In Turkey, President Erdoğan Prevails

Formation of a new government a “strong plus” for Turkey’s relations with the United States, says Atlantic Council’s Francis J. Ricciardone

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) pulled off an unexpected victory in parliamentary elections on Nov. 1 that gives it enough seats to govern by itself.

The result marked a significant turnaround in the fortunes of the AKP, which just five months ago had failed to win a decisive majority in parliament for the first time since coming to power in 2002. Following fruitless efforts to form a ruling coalition, Erdoğan called for a second round of elections. Erdoğan’s gamble clearly paid off.

Francis J. Ricciardone, a former US Ambassador to Turkey who currently serves as Vice President and Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, discussed the significance of the AKP’s victory in an e-mail interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from the interview.

Q: How did the AKP manage to pull off an election victory five months after it failed to secure a majority in parliament?

Ricciardone: President Erdoğan is one of the most skillful and determined, not to say ruthless political leaders of the Turkish Republic since Ataturk.  One of those skills evidently is a deep and accurate instinct for his electorate.   

Q: To what extent does this victory boil down to the question of security and mark the success of the party’s efforts to tie its main opponent, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists?

Ricciardone: The PKK’s renewal of its violent campaign against the Republic evidently played a significant role in rallying a stronger plurality of the electorate against them.

That result is not at all surprising; rather what is remarkable is the depth of the PKK’s apparent miscalculation: Clearly, President Erdoğan knows his electorate far better than the PKK leadership knows the Kurdish and other citizens of Turkey.

What I judge is even more significant here is that the PKK lost its go-for-broke bet against the non-violent HDP, which has chosen to work within the Turkish political system – despite all the odds stacked against them.   

The PKK evidently sought to leave only its perennially failed 1970s-style Marxist-Leninist violent “revolutionary” strategy as the only option for Turkey’s Kurdish citizens’ dreams for full identity rights and dignity within the Republic.  With the PKK’s gambit having failed, there are now much better odds that the HDP and the AKP-based government can resume their political process toward a better Republic for all its citizens.

Q: Is Turkey moving toward authoritarianism as President Erdogan’s critics have suggested?

Ricciardone: The remarkable victory of President Erdoğan’s party will give him a strong personal and parliamentary hand in whatever agenda he wishes to pursue. He faces a rich menu of truly vital national interests on which to spend the political capital, which he has refreshed through the November 1 elections. These include, on the one hand, pressing his vision of a presidential political system;  or on the other, restoring a more inclusive political party of the center-right. Either course, but especially the latter, is entirely compatible with pressing a long list of internal economic and even political reforms, including a constitution aimed at protecting individual freedoms vs. the state, and greater decentralization of authority to the regions,  as the AKP was pushing as recently as 2011.   

For those Turks and friends of Turkey concerned about the course of Turkish democracy, the issue is not necessarily a presidential vs. parliamentary system.  Rather,  the key question is the degree to which President Erdoğan and his party will support a new constitution that includes serious and effective “checks and balances” on the authority of the different elements of the state – starting with the presidency.

Q: Do you expect the AKP’s victory to exacerbate the security situation in Turkey, particularly in the southeast?

Ricciardone: No. This might have been the case had the HDP’s positive bet on Turkish democracy failed, and had the PKK won its bet against the Republic.  With a legal, non-violent voice of Kurdish citizens now strongly represented in parliament – now stronger in parliament than the right-wing ethno-nationalist party most stridently opposed to the HDP – there are grounds to hope that the next AKP-led administration can find in the HDP a stronger partner for a peaceful resolution than evidently the PKK was able or willing to become.

Q: Turkish society has become deeply polarized. What steps should President Erdogan be taking to prevent a deepening of these divisions?

Ricciardone: It’s frankly preposterous for foreigners to presume to advise a foreign leader who has just won a resounding election victory on how to run his country. What is entirely fair is for foreigners, particularly Americans as the people of Turkey’s most powerful and likely most sympathetic allied state, to speak out for what we believe to be our shared interests and values.  

As to the stress and distastefulness to us of the “polarization” of Turkish politics – well,  we have quite polarized politics ourselves, as do many other democracies.  What matters is to turn partisan politics to national advantage. We Americans find that strong checks and balances are the way to accomplish that – provided those checks and balances don’t wind up paralyzing our Republic’s ability to take timely and difficult decisions.

Q: Who were the biggest losers in this election and what do the results specifically mean for the pro-Kurdish HDP?

Ricciardone: The biggest losers were the two elements on the extremes in the long-simmering and unresolved crisis of Turkey’s political identity as a unified national polity:  the terrorist PKK, on the one hand, and the legitimate extreme ethno-nationalist National Movement Party, on the other.  It’s wildly wrong and unfair, however, to compare them in the same sentence. The one is an international criminal organization, while the other is a legitimate political party that includes many responsible, patriotic, law-abiding citizens and members of parliament. As a young diplomat, I had the privilege of meeting that party’s late founder,  and in more recent years I had respectful contacts with several of its contemporary leading members.

Q: Does the AKP’s victory complicate US support for Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria—which the Turkish military has targeted for attacks—and thereby the war against ISIS?

Ricciardone: I don’t see how that situation could be more complicated!  On the contrary,  with the distraction of elections now behind,  there may be grounds to hope for more public and leadership attention on strategic national interests, including dealing with the multiple difficult aspects of the Syrian civil war, ISIS, PKK, and the like.  And, as I noted above, perhaps there may even be hope for resumption of a great national conversation about the integration of the Kurdish identity, along with various other expressions of individual and communal ethnic and religious identity,  within the great diversity of the citizenry of the Republic.

Q: What does AKP’s victory mean for Turkey’s relationships with the United States and the European Union that have been dominated of late by the migrant crisis, the war on ISIS, and worries about the Turkish government’s crackdown on the media?

Ricciardone: The definitive end of the elections and establishment of a new government have to be a strong plus for Turkey’s relations with the United States and everyone else.

As to the media freedom situation:  this has been a serious perennial problem, and a widely recognized deficiency in the maturation of Turkish democracy.  Despite the very painful recent setbacks to media freedom,  I don’t see how the establishment of a new AKP-led government necessarily must exacerbate it. On the contrary:  a single-party majority government undeniably will bear the full onus for any failures,  just as it will get the positive global and domestic recognition for any successes, whether regarding this issue or any other.  I dare hope that through the painfully divisive election campaign just past,  a new AKP-led government will have gained the insight of the vital necessity to any democracy of a truly free and diverse national media.  If Turkey loses that, the Republic and her people will be in far deeper peril than anything posed by the PKK or ISIS.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen and Francis J. Ricciardone

Image: People wave flags and hold a portrait of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as they wait for the arrival of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in Ankara, Turkey, on Nov. 2. Davutoğlu described the outcome of the Nov. 1 general election, which swept his Justice and Development Party (AKP) back to a parliamentary majority, as a victory for democracy. (Reuters/Umit Bektas)