BY SHASHI MALLA
This last Sunday, Turkish voters went to the polls to elect members of parliament and also a new president. These could be transformative elections that will usher a new system of government giving sweeping new powers to the new (old) president. With these elections, the parliamentary system of government will be superseded by a presidential system of the American model. The post of the prime minister — the executive head in a parliamentary government — will be abolished, and the new president will be head of state and head of government.
Turkey is a significant regional power that sits astride both the continents of Europe and Asia. Its domestic and international policies can have major repercussions, not only in the near abroad, but in the wider world as well. For many centuries, Istanbul (in the European part) has held tremendous strategic eminence as a crucial gateway between Europe and Asia. Founded by the Greeks as Byzantium, the city became the centre of the Eastern Roman Empire and was known as Constantinople to the Romans. From the 15th Century onward the city became the pivot of the great Ottoman Empire of the Muslims, eventually collapsing only at the end of the First World War. During its zenith, it dominated the eastern Mediterranean Sea, including North Africa, and threatening central Europe.
The current president RecepTayyip Erdogan has been a winner for many long years. The long-standing leader has now won a second term as president with 52.5 percent. He first served as Turkey’s prime minister for three terms from 2003, and then as president since 2014. He narrowly won a referendum in 2017 that will usher in the new political system, and he has now emerged much stronger than before. His chances of winning had looked very good in the run off to the elections, helped very much by massive government support. Following a failed coup in 2016, there was tremendous government crackdown on the independent media, and this has meant that Erdogan and his ruling “Justice and Development Party” (the Turkish acronym: AKP) have dominated both radio/TV and the print media. In addition vocal critics of the regime have been incarcerated and Erdogan had slyly appointed pro-government officials to the election commission.
Under the new political system, Erdogan can appoint ministers, vice-presidents and high-level bureaucrats (who will be responsible only to him), issue presidential decrees (like the
US executive orders) which cannot be challenged in the courts or parliament, prepare the budget and decide on security policies. In effect it is ‘one man’s rule’ —a quasi-dictatorial regime. Even now more than 100,000 innocent victims — civilian and military —languish in prison. Erdogan can now pursue his insane, super-costly mega-projects, which are truly ‘white elephants’, including a new canal near Istanbul linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara — with untold harm to the economy, ecology and the local population.
Under Erdogan, Turkey has become a deeply polarized country, and opposition to his draconian rule has been steadily building up. Most pre-election polls indicated that the vote was likely to go to a second run-off round, but this will now be unnecessary. Opposition candidates had also found ways and means to overcome official barriers and had harnessed the power of social media to get their message across. Thus, although Turkey’s elections did not provide ‘a level playing field’, nonetheless there were authentic competitors on the ballot offering bona fide alternatives – unlike as in Russia, or any number of ‘socialist democratic’ countries. Here normally, votes are not routinely rigged and voter fraud is at a minimum. Still, the political system as practiced by Erdogan is a ‘flawed democracy’, or in the new parlance ‘an illiberal democracy’ with stark authoritarian tendencies, as in Hungary and Poland.
Voter turnout was very high — amongst the highest in democratically elected countries — at 87 percent. The President’s AKP leads with 42.5 percent. The main opposition is on 23 percent. The pro-Kurdish HDP did cross the 10 percent threshold needed to enter parliament. The elections were originally scheduled for November 2019 but were brought forward by Erdogan in order to consolidate his power. The new (old) president will be the first to govern under the refashioned constitution, endorsed in a tight referendum last year by just 51 percent of voters. Erdogan’s whose party is rooted in ‘political Islam’, was prime minister for 11 years before becoming president in 2014. This time he faced a very exacting election fight. His main antagonist Muharram Ince, an impassioned centre-left candidate, electrified the campaign and drew massive crowds at his rallies. He has been constantly accusing Erdogan of authoritarian rule. There were four other candidates on the presidential ballot, none of whom could garner more than 10 percent. The opposition parties would have been better served if they had united on a common presidential candidate, and entered into more robust electoral alliances in the parliamentary elections. Thus, Erdogan could apply his well-versed tactic of ‘divide and rule’ and reap success.
