M. Hakan Yavuz and Nihat Ali Özcan
Dr. Yavuz is a professor of political science at the University of Utah, and Dr. Özcan is a professor at TOBB University in Ankara, Turkey.
The June 7 elections in Turkey, which unsettled the longstanding center of gravity dictated by a pro-Islamist hegemony, reverberated through Turkey's diverse political constituencies. Middle-class and urban Kurds, liberal Turks and far-left voters became more visible, as they supported candidates attuned to the twenty-first-century political values of diversity, inclusivity and cultural pluralism. In fact, the results of the June elections not only represented the end of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's domination; they also produced the most representative parliament in recent memory. In addition to an ethnic Kurdish party, a large number of Alevis within the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the People's Democratic Party (HDP) and members of religious minorities — Armenians, Assyrians and Yazidis — were also elected to parliament. The election was a major defeat for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and a wake-up call (see table). It was a referendum on Erdoğan's strategy to become the country's de facto "supreme president," despite a constitutional ban. Ahmet Davutoğlu, hand-picked by President Erdoğan to be his successor as prime minister, led the AKP campaign, but his efforts fell nearly 20 seats short of the number that would have given the AKP the margin required to establish a single-party government.1 The party lost its 13-year majority rule due to the electoral gains of the HDP, which entered the parliament for the first time by receiving 13 percent of the vote. Since the political parties failed to form a coalition, "snap elections" were called for November 1.
The results of the November elections defied the predictions of most political polls and analysts. It was an overwhelming victory for the AKP and its charismatic leader, Erdoğan. The AKP added over 4.5 million votes, while the Kurdish HDP, along with the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), suffered major losses. What political and social factors explain this decisive reversal within a six month period? The AKP managed to convince over 4.5 million voters to support its political platform, despite the climate of ethnic and ideological polarization and the negative international image of Erdoğan as a new "autocrat." The electorate, especially many conservative Kurds and Turks who had voted for the HDP and the MHP in June, decided to vote for the AKP in November. The party's electoral success was a mandate for stability, peaceful reconciliation and economic prosperity.
There are four main reasons for this electoral shift: 1) Fear, stemming from the wave of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and ISIS terrorist attacks against civilian and government targets, bringing to mind images from Syria and Iraq and making many voters worry whether Turkey is going to become a failed state; 2) The worsening economic situation of the last six months, in contrast with the economic success of the AKP in last decade; 3) The public perception of irresponsibility and incompetence aroused by the conduct of the opposition parties, especially the refusal of the MHP to adopt a constructive approach to a coalition government, and the failure of the HDP to repudiate PKK terrorism (the failure to condemn PKK militants in the Kandil Mountains was seen as double-talk by many liberal and leftist Turks, who decided not to vote for the HDP this time); and 4) The failure of many intellectuals to offer convincing alternatives to the AKP. Many journalists and some Washington experts seek to explain this shift in terms of fear, which they claim to be deliberately engineered by the Erdoğan government. However, they fail to understand the historical context: the disintegration of the Ottoman state and the occupation of Anatolia by Western imperialist powers.2 The AKP also greatly benefitted from its prior legacy of success in the economic development of the country, especially the neglected Anatolian hinterland.3
The June elections resulted in a hung parliament; the opposition parties failed to form a coalition government. During the next six months, the PKK launched terrorist attacks that began to undermine economic progress and daily life in major cities, especially in the Kurdish-majority provinces. Stability and security became the main concerns of the electorate. The economy was slowing down, the lira lost 20 percent of its value, and the decades-old Kurdish separatism flared up. An ISIS suicide bomber struck the town of Suruç on July 20, killing 33, mostly leftist university students. On October 10, two suicide bombers linked to ISIS attacked a leftist rally in Ankara, killing 134. The PKK attacks sent the country into near panic, conjuring up the possibility of large-scale Syria-style violence. In a side note, police reports indicate that almost all the suicide bombers came from the Kurdish Islamist stronghold of Adıyaman.
The foreign media's narrative blaming Erdoğan for the crisis was not convincing to much of the Turkish electorate.4 The public largely blamed the PKK for initiating hostilities and opposition parties for misconstruing this factor. Beyond this, the world did not seem to understand the role of the Assad regime and Western powers in facilitating the rise of ISIS in Syria by failing to stop the slaughter there or to support the democratic breakthrough of the Arab Spring. Now that the November elections have been analyzed, it is possible to offer a better contextualization of the June results.
THE KURDISH QUAGMIRE
Nearly all ethnic Kurds, including Islamist Kurds who used to support the AKP, voted in record numbers in June for the HDP, which operates as a political front for the PKK. Its share of total votes rose from 6.5 percent in 2011 to 13 percent in 2015. The HDP received additional support from Turkey's liberals, leftists and almost all factions of the alternative-lifestyle groups that sought to derail Erdoğan's attempt to implement the presidential system. According to major polling agencies, including A&G, 4.2 percent of the vote came from previous AKP voters and 1.9 percent from previous CHP voters.5 Adil Gür, a leading pollster in Turkey, argued that if the HDP does not transcend its ethnic agenda, it eventually will lose these first-time HDP voters. In the June elections, the HDP pursued a smart political strategy by building a diverse coalition of voters around the liberal and reformist anti-Erdoğan theme. This also brought religious and conservative Kurds, once AKP supporters, to vote for the HDP. More significantly, it established an effective campaign to transport and "entice" voters in Kurdish-populated areas in favor of the HDP. As most of these areas are practically under the control of the PKK, there was heavy pressure from the pro-PKK militias to vote for the HDP.
