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How The New Erdoğan Killed The Old One: When Turkey Went To The Polls To Vote

30 June 2015

By Amir Taheri

When Turkey went to the polls to vote in last Sunday's general elections, almost all commentators expected a setback for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP). What they could not agree upon was the extent and the intensity of the expected setback.

In the event, the results amounted to a bigger setback for Erdoğan than even the most ardent pessimists had forecast. Over the past 13 years, the AKP has contested four general and five local elections, each time increasing its share of the vote. The average vote secured by the AKP in these elections comes to around 45 percent. This time, however, AKP's share of the vote fell to 41 percent in an election with a high turnout of 86 percent. In other words, the 13-year long trend that saw AKP increase its share of the vote with each successive election has now been dramatically reversed.

So, what do the results tell us?

The first message, and this is an important one, is that the kind of politics that AKP offers still enjoys a bedrock support base but is rejected by two-thirds of the Turkish electorate. This means that while there is no doubt that the AKP can no longer set the agenda in Ankara; it would be premature to write it off as the single largest political force in Turkey. The majority of the millions who abandoned the AKP did so because they rejected Erdoğan personally, not because they had grown disenchanted with the party's posture as a pro-business and moderate Islamist movement. Thus, some Western headlines shrieking that "Turkey Rejects Islam" may be off the mark.

Next, it is clear that the massive anti-AKP vote was, in the first instance, a vote against Erdoğan's slide down the slippery slope of hubris. I don't share the view of some Turks who believe that Erdoğan has simply become unhinged. But there is no doubt that his weird behavior over the past few years indicates a gradual loss of contact with reality. His last minute use of anti-American, anti-European Union and anti-Israeli themes looked like nothing more than a drowning man reaching for the shadow of a buoy.

Erdoğan's neo-Ottoman dreams of sultanhood or even caliphate-dom cannot be dismissed as mere quirks of character. The fact that many in his own camp now criticize his penchant for pomposity shows that the concern is more widely shared than he imagines. The old Erdoğan was perhaps the most genuinely popular politician in modern Turkish history. But he was killed by the new Erdoğan in a political version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Yet another message concerns the emergence of new ethnic and gender-based constituencies. Even a decade ago the prospect of an ethnic-based Kurdish party contesting the election, let alone winning almost 14 percent of the vote, would have been unimaginable. Last Sunday, however, the People's Democratic Party (HDP) won 82 seats in the 550 seat Grand National Assembly while proudly asserting its basic Kurdish identity. This is a major development when we recall the fact that a couple of decades ago one could end up in prison simply by talking of a Kurdish identity.

Equally important is the shattering of the glass roof that prevented Turkish women, more than half of the electorate, from securing a fairer share of representation in the Grand National Assembly. Sunday's polls could be regarded as historic because it gave women over 100 seats.

Yet another message is that the Turkish electorate is moving towards the center. The radical nationalist parties marketing pan-Turkist shibboleths did not manage to break out of their niche position. Thus, Turkish voters did not believe that opposing AKPs crypto-Islamist ideology requires a switch to ultra-nationalist fantasies based on "blood and soil" politics.

The election results confirmed the belief that many of us have held with regard to Middle Eastern politics, namely that a parliamentary system of government is more suitable to the realities of the region than a US-style presidential one. Over the past century and in almost every case in the Middle East, a presidential system has produced nothing but dictatorship. Erdoğan's attempt at replacing the Turkish parliamentary system with a presidential one must be rated as a key reason for his defeat.

Finally, the election is yet another demonstration of the Turkish democracy's capacity for self-correction through free and fair elections. The old claim that only the army could stop the country's deviation from the right path and/or drift towards extremism has been fully exposed as a sham. When the Turkish way of life is in danger, as it was with Erdoğan's neo-Ottoman recipe, the cure is not a military coup but a general election.

While it is too early to speculate about the aftermath of the election it is clear that whatever shape the next government might assume, a number of changes are inevitable in Turkish domestic and foreign policies.

Domestically, Turkey needs a period of healing to undo the damage done by Erdoğan's divisive behavior and his thirst for extra-judicial revenge against opponents. The election produced an accurate picture of Turkish reality as a diverse society with multiple ethnic and religious communities and a rich spectrum of political diversity. The Turks have rejected the old Middle Eastern political myth that equates unity with uniformity.

The next government will also have to revisit the perennial Kurdish problem which, for the first time perhaps, could be tackled in the context of a pluralist and democratic Turkey.

On a different register, Turkey needs to review the grandiose projects Erdoğan has launched, ostensibly to raise the nation's global profile but, as his critics claim, partly to benefit the oligarchs backing the AKP. At a time that the economy is experiencing a slowdown, such projects make even less sense whole adding to Turkey's already gargantuan foreign debt.

In foreign policy, Turkey needs to repair its ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies and traditional partners in the Middle East especially the Arab states. One step in that direction would be the harmonization of policy over Syria and Iraq and the adoption of a more principled position regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions and Russia's muscle-flexing in its "near-neighborhood".

Last Sunday, people of Turkey did well. Now they need to do even better.

Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.  




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