Elections are a defining moment in any country’s journey laying firm ground for future course of action. In the simultaneous Parliamentary and Presidential polls conducted last Sunday, Turks voted in overwhelming numbers. Poll pundits who predicted a close contest in elections with over 85% of poll turnout in Turkey were surprised to find, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan re-elected for the second time. He secured 52.5% of votes while his nearest rival Muharrem Ince, social democrat of Republican People’s Party (CHP) secured 30% votes avoiding a second round. While the Justice and Development Party (AKP) started by Erdogan in 2001 lost ground in the parliamentary elections, a strong show by allies, National Movement Party (MHP) compensated for the loss. For the first time in 16 years, AKP with 42.5% votes obtained 295 seats and lost majority in the Parliament with 600 seats. MHP with 11.1% vote got 49 seats.
Of the four elections held in the past five years, Erdogan emerged victorious and steadily consolidated power. In run-up to elections, determined opposition parties forged alliances to launch a tough fight against the formidable Erdogan. Also, fresh changes in the electoral laws allowed multiple parties to contest as single electoral alliance. Thus, the two largest alliances the right-wing nationalist, People’s alliance of AKP and MHP against the social democrats, National Alliance-CHP and Aksener’s Good Party battled hard. Presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, of People’s Democratic Party (HDP) the voice of Kurdish majority contested from prison cell. Lodged in jail in 2016, after the coup, his party managed to garner 11.7% votes crossed the cut-off barrier and managed to clinch 67 seats in the parliament.
Presidential elections which were originally slated for November 3rd, 2019, were preponed at the behest of Erdogan who opined that early election would resolve the ongoing “political and economic uncertainty”. A referendum was held in Turkey in April 2017 to replace the existing parliamentary democracy to an executive presidency. Erdogan strongly rooted for an executive presidency claiming that the new system would make governance more efficient. While critics warned that it was an attempt to amass power, Erdogan pushed for referendum which passed the new constitutional with a slender margin of 51-49. The referendum solidified “one-man regime” by granting him powers to decree with a complete control over judiciary and executive becoming head of the state as well as head of government. Though the seats in the Grand National Assembly were increased from 550 to 600, its powers were greatly reduced. The post of prime minister was removed.
From selling lemonade for extra money to a semi-professional footballer to becoming the most powerful President of “sick-man of Europe”, Turkey, Erdogan has come a long way. Erdogan’s political career as a conservative democrat received first major boost after he was elected as mayor of Istanbul in 1994 from Islamist Welfare Party. In 1997, on charges of inciting communal and religious hatred, Erdogan was awarded jail term of 10-months for reciting a religious verse. In 1998, terming Islamist Welfare party as a threat to secularism, government banned it and Erdogan was forced to give up mayorship. Looming political ban prevented him from contesting parliamentary elections. In 2001, he formed AKP party and contested in the parliamentary elections of 2002 and entered the parliament with 34.3% vote and cobbled majority. With judicial ban, still in place, Erdogan couldn’t become Prime Minister, instead cofounder, Abdullah Gul occupied the coveted post. After a juidical concession, Erdogan got re-elected in a rescheduled election in February 2003 and took over Gul as Prime Minister. Since then AKP won three consecutive elections beginning from 2002, 2007, 2011 every time with an improved majority. With time, moderate AKP has become very popular with Turkish electorate.
Erdogan’s sweeping electoral success can be largely attributed to his ability to overturn the fortunes of a failing Turkish economy. In 2002, he inherited an economy that barely survived the Asian recession. He revived economy by introducing much needed reforms that brought huge investments that boosted tourism as well. Between 2002 to 2012 economy grew vigorously in real time, sovereign debt reduced, inflation stabilized, and country registered high GDP. Initially Erdogan stuck a progressive stance and expressed keenness to work to further negotiations with EU, which gave Turkey the status of candidacy for EU at Helsinki Summit in 1999. He even allied with Kurdish parties and Fetullah Gulen. Indeed, he announced partial amnesty to PKK, Kurdish Guerrilla Movement who surrendered to the government. Even, EU hailed his attempts. With his initial charm offensive, Erdogan wooed Gulenists who included educationalists, academicians, bureaucrats and Kurds. In the initial years of power, Erdogan worked with Gulenists to break links between the secular Kemalists and the military.
Having established a formidable electoral base, with economy failing to completely recover from the economic recession of 2008, Erdogan began to toe a hard-line approach. He shed his moderate approach. All his conservative attributes began to make a resurgent comeback. By 2013, alarmed by rising corruption, sympathisers of Gulenists, mostly bureaucrats began to investigate Erodgan’s family and loyalists on charges of cronyism. Riled Erdogan parted ways with Gulen in 2013, levelled false charges against him, forcing him to flee the country. Ever since he began to crackdown on protestors and opposition with an iron hand.
Erdogan used the unsuccessful coup bid in July 2016 to topple his regime for purging Gulenists and rest of the opposition. He cracked whip on sympathisers Gulenists and rest of the opposition. He dismissed thousands of government officials and military officials accusing them of complicity in the coup and subsequently filled those positions with his loyalists. He forced closure of several media agencies favourable to Gulenists and jailed over 120 journalists who questioned his authority. Following his ruthless suppression, Europe stalled all negotiations with Turkey regarding its membership to EU.