This electoral victory was expected to transform the HDP from an ethnic party with organic ties to the PKK into a progressive umbrella party of sorts for leftists. Many Turkish leftists took part in the political process by voting for the HDP rather than by wielding weapons in the mountains or other illegal activities. A key question was: Would the HDP transform itself and become a party within Turkey, or would it use its victory to push a secessionist agenda including tacit support for armed struggle?6 Unfortunately, the leaders of the KCK — the political affiliate of the PKK, listed as a terrorist organization in nearly all European countries and the United States — rejected the idea of renouncing political violence against the Turkish state and Kurdish groups who refused to submit to PKK leadership. Instead, they supported intensified armed struggle by attacking security forces and state buildings to promote a secessionist Kurdistan by force.7 This in fact long predated the commencement of hostilities between the PKK and the Turkish State in July 2015. It was after the initial ISIS assault on Kobani that the PKK on October 3-4, 2014, launched a large-scale campaign of murder and arson against conservative Kurds in the southeast who had refused to submit to its leadership. Furthermore, the waves of PKK attacks, since the June elections, have dashed the hopes of many citizens who voted for the HDP with the expectation of ending armed conflict and opening the door to a parliamentary process.
The June results also exacerbated the tension between the military (the PKK guerrillas) and civilian sectors (the HDP politicians) for several reasons. Those who influence the policies of the HDP, such as Abdullah Öcalan, the founder and leader of the PKK, and his generation, are still alive. And the Kurdish nationalist movement is still dominated by the members of the first generation — Murat Karayılan, Cemil Bayık, Mustafa Karasu and Duran Kalkan. All of them have supported armed struggle against the Turkish state and have defined their mission in terms of establishing an independent Kurdish state through violence.8 Those Kurdish politicians, who defend co-existence of ethnic groups and stress political and civil rights over secession, are not as effective as those in the mountains with the guns. The AKP's policies did not help to open more space for such Kurdish civilian politicians who faced considerble threats from the PKK, but rather sought to negotiate a settlement via Öcalan and the PKK leadership.
The policies of the AKP governments on the Kurdish issue over time became instrumentalist, shortsighted, and based on personal trust and networks. The AKP "has used the Kurdish issue as a weapon against" the secular nation-state system in Turkey and identified "secularism as a cause of division between Turks and Kurds."9 The AKP offered its own solution — Islam as the metaphorical cement — to silence the Kurdish nationalists' demands.10 The June elections would seem to indicate that this policy did not win the hearts and minds of the Kurds. Worst of all, for the first time, some Turks are thinking about separating from the Kurdish minority. The 2015 national elections exposed the extent of ethnic polarization; the Kurds appeared to vote en masse for the HDP. The June results led to the over-confidence, and some HDP municipalities even declared self-government by refusing to work with the central government in Ankara.
Some Turkish-nationalist critics felt that the AKP failed to address the Kurdish question, as Erdoğan never fully grasped the power of ethnic or nationalist loyalties. First, he has exaggerated the bonding role of Islam and erroneously treated religious identity as an alternative to Kurdish nationalism.11 Second, there has always been a major disagreement between state institutions such as the military and the AKP leadership over the origins, nature and claims of Kurdish nationalism. After the June elections, the Turkish state experienced a major security meltdown in the Kurdish-populated areas. The southeast and the regions near Turkey's borders with Iraq and Syria have become veritable no-man's lands where neither the Turkish nor the Syrian state has much control, and Kurdish and Islamist guerrillas freely move back and forth.
