Tense, Post-Election Turkey Hosts G-20 Summit

By Alan Makovsky

By Alan Makovsky

As President Obama prepares to head to the G-20 summit this weekend in Antalya, Turkey, he faces a dilemma: how to relate to his host, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The de facto leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) which has ruled Turkey essentially uninterruptedly since 2002 and won another smashing victory in November 1 parliamentary elections, Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian. In particular, his harsh repression of media and writers mocks earlier U.S. efforts to promote Turkey as a regional role model of democratic development. On the strategic side of the ledger, however, Turkey has emerged as an important ally in the anti-ISIS coalition, allowing U.S. jet bombers to attack to ISIS from airbases in Turkey since July. Strategic considerations normally trump human rights in U.S.-Turkish relations, but Erdogan’s blatant crackdown on dissent will be difficult for Obama to ignore.

AKP’s victory. On November 1, AKP won 49.4% of the votes and 317 seats, a clear majority in Turkey’s 550-seat parliament. The total was just shy of AKP’s all-time high total of 49.8% in 2011, two elections ago. The triumph was all the more glorious because AKP had slumped to 40.8% and lost its parliamentary majority just five months earlier, on June 7.

The AKP victory demonstrated on Erdogan’s part a strategic and tactical brilliance, as well as self-discipline, that many observers thought had deserted him. Following the June 7 election, Erdogan was determined to hold a new election, contrary to the wishes of the official party leader, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who seemed to prefer a coalition with the main opposition party. Virtually every poll showed the result of new elections would simply reprise the previous election. Yet Erdogan was insistent, and his gamble paid off.

Post-June 7 election polls showed that Erdogan had been a liability to AKP on the campaign trail, both because of the harshness of his style and because of his emphasis on the need for a constitutional amendment to adopt a “strong presidency” system, an unpopular notion even among many AKP supporters. This time, however, Erdogan kept a low profile during the campaign and made minimal mention of the strong presidency idea.

How did AKP right the ship? The extra 9% that swelled the June vote to its November total seemed to be voting for stability in the face of violence, both fighting with the Kurdish PKK and apparently ISIS-initiated terrorism. Even some Kurds joined that trend.

Three significant trends helped return AKP to its former heights:

1) Some Turkish nationalist voters came home to AKP. The Nationalist Action Party (MHP) – usually described as “ultra-nationalist” – draws off a similar culturally conservative, lower and lower-middle-class base as does AKP, particularly in central Anatolia. Immediately following the June 7 election, when MHP took 16.3% of the vote, roughly 20% of their voters told a pollster they would have voted for AKP had they known how the election would turn out – presumably meaning, had they known that AKP would not win a majority. In other words, these voters wanted to send a message of disapproval to AKP, but not actually deprive AKP of its one-party rule. So, presumably most of those voters returned from MHP to AKP on November 1.

2) Some Turkish nationalist voters left home to AKP. In addition to those who voted for MHP on June 7 but returned to AKP on November 1, it appears that a significant number of traditionally loyal MHP voters migrated to AKP in response to Erdogan’s anti-PKK, nationalist pose, highlighted by repeated bombing raids of PKK strongholds in northern Iraq that began in late July.

A second turning point was the October 10 terrorist bombing of a peace demonstration in Ankara – the most devastating terrorist attack in Turkish history, resulting in more than one hundred deaths. The number of respondents who told pollsters they considered terrorism Turkey’s number-one problem soared. Indeed, according to a post-November 1 survey, nearly 15% of AKP voters acknowledged that the October 10 bombing influenced their election-day decision.

Their nationalist issue usurped by Erdogan – and with party leader Devlet Bahceli’s popularity diminished by years of lackluster performance and indecisiveness – MHP slipped badly, from 16.3% in June to 11.9% on November 1. Its parliamentary delegation was halved, declining from 80 to 40. Remarkably, MHP failed even to make a campaign issue of evidence that security breakdowns had led directly to the Ankara bombing and that AKP policies had hampered the military in the initial renewal of fighting with the PKK.

3) Kurds having second thoughts. The pro-Kurdish party HDP lost some 900,000 votes, falling from 13% to 10.8% overall, resulting in the loss of more than a quarter of their parliamentary delegation, which dipped from 80 to 59. In an election where overall national participation increased, participation in Kurdish-majority provinces decreased. Perhaps some stayed away out of fear, but others probably stayed home as a protest against perceived PKK-initiated violence, according to the Diyarbakir-based Kurdish analyst Mahmut Bozarslan. HDP is closely associated with the PKK in most voters’ minds, though its degree of independence from the PKK a matter of speculation and debate.

In addition to these passive defections, a small percentage of religious Kurds who traditionally voted for AKP but switched to HDP on June 7, returned to AKP on November 1. The renewed fighting also forced HDP into a more Kurdish nationalist posture. This muted its innovative “Turkey integration” message that dominated prior to June 7, and that seemed to appeal particularly to Kurds living in Turkish-majority areas. Some of those Kurdish voters seem also to have deserted HDP on November 1.

