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Turkey’s ‘Do or Die Moment’: Snap Elections Could Determine Future of the Republic

Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (or the Prez) and his Justice and Development Party (or AKP) are now heading into the most important elections in recent Turkish history. Elections that will decide the long term future direction and orientation of the Republic of Turkey.

Turkey’s long-serving leader Tayyip Erdoğan has so far handsomely succeeded in irrevocably changing the look and feel of the Turkish Republic – from being an ostensibly secular nation state beholden to the example and legacy of the founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) to a land of believers, adhering to the rules and regulations laid down by the Prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632) loudly proclaiming to be Muslims. Following his victory in the 2017 constitutional referendum envisaging the country’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential republic, national and presidential elections to be held in 2019 were then supposed to turn this political potentiality into a living actuality thereby also structurally and bureaucraticallly solidifying the momentous changes already intoduced. But then, somewhat abrupt and unexpectedly, Erdoğan and his sole political ally, the rather pointless ‘fascist’ (some would say, nationalist or racist) politician that is Devlet Bahçeli, jointly decided to call for early elections in order to receive a popular mandate for continuing to shepherd the new “Nation” that was supposedly born on 15 July 2016 into heretofore uncharted territories.

The ruling AKP (or Justice and Development Party) and the previously opposition MHP (or Nationalist Movement Party) are now united in a so-called ‘People’s Alliance’ (or, Cumhur İttifakı, in Turkish), exemplifying what could be termed the ‘Turkish-Islamic Synthesis’ of the 21st century. Then, speaking from his homestead at the presidential or People’s Palace (Beştepe Millet Sarayı, on 18 April 2018), Tayyip Erdoğan told the world that “[w]e have decided that elections should be held on 24 June 2018. Our preference has been to try to hold out till the date in November 2019. However, whether it be the cross-border operation in Syria, or the historic developments in Iraq and Syria have made it so that it is paramount for Turkey to overcome uncertainty.”

In the aftermath of the decision to hold snap elections, many critical voices at home as well as abroad have popped up saying that Erdoğan is now beginning to feel the heat, and rather than wait for another year and the Turkish economy to implode these voices assert that he must be afraid and anxious to lose his hold on power. For instance, the leader of the newly-formed opposition İYİ Parti (or Good Party), Meral Akşener, previously a cohort of Bahçeli’s MHP, told the press recently that the “dear [or rather, esteemed] Erdoğan is afraid of me . . . You will see, I will make it into the second round [of the presidential electoral contest, provisionally scheduled for July, 7].” While, the imprisoned Kurdish leader of the HDP (or Peoples’ Democratic Party) Selahattin Demirtaş, who managed to address his fellow-Kurds and other followers with a 10-minute speech aired on the state broadcaster TRT, all but echoed Mrs Akşener’s sentiments. Sitting in ‘a prison cell because the authorities would not release him to the studio,’ Demirtaş said that “[t]he only reason I am here is because the AKP is afraid of me.” The leader of the main opposition CHP (or Republican People’s Party), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, for his part, merely declared that “[w]e are ready for the elections,” on the day of the announcement, adding slyly that “[t]he announcement he’s made shows that Erdoğan is going to lose.” And in the next instance (4 May 2018), he delegated the role of presidential candidate to the figure of Muharrem İnce, the CHP’s Yalova deputy – a fact that has been met with much derision on the part of Erdoğan and his AKP henchmen.

Free and Fair Elections in the New Turkey

The majority of Turkey’s public-at-large as well as the main politcal opposition parties seem to pretend that the country still has a functioning democracy and that the outcome of the June, 24 elections is as yet undecided. In his ten-minute speech, the HDP’s Demirtaş cognizantly warned his followers that “[w]hat we are going through nowadays is only the trailer of the one-man regime. The actual scary part is yet to begin,” calling the upcoming electoral contest a “one-time opportunity” to stop the country as a whole from entering a “dark tunnel with no end in sight.” But, I am sure, sitting in his prison cell, the private individual that is Selahattin Demirtaş realises full well that all is lost. The current two-month period (18 April-24 June) offers all participants in Turkey’s supposed participatory politcal process the opportunity to go through the motions and pretend that democracy as a way of deciding the fate of the country is a viable doctrine that can usher in change and hope. In reality, the AKP base is large and fully convinced of the fac that the current systemic change is on the right track and that the return of Islam to Turkish public life was long overdue. As such, at present Tayyip Erdoğan already is the Prez (though many critics like to call him “Sultan”), ruling the land by means of executive orders (or, KHK in acronymized Turkish) and imposing his will upon the thoughts and deed of each and every individual Turk.

Still, the opposition parties feel energized at present and try hard to convince themselves and the world-at-large that Turkey’s post-Kemalist era is about to suffer an abrupt end at the ballot box. In fact, adding insult to injury, a grand total of six individuals is now running as presidential candidates – from Erdoğan, Akşener, İnce and Demirtaş to the Saadet Partisi (or Felicity Party)’s Temel Karamollaoğlu and the Vatan Partisi (or Nation Party)’s Doğu Perinçek. The CHP and the İYİ Parti have also formed a compact, called Nation Alliance (or, Millet İttifakı, in Turkish). As such, having five separate candidates oppose the figure of Tayyip Erdoğan cannot but lead to a veritable splintering of the opposition vote, as critics of the ruling AKP will arguably cast their ballots in accordance with their political preference, believing that democracy in Turkey alive and well. The field seems particularly dominated by rightwing figures, leaving the Kurdish HDP as the sole representative of a left-leaning option, albeit that İnce also seems to flirt with leftist positions now and again. Voters in favour of the status  quo do not suffer such painful choices, but will support the Prez and his AKP henchmen en masse, thereby conceivably constituting a sizable block of the overall vote – and I would to argue, very likely to make the possibility of a second round a non-starter.

