Turk­ish democ­racy is be­ing qui­etly stolen

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Marc Cham­pion

Re­mem­ber how, two months ago, hopes for Turk­ish democ­racy were buoyed by the suc­cess of a Kur­dish party that man­aged to ap­peal across eth­nic di­vides and make it into par­lia­ment? How that seemed to thwart Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan's plans to cre­ate a Rus­sianstyle pres­i­dency? His rul­ing party seemed poised, for the first time since gain­ing power in 2002, to gov­ern in a coali­tion.

None of that hap­pened. The elec­tion took place as de­scribed on June 7, but Er­do­gan ig­nored the re­sult: He never au­tho­rized the win­ners (his own Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party, known as the AKP) to form a new coali­tion gov­ern­ment. And while he may even­tu­ally ask Prime Min­is­ter Ah­met Davu­to­glu to cre­ate a mi­nor­ity cab­i­net with some na­tion­al­ists, the goal will prob­a­bly be only to hold new elec­tions in the fall. This is worse than it looks be­cause, in or­der to re­verse the elec­tion re­sult, Er­do­gan will need to break the al­liance be­tween Turk­ish lib­er­als and Kurds that al­lowed the Kur­dish Peo­ple's Demo­cratic Party, or HDP, to make it into par­lia­ment. And the best way to do that is to re­vive the eth­nic ha­treds that mired Tur­key in a 30-year war start­ing in the mid-1980s, cost­ing an es­ti­mated 40,000 lives and un­told eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity.

To out­siders, it may not be ob­vi­ous that this is al­ready hap­pen­ing. Er­do­gan's de­ci­sion to fi­nally let the U.S. fly airstrikes against Is­lamic State from its base at In­cir­lik has di­verted peo­ple's at­ten­tion. But at the same time, Tur­key re­newed airstrikes against Kur­dish in­sur­gents (not part of the HDP), who quickly ended a cease-fire they de­clared in 2013.

The U.S. air-base rights are help­ful, though un­likely to prove decisive in chang­ing the prospects for de­feat­ing Is­lamic State. The re­newed war be­tween Tur­key and Kur­dish mil­i­tants, on the other hand, is very likely to de­stroy Turk­ish democ­racy.

Er­do­gan has by now proved he's no demo­crat. He is, how­ever, a bril­liant politi­cian. In 2009, he be­gan a so-called Kur­dish Open­ing to se­cure Kur­dish votes for him­self and his party. Tur­key's eth­nic Kurds were a nat­u­ral con­stituency for Er­do­gan's con­ser­va­tive AKP, be­cause taken as a whole they are among the coun­try's most re­li­giously con­ser­va­tive peo­ple. Yet Kurds had to be per­suaded to vote for any rul­ing Turk­ish party in greater num­bers. So he needed to defuse the con­flict with­out alien­at­ing his own Turk­ish-na­tion­al­ist base.

The path was tor­tu­ous, but this year Er­do­gan had rea­son to hope that those Kurds who didn't vote for his party would win only their cus­tom­ary 6 per­cent as in­de­pen­dents, and -- at least tac­itly -- back Er­do­gan's new con­sti­tu­tion in re­turn for cer­tain con­ces­sions. In­stead, HDP leader Se­la­hat­tin Demir­tas cat­e­gor­i­cally ruled out sup­port­ing a pres­i­den­tial con­sti­tu­tion, de­cided that Kur­dish can­di­dates would run as a party, and ap­pealed for eth­nic Turks to back him in or­der to de­feat Er­do­gan's plans for an elected au­toc­racy.

And Demir­tas suc­ceeded. His party crossed Tur­key's 10 per­cent thresh­old to en­ter par­lia­ment, rob­bing the pres­i­dent of the strong par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity he needed to ap­prove a new con­sti­tu­tion that would have given him the kind of ab­so­lute con­trol that Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin en­joys in Rus­sia.

Rather than ac­cept this de­feat and al­low a coali­tion gov­ern­ment to be formed, Er­do­gan has ig­nored the vote. His pref­er­ence seems to be to force a new elec­tion so that he can try to drive the HDP back be­low the thresh­old.

Luck­ily for Er­do­gan, the Kur­dish peace process was al­ways frag­ile. The PKK, a mil­i­tary in­sur­gency that uses ter­ror­ist tac­tics and has a bizarre Marx­ist-style ide­ol­ogy, had al­ways been re­luc­tant to lay down its weapons and has been quick to re­turn to vi­o­lence. Now Demir­tas is in the in­vid­i­ous po­si­tion of hav­ing to ei­ther back the gov­ern­ment's war against fel­low Kurds, or throw in his lot with ter­ror­ists. Ei­ther course would cost him sup­port.

If Er­do­gan suc­ceeds in us­ing a rekin­dled Kur­dish con­flict to se­cure his pres­i­den­tial pow­ers, it will be dif­fi­cult for Turk­ish democ­racy to sur­vive in any mean­ing­ful sense. Mean­while, adding a hot Turk­ish-Kur­dish con­flict to the morass of Iraq and Syria will make it that much harder to piece the re­gion's sec­tar­ian and eth­nic puz­zle back to­gether. The only way to thwart Er­do­gan's plans now would be for the HDP to go on con­demn­ing Kur­dish vi­o­lence and for lib­eral Turks to stick by the party in a fu­ture vote, band­ing with Kurds such as Demir­tas to de­fend the demo­cratic process.

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