06 August 2015

Can Somebody Explain to Me "Erdogan's Gamble"?

After losing the June 7 elections, Turkey's bombastic President Tayyip Erdogan has first declared the Kurdish peace initiative DOA and then began shelling PKK positions in Northern Iraq, killing scores of militants.

He has also been relentlessly attacking Selahattin Demirtas, the co-leader of the pro-Kurdish party HDP. His latest move was to try to get HDP outlawed and Demirtas indicted.

And PKK, relishing the limelight, have responded in kind and have first shot dead a couple of cops to retaliate for Suruc, then a number of troops in separate attacks.

For once, all the pundits are unanimous. They maintain that "Erdogan's gamble" is to push up political violence in a prelude to early elections as a snap poll would certainly increase his vote. People, they say, would rush to him seeking stability.

They also point to the assistance he gets from the ultra-nationalistic MHP and its wily leader Devlet Bahceli. After the June elections, he maneuvered to have the AKP candidate elected Speaker of the House even though the other three parties outnumbered Erdogan's party.

Since then Bahceli has been attacking HDP and Demirtas on a daily basis (an odd approach for a party in opposition). He recently called HDP voters "dishonorable' creating a national outcry.

All of this, say the pundits, indicate that Erdogan's got MHP's backing to avoid any coalition government. He will call early elections and thanks to the current tense political climate, AKP and MHP will increase their electoral support enabling the former to form a government by itself.

I don't get it.

This is not because I am stubbornly contrarian, I just don't understand the logic.

Let's first take a look at the argument that political tension and renewed violence would decrease HDP's support.

HDP in Early Elections

HDP's supporters are primarily Kurds who previously voted for AKP, Erdogan's party. After Erdogan refused to help Kobani, they turned against him and pulled HDP from a lowly 5-6 percent to a lofty 13 percent.

Sure, some liberal and social democratic Turks voted for HDP, but the best estimates for their contribution are around 2 percent.

And crucially, these votes came from big cities in Western Turkey like Istanbul. The rest of the votes, meaning 11 percent, came from ethnic Kurds in Southeast Turkey.

In fact, this regional concentration is the reason why AKP lost big and HDP got 80 MPs with just 13 percent of the vote.

To give you an idea, MHP received 16.3 percent of the vote from the rest of the country and got the same number of seats in Parliament as HDP.

Given this background, if we know that Erdogan primarily lost the elections because he antagonized Kurdish voters and they switched sides and voted for HDP, how would vilifying the same party and its leader every day help Erdogan now?

Can anyone explain that to me?

MHP in Early Elections

There is more.

If you were a nationalistic Turkish person and you were afraid that Kurds were gaining too much power and might try to establish their own country in the near future by claiming a big chunk of what is currently Turkey, who would you vote for?

Would you vote for a party like MHP which has no chance of being a coalition partner and affect any policy change or for a slightly religious version of the same party which is very likely to form the next government and decide the issue?

Early opinion polls suggested that the voters were happy with their initial choices:
[A]ccording to a recent survey conducted after the election, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) would receive 41.6 percent, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) 25.1 percent, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) 16.2 percent and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) 12.9 percent if snap polls were to be held.
However, things changed after Bahceli began to carry Erdogan's water.

A survey taken in late July showed that in early elections AKP and CHP would get slightly higher results (41.9 and 26.3 percent respectively, but AKP would still be unable to form a government by itself) and MHP would score 15.3 percent, a full point below its June results.

So clearly MHP is hemorrhaging support with its pro-AKP policy.

And this is only early August. I don't see how MHP electorate would vote for their party in a few months' time when Erdogan has been and will continue to be matching their political platform and ideological rhetoric.

Given this situation can anyone explain the political calculus that convinced the MHP leadership to back Erdogan's early elections?

CHP in Early Elections

CHP is an interesting beast.

The majority of its electoral support is drawn from aging folks who adhere to the old Kemalist precepts. They call themselves secularist but that stance hides a vague disdain for believers, a sense of superiority and a healthy dose of elitism in the form of "this is my Republic and not yours."

