Middle East

Master tactician Erdogan seen angling for new elections

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan kisses a handmade Turkish flag, given to him as a gift from Ugandan university student Cemil (not pictured), during a graduation ceremony in Ankara, Turkey, June 11, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

ANKARA: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statesman-like appeals for Turkey’s rival parties to leave egos aside and form a new government may suggest the combative leader has turned over a new leaf, but even those close to him wonder how long it will last.

A masterful tactician who has built a career on playing the political underdog, Erdogan is in a tight corner after the AK Party he founded lost its parliamentary majority Sunday, thwarting for now his ambition of accumulating greater powers.

Senior AK Party officials, from Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu down, have insisted that the party will exhaust efforts to find a junior coalition partner before a new election is considered. But in private, many view a snap poll as Erdogan’s best hope of seeing the party he founded claw back its majority.

“Erdogan is giving soft messages now, and will for a while longer, but we will see whether it continues,” one senior AK Party official involved in party strategy told Reuters, asking not to be identified after Davutoglu urged officials not to discuss coalition options with the media.

“Erdogan wants people to see that the option of a coalition won’t work ... Efforts to form a stable government will truly be pursued, but I don’t think they can be realized. I believe an early election is first in the list of scenarios right now.”

For many in NATO member Turkey memories will be vivid of the fractious, changing coalitions and clashing personalities of the 1990s. International financial support programs collapsed, the economy lurched into crisis and the influence of the army was constantly at play.

Financial markets took succor from the conciliatory remarks of Erdogan, better known for blustery rhetoric, that all parties should work quickly to form a new government and that egos must be set aside.

The relief, however, was short-lived, with the lira giving up some gains Friday.

“A period of weak governance wouldn’t necessarily be bad [for the AK Party], especially if they look like ‘the adults in the room,’” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in New York.

“The economy is likely to head south in the next few months. The AK Party can now blame ‘instability’ rather than its own policies for the downturn,” he told Reuters.

Unrest in the Turkey’s Kurdish southeast could also play to Erdogan’s favor, allowing him to take a firmer line that could win over some nationalists.

The AK Party remains Turkey’s largest party but its support fell to around 41 percent from 49.8 at the last parliamentary elections. Votes were lost to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which entered parliament for the first time, and to the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

In the event of a rerun, the AK Party would likely struggle to win back many Kurdish votes but could hope to regain those who turned to the MHP and now regret the prospect of an unstable coalition. An IPSOS poll shortly after the results were announced suggested the AK Party would have had 4 percent more support if voters had known the outcome in advance.

“At the moment, everyone is planning how they can head into an early election with the most advantage,” said Ihsan Aktas, head of polling company GENAR, seen as close to the government.

“At this point, for the AK Party, showing a transparent attitude and being respectful toward coalitions will be noticed by voters. It will help their votes,” he told Reuters.

After parliament is sworn in later this month, Erdogan is expected to formally give the AK Party the mandate to try to form a government. If no working government can be formed after 45 days, he has the power to call a new election.

Eyeing a snap vote, none of Turkey’s major parties have an interest in being seen to scupper a deal, meaning coalition negotiations could be drawn out potentially for months.

“We will not be the ones closing the road,” said a senior member of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the second biggest group in parliament, adding that a coalition with the AK Party could not be ruled out.

That would mean bridging a gaping ideological divide, the image of the CHP as a bastion of the secularist elite being anathema to the religiously conservative AK Party grassroots.

In a conspicuously conciliatory move, Erdogan hosted former CHP leader Deniz Baykal in his first political meeting after the vote, even eschewing his controversial new palace and using a more modest Ankara residence.

“Erdogan wants to be seen acting as a president above the political frame but in reality he is a central participant in the ongoing saga,” Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at London-based think tank Chatham House, told Reuters.

“He was so involved in the election campaign and sided with the ruling party that it will be exceptionally difficult if not impossible for him to act as an impartial and nonpartisan president,” he said.

So far, Erdogan is choosing his words carefully and the AK Party is at pains to demonstrate willingness. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc even hinted corruption cases against four ex-ministers could be brought back to parliament, a key opposition demand.

The AK Party may have been chastened by Sunday’s elections, but as St. Lawrence’s Eissenstat noted, it still won the lion’s share of votes and occupies the “sweet spot” of Turkish politics as a center-right party in a fundamentally center-right nation.

Few predict its, or Erdogan’s, demise. He remains far and away Turkey’s most popular politician, with no real rivals in the opposition parties. He has bounced back from adversity before, including several months in prison at the hands of a secularist-led coalition in 1999 after reciting a poem invoking religious imagery.

“The election was a rebuke for Erdogan’s ambition and his capriciousness ... but he remains an extremely savvy politician with powerful support in the base. He has the power of an expanded presidency and a bureaucracy dominated by the AK Party,” Eissenstat said.

“The AK Party took a well-deserved drubbing, but when the dust settles, they are still well placed to dominate Turkey’s politics for years to come.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 13, 2015, on page 9.

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