Turkey shows it can’t be hostage to one man’s ambition

The AKP’s neo-liberalism might turn into a bad memory for Turkey

By Mahir Ali (Poll position)

Published: Thu 11 Jun 2015, 10:12 PM

Last updated: Wed 8 Jul 2015, 3:15 PM

Recep Tayyip Erdogan should have seen it coming. Perhaps he did, given that opinion polls were reasonably accurate in predicting the result of Sunday’s parliamentary election in Turkey. In which case, his belligerent tactics clearly backfired.

Erdogan wasn’t a candidate, having last year successfully engineered his elevation to the presidency, constitutionally a relatively symbolic post. No one was particularly surprised when the focal centre of political power consequently shifted from the head of government to the head of state.

That wasn’t enough for Erdogan, though. He sought a constitutional shift from a parliamentary to a presidential form of government. A two-thirds majority for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Sunday’s election would have made this a cinch. Even a three-fifths majority would have sufficed to facilitate a plebiscite.

Instead, for the first time since 2002, the AKP garnered substantially less than 50 per cent of the vote, compelling it to form a coalition. Its likeliest partner in this enterprise is the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a right-wing outfit that secured about 17 per cent of the vote.

The MHP has thus far been reluctant to commit itself in this respect, while AKP representatives have raised the prospect of a second election, should a coalition prove unachievable.

The latter option may not turn out to be a particularly desirable alternative for the AKP. It is, after all, not inconceivable that, in the event, it could end up with a share of the vote even smaller than the disappointing 41 per cent it has achieved this time.

This is, mind you, a figure that would be coveted by ruling parties in many other countries. Turkey, to its credit, operates on the basis of proportional representation. At the same time, based on rules introduced by a military dictatorship, the threshold for entry into parliament is set at an uncommonly high 10 per cent of the popular vote.

That is why it was something of a gamble for the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) to put up candidates. Had it failed to scale the 10 per cent hurdle, it votes would have been redistributed, going mainly to the AKP. That is why candidates associated with its left-liberal and pro-Kurdish line of thinking previously contested as independents, who are exempted from the 10 per cent rule.

They won some representation in parliament, but were unable to act as a coherent bloc. With the HDP’s nearly 13 per cent of the vote, their parliamentary numbers have been doubled to 80 seats, despite (or perhaps because of) Erdogan’s unrelenting efforts to dismiss the party as a bunch of degenerates. There is some evidence, though, that in appealing to his conservative base, Erdogan lost the support of those who appreciate some of his achievements but were disinclined to give him a carte blanche.

The mood is clearly not unconnected to the Gezi Park protests of 2013 and the government’s crude reaction to them. It also bears some relation to Erdogan’s reaction to the so-called Arab Spring, whereupon he donned the mantle of a putative leader, and made no secret of his disappointment when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power in Egypt. It wasn’t so much the blow against Egypt’s nascent democracy that unnerved him, though, as the example set by military action against a democratically elected leader who dabbled in fundamentalism.

Many Turks have also been disturbed by Erdogan’s attitude towards the conflict neighbouring Syria, with Turkey serving as the commonest conduit for deluded international recruits eager to lend their services to Daesh or Jabhat Al Nusra. Erdogan has been inclined to see the regime of Bashar Al Assad as the biggest threat, despite having once designated him as a brother, and has therefore tended to view the Islamist outfits as potential allies.

Much to the consternation of Turkish Kurds, he resisted allowing their fighters to go to the aid of the besieged Syrian town of Kobane, and AKP representatives have on occasion lauded Daesh initiatives. Despite negotiations for a settlement with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the HDP has been pilloried as an associate of the PKK.

In fact, the HDP came fourth in Sunday’s election by broadening its appeal beyond Kurds to socially liberal Turks, and by being remarkably inclusive in its outreach. Its leader, Selahattin Demirtas, has been compared with Barack Obama, but in fact bears a closer resemblance in many ways to Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

It is not inconceivable that a second election this year could give Demirtas a more substantial mandate. But Turkey’s future is hazy. This week’s election has been variously described as a watershed and the beginning of the end of Erdogan. It may well turn out eventually to conform with those optimistic prognostications. But it’s too soon to say.

The change, for what its worth, is most welcome. Erdogan remains ensconced, though, at least for the time being, on his golden throne in a grandiose palace that, he says, enables him to escape from a cockroach infestation. Be that as it may, there is the prospect that he and his neoliberal neo-Islamism will in due course turn into little more than a bad memory for Turkey.

That hour, however, is not yet at hand. And one would certainly not wish it to be accomplished by a military coup, which has too often served as an agent of undesirable change in Turkey. As of this week, however, the most welcome prospect of a more free and less authoritarian Turkey appears to have become a more realistic proposition.

Mahir Ali is a Sydney-based journalist

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