Third, the AKP has cared more about short-term gains than about the future of the country. Its engagements with the PKK suggest they recognized the PKK as the only legitimate arbiter of the Kurdish question. The AKP carried out negotiations directly with Öcalan in his prison cell on Imrali Island. His status was enhanced by the policies of Erdoğan, which were influenced by Hakan Fidan, the head of the Turkish Intelligence Agency; Beşir Atalay, a professor of sociology; and Yalçın Akdoğan, Erdoğan's speech writer. All of them collectively operated the "Kurdish initiative" project. However, the AKP leadership ignored the voices of other Kurdish groups, thus giving the PKK the means and legitimacy to "punish" those who stray from its principles and authoritarian leadership. Yasin Aktay, the deputy chair of the AKP and a member of parliament, argues that the government left the control of the region to the PKK for the sake of the "Kurdish opening, and this, in turn, resulted in the popular feeling that the state authority surrendered the region to the PKK."12 These AKP short-sighted policies have dismantled cross-cutting cleavages among Turks and Kurds, especially those who shared a conservative Muslim identity, and have reified ethnic boundaries and representation in the country. There were at least three major Kurdish groups with different orientations and expectations of political life in 2002.13 The policies of the AKP forced all three to come under the command of the PKK, making Turkey today, for all intents and purposes, a binational country.14
Although the ethnic boundaries between Turks and Kurds may seem to have hardened at the expense of a broader historic Sunni Muslim solidarity, the Kurdish electoral bloc is still internally heterogeneous, with most still not supporting territorial separatism as opposed to greater cultural, ethnic and religious rights. During our interviews in Ankara before the June elections, we identified at least four major groups under the HDP flag: 1) armed-militant and nationalist Kurdish groups that defend armed struggle against the state and reject disarmament; 2) religiously oriented Kurdish Islamic conservatives critical of the leftist and secular agenda of the HDP; 3) Kurdish women's groups that want to end patriarchal Islamo-Kurdish tribal cultural trends; and 4) leftists and liberals who are using the HDP to halt Erdoğan's authoritarian temptations and his dream of establishing a presidential system. Echoing this summary, a local HDP leader in Diyarbakır said,
The elections will expose the tension within the HDP. One group insists on armed struggle and is supported by guerrillas in the mountains. The second group wants a more civilian, legal and participatory political system. The second group also seeks some type of federalism linked with democratic means instead of the armed struggle, at least not as a first option.15
This is echoed in a major debate in newspapers, magazines and online websites affiliated with the HDP. One group insists on regional autonomy through cantonization or federalism, something resembling the current regional government in Iraq. They call upon HDP leaders to consolidate the party in Kurdish-populated areas of southeast Turkey and not to allow liberal or leftist Turks to hijack their ethno-nationalist struggle and thereby establish a binational and federal system. This small but influential group defends its objective to transform the party from an ethnic entity to one that encompasses as much territory in Turkey as possible while expanding its grassroots to include Turkey's leftist voters. Amplifying this theme, a young Kurd in Batman said,
We are at a crossroads now. We either need to define ourselves as an ethnic party and share the sovereignty of the Turkish state or to define ourselves as a party of Turkey. My guess is that we will use the Turkish leftist liberals to challenge the system, much as Erdoğan used them to undermine the Kemalist military-bureaucratic system, before they use us against Erdoğan. Our issue is not with Erdoğan but with the Turkish state, and our goal is shared sovereignty.16
The results of the June elections not only enhanced the self-confidence of the Kurds; they also offered new opportunities for Kurdish-nationalist forces to redefine the country's political structure. However, this new self-confidence has also deepened the fears of many Turks about their country's future. Since the June elections, the HDP has further consolidated its position and successfully presented itself as the sole representative of the Kurdish people.
SEPARATION OR FEDERALISM?
Events in Iraq and Syria strongly suggest that the Kurds are seeking to create their own nation-state by means of ethnic cleansing and armed struggle.17 It is also clear that Kurdish nationalism is no longer simply an issue that affects Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. It has become the major destabilizing factor in the region. Recent traumas — state failure in Iraq and Syria, their worsening economic situations, the spread of ISIS's nihilist violence — have compelled regional states and the West, especially the United States, to sympathize with the Kurds, who are on the frontlines in Syria. However, Kurdish groups are also leveraging this opportunity to drive Arabs out of the territory in which they hope to establish an independent state. Kurdish policies in Iraq and Syria are setting a pattern for other nationalist groups: ethnic cleansing and the use of U.S. airpower and influence to promote ethnic separatism.18
A Kurdish state seems to be inevitable, given the current political fragmentation throughout the Middle East. The remaining questions concern its borders and the degree of unity among Kurdish groups, now divided by class, ideology, geography and religion. The United States is the major backer of the burgeoning Kurdish independence movement. This U.S. support has caused Turkish citizens to regard Washington as unreliable and even a source of the larger problems plaguing the Middle East.19 Many people believe that the borders of Turkey will ultimately be redefined, either peacefully or by other means, likely involving the ethnic cleansing of both Turks and Kurds in different parts of the country.
On this matter, the confused and at times overly deferential policies of the AKP government toward the PKK in the past have essentially reduced the representation of the complex Kurdish communities to the statements and policies of the HDP and its ultimate political leader, Öcalan. The government has deliberately ignored the diverse voices of the Kurdish communities in Turkey, including millions of self-identified Kurdish Muslims who don't identify with the cultish Marxist-Leninist ideology of the PKK. Moreover, there have been few official attempts to bring Turkish and Kurdish civil-society organizations to work toward a long-lasting peace, despite the acknowledgment that a successful peace-building process will require grassroots input from both Turkish and Kurdish groups.
The AKP's attitude on the Kurdish issue is predicated on the assumption that, because the Kurds are predominantly Muslim, they have become nationalists in their own right by incorporating into their thinking the Kemalist policies of secular nation building.20 If Turkey moves away from secular nationalism by stressing Islamic norms and ways of life, the Kurds will feel "at home," and this will extinguish their nationalistic desires and demands. Thus, the AKP has tried to frame secular republican policies as security-oriented while claiming to replace them with democratic policies. Although the AKP's social and economic policies were successful in improving health care, education and transportation in Kurdish-populated regions and winning genuine support there, they almost totally ignored the vital question of security of the southeastern populace, which was willing to take a stance independent of the PKK. The government, in pursuit of the peace process, retreated in the southeast and often failed to collect taxes and payments of utility bills while offering free health care with generous budgetary allocations.21 By improving social and economic conditions, the AKP had hoped to turn the Kurds into a voting bloc that favored them. Indeed, the Kurds did vote in substantial numbers for the AKP until the 2015 national elections. This past June, the majority of Kurds cast their ballots at local levels for pro-Kurdish ethnic parties that were established or controlled by the PKK, mainly the HDP.
