BACKGROUND: When the AKP first took office in November 2002, Erdoğan insisted that he had abandoned the firebrand Islamism of his youth. He characterized the AKP as a conservative rather than a religious party and pledged his commitment both to democratic pluralism and to Turkey’s longstanding ambition of EU accession. In both of his victory speeches after the AKP won successive general elections in 2007 and 2011, Erdoğan promised that his government would serve the entire electorate, including those who had voted for the opposition parties.
In practice, as his confidence grew, Erdoğan not only became more autocratic and more authoritarian but also increasingly sought to reshape Turkish society in line with his own Sunni Islamic beliefs and values. In February 2012, he bluntly declared that one of the principal goals of his government was to “raise a pious generation” of young people. Such statements inevitably raised questions about the sincerity of Erdoğan’s reassurances of a decade earlier and added distrust to the disdain with which he was regarded by his political opponents. But, in his public pronouncements at least, Erdoğan continued to stress the importance of social cohesion. The excoriating rhetoric that had become his trademark still tended to be directed at individuals rather than entire sections of society.
The situation began to change through late 2012 and into 2013, particularly after Turkey was swept by what became known as the Gezi Park Protests that started at the end of May 2013. The protestors held a diverse range of opinions and worldviews. The majority were very young. Many had previously been apolitical. What united them was not a specific ideology or group identity but opposition to Erdoğan, particularly his increasingly intrusive attempts to dictate how they lived their lives.
It had long been an open secret that Erdoğan planned to run for the presidency when the incumbent Abdullah Gül completed his term in office in August 2014. In the 2011 general election the AKP had won 49.8 per cent of the popular vote. Initially, Erdoğan had hoped to increase this to a clear majority of at least 55 per cent in the presidential elections, which he could then use as justification for his plans to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with a presidential or semi-presidential one.
The Gezi Park protestors were always too diverse to coalesce into a political party. But the scale of the protests – in which nearly three million Turks are believed to have taken to the streets – resulted in Erdoğan changing his strategy, seeking to deepen rather than broaden his popular support base. He attempted to intimidate the Gezi Park protestors by organizing mass rallies of his own supporters, at which he portrayed the protests as being orchestrated by foreign powers – with the clear implication that the demonstrators were thus traitors to their own country. Not surprisingly, groups of AKP vigilantes subsequently appeared on the streets and started attacking the Gezi Park protestors.
Erdoğan adopted the same strategy after his alliance with the Gülen Movement, which had been under growing strain for the previous two years, finally collapsed in December 2013. When members of the Gülen Movement began to post allegedly incriminating audio recordings of leading AKP members on the internet, Erdoğan vowed not only to eradicate what he described as a “parallel state” but claimed that the movement’s campaign was being orchestrated by the United States.
The same xenophobic paranoia dominated the AKP’s campaign propaganda in the run-up to the March 30, 2014 local elections. Posters appeared across the country showing photographs of Erdoğan together with the slogan “Sağlam İrade” or “Strong Will”. One of the AKP’s campaign videos showed Turks racing to sacrifice their lives to thwart a foreign plot to lower a giant Turkish flag. In his victory speech on March 30, 2014, Erdoğan eschewed any attempt at conciliation and repeatedly referred to the AKP’s vote as representing the “national will”, with the clear implication that those who had voted for opposition parties had cooperated with the foreign powers that he claimed were conspiring against Turkey.
Erdoğan’s strategy of pitting one section of society against another has been accompanied by a growing intolerance of the expression of opposing views. On May 10, 2014, as the rest of the AKP gathered in Afyon, Erdoğan attended a ceremony to mark the 146th anniversary of the Council of State. Metin Feyzioğlu, the chair of Turkish Union of Bar Associations and an outspoken critic of the AKP, used the occasion to deliver a highly politicized speech. Extraordinarily, Erdoğan started heckling him, even rising to his feet to accuse Feyzioğlu of “rudeness” and telling untruths before storming out of the building.
Even more disturbing has been the vehemence of the language which Erdoğan now uses to describe his domestic enemies. On May 11, 2014, in his closing speech at the AKP retreat in Afyon, Erdoğan promised to eradicate the Gülen Movement, declaring: “We shall sterilize this foul water that has contaminated the milk, whether by boiling or separating it out molecule by molecule.”
