The June 7 elections in Turkey spelled the end of 13 years of single-party rule by the Islamist Justice and Development Party. The electorate’s messages were clear. First and foremost, in the most decisive way, the electorate denied Erdoğan his wish to become the all-powerful executive president of a transformed Turkish political system. The electorate mandated parliament to assume its powers and asked that the political parties form a coalition government that would break the immense centralization and concentration of power in Erdoğan’s hand.
Following the elections, the country’s three opposition parties — which collectively make up a majority in parliament — might have reopened a parliamentary investigation into corruption allegations against Erdoğan, members of his family, his ministers and his cronies in the media, construction and energy sectors. However, like the Ottoman sultans of centuries past, Erdoğan resorted to all manner of intrigue to undermine his political opponents and protect himself. Flouting long-standing precedent, Erdoğan has not allowed any party leader other than Prime Minister Davutoğlu to try to form a government, thwarting efforts to build a coalition within a 45-day window and forcing the country to hold new elections on Nov. 1.
Thus, Turkey will hold general elections for the second time this year — a first in its more than six decades of multi-party democracy. In these elections, Erdoğan aims to regain the 18 MPs (out of a 550-member parliament) that he needs to reestablish a single-party AKP government, and, if possible, change the constitution to create a presidential system. In effect, Erdoğan is saying to voters: give me the majority I need to change the constitution, or suffer the consequences — i.e., political turmoil and social instability.
Erdoğan is saying to voters: give me the majority I need to change the constitution, or suffer the consequences.
This has not proved to be an empty threat. Since June 7, Turkey has gradually begun to spiral out of control, with a plummeting currency and a rapidly deteriorating security situation.
Erdoğan has officially declared an end to the two-and-a-half-year peace process he had achieved with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Despite calls for peace by the Kurdish-oriented party HDP and its leader Selahattin Demirtaş, the past two months have seen a ramping up of attacks by the PKK that are taking the country to the brink of civil war. More than 100 soldiers and police officers have lost their lives as a result. As tensions have risen, pro-government mobs — one of which included an AKP deputy — have attacked newspapers, opposition party offices and headquarters with stones and clubs, even setting fire to some buildings. In the midst of a political and security crisis, it is doubtful whether Turkey can hold truly free and fair elections six weeks from now. Why then has Erdoğan opted for such chaos and conflict?
Erdoğan’s ‘kleptocratic regime’
In December of 2013, police and prosecutors launched an investigation into major allegations of AKP corruption. The numerous charges included the awarding of plots of land in prime Istanbul locations to construction firms close to Erdoğan; the smuggling of gold to Iran; and bribes totaling millions of dollars. Erdoğan described these investigations as a “coup attempt” on the part of the shadowy Gülen Movement (whose leader, Fethullah Gülen, lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania); he then dismissed from duty all prosecutors and police officers involved in the case. Erdoğan’s echo chamber in the media quickly followed suit, claiming that western countries were conspiring against Turkey. Though the legal investigation itself was called off, dozens of recordings were uploaded to YouTube (where they generated millions of hits) containing incriminating conversations by Erdoğan and his family members, his ministers and his business cronies. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition party, the CHP, has called for a renewal of the corruption investigations; Kılıçdaroğlu has stirred up controversy in the past by referring to Erdoğan as the “prime thief” and the AKP government as a “kleptocratic regime.”
The AKP’s supporters have mostly shrugged off such accusations, pointing to the rise in living standards under Erdoğan — a viewpoint summed up by the slogan “they steal, but they get things done.” But the surfacing of such massive evidence of corruption has cost the AKP in the ballot box: for the first time since 2002, the party has lost its majority in Parliament. The corruption files will almost certainly be reopened — heralding the beginning of the end for Erdoğan and his circle. Erdoğan evidently hopes that if the peace process with the PKK unravels and the fighting resumes, the resulting chaos will turn the tide in his favor in the Nov. 1 elections. But this desperate strategy is fraught with peril.
The Turkish army: a dangerous ally
In ordering the Turkish army to recommence operations against the PKK, Erdoğan has effectively called off the peace process. Yet relations between Erdoğan and the army — his current would-be ally — have never been smooth. From 2007 onwards, 68 generals — out of a total of 362 generals and admirals in the entire Turkish armed forces — have stood trial on charges of plotting a coup and creating an armed terrorist organization. In other words, one out of every five generals in the Turkish army has been imprisoned under Erdoğan. In August 2011, four top generals — including the chief of staff of the — resigned in protest at these prosecutions, widely regarded as show trials. Initially supporting these proceedings, Erdoğan later took a different tack, claiming that they had been conducted by the same Gülen Movement which later wiretapped Erdoğan himself, and stating that he had been “tricked.” Hundreds of imprisoned generals, colonels and other officers were set free after four years in prison.
It now appears that the PKK was stockpiling large amounts of weapons in cities and in the countryside during the 2013-15 ceasefire, during which the AKP issued strict orders to the army not to conduct anti-PKK operations. Many Turkish officers who were opposed to the ceasefire to begin with surely feel that they are being used as political pawns by Erdoğan, who is now asking them to give their lives fighting the PKK.
Last month, at the funeral of his brother who was killed in this conflict, Lt. Col. Mehmet Alkan shouted, “Who is my brother’s true killer? Who is truly responsible?” Many others attending soldiers’ funerals nationwide have denounced Erdoğan. As one slain soldier’s relative yelled at an AKP minister who showed up at the funeral, “If we had elected Erdoğan president, all these would not have happened at all, correct? You said this yourself. How many more will we sacrifice until we elect him as president? Damn you all.”
It is unclear if these are merely individual opinions or reflect a broader sentiment on the part of the army. One thing, however, is certain: more and more people are coming to view the latest anti-PKK operations as “Erdoğan’s War.” The Turkish army was largely responsible for overthrowing the Ottoman sultan in 1922 and establishing the Turkish Republic; it is understandably apprehensive about being asked to fight on behalf of a modern-day sultan like Erdoğan.
Erdoğan’s ploy is to act first as an arsonist and then as a fireman.
Erdoğan is taking a big gamble in the run-up to the elections. Once able to count on support from both Kurds and Turkish nationalists, he is now losing votes on both sides. Erdoğan’s ploy is to act first as an arsonist and then as a fireman, calculating that Turkish voters, on Nov. 1, will entreat him to put out the very fire he has started. However, the fire of the Kurdish conflict is likely to grow more and more uncontrollable. Meanwhile, Erdoğan must deal with the political opposition in Parliament; the corruption charges hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles; and last but not least, the Turkish army, which has carried out four military coups to date and intervened in politics countless times, which Erdoğan has now brought back into the political fold.
Sultan or not, Erdoğan is hardly in an enviable position.
Assistant professor at Marmara University; Author