But even if the impossible were to happen, and the oppposition appear to come out on top on 24 June, the current AKP-led government already took care that frankly fraudulent actions would still ensure Tayyip Erdoğan’s position as the once and future Prez of the New Turkey. At the end of last February, Yavuz Baydar‘s Ahval reported that “Turkey will allow unstamped ballot slips to be counted as valid in future elections, reigniting concern about electoral fraud.” A legal measure that seems like an open invitation to engage in a practice commonly known as ‘ballot stuffing’ in order ‘to fill a ballot box with illegal votes or with more votes than the number of actual voters.’ The international news agency Reuters reported that Filiz Kerestecioğlu, a HDP MP from İstanbul’s second electoral district, said in response that this legal measure all but removes the “open, fair, transparent and democratic tenets of elections.” Reuters‘ Ali Küçükgöçmen adds that the AKP-introduced measure would also allow “security force members . . . into polling stations when invited by a voter;” further elucidating that the “bill also grants the YSK [or] High Electoral Board the authority to merge electoral districts and move ballot boxes to other districts.” These measures put together would clearly guarantee that free and fair elections, as understood by the Prez and his AKP henchmen, would spell utter and sheer defeat for Akşener and İnce’s Nation Alliance.

Elections During Wartime

Now that the two-month electioneering period is drawing to a close, violence has erupted at home as well as abroad. The Turkey-based Canadian journalist Kristina Jovanovski reports that “[a]t least 21 opposition supporters were injured in attacks from April 30 through June 5, according to a report by the Human Rights Association, a Turkish NGO.” And as reported by the independent BIA News Desk, on 14 June, a “dispute began when the AKP Urfa MP İbrahim Halil Yıldız and those accompanying him started to visit the shops in the district of Suruç as part of their election campaign. After the shop owner Esvet Şenyaşar ordered the group out of his shop, a quarrel erupted between the two sides. With the escalation of the quarrel, the guards of the AKP MP Yıldız shot Adil Şenyaşar, the son of Esvet Şenyaşar, in his leg. After hearing that his brother had been shot, Fadıl Şenyaşar came to the shop with a weapon and opened fire on the relatives and guards of Yıldız. In the armed conflict that erupted, the AKP MP Yıldız’s brother Mehmet Şah Yıldız and the sons of Esvet Şenyaşar, Celal Şenyaşar and Fadıl Şenyaşar, were wounded.” Subsequently, the “wounded were taken to the hospital . . . Mehmet Şah Yıldız lost his life at the hospital which he was referred to. Adil Şenyaşar and Celal Şenyaşar were [also] killed inside the Suruç Public Hospital where they were taken for treatment. The father Esvet Şenyaşar was also attacked at the entrance to the hospital and lost his life.” At the same time, the AKP-led government continues its own war plans abroad: following the end of Operation Olive Branch, which saw Turkey take hold of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian city of Afrin, the city of Manbij has become the focus of the Prez and his henchmen. The AKP Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu secured a United States-Turkey agreement, which would arguably see the withdrawal of the Kurdish YPG (or People’s Protection Units), a group Turkey regards as the Syrian arm of the PKK (or Kurdistan Workers’ Party). And according to the hapless PM Binali Yıldırım, Turkish troops had commenced active duty in Manbij on Monday, 18 June 2018. On the previous day, the journalist Namık Durakan wrote in the daily Milliyet that Turkey’s Armed Forces (or TSK, in  acronymized Turkish) had instensified air and artillery strikes against PKK targets in north-eastern Iraq. Actions, Durakan claims,  meant to “pave the way for the occupation of the Qandil mountains” in the KRG (or the Kurdish region of northern Iraq). These strikes against Kurdish terrorists abroad coincide with other military operations against PKK terrorists at home, which saw the ‘neutralisation’ (or killing) of 22 individuals during the past week. In other words, the government has now clearly strengthened its stance against the PKK and other Kurds, possibly as a means of dissuading voters from flocking around Meral Akşener, a presidential rival with clear nationalist or anti-Kurdish credentials.

All one can do now is wait for Sunday . . . Will the elections confirm the writing on the wall or will a real upset usher in the end of Turkey’s post-Kemalist era?  Will the status quo continue or will the ghost of Atatürk rise up once more? What will the outcome be of the most important elections in recent Turkish history?!?

As far as common sense goes, odds are that the Prez will once more prevail and that the persistence of continuity will once again shatter any hope for meaningful change . . . and that Turkey’s destiny won’t stray from its current post-Kemalist path.

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21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar who was living in Istanbul for some time, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the book “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In the period 2010-11, he wrote op-eds for Today’s Zaman and in the further course of 2011 he also published a number of pieces in Hürriyet Daily News. In 2013, he was the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. He is on Twitter at @theerimtanangle

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