Before the June elections, the AKP expected the PKK to halt the Kurdish attacks against the military, as these attacks had led many Turks to become skeptical, thus reinforcing the perception of the AKP as ineffective at governance. In reality, the AKP government handed the region to the PKK in return for its compliance in these matters. Moreover, the government accused the journalists and scholars who dared to question the long-term implications of these policies on national unity as "security-minded Kemalists or nationalist-leftists (ulusalcı)." The government succeeded in framing its "surrender" to the PKK as a democratic solution to the Kurdish problem. The government also passed a series of new laws that removed the military from responsibility for domestic security and restricted military operations against the PKK by changing the rules of engagement against terrorist threats.22 The new laws also empowered governors to make decisions about operations and responses in the event of a terrorist attack.23
Thus, the military lost the authority and the means — the privilege of gendarmerie intelligence — to execute operations against the PKK. The overall impact has been the neutralizing of security effectiveness in Turkey, first the military and then the police forces. One of the AKP decisions of greatest negative impact was to remove the gendarmerie from the national infrastructure and place it under the control of provincial governors. When the military wanted to cleanse certain parts of PKK camps, the governors would often refuse to endorse the request.24 The AKP's main purpose has been to present these regions as peaceful; the government, by limiting the risk of military casualties, has in effect returned control of the region to the PKK. The PKK used this opportunity to reestablish its local extortion networks, economic and media control, and new political parties that took direction from the leadership in the Kandil Mountain. This systematic effort has been vital in aiding the PKK's ambition to be the sole legitimate representative of Kurdish identity and nationalism in Turkey and Syria.
According to reliable intelligence reports, the PKK controls around 10,000 armed militias in Turkey that could destabilize the entire country through rebellion and terrorism. The fragmentation of Iraq and Syria has created opportunity spaces for Kurdish nationalism and the PKK to push forward the agenda for a wider regional independent state. When the PKK called its supporters into the streets for violent attacks in October 2014 to protest the ISIS assault on Kobani/Ayn al-Arab — and the refusal of the Turkish State to arm the local branch of the PKK — the chaos resulted in the deaths of 50 individuals, the widescale trashing and burning of government buildings, and the looting of stores and business.25 It was a successful test of what a regional rebellion might look like, and it had a chilling impact on the AKP government. The rebellion ended only after government officials pressed Öcalan to call upon the protesters to end their action. This event revealed the PKK's potential power, the weakness of the Turkish government, and the realization that the Kurdish issue cannot be resolved within the borders of Turkey alone; it has become part of a larger regional problem. The October uprising naturally heightened fears among Turks. Meanwhile, many Kurds, who recognized the vulnerabilities of state authority, have gradually shifted from pro-state stances toward support for the increasingly powerful PKK presence in the region.
Excluding civil society from the dialogue about an issue critical to significant national interests, the AKP preferred to limit negotiations about the "Kurdish initiative" to just Erdoğan, Öcalan and three AKP politicians: Akdoğan, Atalay and Fidan. The process has raised the expectations of the Kurds while intensifying Turkish fears about the country's future. By keeping Öcalan in prison, the AKP thought to impose its will on him. However, the election results confirm that the Kurdish masses are more politicized and radicalized than ever.
By instrumentalizing Öcalan and turning him into a power broker for Kurdish society, the AKP has prevented the development of a more pluralist Kurdish society. The losers in this game were clearly the citizens of Turkey as a whole. The biggest mistake was reducing this complex issue to the political futures of Erdoğan and Öcalan, who have now complicated the crisis further and polarized the country along ethnic lines.
HDP'S POLITICAL RISE AND FALL
There are numerous reasons underlying the Kurdish electorate's overwhelming support for the HDP: the failure to investigate the Uludere (Roboski) case; the KCK investigations and arrests of many prominent local politicians; Erdoğan's attempt to use the ISIS threat against Kurdish resistance in Kobani; and his declaration that "there is no Kurdish problem in Turkey," along with Akdoğan's statement that "the election results on June 8 will signify not the end of the AKP government but rather of the Kurdish initiative."26 These statements alienated the Kurds from the AKP, forcing them to identify with the HDP.
After the June elections, the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria overplayed their hand by initiating a massive ethnic cleansing of Arabs on the Turkish-Syrian border. On June 15, Kurdish forces, with the help of the PKK, took control of the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad and ethnically cleansed its Arab and Turkmen population. Turkey opened its borders to 23,000 Syrian Arab and Turkmen refugees, bringing the total number of Syrian refugees to nearly 1.9 million.27 The U.S.-led bombing campaign in Syria has empowered Kurdish guerrillas against ISIS and other opposition groups. The Independent carried graphic stories about Kurdish fighters burning Arab villages and forcing indigenous populations to leave their homes.28 Many Turks are angry that the United States is aiding these YPG/PKK ethnic-cleansing operations in Syria and the ensuing destabilization of Turkey. As a result, Turkish public opinion is more anti-American than it was a year ago.
