What happened in Turkey this Sunday? Why did it become controversial?
On November 1, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (Turkish: Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP), swept to a majority in the parliamentary elections, winning 317 of the 550 seats in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. The results were widely described as “shocking” because no opinion poll, or Turkish or Western observer or analyst, expected or predicted it. The campaign was criticised by an observers’ team from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) as “unfair” and characterised by “too much violence and fear”, while the International Election Observer Mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said some contestants had not been able to campaign freely, and “voters’ access to a plurality of views and information” had been restricted. Erdogan reacted sharply: “Why is the world media taking such a close interest in Turkey while ignoring their own countries? Why don’t they respect the (Turkish) national will? The national will elected me by 52%. They still have not respected that fact,” he said.
But didn’t Turkey have another general election only recently?
Yes. The election of June 7 produced the country’s first hung parliament since 1999. The AKP won 258 seats, falling short of the majority mark of 276. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) won 132 seats, and the Nationalist Movement (MHP) and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won 80 seats each. After negotiations to form a coalition government broke down, Erdogan, on August 24, called fresh elections for November, and called them a “re-run” of the June elections. The five-month term of the outgoing Parliament was the shortest in Turkey’s history.
The AKP (317 seats) has won some 5 million more votes than in June, and taken back several seats that it lost to the MHP and HDP, who have won 40 and 59 seats respectively this time. The CHP (134) has largely remained where it was.
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So what changed between June and November to produce these results?
Erdogan said the results had shown that the Turkish “national will favoured stability”. Between March 2003 and June 2015, Turkey was largely peaceful, but this situation changed dramatically after the elections that produced the hung House. A 2013 ceasefire with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which had once showed promise of developing into a peace agreement, unravelled in July, leading to some of the worst violence Turkey has seen in the last 25 years. After the PKK killed two Turkish police officers in the city of Urfa, Turkish warplanes bombed PKK positions in southeastern Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, and sent troops into some Kurdish dominated cities. The PKK used IEDs to blow up military convoys. On October 10, two suicide bombers with alleged links to the Islamic State carried out a pair of bombings in Ankara, killing over 100 in the worst terror attack in the history of Turkey.
How could the violence and bombings have helped Erdogan and the AKP?
According to (anti-Erdogan) Western analysts, the violence allowed the Turkish President to turn “stability” into an election issue, and mobilise the prevalent atmosphere of fear to the aid of Sunni Turkish nationalism against Kurdish militancy. Much in the style of Vladimir Putin of Russia, Erdogan, the critics say, attacked the freedom of the press, ignored the rule of law, strongly polarised the country and created an atmosphere in which anyone opposed to him was painted as “anti-nation”, while he was presented as the only one standing between the country and chaos. The narrative of “stability” was linked to the continuation of one-party rule by the AKP, and evidence of the success of the nationalist positioning was seen in a huge turnout of voters. The attacks by the PKK weakened the HDP, which had got significant non-Kurdish support in June.
How does the Islamic State and the war in the Middle East fit into this picture?
For over a year and a half, Turkey did virtually nothing as the ISIS swept through Syria and Iraq, essentially because the terrorist group was fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, whom Erdogan wanted to see out of power. But in July, after an ISIS suicide bombing killed 32 in the Turkish town of Suruc and US President Barack Obama spoke to Erdogan by phone, Turkey started to attack the ISIS. The policy shift was, however, complicated by the Kurdish problem — while Washington sees Syrian Kurds as a key to the battle against the ISIS, Ankara looks upon them as terrorists. Indeed, as the ceasefire with the Turkish Kurds has broken down, Turkish forces have attacked many more PKK strongholds than ISIS positions. A fresh layer of complication has been contributed by Assad’s benefactor Russia, which, since entering the war early in October, has been targeting the same Syrian opposition forces whom Turkey wants to strengthen.
What happens now? What does all this mean for Turkey, Kurds and the region?
Erdogan can be expected to renew his bid to consolidate power in his own hands. The AKP is 50 seats short of the 367 needed to change the constitution directly, but a supermajority of 330 — which will allow the government to call a referendum on questions like changing the parliamentary system into a president-led republic — is possible in alliance with another party. It is not clear what the AKP might do to revive the Kurdish peace process. The Turkish economy needs attention — over the last five years, the rate of annual growth has plunged from 10% to 3%, one of the reasons the AKP did badly in June. Turkey’s role in the Syrian crisis will remain critical — some 2 million refugees are in Turkey, and Ankara has been trying to negotiate a financial deal with the EU to tackle the situation.
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