Till 2014, Erdogan strongly rooted for dismissal of Assad’s regime. Riled over American support to Kurdish forces fighting against IS in Syria Turkey began to have war of words with the US. American assistance revitalised Kurdish forces who broke ceasefire in 2015 and launched attacks on Turkey. Istanbul’s relations with US began to crumble. At this juncture, Russia intervened in the Syrian war and at the height of the Syria, Turkey shot Russian fighter jet for trespassing Turkish air space. The ties soon deteriorated with the assassination of Russian diplomat in Turkey. Under fire with Western forces, Erdogan instead of escalating situation with Russia moved close to Moscow. Erdogan quickly changed his stance favoured continuance of Assad’s regime and joined the Astana talks initiated by Russia along with Iran for peaceful resolution of Syrian crisis. To cement relations with Russia, Erdogan signed $2billion deal for the purchase of S-400 air defence missiles in December 2017.By March, Turkish forces violated Syrian sovereignty launched operations against the Democratic Union Party (YPD) and US-supported YPG and captured Afrin in North Syria. Earlier, Turkey giving fillip to its neo-colonial policies established three universities in the Kurdish region captured during Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016-17.
With its unpredictable actions and frequent tirades against west, Turkey is soon turning into a liability for the NATO. Erdogan has irked Germany and other European countries with his irresponsible comments during his campaign for referendum in 2017. But for its strategic geographical location, despite its frequent ruffling of feathers with the West, NATO is unable to severe links with Istanbul. In a bid to mend fences with Turkey, US offered to mediate and evolve a road map for withdrawal of Kurdish-forces supported by US from Manbij south east of Turkey in Syria. But hours after negotiations, Turkey accused US of deteriorating bilateral ties. Soon, US Congress passed a bill to stall sale of F-35 aircrafts to Turkey. Turkey’s turbulent relations with the West and Europe is creating an uncertainty in the region. Aside, Syrian issue, America is miffed with Turkey over American pastor being prisoned over charges of terrorism.
Currently, Turkey is having an uneasy trail of relations with several countries in its immediate and extended neighbourhood. Turkey was allies with Israel till 2010 when the Mavi Maramara incident rocked the relations. After President Netanyahu apologised for the incident in 2014, both countries reached a reconciliation. But relations turned sour after Trump’s decision on Jerusalem as capital of Israel that triggered violence in Gaza strip. Similarly, Turkey has been threatening Greece and Bulgaria of shipping thousands of refugees to their countries. It extended support to Republic of Macedonia over Macedonia naming dispute much to the disagreement of Greece. Aggravating tensions in the region, Erdogan refused to withdraw troops from Northern Cyprus which it has invaded in 1974 and continues to occupy 37% of Cyprus, (now named as Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC)). Like the Dragon, Turkey is now all set to send its first sea-drilling machine to find oil and natural gas in the Mediterranean region (infringing EEZ of other countries- Cyprus, Greece).
Turkey, which has grown suspicious of America following its unilateral approach towards Iran and Syria is now increasingly seeking to build bridges towards Eurasia. Turkey’s efforts to foster ties with Russia and its condemnation of Trump’s pulling out of Iran’s nuclear policy mirror its new foreign policy attributes. To this end, Turkey has revved up its trade ties with China with bilateral trade increasing several-fold under Erdogan’s regime. Rebuking, Western values, he expressed his preference for joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) over EU membership.
After the fall of Ottoman Empire, the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, strived to carve out a nation from the ruins of the world war I on the foundations of secularism and democracy. He became president of the country in 1923 and remained in power till 1938. He thrusted the burden of protecting the country from the onslaughts of conservative and authoritarian forces with Turkish military. With a powerful military in charge of guarding the core ideals of the constitution, country witnessed several coups till to the turn of 20th century. Owing to Kemal’s western-centric approach, Turkey joined CENTO, NATO in 1950s. But soon subsequent leaderships which perceived a regional isolation, tried to move away from the stranglehold of the West. Gradually with the ascent of Islamists, Turkey’s overtures to West weathered. After coming to power, Erdogan gradually tamed the military, consolidated his power and advanced a neo-Ottoman foreign policy. With his re-election, Erdogan has become the longest serving ruler of Turkey overtaking country’s founding father Kemal threatening to erode the Kemalist legacy.
By winning the referendum of 2017, he incorporated new changes that augured well with his authoritarian tendencies. He rewrote the basic tenets of constitution. Under the newly scripted rules, President can have two terms. With his absolutist approach he might as well win 2023 elections comfortably and thus can continue to preside over the country till 2028. The 64-year Erdogan now shares this unique distinction with President Xi Jinping who overriding the constitutional stipulations has become emperor for life time last year. With a similar legacy of being longest serving leader President Putin, can now be part of this elitist club of dominant authoritarian leaders of Eurasian region. With his Neo-Ottoman foreign policy, Erdogan joins the emerging cult of authoritarian leaders of Asia, vying to shift centres of power from West to East.
Besides, a shift in foreign policy approach, Erdogan, who now lacks majority might now have to heed to coalition partner, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, ultra-conservative Islamist to pass bills in Parliament. This would mark total annihilation of secularism and complete return of the country to conservative Islamism.