Erdogan’s Gordian Knot

The PKK-AKP peace process has been put on ice.

For political reasons, neither party can be seen as being too accommodating in these final ten weeks before Turkey’s June 2015 national election. The upcoming election is, in my opinion, the most important election in Turkey’s recent history. There are numerous interrelated issues driving the current political debate. The first dates back to 2007, when the AKP introduced significant electoral reforms, including a constitutional amendment (later approved in a referendum) for a directly elected president. The Grand National Assembly had hitherto selected the President, but after the Turkish military’s comically stupid intervention into Turkish politics, the AKP seized the initiative to make reforms. The party’s subsequent actions suggest that the change was never meant to be in isolation; it was always intended to be a short-term stop gap before the party could undertake a more sweeping change: the move to an executive presidency. The biggest proponent of this change was – and remains – Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The AKP was not unanimously in favor of this change. This disagreement resulted in a key turning point for the party: the start of an Erdogan led purge of “AKP liberals” in 2008, which resulted in a behind the scene clash (that played out in 2011) between Erdogan and former President Gul about a key element of intra-party politics in Turkey: control over the party list. In anticipation of his move to the presidency, Erdogan wanted to maintain control over the list. The job is traditionally reserved for the Prime Minister. Gul, in contrast, reportedly wanted to keep the system the way it was, owing to his expected move to the Prime Minister. Things did not work in Gul’s favor and he eventually opted to “retire” rather than act as a subservient Prime Minister to an ever more powerful Erdogan.

The party remained divided over the Presidential system, but nevertheless fell into line behind the “Tall Man,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as he led the charge to win more than 330 seats in the June 2011 election. If successful, the AKP would have been able to unilaterally rewrite the constitution, without any input/support from opposition parties (this draft would then be voted on in a national referendum). The party nearly succeeded, winning 327 votes in June 2011. In many ways, the party dodged a bullet. Erdogan is the most powerful man in Turkey. Full stop. But he had yet to convince his own caucus, who would need to vote en masse in favor of his preferred presidential system, on the need for a new more powerful executive.

Enter the Kurdish issue. By this time, the AKP’s earlier efforts to reach a peace agreement with the PKK had stalled, owing to MIT led negotiations leaking. No one knows who leaked the audio tapes, but there is some speculation that the Gulen movement, which is against the peace talks (owing to their preference for assimilation through religious education of Kurds), leaked the tapes. The collapse of this first round touched off fresh violence, similar in scope to the recent clashes in Cizre, rather than the horrible levels of violence during the 1990s. To put it in perspective, between 2009 and 2012, the International Crisis Group reports that over 900 people were killed. 2012 was a particularly bloody year – and came against the backdrop of a very worrying development for Turkish policymakers in Syria: The withdrawal of Syrian troops from the Kurdish border regions and the PYD’s creation of an autonomous entity, Rojava.

In the span of less than a year (dating from the start of the Syrian civil war), the AKP lost its “strategic depth” (I’m referring to the military use of the term, not Davutoglu’s) in Syria. With its back against the wall, both in terms of Turkey’s problems in Northern Syria (a war I think Ankara has lost, but that is for another post) and a rising body count back home, the AKP backed into renewed negotiations with the PKK.

The issue is ultimately tied to three factors. In exchange for greater autonomy, the AKP has demanded the PKK disarm. The PKK, by contrast, has said they will disarm once the constitution is changed to include guaranteed freedoms for the Kurds. The obvious compromise, of course, centered on Kurdish support for an AKP drafted constitution. This constitution would include more explicit rights for the Kurds, but also include Erdogan’s key demand of an executive presidency. The negotiations have been hamstrung ever since by disagreements over sequencing and issues related to autonomy for the Kurds and amnesty for PKK fighters.

The AKP had thought it had finalized a roadmap to disarmament in April 2015, but the letter penned by the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was rejected by the PKK military command in Kandil. Furthermore, the Kurdish political movement, now represented by two political parties, the HDP and the DBP, decided to run under the banner of a united HDP for the June 2015 election. The Kurds had hitherto relied on a loophole to overcome Turkey’s 10% election threshold. Kurdish candidates would run as independents and form a united caucus once in parliament. This time around, HDP leader Selahtin Demirtas, who secured 9.8% of the vote in the June 2014 presidential election, is leading a united HDP, which means that he needs to get over 10% of the vote.

