20 October 2015

Is Turkey About to Become an Ungovernable Country?

Recently, I professed to be baffled by what is known as Erdogan's gamble.

You see, Erdogan's gamble was said to polarize the country to a breaking point and wage war against the pro-Kurdish HDP in order to win the so-called "repeat elections." They will be held on November 1st. This strategy was supposed to bring back stray voters to the fold and suppress the Kurdish vote below the 10 percent threshold.

Mind you, I am not disputing that this is what he is doing. But it did not make much sense to me then and after the Ankara bombing which killed at least 106 people and injured hundreds more, I find it even more puzzling.

For one thing, the Kurdish vote is not going back to AKP. And why should it? After the DiyarbakirSuruc and Ankara incidents and governments attacks on Kurdish targets, Turkey's Kurds are seething with rage and continue to rally around HDP.

On the other side of the equation, the anticipated massive shift from MHP to AKP did not materialize.

The table below shows the final tally in June:

And this table presents the recent opinion poll results as published by various firms:

As you can see, the figures are within the statistical margin of error of the June results.

As for the discrepancies, in June, Konda had the best prediction ratio [link in Turkish]. And they are likely to have the most accurate results here.

If participation remains high, which seems to be the critical element, I expect the Ankara bombing to negatively affect the AKP vote. One Twitter user summarized the popular view by noting that either the government did it or it failed to prevent it. Either way AKP gets the blame.

Incidentally, AKP's internal polling (leaked to a magazine) seems to indicate that they are trailing in the 18-24 and 25-35 age groups and they are only able to get a small portion of the first time voters. Below are the first time voter distribution [link in Turkish] by party. You can see that while HDP got 13 percent of the national vote, nearly double that number, that is, 25 percent of new voters cast their ballot for them. The ratio for AKP is the other way around.

HDP               %25 (13)

MHP              %24 (17)

CHP                %25 (25)

AKP               %22 (41)

Moreover, in May, AKP's positive rating was only 39 percent, down from 56 percent a year before.

Consequently, barring unforeseen changes in the next three weeks and low turnout, AKP will almost certainly be unable to form the next government by itself.

Which puts Erdogan, who wants to be the top dog at any cost, in a bind.

What could he do?

There are a number of alternatives.

Postponing Elections

The first and the most obvious one is to postpone elections citing increased violence and instability. Many Turkish pundits have been advancing this as the most likely scenario.

It is a distinct possibility. It is rumored that Erdogan's senior advisers conduct daily opinion polls to see where the wind is blowing. If his party's support stayed around the 40 percent mark or dipped below he might be tempted to go that route.

But I don't see the upside of this option when Turkey is going through what the BBC called a perfect storm:
The West's vital ally in the Middle East is now facing a perfect storm: Deep political polarisation, the bubble of economic success on the brink of bursting, a resumption of violence with the PKK, the threat from Islamic State, and two million Syrian refugees and counting. 
Postponing elections for, say, six months, will certainly make each of these problems much worse. There is a consensus that the economy is about to go belly up. You know from this humble soapbox that Russia has just changed the terms of the Syrian crisis. The threat from ISIS is real. And the Syrian refugees question is an open sore with very serious economic, political and sociological ramifications.

As you can surmise, none of these issues can be effectively addressed in a short period of time. Postponing elections for six months might actually bring a bigger defeat down the line.

And I have to assume that his advisers know this.

Electoral Fraud and Voter Suppression

Another option Erdogan has is to hold the November elections on time and hope that, with a few judicious extralegal tweaks here and there, results could be brought closer to the 44 percent mark that he needs. You know, the old electrocuted cat trick.