President Erdoğan predictably unleashed his anger: "The West, which is hitting Arabs and Turkmen of Tal Abyad from the air, is sadly putting the PYD [Democratic Union Party] and PKK terror organizations in their places."29 Erdoğan also stated that the PYD's seizure of Tal Abyad "could lead to the creation of a structure [an independent state] that threatens our borders." By bombing ISIS forces unilaterally, the United States has opened space for Kurdish advances and an ethnic-cleansing epidemic. The situation deeply disturbs both Turks and Arabs. A survey conducted in late May by a group of scholars at Kadir Has University indicates that Turks view the United States as their second-greatest security threat (35.3 percent, just after Israel at 42.6 percent). The same survey shows that 32.3 percent of Turks regard U.S. foreign policy as motivated by colonial ambitions, while indicating that the majority of Turks (53.3 percent) "have no problem with the United States."30
After the elections, the PKK's violent attacks on government officials, such as military and police officers, teachers, doctors and bank employees, along with those Kurds who do not support the PKK agenda, the HDP not only failed to take a clear position against the terrorism but also worked hard to silence the Islam-oriented Kurdish political opposition, such as the Free Cause Party (Huda-Par).31 In the eyes of leftist Turks, who voted for the HDP in June, and the moderate and economically well-off Kurdish middle class, the HDP became the political front organization of the PKK. Previously, one of the most effective arguments of the HDP leaders was that their party is the only force that is able to persuade the PKK guerillas to lay down their arms and provide a legitimate space for a political struggle in the parliament. Vahap Coşkun, a professor at Dicle University in Diyarbakır, argues that people were in support of this pledge made by the HDP to normalize the situation and end the violence.32 However, the Kurdish voters were disappointed by the actions of the HDP municipalities, such as declaring self-government and not recognizing the legitimacy of Ankara, not paying taxes or public-utility bills, and digging ditches around government buildings and along major roads against the police force. Coşkun argues that all these actions disappointed the Kurdish electorate, which then "shifted toward the AKP." Coşkun aptly criticizes the PKK for squandering the political opportunity that was opened up for the HDP by sabotaging any chance the HDP had to formulate a policy on the Kurdish issue within a coalition. In short, the HDP failed to become a "political actor" and left an even greater political space to the violence of the PKK.
Moreover, the rhetoric employed by members of the HDP was not conducive to reconciling differences in the country. Many HDP parliamentarians started to gain more legitimacy within the Kurdish nationalist struggle by declaring that their relatives "in the mountains" are fighting against the Turkish state. For instance, the brother of Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-leader of the HDP, is a member of the PKK executive committee "in the mountains." These declarations in the media further fanned Turkish-nationalist flames and radicalized the security establishment against the HDP. By not distancing itself from the PKK and not criticizing its terrorist tactics, the HDP has delegitimized itself. The Kurdish nationalist rhetoric, combined with the PKK attacks, fed tensions and mobilized the voters around the AKP. Moreover, Erdoğan's successful religious rhetoric succeeded in portraying the HDP as the political arm of terrorism and a "tool" of international forces to dismember Turkey. As it turns out, in this climate of insecurity, Erdoğan managed to morph himself into a leader of Muslim-Turkish nationalism who wants to elevate the position of Turkey in the international system.
During his administration, Erdoğan has constantly exploited the ambiguities and fault lines of the opposition — including the Kurds — without hesitating to employ conveniently ambiguous terms in order to enhance his power and, above all, to weaken opposition groups. Moreover, for Erdoğan, context and audience are crucial; what is said in public speeches takes quite a different form in private conversation. Thus, it is not easy to confront and criticize him, especially since he elevated his embrace of nationalism.
ERDOĞAN'S NEW NATIONALISM
After the June elections, Erdoğan sought to restructure the political landscape with a series of new tactics. Astute about the urgent need to rejuvenate a formerly solid political brand that now is flailing, Erdoğan deepened his involvement in the AKP's routine political decision making. He relied on two parallel strategies that are meant to move together. In order to dampen any public criticism that he avoided forming a coalition government despite its being in the nation's best interest, Erdoğan instructed Davutoğlu to demonstrate a showcase coalition that convenes regularly with other parties, especially with the CHP. Simply put, Erdoğan did not want a coalition government that would jeopardize or restrain his executive powers and, even worse, focus on corruption charges involving his closest political associates.
Erdoğan and the AKP ran out the clock on the 45 days required by the Turkish constitution to try to establish a coalition government. Then, as soon as the deadline passed, he dissolved the parliament and called for the November snap elections, a fourth visit to the ballot box by Turkish voters in barely a year and a half. During this period, marked by several signs of economic weakness, including the country's faltering currency and a slowdown in construction, Erdoğan took full control of AKP governance to ensure the political infrastructure was stocked with his loyalists. It is evident that the AKP's candidate list for the November elections was shaped according to Erdoğan's preferences, whereas Davutoğlu's involvement in crafting the new AKP list seems to have been minimal at best.
