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Afterword to parliamentary elections in Turkey: external reasons of Erdogan’s failure

Erdogan accompanied by his spouse at a rally in Istanbul. Photo: Reuters

The ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) was approaching the June 7 parliamentary elections planning to extend his 12-year grip on power. This is why disappointment was so evident on faces of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and other high-ranking representatives of the ruling elite.

Erdogan’s party has been facing a growing internal pushback since summer of 2013. The Turkish government fell under an unprecedented pressure after the Gezi Park incidents in Istanbul two years ago. Cutting down of trees and construction of a new shopping mall in the Taksim Gezi Park sparked nation-wide protests in Istanbul. Thousands took the streets then, but the authorities managed to localize the protests inside big cities. Meantime, there were more reasons behind those environmental protests. After the Turkish Army Top Command resigned and the retired officers faced charges, the social and political situation in the country has become quite unstable.  Some forces emerged, and for them Erdogan's name was associated with total control over the media, simulation of democratic reforms, and, which is most important, with the creeping Islamization of Turkey, the final goals of which have caused serious discrepancies. 

In December 2013, Erdogan, who occupied the prime minister’s post then, faced opposition’s criticism. After the 2014 presidential election, many thought the Turkish leader not only overcame a series of internal hardships, but also made political hay out of it.  In August 2014, he was elected in the first round sweeping 52% of votes.  His main rival Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the single candidate of the two major opposition forces in the parliament, Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP),  received 38% of votes. The third was Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), with 9.8% of votes.

In summer 2014, Erdogan and his team tried their best to ensure a similar political landscape after the parliamentary elections of 2015.  Less than a year ago, Erdogan swept over half of the votes. His AKP Party had all the chances to reach that level and even gain some two or three additional percents of votes.  This boosted the early mood for victory in the Party yet several weeks before June 7.  The ruling party did not trust in the pre-election public opinion polls that predicted the AKP 45% of votes at best.  In fact, Erdogan’s Party received less than 41% and lost the opportunity to extend its grip on power.

Everyone recognized that Erdogan suffered defeat, while his rival, HDP leader, Demirtas won the elections and become a kind of political “discovery.”  The results of the parliamentary elections put a halt to Erdogan’s plans for a constitutional reform to create a strong presidency. The candidate No.1 on the pro-Kurdish Party election list has entered big politics encroaching on AKP in the new parliament.  The most intriguing thing about the parliamentary elections 2015 in Turkey was whether HDP would overcome the 10% threshold to get at least 50 seats in the parliament of the new convocation.  Meanwhile, the party received over 13% and 80 seats in the parliament much to regret of Erdogan and his party.

Now that a little time has passed after the elections, there is no open analysis about what was happening behind the scenes. Many experts so far refrain from assessments waiting for the idea of the coalition government to become true or a “successful failure.” There are two options for Turkey now: it will have either a fragile coalition government in a vague political configuration or new elections triggered by discrepancies of the four parties over it.  At this stage of rather complex political reality for Turkey, it is important to reveal the backstage of the parliamentary elections 2015. 

Erdogan’s defeat and Demirtas’s victory was not just the outcome of a strong domestic political fight. External forces that prefer staying in the backstage of the Turkish policy are behind all that. For these forces, Erdogan stepped into a stage “before the very end of” his career in summer of 2013. He became inexcusably authoritarian inside Turkey  and intolerably emotional when dealing with foreign partners. In addition, he saw himself as an absolutely self-reliant politician of a fully independent power in Asia Minor. In other words, Erdogan’s voluntarism ran too high.

Ankara’s western NATO partners, its ‘good-neighbors’ in the Middle East – some Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf – have perceived the Turkish leader’s “Neo-Ottomanism” ambitions quite differently. The most objective explanation is that Erdogan exhausted his credit of confidence in the United States yet in 2003. Although there was other White House Administration then, it appears that the Turkish leadership’s refusal to let the U.S. troops to Iraq via their territory in March 2003 has scarred the U.S.-Turkey relations.  Meanwhile, Washington pinned big hopes with AKP that came to power in 2002.  U.S. showed understanding to the doctrines of “moderate Islam,” “conservative democracy” of Erdogan’s Party. In fact, at a certain moment, once close ally Erdogan turned into a problematic partner and, in some 10 years, after March 2003, he found himself in the camp of the outspoken critics of U.S. actions in the Middle East and outside it. The While House that could hardly tolerate Erdogan’s direct criticism at Barack Obama finally ran out of patience when the “imperious Ottoman” showed a quest for the Eurasian alternative  and began building plans for the Turkish Stream pipeline and buying  long-range air defense systems from China.