In case you think that suggesting electoral fraud is a bit of an exaggeration on my part, I can tell you that it is not my supposition: reportedly, it is a widely held belief by both the supporters and opponents of AKP.
The public believes that the AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will do “something” to win the election. 
This is a common view among both the AKP supporters and its opponents. A friend of mine who supports the AKP says: “Given that he is repeating the election, I believe that President Erdoğan will rely on a different strategy to win the election.” AKP supporters raise similar arguments, but opponents stress that they may resort to election fraud to fashion a victory.
It is not as outlandish as it sounds. During the June elections, AKP lost 18 districts by very small margins, in some instances several hundred votes separating the eventual winner from the rest. In Turkey's cynical political discourse, suggesting that this could be fixed with a stray ballot box or two does not raise eyebrows.

However, in June, an NGO called  Vote and Beyond came out of nowhere, organized tens of thousands of people as observers and made such skulduggery very difficult.

As for voter suppression, it might have been possible a few years ago especially in Kurdish areas. But after the heavy handed tactics displayed in Cizre, a predominantly Kurdish town literally invaded by the Turkish army, such attempts might no longer work.

But with entrenched voter preferences and only a couple of million votes in play, Erdogan is likely to pull all the stops in the swing districts. My guess is that AKP lieutenants will focus on these districts and will work very hard to Get Out The Vote for their supporters and will do everything possible to discourage others.

There is a third possibility which I previously raised without knowing pertinent facts. It turns out there were some credible evidence to support my guessing game.

Getting Rid of Demirtas

A couple of months ago, Demirtas went public with the government's not-so-secret plans to ban HDP before elections. He was trying to force the issue and push the government to disclose its plan. Islamists are particularly sensitive to party banning, as they had been on the receiving end of it too many times in the past.

Since then many such reports surfaced in pro-government papers and media outlets. One of Erdogan's top advisers, Burhan Kuzu, a constitutional scholar, is known to push hard for this. But so far Erdogan resisted the temptation.

A more sinister possibility is to terminate Demirtas with extreme prejudice. In the aftermath of Ankara bombing, HDP released their early August application to the Ministry of Interior regarding an ISIS strike team targeting Demirtas.
"The confirmed information received by our side reveals that a team affiliated to ISIS has entered into Turkey to conduct an assassination against our Co-President Mr. Selahattin Demirtaş. As we have no detailed information about the description of the persons in question, your immediate attention to this matter is kindly requested and appreciated."
I have no idea whether this will come to pass but I can tell you that if it happens serious Kuridsh upheaval and chaos will ensue. In that scenario, nationalistic Turkish voters might flock to AKP as the party of stability.

I suspect Demirtas and HDP are keenly aware of this possibility and it might one of the reasons they cancelled all campaign rallies after the Ankara incident.

An Ungovernable Country?

In late September, the venerable Financial Times intoned that Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan, with his power grab and electoral gamble, made Turkey ungovernable.

Turkish pundits have been saying the same thing for some time.

A recent Op Ed in Asia Times took it further and claimed that Turkey is about to become the next failed state in the Middle East.

While this last claim is a good example of breathless hyperbole, the situation does not look very promising.

The problem stems from a basic contradiction.

1) Erdogan is not willing to accept a coalition government.

He is afraid, and I believe correctly, that a coalition government, even led by AKP might investigate him, look into his huge personal wealth and his many illegal or extralegal acts in the last 13 years. Ironically, as he transformed his political position into a personal one, he became a massive liability. And AKP leaders would like to get rid of him. In fact, in an eventual AKP-CHP coalition, I am sure Davutoglu would personally green-light such an inquiry.

2) The electorate is not willing o give the majorities Erdogan wants.

This is not because voters have a supra-societal rationale, it is just that given the polarized political climate, their preferences are practically immutable. When change occurs, as noted above, it favors HDP, which  polls above average among young people and new voters. Again Erdogan's success in turning AKP into his party works against him: People blame him personally for the current violence and deteriorating economy. The fact that he has just sent his son Bilal to settle in Italy amid rumors of him depositing billions of dollars to neighboring Swtzerland did not help things:  AKP's internal polling indicates that only 7 percent of AKP voters believed [link in Turkish] that the corruption allegations were false.

