06 June 2015

Notes on the Upcoming Turkish Elections

Tomorrow is election day in Turkey.

For the country, these elections are probably one of the most important political events of the last decade. Not only will they determine the future of the Republic, they might also have a profound and lasting impact on the larger region.

Here is a brief background for those of you who are not following these events.

The leader of the ruling AKP, Tayyip Erdogan wants to change the Constitution to establish a US-style presidential system minus the separation of powers. That's a polite way of saying that he wants to become the new Ottoman Sultan. According to some perhaps even the Caliph.

If you need a more explicit hint, he recently cited Saudi Arabia as a presidential system.

To achieve his dream, he needs a two thirds majority. In a Parliament with 550 members that works out to 367 MPs.

It is a safe bet that he is not going to get it. In fact, even a simple majority of 276 is not a done deal. Most polls place AKP around the 40 percent mark. A far cry from almost 50 percent the party got in the last general elections in 2011.

So what happened?

Most observers will give you a range of reasons, such as Erdogan's  increasingly autocratic style since 2013, terrible freedom of press record, a deteriorating economy and the rise of a Kurdish party.

The first two are accurate but largely irrelevant for the masses that routinely vote for Erdogan. They worship the ground he walks on and if he acts like a Sultan, hey, what's wrong with that? And journalists are useless lying parasites anyway.

But the other two factors are very significant and they are both of Erdogan's making.

It's the Economy Stupid

You remember Carville's slogan from Clinton's first presidential campaign, right? It is always the economy. But this one is not one of your regular economic downturns.

Following the corruption scandal of 17 December 2013, Erdogan declared war to one of his oldest allies, Fethullah Gulen. That is because he knew that Gulen was behind the dawn raids that uncovered millions of dollars in shoe boxes in the residences of four of his ministers. During the last decade, Gulen movement has been patiently and methodically colonizing the police and the judiciary. It was the same security forces that recorded Erdogan's conversations with his son as he was instructing him to hide away hundreds of millions of euros.

And it was them who leaked those tapes.

Erdogan instantly knew that if he did not go on the offensive he would soon be deposed, indicted and convicted. Besides the strength of the evidence, the preponderance of Gulen supporters in the Ministry of Justice would be enough to seal his fate. His sole option was to attack the Gulen movement and to purge the police and the justice apparatus from Hizmet people.

It was a massive undertaking but he largely succeeded.

However, that created a bigger problem for him. You see, AKP cadres are mostly graduates of Imam Hatip schools, including Erdogan himself. These are vocational schools designed to provide a religious curriculum along with some generalist education. Their graduates are pious and conservative and can lead daily prayers with gusto. But they are ill-equipped to run any kind of organizations.

Conversely, Gulen's Hizmet movement emphasizes technical education and runs thousands of well-regarded schools all over the world. They are well educated and bright and reasonably worldly. Consequently, to run things properly AKP has always had to rely on Hizmet people. In fact, most of the economic success during AKP's rule could be traced back to Hizmet technocrats.

With them gone, AKP's Imam Hatip folks are now completely lost. Erdogan himself could not understand why the Director of the Turkish Central Bank could not push the value of the dollar down or keep interest rates lower when Erdogan asked him to do so.
“There are still those who don’t understand that if you cut interest rates you’ll cut inflation,” Erdogan said.

Purging Hizmet people meant giving senior management positions and the levers of the economy to his fellow Imam Hatip graduates. The worst part is, after 12 years in power, they now believe they have the skills to run the place successfully.

There is a second problem.

The AKP's economic success has had three pillars: one is construction, the other is credit-fueled consumption and the third is short term "hot money" coming from outside. From the recent American, Irish or Spanish experiences we know that the first two constitute a direct path to a highly destructive real estate bubble. And the third element is so volatile that it could disappear at a moment's notice.

The only productive sector has been the mid-size manufacturing companies collectively called Anatolian Tigers. Generally speaking, these are former appliance distributors who invested in production facilities in the late 1990s. They are mostly conservative men with a strong Muslim identity. They value work and investment over ostentatious consumption. They are known as Islamic Calvinists and they have close ties with the Hizmet movement. That is not just ideological affinity: Gulenists in state institutions have consistently intervened on their behalf to help them expand their business.