Erdoğan's snap-elections strategy comprised several key points. He was disappointed that the Kurdish electoral decision left the AKP to support the HDP, which for the first time gained enough representation to enter parliament formally and garnered more than six million votes in the process. Once eager to court pro-Kurdish groups, Erdoğan focused heavily on Turkish-nationalist groups. He declared the end of the "Kurdish opening," accusing the HDP, along with the PKK, of acting in bad faith. The PKK, in turn, has gradually intensified its attacks since June on security officials and state institutions, killing 145 security officials, including policemen and high-ranking military personnel. Likewise, HDP-dominated municipalities proclaimed their governmental autonomy, thereby rejecting the tenets of the Turkish Republic's rule of law. The PKK militias, with HDP support, have been more aggressive and assertive, suggesting that soon the specter of Turkish state sovereignty could be reduced to the status of a paper tiger. In responding to these attacks, Erdoğan has hoped to garner a solid bloc of nationalist votes in the November elections. As a second dimension to this strategy, Erdoğan successfully recruited Tuğrul Türkeş, the son of the nationalist Alpaslan Türkeş and the deputy chair of the nationalist MHP, to run in AKP's list of candidates.
After the June elections, Erdoğan reversed his policy, deciding to cooperate directly with the American campaign against ISIS in Syria. He opened the Incirlik airbase, along with other military installations, to American military personnel to launch coordinated attacks against ISIS positions. This phase of reinvigorated cooperation with the United States has given Erdoğan political cover to also hit PKK targets within Syria and Iraq. Lastly, Erdoğan has increased the salaries of state employees and opted to earmark more governmental funds for social services in the hope of swaying voters, even while trying to ignore both Kurdish political demands and key economic sectors that must be strengthened for Turkey to compete in the global economy. It is now widely considered that the economy played an important role in the November electoral victory. The nationwide memory of recent economic achievements were recalled as strong examples of progress. The economic prosperity helped to bridge the urban-rural, west-east, and secular-religious divisions. Erdoğan's economic policies led to the emergence of a new middle class. Moreover, during the last decade, the civilian authority over the military has been consolidated, and Turkey passed several legislative reforms that comply with EU-membership requirements.
FAULT LINES IN TURKEY
The identity politics that began in the mid-1990s helped to create the cleavages along ethnic and religious lines that are now represented in the parliament. These cleavages are not political but sociological, defined according to ethnicity, religion and lifestyle. Since the mid-1990s, identity-based divisions have deepened, and the social distance among them has widened. The current polarization is rooted at the societal level and manifested at the elite level, as reflected in the parliament's composition. In addition to cleavages between Islamic and secular lifestyles and between Kurds and Turks, there is also tension between the Sunni majority and the Alevi minority. The CHP, which includes a considerable number of Alevi parliamentarians, sees itself as the guardian of the secular Kemalist republic. The AKP constructed its identity in contrast to the founding philosophy of the republic as a secular and European nation-state. The MHP, representing the interests and identity of the Turkish Republic, has been the home of Turkish nationalists. Significantly, for the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic, an ethnic Kurdish party, the HDP, ran on a platform of transforming the republic into a federal binational state while also appealing to liberal/leftist ethnic Turks and succeeded in entering the national parliament.
Turkey has been beset by many contentious issues: Kurdish political demands, the Alevis' demand for equality and recognition as a religious minority, widespread political corruption, erosion of the rule of law, and persistent economic problems. A new social contract is needed, but there is no consensus on a shared language or set of principles that would bring the divided society together. As no party appears willing to give up its identity-based demands, some ethnic groups, especially the nationalist Kurds and Turks, will likely propose the territorial partitioning of the country.
The two recent elections and the AKP's "morally tainted" image are emblematic of a transforming Islamic political movement, as evinced by the prevailing regional sociopolitical contexts that also have transformed Islamism in almost every country. Islamic actors have been effective in ending existing authoritarian systems by establishing an opposition movement to bring diverse groups together in the name of justice, but they have not yet managed to secure a fully functioning democracy with the rule of law. Although in recent years Erdoğan has been shifting away from his liberal-reformer image, the citizens of Turkey still have faith in his leadership skills and regard him the only leader who could maintain economic prosperity and political stability. The majority of Turkey's voters still view the AKP as being more inclusive and economically sound than the existing political opposition, and still give it credit for producing the most significant political and economic reforms since the founding of the republic in 1923.
However, this view of Turkish progress is not shown in the Western media's depiction of the country's political reality. Instead, Western evaluations of the AKP's governing performance point at a distrust that goes both ways. When it comes to Western involvement in Turkish and Middle Eastern affairs, Erdoğan's guarded approach is in keeping with the sentiment of many Turks. The government's position on Western interests in the region reflects a grassroots concern that has been steadily growing in Turkish society, especially since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. In addition to witnessing the execution of destructive policies by the United States in Iraq, the Turkish public has noted the aggressive elimination of Islamic voices in Egyptian politics. Most troubling to Turkey's well-being is the American support for Kurdish groups in Syria. The United States is perceived as undermining Turkey's stability and security by actions that strengthen the PYD as well as the PKK. Significantly, the rejection of Turkey by the European Union has led to a commonly held view that Western countries seek to prevent Turkey's continued growth and prosperity. The systematic effort by Western institutions to promote a genocide accusation against Turkey over the Armenian suffering during World War I is seen as an attempt to tarnish the image of the Turkish people and their government. These trends suggest that anti-Western convictions will continue to resonate in the Turkish collective memory and be expressed in Erdoğan's rhetoric.
