Yavuz Baydar
Feb 26 2018

Erdogan is busy building a resilient autocracy

“The elections in 2019 are not any elections at all. Turkey will have entered a brand new political system.”

So said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to leading members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

It was Erdogan’s clearest statement of intent. It means that Turkey’s master of political engineering will do his utmost to build a resilient autocracy. He has stayed on course for years and is now on the homestretch. As he looks to the finish line, Erdogan seems strong and confident. So much so that realists among the pundits say Erdogan has a good chance of retaining Central Asian-type supreme leadership for life.

What suggests that Erdogan is on the homestretch in his long march to achieving absolute power?

Recent developments favour him. The AKP has proposed new electoral regulations, which have been criticised by the opposition for jeopardising the fairness of elections. The proposed rules allow pre-election alliances among political parties. The 10% electoral threshold for a party to enter parliament remains but it will apply to the sum of the votes polled by the alliance. And the number of lawmakers will be determined through the sum of the votes of the very alliance as well.

The new alliance system will be helpful to the AKP to secure a place for far-right parties in parliament, even as it waits for the parliamentary liquidation of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Of course, even if the HDP passes the 10% threshold, Erdogan holds all the cards. He could have the party closed, citing links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the war in Syria.

The proposed changes include provisions concerning “election safety.” Ballot boxes can be relocated for security reasons, police will be allowed into polling stations if invited by a voter, unsealed ballot papers will be regarded as valid and the authorities will have a greater say in vote-counting procedures.

The proposed changes have once again caught the weak and rudderless opposition off-guard. There is little redress to be had from the Supreme Electoral Board. In November, the AKP set out to restructure the country’s highest electoral authority, rejiggering its staffing, ambit and responsibilities.

Reuters reported that the Supreme Electoral Board would have the authority to merge electoral districts and move ballot boxes to other districts. Ballots would be admissible without the local electoral board stamp.

Erdogan wants to create an alliance between his Islamist AKP and the extreme-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Such a formation, he hopes, would endure and prove to be the dominant force in Turkish politics for the foreseeable future.

He calls the alliance “Cumhur” (“the public”), a word he rightly believes will be attractive to Turkey’s overwhelmingly anti-Western conservative majority. That majority includes Islamist and ultra-nationalist segments, even, as Erdoğan hopes, some anti-western portions of the Kemalist opposition.

At the cost of alienating secular, leftist and Kurdish sections of society, Erdogan has even reached out to tiny parties on the very far-right. It is exceedingly likely he will widen his base.

It is obvious that the Kurdish issue, both at home and in Syria, lies at the heart of Erdogan’s strategy to achieve absolute power. ”This summer will appear to be very hot for the terror organisation and its supporters,” Erdogan recently said, using his preferred description for the PKK.

This means that Erdogan is set to continue with his high-stakes gamble of winning next year’s national and presidential elections by turning the Afrin incursion into a sustainable conflict.

The Afrin operation has its uses. It is a tool to manipulate domestic opinion. It can be used as a pretext to extend emergency rule until after the elections and it can help cement Erdogan’s image as the commander-in-chief, a strong leader who will take on anyone who plays games that imperil Turkey’s unity.

Would the proposal to allow pre-election alliances help the opposition as well? Not for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), on the centre-left, and the Good Party (IYI), on the centre-right. Either one or both would need to enter an alliance with the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). That is unlikely for several reasons.

The IYI would never even consider such a step and, if the CHP did make a move towards the HDP, Erdogan stands ready to release a powerful campaign that would paint the party as a terrorist collaborator.

The homestretch looks to be good going for Erdogan, at least now.