The question is then, what happens if the electorate sends another hung Parliament to Ankara?

Most observers seem to believe that such results would be followed by sectarian violence.
Whatever the result of the elections, the fallout from the Ankara attack will be hard to contain, especially as the fight between the PKK and the state threatens to spill over into sectarian conflict. “Whether this crisis will unfold in an outright disaster for the country’s political and economic stability,” Mr Piccoli said, “is now a matter of when rather than if.”
In fact, Twitter phenom Fuat Avni went as far as claiming that Erdogan will order, among other terrible acts, the downing of a Russian fighter jet to trigger a serious international conflict.

I think whether Turkey will become "ungovernable" and face sectarian violence depends on the steps to be taken after the upcoming elections.

Post Elections Blues

If the elections return the same Parliament, I see three possibilities.

The first one is Erdogan pushing for a AKP - MHP coalition. This is the most likely outcome. As I keep repeating these two parties believe in what is known as Turkish-Islamic synthesis, with one emphasizing nationalism the other religiosity. But the equation is composed of the same elements. They are natural partners.

If that comes to pass, Erdogan will have asked and received assurances about his past dealings. MHP will only provide those if it is given serious national security and law and order portfolios. In other words, they will want Ministry of the Interior so that they can go about "fighting" the PKK. Which is cover for oppressing Kurds and punishing them for asking basic rights.

In that scenario, Turkey will become ungovernable very quickly.

The Kurds will rise up and any efforts to suppress them violently will lead to a situation that can be accurately described as a civil war. PKK will join the foray and take the fight to the cities.

The second possibility is a reluctant AKP - CHP coalition. I personally cannot see Erdogan accepting this arrangement. It might happen if CHP accepts only junior portfolios like family, sport etc and AKP maintains full control of Defense, Interior, Justice, External Affairs.

Personally, I have a hard time envisaging a situation which would lead Erdogan to accept any coalition with CHP. With HDP providing parliamentary support, there is no telling what they might do. If I were him I would try to avoid this at all cost.

The third possibility is a palace coup inside AKP with many MPs forming a new party under the leadership of someone like Abdullah Gul, the former President who rebranded himself in the last five years into a respected elder statesman.

It might happen but with every passing month its likelihood is rapidly diminishing.

In all these speculations, there is one point usually overlooked by most analysts and that is the violent trump cards Erdogan holds.

Poujadist Shopkeepers and ISIS Sturmtruppen

There are 18 million people who voted for Erdogan and AKP (out of 46 million voters). An overwhelming majority of these people are willing to forgive and forget anything and everything and continue to support Erdogan because they benefited enormously from his reign.

Not only did they prosper, gobbling up the lion's share in the growing national income, they saw their previously disdained conservative lifestyle become the mainstream vision of the country. They literally believe they own the place now.

They have way too much to lose to accept a drastic change in status quo.

And Erdogan knows this.

Last year, in a speech that would make Pierre Poujade and Benito Mussolini proud, he told shopkeepers and small business owners that they can act as police officers when they see fit. Since then they have been beating up May Day demonstrators, Syrian immigrants or even Korean tourist they mistook for Chinese to avenge Uighurs.

And of course there is ISIS. They have a few thousand returning militants and a large pool of supporters from which they have been recruiting.

For instance, the suicide bomber in Suruc hailed from Adiyaman a southeastern city with the dubious distinction of having largest number of ISIS supporters. Many Turkish ISIS Jihadis in Syria come from Adiyaman. They have recruitment centers in Ankara and Istanbul as well.

And they seem quite happy to blow themselves up for no clear reason.

Add to that mix the PKK and Kurds with a blocked path to political representation and you can see that post election period is fraught with terrible scenarios, each worse than the next.

The worst will be a hung Parliament and an AKP-MHP coalition.

Then, the "failed state" prediction will no longer seem like hyperbole.

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