Institutionalising a polarised Turkey

Institutionalising a polarised Turkey
6 min read
03 Nov, 2015
Comment: President Erdogan relied on sowing violence and exploiting fears of chaos to renew his grip on Turkey's political scene, writes Yvo Fitzherbert
Turkey's election was preceded by a wave of attacks on Kurds and pro-Kurdish parties [AFP]

As the first results came pouring in a little after 6pm, Kurds from Diyarbakir looked on in disbelief as they stared at the TV screens at the HDP office in the restive Sur district.

"How can this be?" a local called Mustafa shouted. "If this is true, my belief in democracy is over."

Over the past four months, Sur has been the centre of the Kurdish resistance, with local youth militias defending their neighbourhoods against Turkey's security forces. The two mayors of the district were promptly arrested for declaring the neighbourhoods "autonomous", a long-held aspiration of the Kurdish movement.

As a result of the old city's tensions, the elections here were held in a tense environment: outside polling stations, masked soldiers watched on as people turned up to vote. Only two weeks earlier, the population had been subjected to a strict four-day curfew, which led to two deaths and hundreds of arrests.

"They are trying to intimidate us," said one voter here. "But such a tactic won't work, we will vote for peace."

     However, what was truly remarkable is that the AKP's strategy over the past five months appears to have actually paid off

However, what was truly remarkable about the election results is that the AKP's strategy over the past five months appears to have actually paid off.

In June, the AKP lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since coming to power in 2002, falling 18 seats short of a majority. However, the party reversed such a result this weekend by winning 316 seats, thus allowing AKP to comfortably rule as a single party.

In the run up to the election, every analyst predicted a similar outcome to June's poll, making this a shock victory for AKP. In the end, AKP won three million more voters than in June, taking 49 percent of the electorate's vote, compared with 42 last time around.

A quick glance at the results shows that all those votes were gained from MHP, the ultra-nationalist party, which lost a quarter of its votes, sliding from 16 percent to 12 percent.

Such an outcome was at least partly expected, with Erdogan's decision to resume the war with the PKK successfully garnering support from Turkish nationalists. However, alongside gains from the MHP, Erdogan managed to gain a considerable amount of the HDP's previous vote, forcing them to slide from 13 percent to 10.8 percent.

Conservative Kurds turn their back on HDP

While it appears that the HDP continued to retain a strong support in its heartland in the south-east, it lost the support of Kurdish conservative voters.

In areas such as Bitlis, Bingöl and Ağrı, the AKP became the dominant party once again, immediately winning back voters who had switched allegiance to HDP in June's elections. At that time, analysts argued that AKP had lost support of the Kurdish conservative base because of Erdogan's failure to proceed with peace talks, alongside his clear opposition to the Kurdish resistance in Kobane.

Many noted how HDP had successfully absorbed the Kurdish vote in its entirety as previous AKP-supporting Kurds appeared to turn their back on AKP once and for all.

The obvious explanation for such a reversal of fortunes for the HDP is the violence that has recently consumed the south-east, with PKK militants battling the Turkish army, trapping HDP between the Kurdish guerrillas and the Turkish republic.

Erdogan and the AK Party were quick to accuse the HDP of being a political wing of the PKK, decrying them for their refusal to fully distant themselves from the outlawed separatists.

Alongside this, HDP leaders were perhaps guilty of over-confidence in the support they had among this segment of Kurds. Focusing instead on their message of liberal pluralism, much of their campaign was centred around securing more of the liberal votes in west Turkey, thus allowing AKP to claw back the conservative Kurdish vote.

However, in the volatile towns of the south-east, HDP saw increased support compared with June's poll.

In Sur, Lice, Silvan, Sirnak, Silopi and Yuksekova, voters gave an increased mandate to the HDP, showing their resentment towards AKP's recent military campaigns. What all these towns have in common is the fact that they have seen the worst of the violence since the peace process broke down in July.

The youth wing of the PKK, commonly known as the YDG-H, has led armed resistance against the state, declaring various neighbourhoods "autonomous" in the process.

Erdogan's tactic of instilling fear and bartering with the security of the country appears to have worked across much of the country, but the areas where the violence has been at its most severe saw an increased mandate for HDP.

While such a methodology may well have convinced conservative Kurdish voters to revert to the AKP, the increased support for HDP among Kurds living through the worst of the state's violence embodies their hatred and distrust of Erdogan, making the chances of a successful peace process almost an impossibility while Erdogan continues to lead the country.

     Over the past five months, Erdogan has had a clear strategy of creating chaos through the use of violence in Turkey

Erdogan's violent gamble paid off

Over the past five months, Erdogan has had a clear strategy of creating chaos through the use of violence in Turkey: A vote for Erdogan would hail a new era of peace and stability. In contrast, to vote him out of office, Erdogan was making it clear that he would make sure Turkish citizens would live in hell.

"Erdogan's strategy is clearly not working," former CHP politician Aykan Erdemir told me before the election. "A brutal suppression of Kurdish dissidents could have brought in new votes in the 1990s, but Turkey no longer resembles the 1990s and such a tactic appears outdated, de-legitimising himself both at home and abroad. Turkish citizens' understanding of what democracy is has changed fundamentally since then."

While such a view was shared by many, these elections have shown the opposite to be true: by suppressing all opponents, from Kurdish activists to critical media outlets, Erdogan has stubbornly pursued a policy of instilling fear into Turkey's citizens.

The two deadly bomb attacks in Suruc and Ankara, which killed 34 and 102 people respectively, led many to fear for the future of Turkey.

While the Islamic State group were reportedly behind both attacks, the government's proactive refusal to crack down on suspected IS cells led many opponents to lay a large portion of the blame on Erdogan.

And with a renewed conflict against Kurdish militants, many Turkish citizens clearly favoured a "strongman" than many more months of instability and oppression.

The day before the elections were held, the AKP sent a text message to all the people of Diyarbakir:

"If you don't want Turkey to be like Syria, Iraq, Egypt and the others, you should warn your friends and give one vote to AKP."

After the two IS bombs, many Turks expressed fears that the Syrian war was beginning in Turkey. Erdogan was critically aware of this fear, and bartered with such insecurity for his own political survival.

Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Turkey. He has written on Kurdish politics, the Syrian war and the refugee crisis for a variety of Turkish and English publications. Follow him on Twitter: @yvofitz

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.