We warn the Turks

Everyone’s heard of the small-town newspaper in the nineteenth century that headlined an editorial on the dangers of Russian aggression with “We warn the Czar”. The story may be apocryphal, but it expresses a deep truth about opinion journalism: there’s a constant temptation to give unsolicited advice to those who are never likely to become aware of it, and who would almost certainly ignore it if they did.

It’s a temptation I try to avoid, not always successfully. And today’s story really does make one want to reach out and knock some heads together, albeit on the other side of the world.

The background is June’s parliamentary election in Turkey, which deprived the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of its majority but failed to put anything stable in its place. Three mutually antagonistic opposition parties have 292 seats between them, as against the AKP’s 258.

Since then, discussions have been held to try and work out a majority coalition, with the AKP seeking a partner. This week, AKP prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu reported that those talks had failed, and president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then announced that a fresh election would be held, expected on 1 November.

Among other things, the situation is a belated vindication of Malcolm Turnbull and his warnings of the danger of a directly-elected president. As president, Erdoğan – the founder and guiding spirit of the AKP – is nominally a neutral arbiter but in fact has been a highly partisan actor set on a greater role for himself. Since the election, the process has clearly been manipulated to ensure his preferred outcome of a new poll that might restore his party’s majority.

With Davutoğlu having given up the attempt to construct a new government, constitutionally the invitation should then have gone to the second-largest party, the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP). Not surprisingly, a war of words has broken out between Erdoğan and CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu over the former’s decision to skip that step: Kılıçdaroğlu said that Erdoğan was “resuming terrorism so that he could impose a presidential system.”

Erdoğan replied that he had “no time to lose with those who do not know the address” of his extravagant new presidential palace. “The conditions to form a government are clear. Did you meet these conditions and came but the president refused to meet you? Did you shake your hands on an agreement but the president hit your hands?”

For all his disdain for constitutional process, the problem here is that Erdoğan is fundamentally right. Everyone knows that the opposition parties cannot reach a coalition agreement, since on what has become the most salient current issue in Turkish politics, namely war or peace with the Kurdish separatists of the south-east, the two smaller parties – the hard right MHP and the left-wing pro-Kurdish HDP – are on diametrically opposite sides.

So unless one of the three opposition parties was willing to get into bed with the AKP, it was never likely that a fresh election could be avoided. On the other hand, it’s hard to see another election changing the fundamental arithmetic of the situation.

Even the AKP’s own pollster shows little change from the June results: at most the AKP up a couple of points, not enough to give it a majority, unless either the MHP or HDP falls below the 10% threshold. But with 16.5% and 13.0% respectively, each of them has a substantial margin for error – even without taking into account the likely backlash against the AKP for forcing a new election.

Commentators have suggested that Erdoğan’s recent abandonment of the peace process and violent offensive against the separatists (although as usual there is disagreement about who broke the ceasefire first) is designed to bolster his national security credentials and scare voters away from the HDP. But the truth may be even more sinister: that his intention is to depress the HDP vote not by changing anyone’s mind but by creating conditions in the south-east that will make it impossible for many Kurds to exercise their suffrage.

If that tactic fails, the same parties will find themselves back in parliament in November with much the same numbers and therefore the same problem. And here’s where the exhortation comes in: to save Turkish democracy, it will be imperative in that situation that the opposition parties, despite their major ideological differences, find a way to come together.

It need not be a full-scale coalition, but the three – who between them represent about 55% of Turkish voters – need to reach an agreement on who will be in government and on a set of basic measures to take to rein in their over-ambitious president. Once that’s done they can go back to hating one another, but for now, if the voters again give them a majority, they need to use it.

Is anybody listening over there?


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