Suicide-bomb blasts in Ankara on October 10 killed around 100 people and wounded hundreds more, making it the worst terrorist attack in Turkey’s history. With each violent incident, whether on the country’s streets or with the PKK along the southeast border, Turks become more apprehensive about the motives of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP Party. Snap parliamentary elections on November 1 will bring no end to violence and instability, writes Markus Bernath from Istanbul, in a special report for Global Sources Magazine. The elections may instead bring a government coalition between conservative Islamists and far-right nationalists. That would reduce Erdogan’s influence, but only for a while.
BUILDINGS and roads across Turkey are plastered with campaign posters and a slogan that may just drive voters deeper into confusion and depression as parliamentary elections approach on November 1. “Turkey, you know best,” proclaim far-right nationalists – but the phrase “Sen bilirsin Türkiye!” could also be interpreted as a slap in the face, a cynical “As you wish, Turkey,” or “Go ahead and vote for those who will drag the country further down.”
A mere four months have passed since the election in June, but Turkey has slid into conflict, has suffered fierce terrorist attacks and its once-booming economy is in trouble. The Ankara bombing on October 10, which left at least 97 people dead, exacerbated existing tensions. Government opponents were targeted – leftist but not exclusively Kurdish groups who had teamed up for a peace rally.
“People can’t believe it. This is not something we are used to. It does not happen in Turkey, in particular not in our capital,” said Ilter Turan, a renowned commentator and political science professor who made clear his distress in the days after the attack. “People are trying to find a meaning for what has happened.”
“Turkey, you know best,” the Turkish nationalists’ slogan, really sounds hollow now. Nobody really knows, it seems, who is playing at what in a country that is complicated to understand at the best of times. Yet, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) with their grim looking leader Devlet Bahçeli, is preparing for government. A power sharing agreement with the conservative-Islamist AKP of Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is considered to be the most probable outcome after the coming elections. This would bring even more uncertainty to the country, but also a break from 13 years of increasingly authoritarian AKP single-party rule.
“The bottom line is: We are not going to have political stability, regardless of what happens in the elections. The only question is, how much instability we have,” said Gareth H. Jenkins, an Istanbul-based analyst. “The hope is that there would be a coalition government. It’s not going to bring good governance, it will be inefficient and probably short-lived – a year, 18 months maximum. But it would reduce the influence of President Erdogan.”
There is little good left to be said about Turkey’s 61-year-old president and former prime minister. Abrasive, populist to the point of pure demagogy and extravagant, with his 1,000-room imperial palace and food-tasters, Erdogan is fighting for political survival. The once pro-European reformer is still haunted by corruption allegations against his inner circle that prosecutors first raised in December 2013. His high-flying ideal of Turkey as the role model and power broker of the Islamic world crashed with the war in Syria.
And there is Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic young leader of the pro-Kurdish party HDP, who is Erdogan’s nemesis. By depriving the AKP of its absolute majority in the June elections, Demirtas destroyed Erdogan’s plan to change of the constitution and transform Turkey into a presidential republic.
“We have developed a traumatic reaction to our dramatic situation where all we do is laugh. We laugh at how inadequate the government is, how hopeless we are and how little we can do or are willing to do to change this,” said Selin Nurlu, a 25 year old woman who works as a head hunter in Istanbul. “While some do protest for a night or two or get involved in different organizations or events, we still don’t seem to have enough to come together and create something along the lines of Gezi,” she said, recalling the mass protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013.
The rift in Turkish society between supporters and opponents of the conservative-Islamist government has become far too wide, in the view of Dilsah Deniz, a twenty-four year old woman working in international trade. “The result of the coming election will not calm the anger of the opposition. Even if the AKP government resigns, it will not be enough.”
Erdogan and his men desperately need to push the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) below the 10 percent threshold required to enter parliament.
They try to do this by portraying Demirtas and the HDP, a pro-Kurdish left-leaning group that appeals to minorities and urban liberals, as a stooge of the PKK. In July, Erdogan even halted the peace process he had initiated with Kurdish guerillas and declared a new war on the PKK – and by default also against the leftist Turkish terror organization DHKP-C and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (also called ISIS or Daesh). All surveys, however, show that Erdogan’s scheming has been in vain and that HDP will enter parliament again with 11 to 13 percent support, making it improbable that the AKP could reach an absolute majority of 276 seats.
November 1 might well turn out to be a rerun June 7, but at the cost of the 350 civilians and 150 security officials whose lives have been lost in terror attacks or combat in southeastern Kurdish cities.
This may be a disaster for Erdogan, but by no means the end. “Staunch supporters of AKP do not doubt Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The question is though, how big this group is,” said Hakan Kiliç, a Turkish-Austrian academic who teaches political science in Gaziantep, a thriving Turkish city of about a million people that traded over the borders with Syria and Iraq before the war.
“These elections will probably be decided by former non-conservative AKP voters and Kurdish or religious voters – reality doesn’t have any impact on their opinions,” said Gareth Jenkins, referring to the president’s followers.
MHP nationalists of are considered an easier coalition partner for the conservatives and Islamists than the social democrats of CHP, the biggest opposition party. “The power of the president to manipulate politics would be reduced,” said Ilter Turan. “He has been the force pushing for a new election, and he was the one who basically violated the rules of parliamentary government by not acting as a neutral president.”