When Erdogan attacked the Hizmet movement he also targeted many of these Tigers. Some could no longer bid in state contracts, other saw their books being audited frequently. Credit dried up. They could not produce, market or export. The "Declawing of Anatolian Tigers" had disastrous economic consequences.
Turkey's once-hailed industrialized and commercially developed cities now teeter on the brink of economic collapse. Many businessmen and workers cite the tension between the ruling government, the head of state and civil society organizations such as the Gülen movement, also known as the Hizmet movement and inspired by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, as one of the prime reasons why the economy has been sidetracked and isn't receiving the attention it desperately requires.
And the graduate of an Imam Hatip school could not see what attacking the productive manufacturing sector means in an economy sustained primarily by construction and consumer credit.

In that sense, even if Erdogan manages to form a government with a small majority, there is no way he could go back to economic growth and stability.

Kurds at the Gate

Erdogan's other problem is the meteoric rise of pro-Kurdish HDP and its leader Selahattin Demirtas.

He is young, personable and charismatic and sans mustache.

And he has an inclusive message, which covers not only Kurds and Turks but all minorities, women and even LGBT folks. HDP is fielding the first openly gay candidate in Turkey's history.

Up until now, to bypass the ten percent electoral threshold, Kurdish politicians were contesting elections as independent candidates. There are about 30 of them in the current Parliament. When Selahattin Demirtas received almost 10 percent of the popular vote during the 2014 Presidential elections, he decided that Kurdish politicians would participate as a political party.

It is a gamble.

If it works, HDP stands to gain 50-70 seats. But if the party stays under 10 percent all those seats will go to AKP, as the other parties have little or no presence in the Kurdish Southeast. And Kurdish politicians will be locked out of Parliament until the next elections.

Current opinion polls put HDP hovering around the 10 percent mark. But I extrapolate from anecdotal evidence and the massive shift in Kurdish tribal votes, (which, I assume, are not properly accounted for in most polls), barring large scale electoral fraud, HDP is likely to get around 12 percent of the vote.

Any HDP success would make a solid majority for AKP an arithmetic impossibility. In fact, if AKP dips below 40 percent it might not be able to form a government by itself.

That puts Erdogan in a very serious bind.

To be able to control his own party, he needs to stay in power.

Erdogan's Rovian Strategy

It involves three tactics, one before, one during and one after.

1) Before Elections: Polarize, Polarize and Polarize Some More

Even though constitutionally the President is supposed to be neutral and above politics, in the last few months, Erdogan has been on TV almost every day, blasting an opponent or criticizing something in brazenly partisan terms. (Here is a full page of Guardian's coverage of his recent political stunts.)

Clearly, this helps him set the agenda, put the opposition on the defensive and convey a fighting message to his supporters. He has been telling them he is the thin line between them and their enemies, internal mostly but external as well.

The Dolchtosslegende lives on. And on.

Without me, he tells them, no one will protect you or fight for you and "them folks" will come after you.

While the message is fairly crude, most of his supporters are aware of the simmering backlash against them and they are genuinely concerned with what might happen if Erdogan was no longer the President or the leader of the party.

The tactic seems to have stopped the bleeding as AKP has stabilized its support around 40 percent.

But on another level it seems to have backfired. With Erdogan on the campaign trail insulting and accusing everyone, there are signs that he is alienating different groups and turning off potential voters.

Since his overall strategy is Rove's famous 50 percent plus 1, his negative campaign appears to be yielding the opposite result and preventing his from expanding his electoral base.

2) During Elections: Tweak Some Results

Unless you are Hun Sen, large scale electoral rigging is both unnecessary and too much work. In most places, all you need to do is to tweak a couple of key results and you will get what you want.

AKP provided a good illustration of that approach. During the 2014 municipal elections, when exit polls indicated a possible defeat for the combative Mayor of Ankara, Melih Gokcek, a close ally of Erdogan, power was cut off mysteriously in some districts.

And when it was restored, Gokcek was back in the lead and of course, he ended up winning the elections.

Tellingly, the following day, when asked about the causes of the brownout, the Minister of Energy blamed the incident on a stray cat who wandered off into a transformer unit and got himself electrocuted causing the power to be cut off.

This is how the culprit was portrayed on Twitter.

This time around, the most tempting point of intervention might be the ballots cast by Turkish citizens living abroad.

There are two reasons why they make such a desirable target.

One is the fact that these votes do not go to specific electoral districts. They are added to each party's overall score. In that sense, they could be critical in pushing the HDP over the 10 percent threshold. Or, conversely, they could keep HDP from reaching that bar.

If your primary goal was to keep HDP below 10 percent, would you deal with hundreds of ballot stations or change a few dozen ballot bags from abroad?

