, which have now been realized thanks to these elections.
Erdogan’s success has been ascribed to his ardent nationalism and his military forays in Syria to confront the expanding territorial gains of the Kurds, while standing up to the Americans who were backing them.
The election results have also exposed the hostility that sections of the Western political establishment and media have for Erdogan personally, projecting him as a hard-line Islamist, largely on account of his tough posturing toward the EU, his criticisms of US support for the Kurds in Syria, his overt shift toward Russia, and his participation in the Russia-led peace process in Syria alongside Iran.
A month before the elections, the London Review of Books published a long essay by a commentator on Turkey, Ella George, where she spoke of “repression and fear” in Turkey, the “capriciousness of arbitrary power” exercised by Erdogan, and the “deeply traumatized society” he had created.
The New York Times, meanwhile, published an opinion piece strongly supportive of the opposition alliance as the champion of Turkish democracy. A detailed report in Time magazine published after the election result described Turkey’s “deeply polarized society” and pessimistically predicted the “marginalization of nearly half of Turkey’s voters.”
Despite dire warnings from such observers, Erdogan is unlikely to be either capricious or dictatorial: His authoritarian instincts will be restrained by his dependence on an ally for majority support, the strong presence of the opposition in parliament, and the clearly asserted democratic values of the Turkish people.
But there are formidable challenges before the newly elected president. Erdogan, with five years in power ahead of him, will need to urgently address the economy, where the currency has lost much of its value and inflation and unemployment have dealt serious blows to the very people who see him as “our father” and depend on him for salvation. Turkey is also facing the impact of hosting more than three million Syrian refugees.
Erdogan will also need to heal the divisions in his country, mainly between his government and the Kurds. He has long seen their aspirations for political, economic and cultural space in their country as a security threat, without accepting that perhaps his own high-handed policies could have added to their sense of alienation.
Erdogan enjoys certain advantages as well. Large numbers of Turkish people accept his narrative relating to the “Gulenist conspiracy” that tried to overthrow him in 2016, with the help of foreign powers. Most Turks are also comfortable with his vision of Turkey as neither European nor Asian, but in the vanguard of shaping a new “Eurasian” identity, which would give Turkey more deeply anchored ties with Russia and China, while maintaining a close political and economic relationship with the EU.
We will know soon enough whether Erdogan uses his new mandate to further polarize Turkey or emerge as a statesman who shapes a new vision and global role for his nation and lead it into a new era.
- Talmiz Ahmad author is a former Indian diplomat.