Turkey is torn between two options. It must either more carefully redefine the nation-state as a multiethnic binational society or recognize an ethnic Kurdish nation-state, either as an autonomous entity like Iraqi Kurdistan or as part of a federation. Yet, while the overwhelming majority of Turks reject federalist and autonomous options under any conditions, the Kurdish demand for territorial autonomy is much higher in 2015 than in 2002.33 Although the AKP, through its economic policies, has succeeded in improving the daily life of Turkey's citizens, especially in Kurdish-populated regions, it has failed to integrate much of society into the state apparatus and has actually widened the divisions between different identity groups. The AKP's lack of initiative on cultural and educational fronts and its indifference to diversity within each group have increasingly polarized Turkish society. The political crises in Iraq and Syria, and the AKP's myopic foreign policy in Syria, have contributed to the overall deterioration of the regional situation. This, in turn, has decreased the overall security picture in Turkey while complicating the Kurdish question. The last decade has witnessed the moral erosion of Islamic politics and forced the public to see the need for a secular state with an assertive civil society that includes faith-based associations as much as secular ones.
While this article has underscored many of the failures of the AKP leadership since the Gezi Park demonstrations in 2012, it should also be noted that the party's resounding electoral victory in November 2015 also underscored the resilience of Turkish democracy and President Erdoğan's genuine popular support.34 It is important to highlight this because much of the Western media coverage of Turkish politics has been one sided and sensationalistic. Turkish elections, unlike those in Russia, are still free and fair, and thus, while Erdoğan deserves criticism for his imperious and intolerant style, he is no dictator who rules by force and fraud. The response of the Turkish police to often violent demonstrations following Gezi Park were overly harsh, but there were no massacres like those of thousands of pro-democracy protesters carried out by General Sisi in Egypt, whose atrocities were greeted with a telling silence by many Western democracies. Turkey is not attacking the Kurds as a whole in its campaign against the PKK. The Kurdistan Regional Government and the Peshmerga (Kurdish militias under the command of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq) still remain one of Turkey's closest strategic allies, and unlike Israel in Gaza, Turkey has not been laying waste to civilian populations and infrastructure in Diyarbakir or Erbil. Furthermore, it was the PKK and not the Turkish state that broke the longstanding ceasefire with multiple assassinations and arson attacks in October and July 2015. Turkey's principled support for Muslim democratic movements and the Arab Spring stands in stark contrast to the cynical policies of many Western countries and their client regimes in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Finally, Ankara correctly warned that the Western refusal to support peaceful and democratic Muslim movements in oppressive states like Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Libya in the wake of the Arab Spring would give rise to a fanatical and nihilistic alternative that we now see in the grim visage of ISIS.
1 For more on the worldview of Davutoğlu, see Behlül Özkan, "Turkey, Davutoglu and the Idea of Pan-Islamism," Survival 56, No 4 (August-September 2014): 119–140.
2 David Kenner, "Turkey's War Within," Foreign Policy, August 17, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/08/17/turkeys-war-within-kurds-election-E….
3 Newspapers such as New York Times, al-Monitor, Zaman, and Cumhuriyet argue that the AKP enjoyed favorable results in the November elections because of the "fear" engineered by Erdoğan. Some journalists, such as Kadri Gürsel, even argue that it was Erdoğan who was behind the suicide bombing and creating the climate of insecurity. Just after the elections, the opposition newspapers ran headlines such as Taraf's "The Chaos Plan Has Succeeded," Cumhuriyet's "The Victory of Fear," and Yurt, a nationalist-leftist daily, "It Played to the Fear and Won." Not only Turkish newspapers but also The New York Times and The Guardian explained the elections results in terms of the narrative of fear that they explicitly suggested that Erdoğan was responsible for engineering. Almost all election analysis in al-Monitor explain the elections results in terms of fear. For example, see Kadri Gürsel, "How Will Erdoğan Solve 'Terror Problem' that Brought Him a Victory," Al-Monitor, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/11/turkey-elections-how-…?
4 Steven Cook, "Turkey at war with itself," Foreign Affairs, June 2015. http://blogs.cfr.org/cook/2015/10/12/turkey-at-war-with-itself/ (retrieved November 2, 2015).
5 For Adil Gür's analysis, see Milliyet, June 8, 2015.
6 Vahap Çoskun, "7 Haziran Sonrası HDP ve Kandil," http://www.aljazeera.com.tr/gorus/7-haziran-sonrasi-hdp-ve-kandil (retrieved on July 3, 2015).
7 For more on the foundational history of the PKK, see Nihat Ali Özcan, PKK (Kürdistan İşçi Partisi) Tarihi ideolojisi ve yöntemi (Ankara: ASAM Yayınları, 1999). For more on the political implications of the counterinsurgency of the Turkish military, see Aysegul Aydin and Cem Emrence, Zones of Rebellion: Kurdish Insurgents and the Turkish State (Cornell University Press, 2015).
8 They were also the founding members of the PKK and involved in a four-decade-long armed struggle against the Turkish state.
9 M. Hakan Yavuz and Nihat Ali Özcan, "The Kurdish Question and the JDP," Middle East Journal 13, no. 1 (2006): 103.
10 The following article claims that the religious Kurds are more nationalistic and anti-Turkish state than secular one; see Zeki Sarigil and Omer Fazlioglu, "Exploring the Roots and Dynamics of Kurdish Ethno-nationalism in Turkey," Nations and Nationalisms 20:3 (2014): 436-458.
