Middle East

Erdogan gambles on using government crisis to consolidate power

Masked members of YDG-H, youth wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), sit next to their weapons in Silvan, near the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, August 17, 2015. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar

ANKARA: As efforts to form a new government flounder and Turkish jets bombard Kurdish militants, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hoping to turn Turkey’s deepest uncertainty in more than a decade to his advantage.

Declaring the end of single-party rule a betrayal by “terrorists” and “so-called intellectuals,” he has cast Turkey as confronted by a new domestic enemy which, by implication, only a leader as strong as he can defeat.

Erdogan saw his plans to forge a presidential system akin to France or the United States derailed on June 7, when the ruling AK Party lost its majority at a parliamentary vote for the first time in more than a decade.

His hopes of changing the constitution and realizing that ambition now hinge on the AK Party regaining control of parliament, a scenario made possible after efforts to agree a coalition government collapsed last week, making a snap election look almost inevitable.

That, even some of those within the ruling party privately acknowledge, was the outcome Erdogan always wanted.

“He is truly successful at reaching his goals in politics,” one senior government official said.

“He is getting what he wants after a masterfully managed two months. It was clear since the beginning that in no way did he consider any other option than single AK Party rule.”

It is a high-risk strategy. Two recent polls have suggested the AKP could recover its majority and govern alone if the vote were held again, but there are no guarantees.

Dragging reluctant Turkish voters to the polls so soon after a divisive election could further undermine support for the AK Party, according to Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and head of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank.

“It will be seen as the party that has forced early elections on a recalcitrant Turkish electorate at a time when there are severe challenges, both from the security perspective and also economically,” Ulgen said, adding that dissent within the AK Party could start to bubble over.

“The drawback to this gambit for Erdogan is that if the AK Party ends up losing votes, we may start to see more open dissatisfaction about his influence,” he said.

Eager not to be seen as deal breakers, senior AK Party officials have publicly rejected the idea that Erdogan, who retains considerable power over the party apparatus, is opposed to a coalition. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last Thursday described such a perception as “completely false.”

But party insiders acknowledge there is already discontent with his meddling. Many blame his lobbying for an executive presidency for the fall in AK Party support in June, despite a constitutional obligation for him to remain out of party politics as head of state.

“Erdogan is losing his grip on the party each day. And this is not good news for him,” said a second senior party official, but added it was far too soon to count him out. “He wants the presidential system one way or the other and he is not giving up.”

The combative president has missed few opportunities to portray strong, single-party rule as the only option for Turkey, particularly in times of crisis such as now, with violence flaring in the mainly Kurdish southeast and a mounting threat from ISIS militants in northern Syria.

“Turkey is facing a new enemy due to the June 7 election result, which did not allow a single party majority, and as the chaos in Syria deepens,” he said in a speech Friday.

Falling back on a rhetorical technique that has served him well, Erdogan cast himself and the Turkish state as victims of an ill-defined plot contrived by a range of enemies whose links are, at best, tenuous.

The “parallel state” – his term for followers of influential U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gulen – “separatist terrorists” – a reference to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group – writers, academics and journalists were all to blame.

“Everyone who supports and remains silent in the face of this network ... is complicit in its efforts to obstruct this nation. This is not a day to be impartial. Those who remain impartial will be eliminated,” he said.

After more than a decade as prime minister, Erdogan won Turkey’s first popular presidential election in August 2014 and has since stretched the powers of a largely ceremonial post to their limits. He has insisted that even without constitutional change, his election by the people rather than by parliament as in the past automatically granted him extra authority.

“There is now a president in the country not with symbolic power, but with literal power,” he said.

“Whether it is accepted or not, Turkey’s system of government has changed. What needs to be done now is to clarify and confirm the legal framework of this de facto situation with a new constitution.”

Critics say that such speeches already mark the beginnings of a campaign to win back support for the AK Party and the idea of an executive presidency ahead of the expected snap election.

“He sees no downside in forcing early elections, but possibly a huge upside. From Erdogan’s perspective I think it boils down to that,” said EDAM’s Ulgen.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 18, 2015, on page 8.

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