Turk­ish leader may see am­bi­tions checked by as­sem­bly elec­tion

Er­do­gan’s party needs big elec­toral gains if he is to ce­ment author­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ISHAAN THA­ROOR ishaan.tha­roor@wash­post.com

istanbul — On the last day of cam­paign­ing ahead of Sun­day’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, Turkey’s main po­lit­i­cal par­ties were out in force in the coun­try’s most pop­u­lous city. Trucks and vans blared catchy party an­thems along busy thor­ough­fares, which were lined with the stream­ing colored pen­nants of the com­pet­ing par­ties. Squads of vol­un­teers can­vassed nois­ily in parks and plazas.

“This is all part of the nor­mal Turk­ish chaos,” said Tugba Oprak, an of­fice worker climb­ing aboard a ferry on the Bospho­rus.

But there’s some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary about Sun­day’s elec­tion. The cen­tral fig­ure dom­i­nat­ing the head­lines be­fore the vote won’t be con­test­ing any of the 550 seats in Turkey’s Grand Na­tional As­sem­bly and shouldn’t be in­volved at all.

Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan is, in the­ory, a neu­tral head of state re­moved from the hurlyburly of elec­toral pol­i­tics. In re­al­ity, both his crit­ics and sup­port­ers say, he’s on a mission to tran­scend them and craft a Turk­ish repub­lic in his own im­age.

His abil­ity to do so hinges on the out­come of this elec­tion.

Er­do­gan, who since 2002 served three terms as prime min­is­ter be­fore be­ing elected pres­i­dent last year, wants to scrap Turkey’s par­lia­men­tary struc­ture in fa­vor of a pres­i­den­tial sys­tem that would give him greater ex­ec­u­tive author­ity. For this to hap­pen, his rul­ing Jus­tice and Devel­op­ment Party, a cen­ter-right group known by its acro­nym AKP, needs a wide mar­gin of victory on Sun­day night.

That sce­nario is in doubt. Opin­ion polls sug­gest the AKP will win more than 40 per­cent of the vote, con­sid­er­ably ahead of the sec­u­lar­ist CHP and the far­right, ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist MHP. But it re­mains un­clear whether they will be able to clinch the 267 seats needed for a ma­jor­ity in gov­ern­ment, let alone the 330 seats needed to put con­sti­tu­tional re­form to a na­tional ref­er­en­dum – the best chance Er­do­gan would have to con­sol­i­date power as pres­i­dent.

The stakes have risen dramatically af­ter nearly a decade-and-ahalf of AKP dom­i­nance, dur­ing which sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic re­forms have lifted a new mid­dle class, and much of Turkey’s once en­trenched estab­lish­ment — from the mil­i­tary to the state bu­reau­cracy to el­e­ments of the ju­di­ciary — has been cast aside.

Crit­ics say the AKP’s em­brace of as­pects of po­lit­i­cal Is­lam in a coun­try that is al­most en­tirely Mus­lim has steadily eroded the pil­lars of sec­u­lar­ism upon which the mod­ern Turk­ish repub­lic was built by its first pres­i­dent, Mustapha Ke­mal Ataturk, Turkey’s found­ing fa­ther.

If Er­do­gan is still pres­i­dent in 2019, he would have ruled longer than Ataturk, who died in of­fice in 1938.

“Our goal is to cre­ate a new Turkey,” says Muhammed Akar, chair­man of the AKP in the south­east­ern Turk­ish city of Di­yarbakir. “The other par­ties cling to the past.”

Akar sits in a cor­ner of Turkey that in some re­spects has taken cen­ter stage in the build-up to the elec­tion. Di­yarbakir, a ma­jor­ity Kur­dish city, is one of the main bases of strength for the Peo­ples’ Demo­cratic Party, or HDP, whose emer­gence in the past year as Turkey’s fourth-largest party threat­ens the AKP’s lock on power.

To gain any seats in par­lia­ment, the HDP would have to pass Turkey’s con­spic­u­ously high bar­rier of en­try: 10 per­cent of all votes na­tion­wide. Un­til this year, no Kur­dish party has at­tempted such a feat.

But the HDP has surged, de­spite its di­rect ties to the PKK, a Kur­dish sep­a­ratist group that waged a bloody, three-decade war against the Turk­ish state and is con­sid­ered a ter­ror­ist group by both Ankara and Wash­ing­ton. It now frames it­self as a left­ist party ea­ger to rep­re­sent ev­ery­one in Turkey, es­pe­cially those who are op­posed to Er­do­gan’s pres­i­den­tial am­bi­tions.

“This elec­tion is re­ally about whether HDP passes the thresh­old,” says Bulent Al­i­riza of the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton.

If it does, its bloc of seats will come at the ex­pense mostly of the AKP, the only other party with ma­jor sup­port in Turkey’s Kur­dish-ma­jor­ity southeast. That, in turn, could lead to a sce­nario in which the AKP could be forced to forge a messy coali­tion gov­ern­ment or even find it­self on the out­side, as the op­po­si­tion to a coali­tion of its ri­vals.

Ten­sions ahead of the elec­tion have been pal­pa­ble, with the HDP re­port­ing dozens of vi­o­lent at­tacks on its party work­ers. On Fri­day, two ex­plo­sions ripped through a HDP rally in Di­yarbakir, killing two peo­ple and wound­ing more than 100 oth­ers. Familiar, dis­tress­ing scenes fol­lowed of Kur­dish youth protest­ing an­grily against the Turk­ish state.

The HDP’s charis­matic leader, Se­la­hat­tin Demir­tas, called for calm and urged sup­port­ers not to re­act to such “provo­ca­tions.” In Di­yarbakir, many back­ing the HDP are con­vinced that if their party does not cross the 10 per­cent thresh­old, it would be the re­sult of fraud and vote-rig­ging.

“There will be four mil­lion Kurds on the streets,” says Reha Ruhavioglu, an ac­tivist for a lo­cal Di­yarbakir hu­man rights group.

Be­yond Turkey’s restive southeast, an­a­lysts say the ac­ri­mo­nious elec­tion cam­paign has ex­posed other fis­sures in Turk­ish so­ci­ety.

The AKP has run a re­li­giously tinged cam­paign, ap­peal­ing to the piety and faith of Sunni Mus­lim vot­ers, in­clud­ing more re­li­gious Kurds. In a speech last month, Er­do­gan even waved a copy of the Ko­ran as he crit­i­cized ri­val par­ties.

On Satur­day, a num­ber of pro-AKP Turk­ish news­pa­pers ran alarmist head­lines, warn­ing of an in­ter­na­tional “cru­sade” against Turkey led by for­eign me­dia and their co-con­spir­a­tors in Turkey.

Crit­ics ac­cuse Er­do­gan and the AKP of us­ing their ex­tra­or­di­nary power over state in­sti­tu­tions as well as al­lies in the busi­ness com­mu­nity to put pres­sure on dis­si­dents and po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents.

“You can’t have a plu­ral­is­tic so­ci­ety with­out a free press,” said Murat Yetkin, the edi­tor of the English-lan­guage Hur­riyet Daily News, which is part of a me­dia group in the gov­ern­ment’s cross hairs. “You can’t have a democ­racy with­out free courts.”

The un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing the course of Turkey’s democ­racy extends be­yond Sun­day’s elec­tion.

“I’m wor­ried that no mat­ter the out­come, we’re en­ter­ing an era of chaos,” said Istanbul-based po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Cen­giz Ak­tar.

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