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Turkey’s Erdogan: The method behind his madness

Everything the Turkish President has done since the June elections is an effort to alter the newly imposed domestic constraints on his power

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Published: Updated:

As the years have passed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has increasingly worried the West. As the era of easy catch-up growth and stable government (all of which very pleasantly surprised observers) has come to an end, America has come to fret about Erdogan’s erratic, authoritarian tactics, as well as his country’s increasingly perilous economic plight. While none of this seemed to dent his AKP party’s unprecedented popularity, Erdogan had morphed – in Washington’s eyes – from being part of the solution in the Middle East to being part of the problem.

But what has happened in 2015 has been a bridge too far, even for the Turkish president’s dwindling band of admirers. Stung by his party’s shocking failure (after over a decade of utter dominance) to win June’s parliamentary elections outright, Erdogan responded by wandering even further off the reservation. Rather than meekly accepting the Turkish voters’ verdict and curtailing his dreams for creating a strong Turkish executive presidency (with himself at the helm), Erdogan doubled down, embarking on a series of highly risky domestic and foreign policy moves that have further destabilised a region already on fire.

Everything Erdogan has done since the June elections is an effort to alter the newly imposed domestic constraints on his power.

Dr. John C. Hulsman

In the course of a few short months, he vilified the Kurdish parliamentary opposition, accusing them of being traitors. Then he tore up one of his greatest accomplishments, the fragile ceasefire with the Kurdish armed insurgents, the PKK. Finally, he blocked any hopes of a government being formed in the wake of the inconclusive elections. How, western experts wail, can he be so reckless?

The simple answer, which any realist understands, is that Erdogan wants to survive, both politically and personally. Everything he has done since the June elections is an effort to alter the newly imposed domestic constraints on his power. As ever, this real-world imperative conditions everything else, including foreign policy. The western punditocracy may bewail his lack of statesmanship, but it is unlikely that the Turkish President cares very much. From the perspective of the Turkish Sultan, doubling down on his domestic political agenda makes eminent sense.

The Political Problem

After 13 years in power, the AKP lost its absolute majority in parliament. The Turkish President had gambled on winning a two-third’s majority, which he constitutionally needs to amend the document and create a new presidential system, a course of events that would cement Erdogan’s personal dominance for years to come.

But instead, the HDP (People’s Democratic Party), a left-leaning group with strong Kurdish links, thwarted his grand strategy when it surprisingly won 13% of the overall vote, clearing the high 10% threshold and entering parliament. The AKP, far from winning the desired, massive two-thirds majority, only won a mere plurality of the vote. It would seem that after all, the Turkish electoral colossus has been decisively stopped.

But such a naïve view is to misunderstand the tenacious nature of both the man, as well as Turkish political culture. Erdogan knew that if he meekly accepted the result, his dream of changing the very nature of Turkish politics itself, by the installation of a strong presidential system with himself at the helm, would be definitively over. Worse still, the surprising June result could well mark the high-water mark of AKP power as a whole.

The end game of such a prospect was obvious to Erdogan; either he doubled down, trying with all his might to overturn the result, or his days in power (and even his days of freedom given the corruption allegations lodged against his family) would be numbered. Instead of going gentle into that good night, the Turkish President hatched an audacious scheme designed to nullify a parliamentary result he simply could not live with.

Step one: see that no government is formed that reflects the June result

While the formal powers of the sitting president in the present Turkish system are quite limited, in terms of setting the rules for forming a new government the executive still sets the scene. Erdogan took full advantage of his good fortune, effectively derailing any efforts that would lead to the formation of a new government in the wake of the June parliamentary elections. This he simply had to do, as if a new coalition government were formed which reflected the June results, Erdogan’s dream of creating a strong presidency would be banished forever.

Step two: bolster Turkey’s foreign policy against external Kurdish threats

Erdogan did not have long to wait for an opportunity to emerge allowing him to climb out of the box the Turkish electorate have so recently placed him in. On July 20, 2015, a devastating suicide bombing – highly likely at the instigation of ISIS – took place at a Kurdish youth rally in Suruc, on the Turkish-Syrian border. Seizing his chance, Erdogan used the atrocity to finally commit to acting against ISIS, as the American-led coalition had been pleading with him to do for the past year.

But as ever in the Middle East, Erdogan had a big ‘ask’ in return for his strategic support. Erdogan pressured the Obama administration to agree to help establish a 65-mile ISIS-free zone along a western sector of the Turkish-Syrian border, running north from Aleppo to the Euphrates. The ostensible aim of pushing ISIS out of the area is to sever the access route to Turkey through which it funnels its recruits and supplies.

But this pledge amounts to so much less than meets the eye. As the Syrian war has ground on, the President has increasingly worried about preventing the Syrian Kurds from making further territorial gains. The ISIS-free zone in Syria is – from the point of view of Erdogan – designed to be a Kurdish-free zone. The real strategic goal is preventing the Kurds from taking and controlling the whole of the Syrian border cohesively. Erdogan (perhaps rightly) fears this now increasingly cohesive Kurdish enclave on the Syrian border will become de facto a state, a calamity from Turkey’s point of view.

Step three: whip up anti-Kurdish feeling in Turkey by restarting the war with the PKK

But while Erdogan claims to be battling ISIS, in reality he is primarily fighting Turkey’s old foe the PKK, Turkey’s home-grown Kurdish separatist guerrilla group. The prior Turkish-Kurdish war lasted for decades and left around 40,000 people dead. Erdogan has shown little compunction in ending the tenuous peace process with the Turkish Kurds clustered around the PKK, which up until now has been one his greatest policy achievements.

The Turkish President is now playing the anti-Kurdish card for all it is worth. He has disowned a road map to peace negotiations originally agreed to by the PKK and his own AKP, saying talks ‘aren’t possible’. Increasing pressure on the HDP, he vows to strip away the parliamentary immunity of their MPs, allowing an investigation of their loyalty.

And here we come to the heart of the matter. Erdogan is purposely whipping up anti-Kurdish fervour, as it is the only way he can still achieve his overall goal of decisively winning new parliamentary elections (scheduled for November 1st), allowing for greatly expanding presidential powers and preserving his regime. As so often is the case, domestic politics is a basic force driving foreign policy strategies.

Specifically, Erdogan wants to both smear the HDP as a party of traitors to the Turkish state, while reminding his voters that only one-party government headed by the AKP (and not the coalition outcome they just voted for) can manage the many dangers – both within and without – Turkey. In addition, due to his newfound bellicose stand against the Kurds, Erdogan is hankering to poach some of the far right’s voters. Specifically, Erdogan’s primary political goal is to push the HDP below the 10% threshold required to secure seats in the Turkish parliament, thus cementing his decisive victory. One must accept that, cynical and destructive as it is, the Turkish Sultan has devised a brilliant political plan.

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Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has also given 1490 interviews, written over 410 articles, prepared over 1270 briefings, and delivered more than 460 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

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