Turkey at a Crossroads

On November 1st, the Republic of Turkey held elections to the Grand National Assembly, or the Turkish Parliament. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) picked up the majority they had lost during the June elections, where no party was able to secure a majority. This outcome, seen as stunning by international observers, may very well spell trouble for both Turkey’s democracy and the safety of its citizens.

Fearing the implications of this election requires knowing some background about this election. The AKP, led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have led Turkey for the past decade, with Erdogan as prime minister before 2014. Technically, President Erdogan is not supposed to be affiliated with any party and is not allowed to campaign for any one in particular. In reality, Erdogan has flouted this rule by openly campaigning for the AKP and arguing that his largely ceremonial post as President must be changed constitutionally to allow him much more power. This is but the latest action in Erdogan’s history of increasing his own authoritarian rule.

Early in his prime ministership, Erdogan and the AKP won numerous accolades from the international community for economic liberalization and and other liberal reforms alongside moderate Islamism, but as the years went on Erdogan became increasingly authoritarian and religiously extreme, first purging the army in 2012 for a supposed coup attempt in 2003 – for which there is very little evidence – removing the military’s power as an institution in Turkish politics, power that in the past had led coups to protect the country’s secularism. Erdogan’s self-portrayal as a democratic leader was shown to be increasingly inaccurate the next year when recordings showing President Erdogan instructing his son to get rid of tens of millions of dollars were found and revealed. In the wake of this scandal, Erdogan cracked down on the police with massive purges, tightened control over the media, and attacked many former political allies. In the two years following the scandal, Erdogan has been revealed as an authoritarian leader hostile to the slightest criticism, determined to amass power over the political system and to crush his rivals, real or perceived.

Back to the most recent election: Erdogan called for new elections this June because no party, including the AKP, was able to form a majority, and a supermajority is needed in the Turkey’s Grand Assembly to push through the constitutional changes that would increase Erdogan’s power as president. In the meantime, the fragile ceasefire between the Turkish government and Kurdish separatist groups, most notably the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), collapsed in July 2015 with the jailing of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and Turkish bombings of Kurdish territory in Iraq. This summer, tensions increased following the shootings of two Turkish policemen, mob attacks on the offices of the pro-Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), and a disgusting terrorist attack on a peace rally led by Kurds and trade unionists in Ankara that killed over 100 people. In this context, Erdogan’s election victory is less surprising with his statements like “It’s me, or chaos” offering a stark choice to Turkish citizens between more stability and coalition negotiations or a strong ruler.

Erdogan will soon need to prove how strong of a leader he really is, however, because in response to Turkish bombings of Kurdish positions in Iraq, the PKK has rescinded its unilateral ceasefire. Additionally, Turkey’s internal conflicts and war against the Islamic state have left it with bitter ethnic and political divides, especially given the fight against ISIS and troubling signs of economic weakness that have only been worsened by political instability. Turkey’s democracy and stability are in crisis right now, and Erdogan is acting only to increase his personal power to achieve mastery over his country’s political system. By reigniting the Kurdish conflict, especially with many Kurds now joining ISIS in response to Turkish attacks and increased tensions, Erdogan has opened a Pandora’s box that will scar his country for decades to come. Polarization has increased to such bitter levels that in the conservative Turkish city of Konya, when soccer fans were asked to observe a moment of silence for the Ankara attack victims, they booed and whistled. If a mass atrocity cannot unify Turkey, it is hard to imagine what can.

In the current climate, Turkish politicians like Erdogan must focus on unifying the country, not dividing it in order to conquer it. It could be said that such policies are the duty of public officials, but Erdogan seems to have his eyes firmly fixed on his own political supremacy. The reality is that Turkish society will unravel unless decisive action is taken to prevent current forces pulling it apart along ethnic, political, and religious lines. Turkey is a nation of secularists and Islamists, Turks and Kurds, and many other polarized groups whose bitter differences only grow worse every day. If Erdogan is running the country in the years to come, he will have reaped the fruits of his labor in terms of power, but it is most likely that he will not enjoy the taste of his deeds.

Joseph Cifrino