- - Sunday, October 11, 2015

ISTANBUL — For the second time this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s quest to consolidate power might be backfiring.

After voters failed this summer to give the majority to any political bloc in parliament, the Islamist president has been working hard to make sure his allies in the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which he co-founded and led for more than a decade, return to power when voters go back to the polls on Nov. 1.

“He was very careful in selecting the right people to the candidate list,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, referring to Justice and Development’s strategy for the upcoming elections. “He sets the policy now.”

But Mr. Erdogan, whose government has been accused of authoritarianism, might be overstepping.

Critics say Mr. Erdogan is orchestrating the government’s deeply unpopular policies, such as stepping up military actions against Kurdish forces and cracking down on the media and opposition groups.



These policies apparently are not achieving their goals: A recent poll by Metropoll, the Turkish firm with the best track record of predicting election results, recently found that if the elections took place today, the Peoples’ Democratic Party would win the same share of the vote as in the summer ballot, while Justice and Development would gain only 1 percentage point, not enough to break the stalemate in parliament.

“For the moment, what we are seeing is that there is not much difference,” Mr. Ozel said. “If the result of Nov. 1 is the same as June 7, obviously it would weaken him [Mr. Erdogan], because he forced this election on the country, and the country would have told him once more, ‘Get out of our faces.’”

Mr. Erdogan once championed peace with the Kurds, who constitute about 18 percent of Turkey’s 80 million citizens. The Turkish military has been fighting the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, a group labeled by the United States as a terrorist organizationfor decades. The PKK once called for a separate Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey, but it has abandoned that policy and now only seeks more autonomy.

In July the Erdogan government broke off peace talks after the PKK killed two policemen it had accused of colluding with the Islamic State in a major terrorist attack that left 32 Kurdish youth activists dead. Ankara then launched airstrikes against Kurdish strongholds in southern Turkey and northern Iraq while also giving the U.S. permission to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State in the region from Turkish territory.

More than 100 security forces and hundreds of Kurdish militants, as well as dozens of civilians, have been killed in the ongoing clashes.

The attacks appear designed to stoke anti-Kurdish and pro-nationalist feeling against the Peoples’ Democratic Party, a left-wing group that advocates peace with the Kurds, said Jenny White, a Turkey expert at Boston University. The party won sufficient votes to keep Justice and Development from winning the majority in the summer elections.

“Justice and Development wants those votes back, even if it means overturning a peace deal with the PKK that was on the cusp of implementation and instead stoking civil war,” Ms. White said.

The stakes in the election are high.

Mr. Erdogan’s office is officially nonpartisan and largely ceremonial: He ran for president last year after term limits barred him from running again as prime minister.

But he and his former party have been campaigning to change Turkey’s secular constitution to give the presidency more powers. And he needs Justice and Development lawmakers to hold the majority in parliament to achieve that goal.

Critics say Mr. Erdogan put the kibosh on Justice and Development leaders forming a coalition government with the Peoples’ Democratic Party and other opposition parties in large part because a coalition would have forced him to put his proposed constitutional changes on hold.

In recent weeks vandals have attacked 120 of the party’s offices around the country in what appeared to be a coordinated campaign of intimidation. At the same time, protesters have attacked newspapers accused of misquoting Mr. Erdogan in interviews, and police have apprehended and deported foreign journalists and raided other media that have been critical of the president.

Most striking, despite the unrest among the government and its outspoken left-wing critics, the attacks on the PKK may be undermining Mr. Erdogan’s support among his base of conservative voters too.

“Back in the 1990s, when there were similar events, people would blame the terrorists. Now it’s different,” said Gurkan Ozturan, a prominent democracy activist and a parliamentary candidate for the small Liberal Democratic Party. “Back then, every mother of a slain soldier that I could see was a far-right nationalist. Right now they want peace, they want an end to war, they don’t want their sons to be killed.”

Selim Ozturk, 46, a taxi driver in Istanbul, is the type of Turkish voter Mr. Erdogan might be alienating. He is tired of the fighting and politics surrounding the upcoming election.

“I support the army and oppose the PKK as terrorists, but, at the same time, I want the war to stop,” Mr. Ozturk said. “I would like my 10-year-old son to grow up in peace, not in a civil war like in Syria.”

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