- The Washington Times - Monday, June 1, 2015

ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has emerged as his country’s most dominant leader since the republic’s secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk nearly a century ago, isn’t on the ballot in next week’s elections, but his political future will be at stake.

Standing in his path is a pro-Kurdish party vying to enter parliament and weaken the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has dominated Ankara’s politics since 2002.

The legacy of Mr. Erdogan’s dozen years in power is up for grabs as spillover from the Syrian civil war and a restive Kurdish minority make the June 7 parliamentary elections a crucial test for the president’s political machine and his own personal staying power.

The result also will be of keen interest to the Obama administration, which has found Ankara to be a frustrating partner at times in its efforts to rally regional partners against a surging Islamic State. Once seen as a potential model for merging Islamic faith and democratic values in the region, Mr. Erdogan has clashed with Washington over regional strategy and bristled at American criticisms of his increasingly autocratic governing style.

A lot of factors are in play as Turks prepare to vote Sunday.

The pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP) has never entered parliament. But should it surpass the 10 percent threshold imposed on political parties by Turkey’s military rulers after their 1980 coup, they could emerge as kingmakers in Ankara.

“The most important factor in this election is going to be the HDP,” said Behlul Ozkan, an associate professor of international relations at Marmara University in Istanbul.

If HDP breaks the threshold, it will gain 50 seats in parliament, severely weakening the AKP’s dominance and likely ending Mr. Erdogan’s dreams of rewriting the constitution to codify a system that critics say has been moving toward one-man rule.

If HDP falls short of the threshold, those seats are granted to the largest party — certainly the ruling AKP — which would push the Kurdish movement out of parliament and return to turbulent street-level activism that rocked Turkey in previous decades.

“If the HDP has to continue as an independent entity in the peace process, it will do so,” Irdis Baluken, an HDP parliamentary candidate in the predominately Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, told The Washington Times. “But solving this from under the roof of the parliament is much more important.”

Mr. Erdogan has been campaigning hard for the government, even though as head of state he is constitutionally barred from partisan electioneering. He also has stressed his Islamist roots and criticized the country’s long-entrenched secular elite in a bid to woo undecided Kurdish voters.

“We will not give way to those who speak out against our call to prayer,” he said at a massive Saturday rally in Istanbul at which most of the women in the crowd were covered by the Muslim headscarf. “We will not give space to those who want to extinguish the fire of conquest burning in the heart of Istanbul for 562 years.”

But the president also has been accused of increasingly excessive spending and high living after a dozen years in power, symbolized by the 1,150-room presidential mansion that opened last year. Critics say it was built illegally on protected land in Ankara.

The criticism has become so personal that Mr. Erdogan on Monday invited opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu to inspect the palace himself to debunk rumors that the toilet seats are gold-plated.

Polls released over the past week have been mixed, showing HDP within a percentage point of the crucial threshold.

Mr. Erdogan and his protege, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, fearing a Kurdish bloc would dilute their power in Ankara, have been on the offensive, highlighting the HDP’s ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, negotiated a cease-fire with Turkey in 2012, pausing a conflict that killed more than 40,000 people since the early 1980s.

Mr. Erdogan and his allies have been alternatively accusing the HDP of being a tool of the PKK — considered to be a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States — and something even more sinister: a pawn of dark forces intent on reigniting the conflict.

HDP officials “have sabotaged disarmament calls made by Abdullah Ocalan and also the process,” Mr. Davutoglu told reporters Saturday in remarks published in the pro-government Daily Sabah.

Government desperation

Turkish analysts say the public isn’t buying it and the government’s line smacks of political desperation.

“It is ironic that this government, which presents itself as the champion of peace, is now trying to kill it with all its power,” columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz wrote recently in Today’s Zaman, a local newspaper. “Kurds have long been invited to join political life and to refrain from violence as a means to struggle for their rights, but now the ruling party is trying to do anything in its power to block Kurds from entering parliament.”

With stakes so high, tensions played out in ugly ways are increasing. In the rural southeast, AKP candidates complain about violence and provocations against volunteers canvassing in areas known to be PKK strongholds.

“The region here has seen violence, and people don’t have particularly high education,” said Orhan Miroglu, a veteran Kurdish activist who is running on the ruling AKP ticket in the southeastern city of Mardin. “We have had incidents when there were staged provocations that prevented us from meeting constituents.”

The bulk of attacks have been against the HDP. The party has reported more than 120 incidents in the past month alone. Twin bomb attacks on regional offices May 18 in Adana and Mersin injured several people.

That violence was nothing compared with the October riots in Kurdish cities over Turkey’s perceived inaction as the Islamic State laid siege on the Syrian city of Kobani. More than 30 people were killed as rival factions — Islamists and sympathizers of the PKK — traded gunfire on the streets of Diyarbakir and other cities.

Zekeriya Yapicioglu, running as an independent for the Huda Par (Free Cause Party) in Diyarbakir, which is rooted in a banned Islamist Kurdish movement, blames both the AKP and the PKK for last year’s violence.

“There are fears of instability as the government didn’t do anything for 48 hours during the Kobani riots,” Mr. Yapicioglu said in an interview. “So any postelection violence will be the government’s fault.”

Then there is the Syrian factor. Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Davutoglu have staked their reputations on toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad and have appeared willing to either supply or turn a blind eye to the growth of extreme Islamist opposition fighters who share their goal.

The Syrian civil war, now in its fifth year, has killed a quarter of a million people and displaced more than 3.4 million. Many have found refuge in Turkish cities.

The influx has put a strain on the nation and sowed anger among local Turks who resent the refugees who drive up housing costs and compete for jobs.

In the city of Sanliurfa, which has absorbed tens of thousands of refugees, fights have broken out as anger and frustration by locals boils over.

“We are not against the Syrians; we have to help them,” AKP candidate Ahmet Esref Fakibaba in the city of Sanliurfa said. “But this is a city where unemployment is high. When Syrians are given jobs for less, it hurts the local population even much more than before.”

Economic jitters could prove a liability for AKP after Turkey’s decade of economic expansion. But Turkey’s currency has slid 11 percent against the dollar in the past year, and there are fears that the economy’s bubble will burst.

“In the past 10 or 12 years, the Turkish economy has been based on the construction boom,” Mr. Ozkan said. “But with a construction boom, you cannot really develop too far. All the statistics show us that we are reaching the end of this construction boom.”

Economic crisis could mean that Turkey’s working-class supporters could turn against the longtime ruling party if their fortunes fall. Murat, a 48-year-old machinist in the industrial city of Bursa who did not want to be quoted by his full name, noted that factory workers have backed the AKP over the past decade, but stagnant wages are making many of them rethink their support.

“It’s been the party getting the most votes for more than 10 years now, despite the fact that it’s doing less and less for workers,” he said. “Now, it will be very difficult to support them.”

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