HDP nevertheless remained the dominant party in the twelve Kurdish-majority provinces, winning 40 of the 53 seats in those provinces (compared with 46 of 53 on June 7). However disappointed HDP supporters may be at the party’s November 1 dip in the polls, the result was still a success for HDP in many ways. When the party first announced at the beginning of the year that it would compete nationally, few expected that a Kurdish-dominated, Kurdish-rights-focused party could surpass the 10% threshold required to enter parliament. That is has now done so not once but twice – and now has more seats than the Turkish-nationalist MHP – has established it as no mere fluke. It is now a party that is likely to remain relevant on the national stage in the years ahead.

“Ataturk’s Party”. It should be noted that the most stable party in Turkey – at least in terms of electoral performance – is the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), the party founded by the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. For the fifth consecutive election, it finished a distant second to AKP; for the third consecutive election, it received almost exactly one-quarter of the vote.

CHP’s effort to broaden its appeal through emphasizing its social democratic orientation over its nationalist one has received high marks from some critics but has thus far been electorally unavailing. Perhaps it will eventually overcome its historical baggage as the bĂȘte noire of ethnically-conscious Kurds and religious Turks, but that day seems distant. For now CHP remains mainly a regional party, dominating much of the western coastline, where the Westernized secular strongholds are, but a virtual non-factor in most central and eastern provinces.

Bottom line: stability. Turkey last had coalition governments from 1991-2002, a period remembered for political and economic instability – and ultimately economic collapse – as well as intense fighting with the PKK. That era still makes the notion of coalition governments repellent to many Turks. Whether because they preferred a majority government for its own sake, or because they felt the fighting with the PKK and the increase in terrorism in Turkey required a strong hand, crucial numbers of Turks appear to have voted for stability when they marked their ballots for AKP on November 1. Added to AKP’s already strong based of religious and conservative supporters, these voters ensured AKP’s return to political dominance in Turkey.

Outlook: instability. Turks may have voted for stability, but odds are they will reap greater instability in the years ahead. Economic growth has been limited for three years, with many economists predicting more trouble ahead. Rule of law is at a low state, with the courts falling increasingly under the sway of the government and the government’s ignoring the occasional unwelcome, independent court ruling.

Pressure on the media has been increasing steadily. Hundreds of cases have been brought arbitrarily against journalists (and others) for the crime of “insulting the President,” a law which has been on the books since the 1920s but was rarely invoked before Erdogan became President in August 2014. Some of these cases have attained legendary status, including several involving arrests and convictions of adolescents. Intimidation of the press takes many forms.

In September, a parliamentarian from the ruling AKP led a cudgels-and-stones-wielding mob in an attack on the headquarters of the mainstream Hurriyet newspaper in response to what the attackers claimed was an unfair news report about Erdogan. President Erdogan never condemned the action, and the parliamentarian was soon promoted to a senior leadership body in AKP. Not long after, a widely-read Hurriyet columnist, frequently critical of Erdogan, was attacked and beaten by thugs, breaking his nose and ribs, outside his home. One of the suspects reportedly claimed that the police, Turkish national intelligence, and Erdogan himself were involved. Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 149th out of 180 nations in press freedom. As recently as 2008, Turkey was ranked 102nd , not a position to celebrate but at least one that was out of the range of the world’s worst dictatorships.

State pressure on the media played an important role in the recent election. Not only was the opposition press muzzled by arrests and government-induced firings, but the electronic media – the overwhelming majority of which is either state-owned, i.e., government-controlled, or pro-government — gave virtually no campaign air-time to the opposition. According to one content analysis of state electronic media, Erdogan received 30 hours of coverage in the month prior to the November 1 election; the AKP received 29 hours; the main opposition party, the secular CHP, received 6 hours, the Turkish nationalist MHP one hour, and the pro-Kurdish/liberal HDP 18 minutes.

The crackdown on Gulenist schools, media, and sympathizers – what Erdogan and the AKP call the “parallel state” – will likely continue relentlessly, reflecting Erdogan’s conviction that short-lived corruption cases initiated in December 2013 were an effort ordered by the U.S.-based Turkish religious leader Fethullah Gulen to bring down the Erdogan government. Given Erdogan’s special animus toward the Gulenists, their media is particularly vulnerable. This was dramatically demonstrated on October 27, five days before the election, when police stormed the Gulenist-associated Koza Ipek media center. They abruptly shut down Koza Ipek’s two TV stations and ushered in a new board of executives for its two anti-government newspapers, which appeared on newsstands the next day espousing, as if by magic, a pro-government line. Absurdly, the government refers to Gulenists as the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization, despite the utter lack of evidence that Gulenists – whatever their mistakes or possible ill intentions toward Erdogan – have ever favored violence.

The election now past, Erdogan will further roil the political atmosphere by resuming active efforts to achieve a constitutional amendment enshrining the “strong Presidency” that he (correctly) says already exists “de facto.” He needs 13 non-AKP parliamentary votes for his plan to reach the 330 votes necessary to bring about a popular referendum on the idea.

The resumption of fighting with the PKK is perhaps the most disturbing development in Turkey in the months since the June 7 elections. Hundreds have died. It is not at all clear who started the fighting, but both sides embraced it with gusto, at least initially, and there is every indication that it will continue in the months ahead.

