By Mustafa Akyol
Nov. 10, 2015
Turkey’s Nov. 1 election gave the ruling Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., a major victory that nobody expected. The period of political uncertainty that began in June, when the A.K.P. lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years, has ended. In other words, the past five months did not mark the beginning of the end of A.K.P. dominance, as the opposition hoped. They were merely a short intermission in the long-lasting dominance of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
How did the A.K.P. surge from 40.8 percent of the vote in June to 49.5 percent in just five months — without any fraud, as independent observers testified? One answer is the electorate’s concern for “stability.” In June, some previous A.K.P. supporters decided to punish the party for its arrogance, corruption and authoritarianism. Very soon, however, they began to worry that the country would become mired in instability. The resurgence of terrorism — by both the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and P.K.K., and the Islamic State — solidified the conviction that Turkey needs a firm hand at the helm.
Many critics, both in Turkey and the West, interpreted this recent wave of terror as a conspiracy by Mr. Erdogan to garner more votes. His supporters, on the other hand, interpreted it as a conspiracy against the president and his glorious “New Turkey.” Arguably, it was mostly unplanned chaos, created by the failure of the peace process between the government and the P.K.K., for which both sides are responsible, as well as the spill over of the war in northern Syria into Turkey, with Islamic State suicide bombings on pro-Kurdish gatherings.
Yet the government carefully exploited the chaos for its own propaganda purposes. Meanwhile, the P.K.K.’s relentless attacks on security forces discredited the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or H.D.P., whose liberal-left narrative got overshadowed by its assumed ties with the P.K.K. Consequently, the H.D.P. lost more than a million votes from terror-wary Kurds, most of which went to the A.K.P. At the other end of the spectrum, the M.H.P., the party of Turkish nationalists, also lost two million votes to Mr. Erdogan, mainly because of the astoundingly dull performance of its leader, Devlet Bahceli.
The key question now is whether A.K.P. dominance is a temporary phenomenon or an enduring revolution. Since 2007, when the A.K.P. first sought re-election, the party’s support has fluctuated between 40 and 50 percent. There is no reason to expect this will change in the years ahead. The next elections, for both the presidency and the parliament, will be in 2019, and current circumstances suggest that Mr. Erdogan and his party could easily win. This would solidify their hold on power beyond the landmark centennial of the Turkish Republic in 2023.
To outside observers, the A.K.P.’s success, which brings joy to Erdogan’s supporters and fear to his opponents, may seem baffling. Yet it has an understandable societal basis. Roughly half of Turkey’s population is made up of religious conservatives who had long been excluded, ridiculed and oppressed by a smaller urban secular elite that followed in the footsteps of the Republic’s founder, Kemal Ataturk. It is Mr. Erdogan who defeated this secular elite and brought “the people” to power after 90 years of marginalization. For the first time, the religious conservatives gained power, dignity and wealth. Moreover, Mr. Erdogan offered them an inspiring grand narrative — Turkey’s restoration as a neo-Ottoman Empire, as the leader and protector of all Muslims around the world.
This power transfer from the secular minority to the religious majority could have been a historic accomplishment, had it taken the form of national reconciliation — as many liberals, including me, naïvely hoped. Yet gradually, especially in the past three years, it took the form of revenge, intoxication with power and paranoia. There was a series of witch hunts, relentless intimidation, and even confiscation of critical media outlets. (Just days before the election, four media outlets that were related to the Gülen Movement and which strongly opposed the government, were confiscated and transmuted overnight into pro-government mouthpieces.) As a result, Turkey has become the textbook case of illiberal democracy, where ballots rule but free speech and the rule of law are fading.
So far, Mr. Erdogan has adroitly mastered this situation and made himself the most powerful Turkish leader since Ataturk. How he will act in the decade ahead is the most crucial question for the nation. Optimists tend to assume that, having crushed all challengers, Mr. Erdogan will feel more secure and show a bit of magnanimity. He could also leave some room to the more moderate and less controversial Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who, in his mild victory speech, promised “an end to polarization and tension.”
But there’s a more pessimistic scenario. Mr. Erdogan could simply keep accumulating power, leading to a system with an all-powerful Russian-style presidency without checks and balances. (The A.K.P. has so far failed to get the parliamentary supermajority it needs to make constitutional amendments, but nothing is impossible in the ever-volatile Turkish parliament.)
If recent trends continue, more critical newspapers and TV channels could be crushed or taken over by government sympathizers, turning all Turkish media into different versions of the same Pravda. The judiciary could become a mere handmaiden to the government, and even universities, which are all tied to the recently strengthened “Higher Board of Education,” could be disciplined by the state. Turkey could easily become a tyranny of the majority, embodied in the rule of an all-powerful man.
For some of Mr. Erdogan’s hard-core supporters, this dark scenario seems attractive — a nation recreated in Mr. Erdogan’s image, just like Ataturk tried to do a century ago, only in reverse. Such a scenario would have disastrous consequences. It would deepen the already ugly culture of nepotism, corruption and sycophancy within the ruling elite. It would turn secular Turks into second-class citizens, leading to a brain drain among elites and radicalization among the hopeless. And it would harm the economy as the rule of law disintegrates.
The only way out is the sort of liberal, pluralist democracy that Mr. Erdogan promised in the early stages of his rule. And, despite the recent drift toward authoritarianism, it’s not too late to try.
Mustafa Akyol is the author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.”