September 27, 2015

What next for Turkey?

During the two weeks my weekly column in Today's Zaman did not appear, I was on a private visit to long-time American friends who live in Northern California.

I also found time at the end of the visit to give talks on the topic of “What went wrong in Turkey?” first at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies of University of California, Berkeley and later at the Sunnyvale (Silicon Valley) office of Pacifica, the interfaith dialogue institute founded by the Hizmet movement that is inspired by the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. At the talks, attended by both Americans and Turks, a recurrent question was obviously about the likely result of the snap general election to be held on Nov. 1 in Turkey. This is the crux my response.

There is no doubt that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will do everything in its power to try to see that the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) fails to cross the 10 percent threshold necessary to gain seats in Parliament. Doubts, therefore, that this election may be the most manipulated one in the entire history of multi- party politics in the country are not unfounded. To do their best to see that this is avoided is a number one duty for all opposition parties and civil society groups. If we set aside the speculation that the AKP government may even try to postpone the election once it finds out that it will not be possible to exclude the HDP from Parliament, the election on Nov. 1 is likely to yield two main results, depending on whether the HDP surmounts the threshold or not.

Polls suggest that the HDP failing to reach the threshold is less likely than the election yielding results more or less similar to the one held on June 7. If that is the case, the AKP may find it difficult to avoid forming a coalition government with either the hardline Turkish nationalist National Movement Party (MHP) or the secular fundamentalist People's Republican Party (CHP). It is less likely, but possible, that the AKP will manage to gain single-handed power (if it succeeds in getting at least 44 percent of the vote or by somehow convincing some opposition Parliament members to join it) even if the HDP surmounts the threshold.

If the HDP surpasses the threshold, as is suggested by the polls, it will mean a definitive end to Erdoğan's dreams of adopting a constitutionally based, Putin-like executive presidency. Even if the AKP regains single-handed power, he will not be in a position to effectively control the direction of Turkey's politics and he will be substantially weakened politically. In the event that he attempts to force one more “repeat election” or hinders the formation of a coalition government or continues to act as a “de facto” executive president, it may well trigger a rebellion within the AKP against his dominance. The HDP's presence in Parliament and Erdoğan's failure to retain the political initiative may indeed open the way for Turkey to repair the damage to the rule of law his rule has created. This is the scenario that is pessimistic for Erdoğan but optimistic for the country.

If, on the other hand, Erdoğan manages to see to it that the HDP somehow fails to cross the threshold, not only will the AKP be able to govern on its own, Erdoğan will also be able to pursue a de facto executive presidency. This is very likely, however, to result in a situation which the then-deputy prime minister and one of the founders of the AKP, Bülent Arınç, envisaged at the beginning of this year when he said: You may be able to form the government alone, but the country would become ungovernable if the majority of the people hate you. What is worse, if the HDP, the strongest guarantee for a democratic solution to the Kurdish problem and the preservation of Turkey's territorial integrity, is excluded from Parliament, it may lead to the strengthening of separatism among the Kurds, and the spread of active disobedience among them. I do not even want to speculate about the dire consequences of such events, which could also mean the end of Erdoğan's hold on power.

President Erdoğan thus faces a lose-lose situation on Nov. 1, as Turkish-American political scientist Henri Barkey wrote in an article titled “Erdoğan's Great Losing Gamble.” (American Interest, Sept. 11.)

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 27 September 2015, Sunday