If the HDP does not pass the threshold, the votes for the party will be distributed to the second highest vote getter in the region, which will surely be the AKP. The HDP’s decision resulted in speculation that the party had revived the grand bargain. The HDP would “throw the election” in return for an ironclad guarantee that the AKP – which would get over 330 votes because of the electoral math – would then rewrite the constitution (Many people, including myself, argued against this. But nevertheless there was a lot of speculation that there was a backroom deal).

Against this backdrop, Turkey’s hitherto successful economy began to sputter, owing primarily to improved US economic data and the growing likelihood that the US Federal Reserve will raise interest rates. This has resulted in the Lira losing value; indirectly raising concerns about an economic crisis amongst many Turks. (Mind you, these fears are unwarranted, but recent history has resulted in Turks associating Lira weakness with impending economic collapse.)

The economy has certainly run out of steam, which has deprived the AKP of its key political selling point: bank on us for more money in your wallet. Add to this the corruption scandal from December 2013. The AKP has launched a full on offense against the Gulen movement. In my opinion, they are losing the war; not because they aren’t the superior force, but because the resulting damage to Turkey’s reputation has touched off a very salient debate in Turkey about autocracy. The majority of AKP supporters brush off any notion of Erdogan being autocratic. However, for the 50% that don’t vote for the party, Erdogan is now viewed as a corrupt tyrant, leading Turkey down a path of dictatorship. The truth is in the middle, of course.

The AKP used to feed off of this polarization. Well, now it seems to be hurting them. The peace process has exposed the AKP to attacks from its most vulnerable flank: the nationalist right. And here is where Syria becomes important again. The PYD has – with direct US air support – succeeded in carving out a statelet. The defense of Kobane has also united Kurds behind a single cause: the defeat of ISIS. The AKP, by contrast, is believed to have supported the Islamic State, first when the group was still operating under the banner of Jabhat al Nusra, and then during the siege of Kobane, when the AKP was late to provide (very limited) support. The anger spilled over in October, when Kurds rioted, and the ensuing clashed resulted in some 45 deaths (most of which were Kurd-on-Kurd).

The AKP, by contrast, claims that it has done more for Syria than any other country. With regards to Kobane, the party points to its opening of the border to accept 200,000 refugees and AFAD’s subsequent building of 35,000 person refugee camp in Suruc. The refugees, however, have shunned the camp, in favor of Kurdish operated camps. These camps receive no support from the central government, are run by Kurdish controlled municipalities, and are patrolled by the PKK.

This is the new status quo in the southeast. This has opened the door for further far right skepticism about the peace process from (and greater HDP/DBP rhetoric aimed against the AKP’s Syria policy). Opinion poll after opinion poll now show that the AKP has lost votes, whereas the nationalist right MHP has gained votes. As of now, the AKP is expected to lose seats. The HDP, by contrast, remains the party of liberals, mostly because half the country hates the AKP and Erdogan. The party is flirting with the 10% threshold; raising the possibility of an MHP vote gain, an AKP seat loss, and an HDP that passes the threshold. All of this means one thing: a coalition government.

For Erdogan, this means that the executive presidency is over. Dead. Kaput. Up until this point, the AKP had been running on its tried and true formula: Economy and Democracy. The economic argument had been a slam dunk, before the aforementioned slow down. The democracy argument was a bit more nuanced. The AKP had made the peace process the center piece of its “we are more democratic” messaging; consistently pointing to the negotiations with the PKK as proof of the party’s liberal bona fides. The HDP’s holding firm to its principles – perhaps best symbolized by Demirtas’ most recent statement to his caucus in parliament, where he gave a 30 second speech saying “No we wont support an executive presidency” left little doubt about the party’s political future – has undermined this message and made the AKP look weak. In reality, the HDP had no choice but to oppose the AKP before the June election. In order to get 10%, the party has to disassociate with the AKP, owing to the aforementioned level of discomfort half of the country has about Erdogan.

Added to this is a rather uncomfortable reality: The Presidential system is not popular, even among AKP voters. Undeterred Erdogan now speaks twice a day every day about the virtues of his rule and the need to transition to a presidential system. It’s not working.

Moreover, it has ignited a debate within the AKP that never really went away: the merits of the presidential system. A minority of MPs are indirectly signaling their support for the status quo via their support for Ahmet Davutoglu – who has come to represent the Prime Ministerial system (to be clear, those who have publicly expressed their wariness about the situation are “third-termers,” which means that AKP party rules prevent them from running again for election in June). This faction remains hamstrung, however, by Davutoglu’s relative weakness. Davutoglu is an academic turned Foreign Minister, who is now trying to learn on the job in a politically charged atmosphere. He isn’t doing too well. Just this week, Erdogan outflanked him on numerous occasions. After all but announcing the final touches had been put on a key PKK demand for peace – the formation of a 16 person body to monitor the talks – Erdogan jumped into the fray, telling sympathetic media that he was opposed to the idea.