IMPLICATIONS: On May 1, 2014, the U.S-based Freedom House released its annual press freedom report and downgraded Turkey from “Partly Free” to “Not Free”. The reclassification was based on events in 2013 but was made public after Erdoğan had received widespread international criticism by banning first Twitter and then YouTube in the run-up to the March 30, 2014 local elections. The former was later lifted, the latter remains in place. However, in practice, in recent months there has arguably been greater freedom of expression in Turkey than for several years. This is not because Erdoğan has become more tolerant of criticism – far from it – but because journalists have become more willing to defy him.
Until its alliance with Erdoğan began to fray, the Gülen Movement had played a critical role in suppressing media freedom in Turkey. Erdoğan and his advisors applied pressure through libel suits and discreet telephone calls to editors and media owners to force them to dismiss journalists critical of the AKP. But it was a cabal of Gülen sympathizers in the police and judiciary who were responsible for most of the imprisonments of journalists, such as in the notorious Ergenekon and OdaTV investigations. It was the combination of pressure from Erdoğan and the Gülen Movement that created a climate of fear that led to widespread self-censorship.
The first sign of change came in summer 2013 amid widespread anger at the brutality of the police attempts to suppress the Gezi Park Protests. The process was accelerated by the collapse of the Erdoğan-Gülen alliance in late 2013. But it reached critical mass in March 2014 when, during an election rally, Erdoğan led AKP supporters in booing the mother of 15 year-old Berkin Elvan, who had died following nine months in a coma after being hit on the head by a police tear gas canister during the Gezi Park Protests. Even previously intimidated journalists forgot their fears and angrily denounced Erdoğan’s callousness.
The change was vividly demonstrated in the media reaction to the Soma mining disaster on May 13, 2013, in which hundreds of miners lost their lives. Dozens of journalists bluntly accused the AKP of responsibility on the grounds that on April 29, 2014, it had blocked a parliamentary investigation into growing safety concerns at the mine. Such outspokenness would have been unthinkable one year earlier.
The first round of the presidential election will be held on August 10, 2014. If no candidate secures over 50 per cent of the vote, there will be a run-off on August 24, 2014, between the two candidates who secured the highest shares of the vote in the first round.
According to the official results, in the local elections of March 30, 2014, the AKP won 43.13 percent of the total vote in the municipal elections, rising to 45.54 per cent in metropolitan areas. If either of these results was replicated in the presidential election, Erdoğan would be well short of securing a victory in the first round, although he would be one of the two candidates in the run-off on August 24, 2014.
Whether or not Erdoğan would win the run-off is currently unclear, not least because there is still no indication of who the other candidate could be. It is possible that Erdoğan could pick up some votes from Turkey’s Kurds. Although he is neither liked nor trusted by Kurdish nationalists, Erdoğan remains the only leader of a mainstream political party that has actively engaged them in discussions about addressing Kurdish grievances. But, even with Kurdish nationalist votes, Erdoğan would be – at best – be likely to win by only a relatively narrow margin.
CONCLUSIONS: It is probably misleading to describe Erdoğan as hoping to introduce a presidential or semi-presidential system. What he ultimately wants is a continuation of the process of deinstitutionalization of decision-making that he has overseen as prime minister and the introduction of an “Erdoğan system”, in which virtually all political power is concentrated in his own hands without any effective checks and balances.
Such a sui generis autocratic system would be unhealthy in any circumstances, not least because of the problem of succession. It is especially perilous in a society as deeply divided as Turkey, particularly if is headed by someone committed to the policies of exclusion and confrontation rather than inclusion and conciliation. Indeed, Erdoğan’s socially divisive policies now appear to have locked him on a course where he needs to sustain tensions. If he relaxes his confrontational rhetoric then he risks a decline in the strength of his core support. But such is the distrust and often visceral hatred with which he is now regarded by those opposed to him that they are unlikely ever to rally behind him.
Nor does the solution simply lie in Erdoğan being defeated in the run-off for president. The numbers of those who are devoted to him and those who despise him are too large – and the depth of their feelings too strong – for either to be ignored. If Erdoğan is a candidate in the run-off for president, regardless of who wins, the result is likely to be a divided country. The hope is that a presidential candidate will appear who can reach out to both sides and heal the dangerous divisions in Turkish society. But time is running out and there is still no indication that such a candidate will emerge.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.