For Erdogan and AKP, the renewed fighting was a chance to demonstrate nationalist credentials, wiping out the “stain” of having begun a “peace process” with the PKK starting in 2012. The PKK’s motives are less clear, perhaps no more than not wanting to back down from a fight, although some cynics believe that the PKK’s northern-Iraq-based leadership welcomed the opportunity to upstage the electoral success of HDP. Whoever was at fault, it seems clear that Erdogan rode to victory by trashing the very Kurdish peace process that he himself had courageously started.

Foreign policy. Little change is expected in this area: the priority on bringing down Bashar al-Asad (perhaps with some willingness to stomach him through a transition period), the tensions with Egypt, the growing relationship with Qatar, and the use of Israel and the Palestinian issue to stir up populist fervor when desired. From a U.S. standpoint, a positive development would be the retention of interim Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu, whether as minister or in a return to his previous position as number-two in the ministry. A career diplomat and pro-Western former ambassador to Israel, Sinirlioglu has been adroit enough to retain the confidence of his AKP bosses. His presence would provide some degree of re-assurance that Turkish foreign policy will not go totally off the rails.

For the U.S., the result of the election is not altogether negative. Wars dominate foreign policy, and the U.S. war on ISIS is now the dominant element in U.S.-Turkish relations. On July 22, an Obama-Erdogan phone call sealed an agreement to allow the U.S. to use Incirlik air force base and three other Turkish bases for the purpose of staging attacks on ISIS; prior to that agreement, which the U.S. and Turkey had been negotiating for nearly a year, virtually all U.S. strikes on ISIS had been carried out from distant bases in Qatar and Kuwait.

The use of Incirlik has allowed the U.S. to step up the tempo and precision of its airstrikes. It is not completely clear what brought the Turks around after so many months of talks, but it appears to have been a combination of factors. One is possibly Turkey’s own heightened sense of threat from ISIS, the likely perpetrator of a major terrorist attack on July 20 as well as the later Ankara bombing; it is widely believed that Turkey earlier indulged ISIS fighters crossing to and from Syria. Another factor U.S. support for certain Turkish redlines restricting movement of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia. The YPG has been the only effective anti-ISIS U.S. partner in Syria, but Turkey regards it as synonymous with the PKK and therefore a mortal enemy. Washington does not acknowledge support for these redlines as “trade-offs” for the use of Incirlik, but tea-leaves and timing suggest that was indeed the case.

The widely held view that Turkey traded Incirlik for U.S. acquiescence to its assault on PKK strongholds in Turkey and Iraq is likely incorrect, notwithstanding the fact that those attacks began on July 22, the very day the Incirlik agreement was reached. (Instead, the Turkish offensive was probably a response to the PKK-claimed murder early that day of two Turkish policeman.) It is probably true, however, that the use of Incirlik made Washington, which anyway considers the PKK (but not the YPG) as a terrorist group, a more enthusiastic justifier of those ferocious Turkish raids than otherwise would have been the case.

The emergence of an AKP-majority government virtually ensures that the U.S. will continue to use Turkish bases to attack ISIS. That probably would have been the case in a coalition government as well, but by no means certainly. U.S.-Turkish disagreements over tactics in Syria will continue to be a source of bilateral tension, however. Ankara continues to believe the fall of Asad should be the primary military objective, whereas Washington gives priority to “degrading and defeating” ISIS. Most disagreements flow from that basic difference, U.S. relations with the Kurdish YPG forming the least tractable difference of all.

Washington is discomfited by Turkey’s declining human rights performance, and it no doubt worries about ongoing tensions in Turkish society provoked by Erdogan. In fact, notwithstanding its use of Incirlik, the United States is uneasy about where AKP is taking Turkey.

The State Department was strongly critical of restrictions on the media in the run-up to the election. In a pointed message of disapproval of these media restrictions, the State Department refused to congratulate AKP on the day after the election, insisting that, despite the landslide, it would await the official confirmation of the results due more than a week later. “We’re not going to speculate on the final result,” said State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau, straight-faced.

At the G-20 summit this weekend, Obama will be challenged to strike the right balance, privately and publicly, when he meets with host Erdogan – a balance between solidarity with an ally in the coalition against ISIS and disapproval of an increasingly authoritarian ruler. Turkish liberals in particular will be looking for a sign, at least in body language, that Obama has not forgiven Erdogan his anti-democratic excesses.

There is a school of thought that says that Erdogan, now with a comfortable majority in parliament and thus almost certainly able to quash any anti-corruption initiative directed at him or his family, will ease up on the throttle, pursuing a kinder, gentler approach toward the media, the Kurds, and the opposition. Erdogan is not always predictable, so perhaps that can’t be ruled out. It is far more likely, however, that he will see AKP’s stunning victory as an affirmation of all his pre-election policies. If so, that will mean plenty of tension ahead for Turkey – and little of the stability for which the Turks voted in such large numbers.

Alan Makovsky is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress who served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee from 2001 to 2013 as Senior Professional Staff Member (Dem.) for the Middle East and Turkey.