The second reason is the ease with which this could be accomplished. Citizens abroad vote in Consulates over a period of two weeks. At the end, the ballots are bagged and shipped to Ankara to be counted. Along the way there are many points at which one could stuff new ballots or simply exchange bags.

I am told by knowledgeable people that security around these bags is minimal.

However, there is a silver lining: of the almost 3 million voters abroad, a little over 1 million (32 percent) bothered to go to the ballot box. Which means that in a pool this small, anything beyond minor tweaking would be too obvious and attract too much attention.

3) After the Elections: Form a Coalition with MHP

The National Action Party (MHP) is, as its name implies, a proto-fascist, ultra-nationalistic party. Unlike similar political formations elsewhere, its basic identity includes a strong religious component. They call it the Turkish-Islam synthesis.

You could say that, whereas AKP's basic ideological elements are Islam+Turkishness, MHP's are Turkishness+Islam: it is more of a question of emphasis than actual difference.

Therefore, it is not surprising that there is a bit of an overlap: roughly 8 percent of AKP voters are in reality MHP supporters. And when AKP voters feel doubtful about their party's current trajectory, their natural stopover is MHP.

This makes MHP both a direct competitor and a natural ally for AKP. Polls indicate that roughly 15 percent of the voters support MHP. That plus the ideological proximity between these two forces make them ideal coalition partners.

While it is difficult to predict the number of seats in such an election, the likely figure for MHP is somewhere between 90 and 100 MPs.

A coalition between the two could give Erdogan the 330 MPs he needs to force a referendum on the presidential system. It might even yield the 367 seats that would allow him to change the Constitution without any additional steps.

Despite his bellicose rhetoric on the campaign trail and his non-denial denials, I am fairly confident that, given the right incentives, the leader of MHP, Devlet Bahceli, a wily and cynical man, would acquiesce to anything Erdogan proposes. He did that in the past.

Bahceli would especially join such a coalition if he could present it as a necessary step to preserve the country's unity. That's dog whistle for "Kurds want to destroy the country." Consequently, his pre-conditions would likely include an end to the Kurdish peace initiative and a rollback of the limited reform package AKP implemented a few years back.

Not only would his base eat this up, he would become a hero for a large portion of the population who view all Kurds as either current or future terrorists.

To facilitate this, Erdogan has been making anti-Kurdish statements in the last six months. He even turned his back to his own peace initiative and claimed that there was "no Kurdish problem in Turkey."

The coalition is not just essential for Erdogan's presidential ambitions: it is also an important insurance policy.

Whatever the final tally will be, if HDP goes over the 10 percent barrier, AKP will definitely have fewer seats than the current 312 MPs. In political terms that is a defeat.

Add to this the growing discontent within AKP with Erdogan's belligerent posturing, autocratic decidion-making and lavish lifestyle. Party elders fear that years of fighting with Hizmet movement and polarizing the country led to an "Erdogan fatigue" and sooner or later the party will suffer from it.

To make maters worse, former President Gul is rumored to be working on a new moderate and clean Islamist party. It is believed to be unveiled after the elections and might lead to some MP poaching from AKP.

If AKP loses seats as it looks very likely it will, these intra-party forces will come out with pitchforks.

In short, after the elections, regardless of the outcome, Erdogan cannot be sure that he will remain the party leader and eventually the President. A coalition with MHP will make toppling Erdogan very difficult.

But this is also the main reason why Bahceli might avoid forming a coalition with AKP. Why tie your future to someone who seems to be on his way out?

And inherit all his negative baggage.

The Future

I don't have to tell you that an Islamist-Nationalist coalition would be a disaster for both Turkey and the region.

But despite its critical importance for Erdogan (and therefore its likeliness), it is not a foregone conclusion. As you might have noticed from the above discussion, his strategy has the potential to seriously backfire.

Kurds in Turkey would see such a coalition and its premise as an outright rejection of their legitimate claim for more autonomy and recognition. Politicians like Demirtas who promoted peaceful dialogue would be pushed aside by the hawks. And they could pull the Kurdish movement back into armed insurrection and civil war.

What is ironic is that the new generation of Kurdish politicians in Turkey prefer a decent autonomy to outright independence. In this current juncture, it makes more sense to be part of a larger entity. A small, impoverished and vulnerable Kurdistan surrounded by hostile powers is less desirable.

In fact, it is not just politicians, ordinary Kurds and especially women tend to view this like the optimum outcome at this point in time.

In that sense, when we wake up on 8 June, if we find HDP in Parliament, we could confidently say that the Erdogan era will soon come to a close.

And the Kurdish regional politics will enter into a whole new phase.

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