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How President Erdogan Is Casting a Dark Shadow Over Turkey's Election

Turkey goes to the polls on Sunday for the second time this year. And much has changed since June's general election, including a "war on terror," renewed insurgent violence, and unprecedented terror attacks.
Photo by Tolga Bozoglu/EPA

Turkey goes to the polls on Sunday for the second time this year. And even though his name won't be on the ballot paper, they will once again be overshadowed by just one man: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Much has changed since June's general election. A "war on terror," renewed insurgent violence, and unprecedented terror attacks mean the voting will take place against a background of growing instability and violence in a sharply divided country.


But the mood is subdued all the same. Campaigning has not taken place with the same fervor as earlier in the year, when bunting festooned the streets while campaign slogans and songs blasted from temporary election offices. This is in no small part because most opinion polls indicate that results will be largely the same as last time round.

Five months ago voters shocked Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) by denying it a parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years. With it, they blocked the president's dreams of altering the constitution and transferring executive powers to his office. The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), meanwhile, crossed the 10 percent threshold required to secure parliamentary seats for the first time, a victory achieved by expanding beyond its traditional support-base to appeal to secular and liberal Turks.

Related: Video Shows Turkish Police Storming Opposition Media Offices Days Before Election

In the following weeks, coalition talks between the Islamist AKP and the country's second and third largest parliamentary blocs — the secular Republican People's Party (CHP) and far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — fell apart and snap polls were called for November 1.

Sunday's results could decide Erdogan's political future. The pugnacious, divisive leader has dominated Turkish politics for over a decade: first as a three-term prime minister with the AKP, then as head of state since August 2014. The presidency is traditionally a largely symbolic role in Turkish politics, but since taking office, Erdogan has often bypassed Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and further tightened his control over the police, judiciary, and media.


To continue to exercise his de-facto presidential powers, the AKP would have to win a majority, increasing its share of the vote from 40.9 percent in June to more than 43 percent and retaking some key marginal provinces to reach 276 out of 550 seats, up from 258. Few think this likely.

Conversely, a share of the vote below 40 percent will be seen as a psychological blow to Erdogan and indication that his popularity is in an "irreversible downward trajectory," Chatham House associate fellow Fadi Hakura said, adding that the president is intrinsically tied up with the AKP in the mind of the electorate. "The Justice and Development Party is a reflection and embodiment of Erdogan. If his popularity goes down, the party will go down with it."

Failure to form a single party government would force the AKP to seek an unwelcome alliance with either the CHP or MHP, a scenario which would undoubtedly sideline Erdogan and potentially also expose AKP leaders to graft investigations.

Aaron Stein, an associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute, sees partnering with CHP as more likely, but cautions that no scenario is likely to offer an easy solution. "All roads lead to incredible difficulties, which I think will last at least up until Christmas," he said, adding that further breakdown in negotiations could result in an ongoing cycle of failure to form governments, further damaging a country struggling with broad divisions and political uncertainty.


Related: Teen Arrested for 'Insulting' Erdogan on Facebook as Crackdown in Turkey Continues

There are deep policy differences between both likely coalition partners. Coupled with the president's disinclination to share power and a polarized political climate, any such coalition is likely to prove unstable at best.

Since the last polls, the government launched a two-pronged "war on terror" claimed to target both the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Islamic State (IS). The focus has been largely on the militant Kurds thus far, and attack jets have bombed their positions in Turkey and neighboring northern Iraq, reportedly killing hundreds.

The PKK, which Turkey, as well as the US, view as a terrorist organization due to its history of attacks on civilian and military targets, has since launched a number of assaults on army and police targets, leaving dozens dead and threatening a return to the bloody three-decade insurgency it waged against the Turkish government until a landmark 2013 ceasefire agreement.

The airstrikes began on July 24 after the PKK killed two police officers in retaliation for a suicide bombing in the border town of Suruc that left 33 pro-Kurdish activists dead. The attacker was trained by IS, but Kurds blamed the security forces for laxity or collusion, and claimed the murdered officers had been working with the jihadists. Many Kurdish politicians and activists view the strikes as a play to garner a larger share of the vote by appealing to nationalist sentiment.


'The AKP has to decide what it is… a party for all of Turkey or a vehicle for Erdogan enacting policies that he's in favor of'

Then, on October 10, IS-linked militants killed 102 people in a double suicide bombing at a peace-rally with major Kurdish presence in Ankara. It was the worst terror attack ever to take place in Turkey, but instead of bringing the country together, it highlighted how deeply it is now divided.

HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas accused the state of responsibility, describing it as "the biggest supporter of terror." Meanwhile, Ankara's AKP mayor Melih Gokcek suggested that the bombing was carried out by the PKK or one of its subgroups in an effort to boost HDP support.

Erdogan himself used the occasion to attack the HDP in a statement and reiterate repeated attempts to conflate it with the PKK.

Meanwhile, repressive treatment of government opponents has ramped up. Courts have prosecuted journalists responsible for critical coverage, dozens have been jailed for "insulting" Erdogan and members of the HDP arrested on accusations of PKK links.

Related: Turkey Is Prosecuting Two Kids for Ripping Down Posters of President Erdogan

Two children aged 12 and 13 have been arrested on charges of "insulting the Turkish president" after allegedly tearing down posters of Erdogan in the southeastern province of Diyarbakir in May, it was reported today. If the case continues the two cousins could each face up to two years and four months in jail.


Rhetoric has repeatedly spilt over into violence. A pro-AKP mob attacked the offices of Hurriyet newspaper in September accusing it of misquoting Erdogan, and Kurdish businesses have been fire bombed.

On Wednesday, police stormed the headquarters of Koza-Ipek Holding media group in Istanbul after a court order to seize the business while it was investigated for alleged links to Fethullah Gulen's Islamic movement. After the raids, brawls broke out in front of the offices of Kanalturk and Bugun TV, and police sprayed water cannon to disperse dozens of people.

Police use a water cannon to disperse supporters of the Gulen movement in front of the Kanalturk TV building during a protest today. (Handout via Zaman newspaper)

Erdogan and other AKP leaders have repeatedly cited security concerns in an attempt to garner support, and this week vowed to continue operations against all "terrorists," including IS and the PKK.

Despite these tactics, both Erdogan and the AKP are suffering a noticeable dip in popularity. June's vote share was a significant fall from 2011's polls, when it secured nearly half. The party rose to power delivering much needed economic expansion following a catastrophic financial crisis in 2001. But by the end of 2014, growth had fallen to just 2.5 percent, while the lira plummeted in value and foreign investment fell even as commodity prices continued to rise.

Related: Anger and Sorrow in Turkey as Mourners Pay Respects to Bomb Victims

This is partly the result of Erdogan's own behavior. The president has attacked central bank policies, the banking regulators, and what he's christened the "interest rate lobby" — all while continuing to spend in an increasingly extravagant manner, including on a widely mocked $615 million, 1,150-room presidential palace more than 30 times the size of the White House. His approval ratings have also fallen, dropping to 37.5 percent in June, almost halving since 2011.

There have been some recent signs of dissent within the AKP, however, and Stein suggests that a poor performance in Sunday's polls could lead to a further split. "The AKP has to decide what it is… a party for all of Turkey or a vehicle for Erdogan enacting policies that he's in favor of."

In the short-term, though, the president is likely assured of its support. The real question is whether he can continue to wield power as he wishes to and, if not, whether he can adapt to power sharing or instead lead an already fatigued Turkey into yet another round of elections in an attempt to wrangle the outcome he wants.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck