Erdoğan surges as Turkey’s opposition plays his game

In what could be described as a double daredevil move, first with President Donald Trump and then with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan played a remarkable game of hardball this month with his military operation in Syria.

It will pay off particularly on the domestic political scene, his vital arena. Shaken but not stirred, unblinking, Erdoğan managed to turn the tide and emerged from apparent defeat in March local elections as a victor who, as his loyal media put it, “set Trump straight”.

The president has moved much closer to his domestic political objectives; repairing the damage within his party, silencing party rebels, dispensing with any notion of snap elections, quelling the centrist-nationalist opposition and putting the Kurdish opposition into a state of paralysis. His balancing act above constantly invented crisis has led to an eruption of militarism that has engulfed his adversaries

A well-informed source close to the Presidential Palace said that according to its polls, Erdoğan’s approval ratings were as low as 30 percent before the incursion, but have now risen to around 40 percent. It is obvious the foxy politician will try to maximize this effect. 

As an historic shift takes place in the Middle East with the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and Turkey’s unprecedented military cooperation with Russia, what can we to expect next in Turkish politics

After defeat in March local elections, Erdoğan saw his best option was to escalate conflict across the border. Turkey and its opposition were bombarded with irredentist rhetoric on northern Syria, and the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean seas. 

Erdoğan had time to assess Turkish society and know he would be the chief beneficiary of the aggressive nationalism that unites the overwhelming majority of Turks, whether pious or secular, Islamist or Kemalist, rural or urban, or young or old. 

The president knew he would have massive backing for an incursion against what was seen as a common enemy by many segments of society - except for Turkey’s Kurds, and a handful liberals and true social democrats. He knew that none of the opposition parties would be able to stand up against the frenzy of war. He knew they would instantly adapt the language of the state and signal they were ready to form a unity coalition if necessary. 

He was right. The opposition nationalist Good Party and the Islamists of the Felicity Party went so far as to criticise Erdoğan for not waging war forcefully enough. The secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) backed the incursion in parliament, but then wobbled around, sending mixed messages attacking Trump and the United States instead of the president.

There was nothing left of the critical wing of the CHP, the flank that had worked so hard to secure Kurdish votes for the opposition alliance in the local elections

As Erdoğan calculated, the opposition was ripe for his plans to turn them into “parties with a nameplate only” - reminiscent of those in Azerbaijan.

The hope that followed the opposition local election victory has now evaporated. “Everything will be just fine,” the opposition slogan in those polls has vanished from public discourse. Police raids and arrests of anyone who utters the words, “No to War” or “Peace”, have had a chilling effect.

The CHP lost the momentum it gained in the local elections. Its political conformism and lack of a strategy to bring about change mean the party is now left with no choice but to flounder in Erdoğan's wake. How the disappointment of its voters will play out is hard to predict, except to say they are likely to suffer resignation and depression.

Erdoğan also burst the bubble of the discontent within his own ranks and moves by former senior allies to form breakaway parties. The former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, mumbled support for the official line, while Abdullah Gül, a former president, and the former economy minister, Ali Babacan, fell silent. Supporters had begged Gül and Babacan to hurry up and capitalise on the momentum of the opposition local election win, but at best it will take them until next crisis to regain their lost ground. For the moment they are lost, vulnerable and exposed.

The biggest domestic victims are certainly Turkey's 14-million-plus Kurds and their party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the third biggest in parliament with more than six million voters behind it. It has been thoroughly demonised, and in the nationalist frenzy, neither Erdoğan, nor his party, nor the opposition care about the level of brutality suffered by elected representatives of the HDP. 

The tragedy of the Kurds in Turkey has been added to the tragedy of the Kurds in Syria. Kurdish voters in Turkey were first held in complete disrespect when the mayors they elected were removed from office and replaced by government-appointed administrators. They then had to watch in horror as some of the mayors even ended up in jail. 

Kurdish voters were also cheated by the CHP and Good Party alliance. It was Kurdish tactical voting that lost Erdoğan control of five major city councils, but when the wave of oppression against the HDP was launched, neither the CHP, nor the Good Party stood up to defend democracy. 

Erdoğan can now break the back of the HDP, demolish its structure, and if necessary jail its entire leadership. He will tactically stop short of closing the party; a de-facto closure is enough, as a de-jure closure could lead to reactions from the West.

The Kurds in Syria are meanwhile victims on a grand scale; they lost thousands of fighters battling Islamic State and now hundreds more have been killed in Turkey’s incursion. The Kurds are left to curse their historic misfortune. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.