Opinion

Discontent Can Still Bring Down Erdogan - and Turkey

Erdogan can now crush Turkey's democracy – but not the deepening dissent with his rule. His only real means of assuring his pre-eminence is the further imposition of punitive and oppressive measures on civil society

Supporters of Turkey's President and ruling AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan light flares during celebrations outside the party headquarters in Istanbul. June 24, 2018
Emrah Gurel/AP

A week has passed since Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erodgan achieved one of his lifetime goals: to be president in 2023, the year that marks a century since Ataturk's founding of the Turkish Republic.

Mustafa Kemal, later to be known by his chosen name of Ataturk, initiated a social revolution with reforms that transformed the country into a secular republic. But on his death in 1938, he left a divided country. In fact, modern Turkey can be best described as a country that was built on divisions, and throughout its history no one government - or military coup - has managed to resolve its deeply dissenting political communities.

Erdogan, who having gained 52% of the vote, now looks forward to five more years in power, is no exception: he clearly prefers to manage dissent through suppression rather than engagement. He has spent an entire career positioning himself as an iconic leader, in the Ataturk mold – despite that, at times, he has studiously worked to undo the founder's legacy.

A bust of Mustaf Kemal Ataturk, Turkish republic founder, outside a voting station where Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was scheduled to vote in Istanbul. June 24, 2018
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Now Erdogan enjoys extended, sweeping powers under a new presidential mandate which permits him to form the government, rather than parliament doing so, it's tempting to speculate he feels he has a free hand. And after two years of rule by presidential decrees under a State of Emergency, Erdogan is already well-versed in the possibilities of an autocratic style of leadership.

Thus it's not surprising that there's been a post-election crackdown on the political opposition already with the arrest of a former MP, Eren Erdem, a key figure in the potent campaign of the CHP opposition presidential candidate Muharrem Ince - on terror charges.

Earlier this week the police responded with a heavy hand to the annual Istanbul LGBT Pride march in Istanbul. Despite being banned, activists took to the streets, braving arrest and attack, while thousands of police, water cannons, and armored cars barricaded the venue to prevent it taking place.

But Erdogan's sole ownership of power won't be quite that straightforward.

During the campaign, Erdogan promised to lift the emergency laws. If he does in fact does this, his legislative workflow will not be as easy as one might expect. Despite the many headlines celebrating Erdogan’s victory in the run for president, his AKP party did not do near as well as he had hoped in the parliament, capturing only 42% of the parliamentary vote (a 7% decline), making him dependent on his electoral alliance partner, the nationalist-right MHP, for a parliamentary majority.

Ironically Erdogan entered into an alliance with the MHP for fear it would fall below the 10% threshold; when they secured over 11%, it became clear that the tables had turned. It is now Erdogan who needs the MHP, and not vice versa.

A LGBT rights activist carries a rainbow flag in rainbow colors in Istanbul, after Turkish authorities banned the annual Gay Pride Parade for a fourth year in a row. July 1, 2018
BULENT KILIC/AFP

In this new parliament, Erdogan will now have to act as a circus master between six parties: his AKP and allied MHP, and three opposition parties: the CHP, the Iyi party, and the religious Saadet party, which managed to grab a few seats due to its alliance with the CHP. Of course, then there is the mostly Kurdish HDP. Turkey's opposition managed to hold its ground and fight a positive campaign, despite the many hurdles thrown up by the state.  

To say that the opposition was relieved that the pro-Kurdish HDP slid across the electoral threshold is an understatement. Had it not, the Erdogan bloc of the AKP and MHP would have held a super-majority, and would have been the undisputed masters of the Turkish parliament.

But that won't translate to progress in addressing the state’s decades-old conflict (one could argue even almost a century old) with a great part of its Kurdish population. Thanks to a strong nationalist representation (MHP and the opposition Iyi) in the parliament, Erdogan even if he wanted, won't have much space to reach out, and they won't countenance close cooperation with the HDP, the one party that holds the key to any major peace initiative between the state and the country’s Kurds.

The election could not serve as greater proof that Turkey houses many discontented citizens, and that his popularity is staunchly contested. Even if Erdogan is on his way to presiding over the 2023 centenary, he has completely failed to win the hearts of the majority of Turkey’s citizens. And even if his victory was real, it was only obtained by an almost complete state and private media boycott of the other candidates. To call the elections fair would be a farce.  

Erdogan has, though, succeeded in polarizing the electorate to unprecedented levels. His most hard-core supporters, who took to the streets on election night with pistols in hand, embodied the fact that his sole rule can only be upheld through oppressive measures. 

Celebrations outside AKP headquarters in Istanbul after the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections. June 24, 2018
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP

After years of political strife, Turkey is in desperate need to a return to something closer to normalcy. But despite Erdogan's victory, it's far more likely there will be more of the same: in one of the warring camps, a disenfranchised opposition, representing a large popular minority, divided among itself, but united in their lack of belief that the state will protect them.

And in the other, the pro-government factions, now entirely incorporated into the state, and even worse, the pro-government businesses that have all but milked the state coffers dry, a prime cause of the country's deepening economic hardships.

Erdogan’s quest for a "New Turkey," one he hopes will be definitively established in his image by 2023, is likely to intensify Turkey’s internal divisions, which are far more than just a religious-secular divide as some outside commentators suggest.

And as the opposition's energetic showing in the elections demonstrated, Turkey is not yet a one-man show; Erdogan will need to maneuver carefully, setting multiple groups against each other, with his only real means of assuring his own way the further imposition of punitive and oppressive measures on civil society.

But he has one bonus card: unlike in a true liberal democracy, he won't feel the necessity of painstaking coalition-building to reach a fuller national consensus. That is an ideal for which he has now explicitly shown disdain – and, in that, he is far closer to the old Turkey than ever before.

Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Twitter: @Istanbultelaviv