Francesco F. Milan

Defence in Depth – Securitising Turkey’s November Elections

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The original version of this article can be found on Defence in Depth

On Sunday November 1st, Turkey will hold the second general election this year. This comes after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to find an agreement with opposing parties to form a coalition government, having previously fallen short of obtaining enough votes to secure its own parliamentary majority in the June 2015 elections.

The AKP has been ruling the country since 2002, progressively expanding and consolidating both its electoral pool and the political power of its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Over the past decade, the party managed to increase its votes from 34%, obtained while running for its first general election in 2002, to a solid 49.8% in the 2011 elections. The June 2015 elections however, interrupted this trend.

Erdogan’s rule has become more controversial and uncompromising towards both opposition parties and Turkey’s civil society (with the Gezi Park protests being one of the main events for grass-roots opposition). But make no mistake – it has been the discontent registered among AKP’s own supporters that has dragged the party down to about 41% of votes last June. AKP’s main electoral ambition is now to increase its number of parliamentary seats to re-gain a majority of its own.

As the turnout remained virtually constant over the years, a share of AKP voters appears to have moved towards either the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) or the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The two parties, which hold irreconcilable political views, both fared well in June’s elections. The former, which flatly refutes any attempt at expanding the recognition of the Kurdish minority in Turkey, increased its votes by 3%. The latter on the other hand, truly imposed itself as the elections’ moral winner. For the first time in Turkey’s history, a pro-Kurdish party has managed to obtain enough votes to overcome the steep 10% electoral threshold, claiming 13% of the votes.

Through its success, the HDP succesfully demonstrated there is a new kid on the block in Turkish politics, and that the Kurdish minority, together with parts of the country’s socialist and liberal electorate, supports the HDP’s willingness to address the lack of rights and recognition of the country’s Kurdish minority through political dialogue. The party’s approach stands against the backdrop of a longstanding war between the PKK (a Kurdish organization labeled as a terrorist group by Turkey, the EU, and the US) and the Turkish state: since its inception in the early 1980s, and throughout different phases and various degrees of intensity, the conflict has claimed more than 40,000 lives. The conflict has deeply polarised Turkey’s society, and the MHP represents the spearhead of the hardliners’ front, pushing for a purely military solution that disregards any political claim by the Kurdish minority.

Over the past few years, the AKP’s own position with regards to the Kurdish issue has been ambivalent at best, with attempted openings and negotiations with the PKK and its jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan. While projecting a sense of purpose, the initiatives never led to any long-lasting resolution, highlighting Erdogan’s lack of willingness to truly commit to the dialogue between the two sides.

This was best portrayed by events which occurred during the Fall of 2014: on the one hand, Turkey and the PKK were respecting the ceasefire that had been in force until that point, whilst on the other hand the Turkish government ostensibly dragged its feet when it was called to allow Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga to transit through Turkey, in order to support Syrian Kurdish forces that were pinned down by ISIS in Kobane.

While the AKP government’s inaction contributed to alienate the party’s Kurdish electorate, the fact that it eventually gave in to mounting domestic and international criticism, and provided logistical support to the Peshmerga also alienated its nationalist fringes, who felt that the government had become too tolerant when it came to the Kurds. There were obviously other factors at play, but the AKP’s conduct during these events played a fundamental role in eroding parts of its electoral base.

Today, faced with the impossibility of forming a single-party government, and pressured by the emergence of a strong and proactive pro-Kurdish party, Erdogan has opted to turn November’s election into a matter of national security. The main goal is to win back part of the nationalist voters, while delegitimising the opposition – and the pro-Kurdish HDP in primis. Through this strategy, Erdogan aims to rally the electorate around the flag, while using every opportunity to stress how the country needs to unite around the AKP, its strongest party, as it navigates through the current phase of insecurity and political paralysis.

Furthermore, since June’s elections, Turkey has experienced multiple instances of terrorist attacks and violence. In July, a suicide bomber linked to ISIS killed more than 30 members of an association who had gathered in the Turkish district of Suruc to reach Kobane, in order to carry out assistance projects for its Kurdish population. As the victims were mostly of Kurdish origin, the PKK accused the government of failing to protect the minority, and launched a series of retaliatory attacks against members of the Turkish security forces, effectively ending the ceasefire.

Since then, Turkish security forces have revamped their campaign against PKK’s safe haven in Northern Iraq, as well as their operations on Turkish soil; more than 100 members of the security forces have lost their lives since July, and President Erdogan is once again presenting himself as the only force that can keep the country from splintering. Last month, another terrorist attack, carried out by two suicide bombers affiliated with ISIS, hit a pacifist rally in Ankara, killing more than 100 people – many of which were Kurds.

During his electoral rallies as well as in his TV interviews, President Erdogan has consistently tried to deflect criticism by arguing that the current chaos originates from the June 2015 election results, and more specifically from the electorate’s failure to give him a stronger mandate. What is more important, however, is that Erdogan’s nationalist appeal seems to have already reclaimed some votes: the most recent available polls put the AKP at about 43.3% of votes (an increase of almost 3% from June), which might be just enough for his party to have a parliamentary majority. Appealing to Turkey’s nationalist sentiments seems to be just about the only option Erdogan has available in order to obtain a working parliamentary majority, and securitising the upcoming elections seems to be the safest bet in order to truly appeal to its nationalist voters – the swing-voters who the AKP can legitimately hope to bring in line with their party.

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