Good enough for the east
Why has Erdoğan called snap elections? Esen Uslu looks at his regime’s latest ‘democratic’ machinations
In the 19th century, the privileged and selected few from the French colonies were sent to France to be educated in top schools. On graduation they were issued with diplomas bearing the phrase Bon pour l’Orient (ie, ‘Good for the east’), which opened the door to lucrative careers in colonial administration. Over time the phrase applied to goods deemed defective by European standards, but which could be traded at a profit overseas. Ever since then, it has been a phrase dreaded by the emerging nationalist intellectuals of the Middle East.
That includes Turkey, where since the early 20th century the various forms of ‘democracy’ established proved to be merely bon pour l’Orient. And it has to be said that Turkey’s rulers have been just as content with such forms as the ‘civilised nations of the west’. They have been quite happy to operate from behind such a mask, while maintaining their power through authoritarian practices.
The regime of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a case in point, propped up as it is by the armed forces, security apparatus and bureaucracy. He has now called snap elections for both the national assembly and presidency, which are due to take place on June 24, while a second round for the presidency (if needed) will be held on July 8.
Following their attempted coup of July 2016, the top brass of the armed forces have now rallied behind Erdoğan. In order to achieve such a reversal of fortunes, Erdoğan quietly dropped all the promises of the early governments of his Justice and Development Party (AKP): gone is the drive for membership of the European Union and attempts to harmonise legislation with the European corpus; likewise the search for a negotiated solution to the Cyprus question and the normalisation of relations with Greece. Also gone is the commitment to an independent Central Bank, and the strict economic discipline aimed at reducing inflation and maintaining sustainable growth.
However, the dropping of one key promise - that is, the negotiation of a peaceful solution to the ‘Kurdish problem’ - could not be achieved on the sly. It has required the dropping of hundreds of bombs on the Kurdish people. While such fire and fury - in Turkey and across the border in Iraq and Syria - inevitably created a lot of noise, the western powers tended not to hear much of it.
While Erdoğan now has all the appearances of the strong man, he is also hostage to statist-nationalist forces. In order to maintain a semblance of multi-party democracy such forces have reverted to an old - tested, but failed - formula of the 1970s. That is, the infamous ‘Nationalist Front’: a coalition of the mainstream conservatives with the far-right racist-nationalists of the Grey Wolves, together with Islamist reactionaries and jihadists, the forefathers of the AKP.
In the 70s such forces were brought together, while the Grey Wolves were let loose on the left, as atrocities were committed under the benign gaze of the state security apparatus. But there was no electoral success and eventually a military takeover was required. The semblance of democracy was set aside, and years of military rule followed.
This time, however, despite the apparent goading of the nationalist-statist forces, Erdoğan is unable to recreate such a coalition. For one thing, both the far-right racist-nationalists and the jihadists are split.
The Grey Wolves broke with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) because of the support its leadership has provided to Erdoğan. A sizable portion split and formed İYİ, the Good Party, which has made serious inroads into the MHP’s voter base. In practice the MHP has become subservient to Erdoğan - most probably it would fail to reach the threshold needed for parliamentary representation, should it stand as an independent political party.
As for the jihadists, they are no longer represented by the AKP alone. Some of the old guard ousted by Erdoğan bided their time, but eventually formed the Felicity Party (SP). They severely criticise Erdoğan for his one-man rule, mismanagement of the economy and the corruption and nepotism.
The SP has been working towards a credible joint candidate against Erdoğan, capable of unifying the entire opposition. It proposed former president Abdullah Gül, who seemed willing to accept that role, causing quite a stir in the ranks of the AKP. Erdoğan responded by arranging for the chief of general staff to make an impromptu visit to Gül’s villa - his helicopter landed on the lawn. Later it was explained that they were old school friends just getting together for a chit-chat. Nobody believed it, but it was crystal-clear that the army top brass was worried by his candidacy. Gül soon stated that he would decline the offer, as there was ‘no consensus’.
Despite that the SP has managed to bring the CHP (Republican Peoples Party - a member of the Socialist International) and İYİ together in an electoral alliance. So apparently the polarisation is now almost complete.
Since the June 2015 elections the predicament of the Erdoğan regime has been apparent. He is unable to win any vote outright or maintain a government without a parliamentary alliance. The referendum of last year to replace the parliamentary system with and executive presidency required desperate vote-rigging to bring the right result.
State control of the media and widespread repression were not enough in themselves, and the intervention of the courts and an electoral commission, reshaped according to the needs of Erdoğan regime, were essential to give a veneer of respectability to his shameless piracy. But he was aided by social democrats as well parties on the right - after all, it was necessary to fall in behind the state during its ongoing cross-border operations against the Kurds.
However, Turkey was now at odds with the US over Syria and suddenly the anti-western, and especially anti-American, rhetoric of the government sounded sweet to the ears of Islamist reactionaries - although it required a degree of precarious tiptoeing and eventually stopped short of crossing the US ‘red lines’.
On top of all this came the downturn in the economy. Inflation has soared into double figures for the first time since the early 2000s, while the short-term credit that had previously flowed into Turkey dried up. The construction boom that came with this credit suddenly ended too. Now there are thousands of unaffordable flats and commercial units, leading to the collapse of major real estate companies. Ambitious housing projects have gone down with them and thousands of people have been left without homes.
There had also been massive infrastructure projects involving the building of new roads and bridges. Some were completed, but because of high tolls very few people are using them despite the attempt to force commercial traffic onto them. The privatisation of healthcare has also provoked huge discontent.
In the meantime the repressive regime of ‘emergency rule’ declared after the coup attempt has became permanent, with even the most basic principles of justice being regularly trampled upon. Harsh measures have been employed against any form of opposition. While there is a great longing for democracy and popular opposition has been rising, there is no prospect of democratic demands being met under a new Erdoğan government.
It is in this context that Erdoğan, on the prompting of the MHP, decided to go for a snap election, hoping to thwart the opposition before it can become more organised. It was only after these elections were announced that legislation to harmonise electoral law with the new executive presidency was brought before parliament. Representatives of the AKP and MHP shed any remaining remnants of respectability and fell in behind their leaders’ proposals.
The new system allows the formation of electoral alliances by political parties taking part as a single entity. Such alliances could allow a party which, standing alone, would not reach the electoral threshold to gain parliamentary representation. The AKP and MHP are hoping that they will be the big winners thanks to the alliance they have formed.
As the Kurdish freedom movement has borne the brunt of recent repression and suffered gross discrimination, the Kurdish vote is very important. That is why Erdoğan has kept the former leader of the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, as well as thousands of its local cadre, in jail. The aim is to keep the HDP under the electoral threshold and out of parliament. Erdoğan hopes that Kurdish votes would be wasted in this way, helping the AKP achieve a parliamentary majority.
But if HDP manages to pass the electoral threshold, there is a good chance this will force Erdoğan and the AKP to manoeuvre desperately to maintain their grip on power. If Erdoğan fails to win the presidential election in the first round, that would also be a major slap in the face. But he will use every trick in the book to ensure he emerges as victor.
In short, the bon pour l’Orient elections we are about to witness will not be the last we will see under the heels of repression.