He had already ruffled feathers the week before when he said, on two different occasions, that Turkey did not have a “Kurdish Problem.” This kerfuffle resulted in Bulent Arinc – one of the three original founders of the AKP (the other being the “retired” Gul) – to chastise Erdogan for his unhelpful rhetoric. He did so politely, but there was not mistaking what he meant: the peace process is overseen by the Prime Minister, not the President. Butt out.

Arinc has a history of challenging Erdogan, but in this instance, it touched off a debate with the mayor Ankara, Melih Gokcek. The resulting verbal war of words continues, with both men accusing the other of being too close to the Gulen movement. Arinc has also hinted at what everyone in Turkey already knows: Gokcek is corrupt. Davutoglu has largely been silent on this issue, choosing to weakly say that it will be handled via the AKP’s intra-party disciplinary committee. Moreover, in a deft political move, Erdogan loyalist, Yalcin Akdogan (who also happens to be the point person on the peace talks), announced that all of the AKP supports the Presidential system. Davutoglu has conspicuously avoided the subject and done little to tamp down the rampant speculation that he is against the system. Akdogan’s comments will surely result in Davutoglu being asked about it in his next press conference.

Will the academic turned politician take the bait and lay his cards on the table? Probably not – there are ways to avoid this with standard talking point. But avoiding a direct answer is an answer in an of itself – and will certainly result in more speculation about an intra-party split about Erdogan and his presidential system.

Against this already complicated backdrop, the Turkish military has noticeably ramped up its operations in the southeast, after announcing that it was rooting out PKK “hideouts” in Mardin, and then responding to PKK mortar fire in Hakkari.

The events suggest that the party remains divided over messaging now that it is being challenged. On the one side, Erdogan has tacked to the nationalist right, in order to reverse the expected losses to the MHP. The Davutoglu led Prime Ministry appears more amenable to muddling through, without a clear plan to address these electoral challenges. The fight has since become a representation of the internal disagreement about the country’s future political system. There does, however, appear to be a point of consensus: the need to insert a bit more “stick” into the negotiations with the HDP/PKK.

More broadly, however, there are signs of even more trouble. Erdogan is in a unique bind. On the one hand, he needs to tack right on the Kurdish issue. He also needs the HDP to fail in its quest to pass the threshold. This would ensure 330 and allow for him to push the caucus to support his presidential system. However, he does not want violence. This means that he needs to keep the peace process alive. And this means that he needs a viable negotiating partner. If the HDP does not pass the threshold, the issue of political legitimacy will come into play.

Added to this is increased Kurdish expectations. The HDP’s sister party, the Demokratic Bolgeler Partisi, has literally changed its name to match the post-Rojava Kurdish expectations. They are now known as the Democratic Region’s Party, in a nod to Ocalan’s concept of democratic autonomy. Hence, if the party does not pass the threshold, it would surprise few serious Turkey analysts to see the DBP set up an autonomous parliament in Diyarbakir, thus forcing the government to either deal with it, or go back to war. For this reason – and the related developments in Syria – I think the Kurdish position is strong, compared to a weakening AKP.

This is where Erdogan’s electioneering may be the most harmful. At some point, these parties will need to come back to the table to work out these very complicated issues. Words matter. Erdogan’s words matter most. And Davutoglu appears powerless to firmly say what he wants to say: stick with the Prime Ministerial system and let me handle the peace process. And here is where this is most tragic: This all links back to the ambitions for an executive presidency, rather than a consensus driven approach to resolve the Kurdish issue and strike a lasting peace accord.

Moving forward, the key polls numbers to watch are the MHP and HDP figures. The HDP holds the keys to Erdogan’s future, but that future may require resorting to short term tactics that may undermine the potential for peace. Moreover, it speaks to a set of broader questions: Will an AKP-MHP coalition kill the peace process? Did Kandil’s rejection of the Ocalan letter prompt Erdogan to go back to the “stick led” approach vis-à-vis the Kurds? Will Davutoglu actually say what he thinks? No one knows. But one thing is clear: Turkey’s politics have changed considerably since June 2014.

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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