AKP essentially rose to prominence by denouncing these unsavory propositions.

The rest of CHP -a minority- is composed of liberal and social democratic idealists who are there because the party used to be a social democratic entity and also because these people are concerned about the growing Islamisation of Turkey.

In a way, they support CHP not for what it stands but for it might do to stop the creeping shift towards a Wahhabi-lite system.

The Kemalist crowd in CHP identify more with the secular nationalists of MHP than with these wild-eyed liberals. They hate the AKP Islamists but they are equally leery of HDP Kurds.

Early elections would be a test for these people. If Kurdish insurgency became a daily reality would the Kemalists hold their nose and vote for Erdogan?

No one knows for sure.

It is also possible that they might hate Erdogan so much that they might agree to a Kurdish homeland just to get rid of him, especially if the face of that Kurdish homeland is Demirtas and what he asks for is less than outright separation.

It is a true gamble as no one can predict which way they would go, including themselves.

Given this calculus, if you were Erdogan would you roll the dice?

I wouldn't.

There is one more thing.


By attacking ISIS and PKK at the same time, Erdogan is challenging two formidable enemies for what I consider very dubious political gains.

I think it is a safe bet that, if the insurgency returns, PKK would no longer fight traditional guerrilla warfare. Why stick to the mountains to be hunted 24/7 by drones when you can bring the war to them?

A few well placed IED or a couple of suicide bombers in a crowded area or a shopping center and you will get everyone's attention. And my guess is that this is what the PKK's leadership is itching to do.

Then there is ISIS.

Erdogan has just committed Turkey to a full fledged attack on ISIS, in order to get the US approval for his PKK adventure.

Now if you think PKK folks are itching, ISIS militants have a gigantic eczema waiting to be scratched.

An ISIS spokesperson suggested that there might be over two thousands militants who now live in Turkey but it is estimated that there are substantially more ISIS idiots in the country. Some were returning idiots, others were hardened ISIS fighters who moved to Turkey when their border towns were taken over by the Syrian Kurds.

To say that these guys are looking forward to blowing themselves up is a huge understatement.

And once you pulled those genies out of the bottle there is no easy way to put them back in.

How To Close the Circle?

The only way "Erdogan's gamble" would work is if he could find a way to get rid of Demirtas himself.

Either legally, by charging him with some bogus crimes or extra-legally, by terminating him with extreme prejudice.

The legal one is tricky especially since Demirtas dared him by asking for his parliamentary immunity to be removed. Clearly, he thinks he has no skeletons in the closet. At least none that can be found.

Which leaves the termination with extreme prejudice option. Sadly, it is also the most effective of the two options.

It is idle speculation on my part but think about it for a minute.

Such an event would instantly ignite Kurdish masses in Turkey and lead to huge and violent protests. Turkey being a nation state, these would be suppressed harshly and even more violently.

Under this scenario, the bulk of the Kemalists in CHP and a large portion of the MHP voters would vote for AKP as this is the only party that could form a stable government and Erdogan is the only leader who could find a way out of this catastrophe.

And most importantly, within a few weeks, the Kurdish political movement would be in disarray as they would be unable to replace Demirtas and PKK, once again, would be their only representative. The liberal Turks would have no party to support.

Erdogan would make conciliatory noises about a renewed peace process and national unity and after a somber electoral campaign he would emerge victorious.

All I can say is that I hope Demirtas is well protected.

And that Davutogu and Kilicdaroglu are as ambitious as they appear.

Because if they could form a lasting coalition government, Erdogan's gamble would become a moot point.

Bekir Agirdir, the CEO of, Konda, one of the leading polling companies told Al Jazeera Turkish (link in Turkish) that there is no way AKP could get back Kurdish support. He said that previously out of 10 Kurdish votes 5 went to AKP and 4 to HDP. In the June elections this ratio was 7 to 3 in HDP's favor.

Agirdir believes that those 7 out of 10 Kurds are not going anywhere and they are certainly not going back to AKP. He is convinced that early elections would not change the current distribution significantly.

If this is correct, a dramatic change would indeed be needed to make Erdogan's gamble work.

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