11 Yavuz, Secularism and Muslim Democracy, 188-190.
12 Yasin Aktay, "Şımarık PKK'nin Cezasını HDP Cekecek," Yeni Şafak, August 1, 2015.
13 Yavuz and Özcan, "The Kurdish Question and the JDP," 106-107.
14 For a counterargument, see Serhun Al, who argues that as the Turkish state under the AKP rule moved away from its assimilation and homogenization objectives, Kurdish nationalism also moved away from the call for independence and ethnic autonomy and came to increasingly recognize the territorial integrity of Turkey. Sehun Al, "Elite Discourses, Nationalism and Moderation: A Dialectical Analysis of Turkish and Kurdish Nationalisms," Ethnopolitics 14, No. 1 (2015): 94-112.
15 Interview in Diyarbakir, June 27, 2015.
16 Interview in Batman, June 26, 2015.
17 For more on the Kurdish ethnic cleansing of the Arabs see, "Syrian Rebels Accuse Kurdish Forces of 'Ethnic Cleansing' of Sunni Arabs," Telegraph, June 15, 2015; and Gianluca Mezzofiore, "Syria: Kurdish YPG Accused of 'Ethnic Cleansing' of Arabs in Battle for Tel Abyad," International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/syria-kurdish-ypg-accused-ethnic-cleansing-ara…. Menderes Atilla, the mayor of Ceylanpınar, a town on the Syria border, argues that the PKK is seeking to ethnically cleanse the Arabs and Circassians from the city just as they have done in Syria; see his interview at http://www.sabah.com.tr/webtv/turkiye/ceylanpinar-belediye-baskani-mend….
18 Ali Garib, "Was the U.S. Complicit in Ethnic Cleansing in Syria?" Nation, May 8, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/was-us-party-ethnic-cleansing-syria/, accessed July 4, 2015.
19 Emre Temel, "ABD-PYD ilişkileri ve `kırmızı cizgiler,'" http://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler/2015/06/150627_abd_pyd.
20 Vahdettin Ince, "Kürtler Kemalistlerin Yaptıklarını Unutmayacak," Star, January 14, 2013. For more on the ideological background of the AKP's policies on the Kurdish issue, see Yavuz and Özcan, "The Kurdish Question and the JDP."
21 Diyarbakır, known as the capital of Kurdish region, made the lowest contribution to the budget and paid the lowest taxes; see http://www.memurlar.net/haber/365612/, accessed July 3, 2015. In Kurdish-populated regions, inhabitants either consume electricity illegally or refuse to pay electric bills; see Milliyet, December 17, 2014.
22 The AKP government regarded the military as the biggest obstacle on its way to denationalize the state and redefine the national identity as Islamic umma, a community of Muslim believers. It amended a number of laws to remove the military from its domestic functions. For instance, the AKP amended Article 35 of Internal Service Law on July 13, 2013, by limiting the job of the military to defense of the country against the external threats.
23 The AKP government empowered the governors in provinces and authorized them to order a military operation against the PKK. When the military asked to carry out operations against the PKK camps inside the country, many governors rejected the demands in order to keep the "peaceful situation" in their own provinces.
24 Emre Soncan, "Validen TSK'ya ret: operasyon yapamazsin," Zaman, January 17, 2015.
25 Efgan Ala, the minister of interior, informed the public about the destruction and damage that resulted in the October 6-7 riots. According to Ala, 212 schools, 67 police stations, 25 provincial governorships' offices (kaymakamlık), 29 AKP headquarters, and 780 different buildings were sacked and destroyed, along with 1,177 cars set fire to by the PKK militants. Hürriyet, October 10, 2014.
26 "Yalçın Akdoğan: HDP bundan sonra çözü sürecinin filmini yapar," Hürriyet, June 8, 2015.
27 According to the UNHCR, the total refugee population will increase to 2.5 million by the end of 2015. The international community has provided $300 million and Turkey has spent $6 billion so far. Hürriyet, April 27, 2015.
28 Alexander Sehmer, "Thousand of Arabs Flee from Kurdish Fighters in Syria's North," Independent, June 1, 2015.
29 For Erdoğan's speech, see Jamie Dettmer, "Turkey Warns U.S. about Kurdish Advances in Syria," Voice of America, June 22, 2015. http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-warns-us-about-kurdish-advances-i….
30 For more on the report, see http://www.khas.edu.tr/en/news/222.
31 The Kurdish Islamic party that was formed in 2012 includes in its key political platform the constitutional recognition of the Kurds as the co-founder of the Republic of Turkey, education in Kurdish language, and the decentralization of the state power and consolidation of local municipalities. The party also wants Islamic law to be recognized as a legal system.
32 Interview with Vahap Coskun, see http://bianet.org/bianet/toplum/168859-doc-dr-coskun-kurt-secmeni-rahat… (accesses on Nov. 2, 2015).
33 We would like to thank Mujeeb R.Khan for his trenchant comments and criticism and Ömer Fazlıoğlu for sharing his PhD data with us.
34 M. Hakan Yavuz and Mujeeb R. Khan, "Turkey Asserts Its Role in the Middle East," New York Times, February 11, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/12/opinion/turkey-asserts-its-role-in-th….
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