To the world of pundits and experts, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political career was dead in the water. The ousting of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) from their seemingly invincible parliamentary majority in June was hailed as a watershed moment for Turkey, an opportunity for a peaceful transition of power to a more liberal coalition government. Though the coalition never materialized, it was assumed new elections would deliver similar results and the second hung parliament would surely produce a workable government. But the canny and politically gifted Erdogan had other plans. Utilizing a cocktail of security, xenophobia, and illiberalism so potent it would make Vladimir Putin blush, Erdogan rallied the AKP voter base to a sweeping victory in the 1 November elections and secured his position at the peak of the Turkish state. His methods and message raise questions about Turkey’s domestic democratic health, the future of its conflict with the increasingly powerful Kurds, and its relations with its many troubled neighbours.
ISIS bombings rocked the border city of Suruç in July and the capital, Ankara, in October, disrupting pro-Kurdish rallies and killing hundreds. Ignoring critics decrying lax government security at these opposition events, President Erdogan used the attacks as a casus belli to finally join the fight against ISIS in neighbouring Iraq and Syria. This was all well and good, cheered by most sectors of Turkish politics. However, Erdogan then announced the end of the fragile ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which had lasted for two years, and resumed military operations against the Kurdish militant group. Going further, his government began to arrest critics of the AKP government, accusing them of conspiring to commit acts of terror. Any backlash from the opposition parties was swiftly cracked down on and labelled as evidence of seditious conspiracy. Opposition media was also targeted. Editors of liberal magazines and newspapers have been arrested on charges of “incitement to violence” and their operations have been raided and disrupted. The acceptance and even approval by Turkish voters of this illiberal suppression is evidence of their fear of violent terrorism. By rewarding Erdogan for his tactics, the Turkish people are sending the message that they prefer the brutality of the strongman to the chaos of the terrorist. Manufacturing this false choice was the crucial achievement of Erdogan’s campaign.
The breakdown of the government’s peace process with the PKK has given President Erdogan political cover to target his critics. Turkey’s main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), are both generally pro-Kurd and relied heavily on energized Kurdish constituencies in their summer election victories. However, when fighting resumed with the more radical PKK, Erdogan was able to lump pro-Kurd politicians in with suspected terrorists, eroding opposition support and justifying his political crackdown. He was not always so anti-Kurd, however. Erdogan, in his early years in office, was the leading proponent of peace talks with the Kurdish fighters and it was his efforts which led to the 2013 ceasefire. This has led many, in the wake of the recent elections, to garner a cautious optimism that Erdogan will revisit the idea of peaceful overtures and focus his military endeavours on ISIS. Others believe the new AKP government will attempt to mollify more moderate Kurdish nationalists with language concessions, while continuing to hammer the PKK until, as Erdogan himself has said, “all its members surrender or are eliminated.” Given his electoral success delivered by stoking anti-Kurdish sentiment and jailing pro-Kurdish politicians and media, this sanguinity seems misplaced. Fear of radical Kurdish nationalism energized an AKP voter base in November which had seen little reason for enthusiasm before the summer.
Turkey is, of course, immensely strategically significant to the region. Bordering both Syria and Iraq, it has played a key, if not entirely helpful role in the West’s fight against ISIS. Originally reluctant to get involved with its unstable neighbours and fearful of militant Kurdish ascendancy, Turkey was not persuaded to actively support the West until the ISIS terror attacks of July. Even then, by waging a separate war on Kurdish militants, Turkey has undercut Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish forces, the Western allies that have proved most capable of rolling back ISIS’ territorial expansion. Still, at the upcoming G20 summit in Turkey, President Erdogan is expected to reoccupy his position as the indispensable leader in the region, shiny new popular mandate in hand. His proposals for more aggressive intervention in the conflict will focus mainly on a “no-fly zone.” This measure, designed to establish air superiority over the conflict zone, would be the first step towards Erdogan’s ultimate goal: a “safe” or “buffer” zone stretching across a large swath of northern Syria, maintained by an international armed coalition, and ostensibly providing Syrian refugees a chance to return home. The fact that this safe zone would effectively divide Syrian Kurdish forces and cut them off from their larger supply networks is a fact not lost on Western governments, but Erdogan is relying on their desire for Turkish support and their reticence to empower armed sub-state actors. For his domestic plans, the longer the war rages in Syria and Iraq, the more the Turkish people will seek security and stability, AKP’s strongest selling points.
Turkey’s great political alchemist proved once again this November that he has the formula for electoral success: escalate war, pitch security, inflame ethnic tension, and suppress critical media. Erdogan’s tactics speak volumes of the state of Turkish democracy and of the easy path to power for the strongman. While it would be too much to claim that Erdogan manufactured conflicts with ISIS and the PKK to win an election, his opportunism, heavy-handedness, and inflammation of the political narratives are plainly illiberal and anti-democratic. He has exploited fear and xenophobia to justify blatant oppression of his political opponents. It’s hard to blame the people of Turkey for seeking stability in the cauldron of violence and terror that is their immediate neighbourhood. One can only hope that they will see Erdogan’s crimes for what they are and find a more liberal path to security in their volatile region.