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Meantime, the United States has an effective instrument to bring Erdogan to heel: Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish preacher, former imam, the leader of Hizmet movement in exile in the United States, residing in Pennsylvania. Both Turkey and U.S. regularly remember him.  Turkey remembers Gülen when fighting local dissidents and blaming him for creating a “deep” and “parallel” state in Turkey. Not so long ago, Erdogan and Gülen were closest allies like Turkey and U.S. However, the incumbent president’s volcanic temper and aspiration for accumulation of power made them enemies. Although Turkey and U.S. are not enemies yet, they could come closer to that level if Erdogan’s party swept over half of the votes like he did in August 2014.

United States could not let Erdogan turn into “an Ottoman sultan.” It would make the Turkish government and its leader at least even more unpredictable in the boiling Greater Middle East. When it was time to show Erdogan his place, U.S., Israel, Gülen with his Hizmet and supporters inside Turkey, and even Saudi Arabia (to some extent) exerted efforts to influence the parliamentary elections in Turkey. Demirtas enjoyed the support of the world media.  He was introduced as “Turkish Obama” able to bring new ideas to the social and political field of the country.  In its parliamentary campaign, HDP chose “leftist” slogans.  Along with promises to increase the minimal wages and make the university education more accessible, the party made quite unusual steps for the Turkish public. For instance, the election list of HDP included LGBT representatives who accounted for 10% of the total candidates on the list.  Although the western political strategists did not openly sponsor the HDP and its leader at all stages of the election campaign, there are many indirect factors pointing at their support. Perhaps, this is why Erdogan lambasted The New York Times, CNN, and BBC a few days before June 7 elections.  

It appears that Erdogan forgot about the system problems of his country that are still settled through external borrowings. However, after the elections, they reminded him about it.  Turkey’s economic growth of the last years would be impossible but for the access to the world financial and credit institutions.  Turkey has no sufficient funds to settle such large-scale economic tasks as, for instance, modernization of the heavy industry and manufacture of competitive IT-products. The second most powerful army in NATO (exclusive of the nuclear and strategic weapons) still extremely depends on import of weapons.  Turkey’s efforts to establish its own military industrial sector has also faced a problem with reliable source of financing.

Turkey has increased the criticism of the partners it depends economically. It could not remain unpunished. Even such at first sight incomparable factors as the influence of Israel and Saudi Arabia have converged against Erdogan.   His anti-Semitic rhetoric of the last years could not but play against him eventually.  Top financial organizations and transnational corporations to put it mildly do not welcome such rhetoric. When Erdogan tried to refuse from the international capital to fight what he called the “Jewish plot” and shifted to “green money” (loans from Islamic funds) of Saudi Arabia, he faced a frosty reception. Saudi Arabia was ready to lend money to Turkey for specific foreign political dividends only, i.e. opposing Turkey to Iran. Erdogan would be happy to borrow money from Saudi Arabia, but not at the expense of the relations with Iran. It would be an extremely unreasonable step.

This is what happened on the Turkish foreign exchange and stock market on the next day after the elections. On Monday, June 8, the national currency depreciated by 4% as against US dollar, share index lost 5%. This happens in the fragile financial system of Turkey every time when the country experiences any political changes.

The coming few days are likely to determine the vector of political developments for Turkey.  External forces have demonstrated their power to influence the domestic processes in Turkey from behind the scenes. It turned out that the 12-year grip on power and “cleaning” of the political field did not help Erdogan neutralize the external factor of influence. Army “went into barracks”, civil activists took the streets, and there is favorable ground for public unrest. And foreign actors seek to take advantage of it.

Erdogan has nothing to use against the forces that have united against him. It is not for nothing that the forces acting behind the scenes relied on the Kurdish factor  - a vulnerable problem for any government of Turkey. In 2002, Erdogan imitated a peace process to settle that old problem of Turkey.  Eventually, he was defeated by “the Kurdish Obama.” It was a severe blow to the Turkish leader’s pride. In addition, a new “grey zone” is emerging in the south of Turkey, as Syrians flee to the southern provinces of the country.  Meantime, a new hotbed of Kurdish nationalism emerges in the north of Syria.

In summer of 2013, during large-scale civil protests in Istanbul and other cities (also in December), when a big corruption scandal broke out in the country, the external forces showed “a yellow card” to Erdogan. On June 7, they did it again. When will they show “a red card” and sent Erdogan off? Will they do it one day? These are sixty-four-thousand-dollar questions.  One thing is for sure: Erdogan has found himself in the epicenter of high political danger where the interests of many of his evident and hidden foes coincide.

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