Turkey’s second general election in five months is unlikely to resolve the nation’s deep political crisis, as observers say President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is doubling down on the heavy-handed tactics that have kept him in power for the past 12 years even if his ruling party fails again Sunday to secure a majority.
With the nation increasingly on edge amid the civil wars raging across the border in Syria and Iraq and polls suggesting Mr. Erdogan still won’t have enough seats for a majority, one former member of the Turkish parliament said the president will use his party’s “enormous propaganda machine” to push for yet another snap election in Turkey in the spring.
“There’s talk in Ankara at the moment,” said Aykan Erdemir, a member of parliament for Turkey’s main opposition party through early this year, that Mr. Erdogan will do everything in his power to spoil the prospects of a grand coalition government if his own nationalist and Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not on top when the votes are counted this weekend.
For the U.S., the prospect of another indecisive vote could hardly come at a worse time, as the Obama administration tries to enlist Ankara in the building international coalition to find a political settlement in Syria and defeat the Islamic State terrorist group.
Pushing for a third election will sustain the 61-year-old president’s immediate hold on power, said Mr. Erdemir, now serving as a nonresident fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and will immunize — at least for now — Mr. Erdogan’s inner circle from angry political foes in Ankara.
Such foes are eager to reopen a biting corruption probe that Mr. Erdogan famously decried as a “coup attempt” after it nearly brought his government to its knees in 2013. But without a power-sharing coalition government in place, it will be impossible for the opposition to use the legislature to bring the probe back to the fore.
The more worrisome prospect, said Mr. Erdemir, who spoke from Ankara this week, is that Mr. Erdogan’s maneuvering will thrust Turkey deeper into political uncertainty at time when long-boiling tensions between the government and the nation’s minority Kurds have soared to levels not seen since the 1990s.
“Some here believe Erdogan is playing with fire on the Kurdish issue and that once this thing gets out of hand it will be much worse than in the 1990s,” he said. “That was a time when human rights got breached on a regular basis by the government, as it tried to deal with the Kurdish question with sheer force, breaching the rule of law and carrying out almost crimes against humanity.”
The “Kurdish question” has divided Turkey for decades, with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) waging an insurgency against Ankara as Turkish fighter jets pound the group’s bases in northern Iraq and security forces crack down on ethnic Kurds inside Turkey.
But the tensions appeared to be easing during recent years. With Mr. Erdogan’s AKP having dominance over the government since 2003, more moderate Kurdish parties were allowed to emerge. One of them, the People’s Democratic Party, gained mainstream legitimacy.
Then came June’s elections. The AKP suddenly lost its majority over parliament and a pro-Kurdish opposition party, for the first time, secured enough votes to enter parliament, deeply upsetting Mr. Erdogan’s political calculus.
Had the AKP won just a few more seats and retained its majority, the party may have quietly approved of the Kurds’ accomplishment. But without a majority, many saw the development as sharp rejection by voters of Mr. Erdogan’s long push to expand his own power while allowing modest breathing room for the Kurds.
With no single party holding a majority, the AKP rejected a power-sharing agreement after the June 7 vote. Mr. Erdogan, who now serves as president, used his prerogative to call for elections this weekend.
The president has since been accused of trying to inflame Kurdish unrest both in the region and inside Turkey, in the hope that it will tarnish pro-Kurdish parties and stoke pro-nationalist support for the AKP ahead of Sunday’s vote.
Turkish fighter jets have repeatedly bombed PKK targets in Iraq since June. Inside Turkey, the AKP is seen to be pushing propaganda to link Kurds to a wave of terrorist incidents more likely carried out by the Islamic State.
The worst occurred Oct. 10, when suicide bombers killed more than 100 people at a rally of pro-Kurdish and labor activists in Ankara. The Erdogan government responded by claiming it had apprehended members of a group suspected of having links to the Islamic State and to Kurdish rebels.
Some analysts have raised questions about the government’s claim.
“There are serious doubts about who really organized the Ankara attack last month,” said Cenk Sidar, who heads the Washington-based research and strategic advisory firm Sidar Global Advisors. “ISIS has been named as the responsible terrorist organization, but the AKP and Erdogan have been trying to include the PKK into the equation — despite the fact that there is no single sign of Kurdish involvement.”
Mr. Erdemir added that the bombing has fueled divisions in Turkey, where some are buying into the government’s narrative while others believe a conspiracy is at play in which government intelligence agents may have had a hand in the incident to discredit the opposition.
“Even after the bombing was identified as a clear ISIS attack,” he said, “one poll had 28 percent of the electorate still believing the PKK did it. It makes no sense. Why would Kurds kill Kurds? The rally that was bombed was predominantly made up of protesters who were Kurdish.
“I would not be surprised if in a couple of years we come across evidence of state involvement in the Ankara attack,” Mr. Erdemir said.
The young and the pressless
The AKP is seen to be struggling on another front — trying to woo younger, more secular voters in Turkey, where more than half the population is younger than 30, to embrace the party’s nationalist and Islamist agenda.
“Somehow, Erdogan, who has this whole media apparatus and this enormous propaganda machine, has failed to appeal to the nation’s youth,” Mr. Erdemir said.
The AKP’s standing among young voters is also not helped by what many describe as Mr. Erdogan’s use of government security agents to crack down on media outlets and businesses linked to the nation’s opposition.
Freedom House, an independent democracy watchdog organization, this week condemned the Turkish government’s “takeover of Koza Ipek Holding, a company that owns media outlets critical of the government and is now the target of a politicized investigation into terror financing.” Government officials reportedly cut the cables at the company’s offices in the middle of a live broadcast.
Robert Herman, vice president for international programs at Freedom House, said the move “undermines the fairness of the Nov. 1 parliamentary elections.”
The government’s move against media critics sparked a strong reaction in Europe and from the State Department.
“We look to governments to ensure that legal enforcement activity is done in accordance with international legal standards, including full respect for due process and equal treatment under the law,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters this week.
How the pre-vote clashes will affect Sunday’s result remains a big question, with Washington and Turkey’s NATO allies in Europe watching the vote closely.
Mr. Kirby said Turkey’s democracy “matters to us” and that the U.S. wants to see “free, fair and credible elections.”
The Reuters news agency Wednesday reported that there was a sharply critical draft European Commission report on the state of democracy in Turkey under Mr. Erdogan, a report the news service said was being kept private until after Sunday’s vote. The survey reportedly faulted the Ankara government for its controls on the media, on public demonstrations and on the judiciary.
“The situation has been backsliding since 2014,” the report said. “The independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers have been considerably undermined, and judges and prosecutors have been under strong political pressure.”
Mr. Sidar predicted that the AKP still won’t be able to secure a majority and that Mr. Erdogan once again will reject a coalition government.
“Erdogan will continue to put his personal interests before the national interest,” Mr. Sidar said. “One is reminded of another blustering European leader: Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, whom the Economist once declared on its cover was ‘the man who screwed an entire country.’ Erdogan, too, it seems, would rather see his nation crumble than to yield to anything other than control for himself.”