- - Thursday, May 28, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The course of Turkey hangs on the outcome of the elections June 7, but there’s more than provincial interests at stake. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, eager to transform his nation as well as his presidency, is reaching for more power. His erratic public statements and policy feints in all directions have weakened Turkey’s bonds with NATO allies in Western Europe, already wary of taking Turkey into the pact as a full-fledged member of the European Union.

Mr. Erdogan has flirted with the Islamists, maintaining close ties to Hamas, which just now is exposed for assassinating internal opposition to keep a tight grip on Gaza. The government in Ankara broke off its close military alliance with Israel after it joined an attempt to break Israel’s embargo on weapons shipped to Gaza. Several of Mr. Erdogan’s closest associates in the Justice and Development Party have suggested that he might have been subjected to personal psychological warfare of some kind. He asked NATO for help against the growing threat to Turkey’s southeast region by the chaos in Syria, and he has hinted he might buy weapons from China. He has flirted with Vladimir Putin, offering a route for Russian gas exports to Europe. But he has little worry about his party winning the approaching elections.

The big question is whether the remnants of the old secularist establishment, which brought Turkey into the modern world after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, can put a brake on his drive toward monopoly power. If he and his party win an overwhelming majority, he might well invoke an authoritarian regime, perhaps with ugly Islamist proclivities.

His main opposition comes from Selahittin Demirtas, a human-rights activist whose interests have been devoted to recognition of the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, which makes up 20 percent of the population of 82 million. Mr. Demirtas’ Turkish Democratic Party (HDP) has become the rallying point for the secularist and leftist opposition. That’s despite fears that the HDP’s Kurdish origins include remnants of the Communist-led insurrection that fought a 30-year guerrilla and terrorist war against the Ankara government. Fifty-thousand Turks died in the insurrection.

With the Kurdish minority in neighboring Iraq now an ally of the United States and its allies in the fight against the Islamic State, the parliamentary elections become even more critical. Mr. Dermitas must break through the threshold of winning 10 percent of the vote to enter Parliament, and there’s no widespread expectation that he will. But if he does, the party could be the needed brake on Mr. Erdogan’s attempt to change the constitution, slake his appetite for authoritarian rule and put an end to his flirtation with the Islamists. The flirtation is especially strong in rural Anatolia.

Until now, what Mr. Erdogan has had going for him is the economic prosperity that his administration has brought to Turkey, breaking out of the stiff and inflexible state capitalism of the secularist governments. But the high growth rate has stalled, investment is stagnant and unemployment is growing rapidly. The Turkish lira has lost 40 percent of its value since a violent demonstrations broke out when Mr. Erdogan tried to push through an unpopular public works project two years ago in volatile Istanbul, where its 15 million residents have been the spearhead of the thrust for modernization.

Unless Mr. Erdogan can be reined in by Turkey’s small but vocal democratic minority, he may undermine not only the modernization process but jeopardize the country’s role in NATO, which itself is under severe stress facing Russian aggression in Ukraine. The stakes in the elections are great for everyone.


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