A key issue of the elections was the state of the economy. For long, Erdogan has been buoyed up by his economic achievements. But this time around, this was not the case. The Turkish currency, the lira has been hit badly and inflation is on the rise with a high of 11
percent. The once robust economy is expected to slow dramatically. There is capital flight and the young and bright are voting with their feet, i.e. there is massive brain drain.
Another major problem facing the country is that the Turkish army has been fighting the separatist “Kurdistan Worker’s Party” (Turkish acronym: PKK), considered a terrorist organization by the regime for nearly four decades. Erdogan’s AKP has until now rejected returning to the peace process that collapsed in 2015. The Turkish military itself had intensified attacks on PKK strongholds in Iraq and Syria ahead of the vote.
Ironically, Turkey’s Kurdish population, particularly in the country’s southeast, is a vital constituency for Erdogan. Normally, their votes tend to split between Erdogan’s AKP and the pro-Kurdish “People’s Democratic Party” (Turkish acronym: HDP). However, since the AKP allied itself with the “Nationalist Movement Party” (Turkish acronym: MHP) which takes a very hard line against the Kurds, this key base could have been alienated. The HDP had to cross the very high threshold of 10 percent in order to have a presence in parliament. It has achieved this.
The AKP has also retained its parliamentary majority, with help from its ally, the “Nationalist Movement Party” (Turkish acronym: MHP), and since Erdogan has won the presidency too, it is a political rout for the governing alliance/coalition. Since the country is divided along multiple fronts, the country tends also to vote along its big divides: one between the Kurds, their supporters and sympathizers, on the one hand, and the nationalists on the other: and another between Islamist religious people and secularists. The country is also hopelessly divided among supporters of Erdogan’s authoritarian rule and the modern Turkish population with liberal-democratic aspirations. Turkey also has the unenviable distinction of being the world’s largest jailhouse of journalists!
The civil war in Syria was also of great concern to the electorate. Turkey has generously accepted a great number of Syrian refugees, and Erdogan has also involved Turkey in the Syrian war.
Terrorism is another thorny issue, as Turkey faces attacks from Kurdish militants, within the country, as also in Iraq and Syria, as well as the jihadists of the Islamic State group.
The main opposition candidate for president opposing Erdogan was Muharrem Ince of the centre-left “Republican People’s Party” (Turkish acronym: CHP). He is a colorful and charismatic personality and had promised a more independent judiciary, greater personal freedoms and an end to excessive government spending. He is a spirited orator and has
attacked the AKP relentlessly. He received 30.7 percent of the vote. He would have been the common candidate of several opposition parties had there been a second round.
The only woman candidate for president was Meral Aksener, a veteran politician who has also served as interior minister in the 1990s. As a conservative nationalist she was expected to draw support from Erdogan’s voters on the right. She broke away from MHP when it allied with Erdogan’s AKP and formed her own new centre-right “Good Party” (Turkish acronym: IYI Parti). She received 7.4 percent of the vote.
The pro-Kurdish HDP’s Selahattin Demirtas campaigned from prison where he had been since November 2016 after the failed coup on trumped-up charges of terrorism. MP’s from his party also suffered the same fate for similar reasons. He had called on voters to unite against Erdogan. He received a respectable 8.3 percent of the vote.
In spite of the respectable mandate, Erdogan has his job cut out for him. As in the United States, the country is deeply divided with myriad social, economic and political challenges. Both have become too dependent of their uninformed, parochial and jingoistic political base — ‘the basket of deplorables’ (Hillary Clinton). Like Trump, Erdogan has not developed into an astute leader, capable of making hard but realistic choices and willing to compromise and both can very easily be overwhelmed by domestic and international crises of their own making — posing a grave menace to their own nations and the world at large.
The columnist can be reached at: [email protected]