Like it or not, Turkey is now President Erdogan’s state

The resounding victory of the President’s party reflects the way he has shaped opinion

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The Independent Online

Cars filled with militant supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) celebrated its unexpectedly decisive victory in the Turkish parliamentary election by driving through the streets of Istanbul cheering and waving their party’s yellow and blue flags. They even penetrated the middle-class Bohemian district of Cihangir, where they beat drums and defiantly chanted the name of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Mr Erdogan himself was jubilant. “The national will manifested itself on 1 November in favour of stability,” he said after emerging from a mosque in Istanbul. “Let’s be as one, be brothers and all be Turkey together.”

Secular Turks opposed to the Islamic populist AKP were depressed in equal measure. Some were distributing by Facebook the names of countries like Uruguay and Antigua where Turks, appalled by the AKP’s success, could easily take refuge. In most cases, the thought of flight was not entirely serious, but the fact that some people are thinking about it is a measure of the degree to which Turkish society is divided between secular and Islamic, Kurd and Turk, Sunni and Alevi. 

Watching voters enter a polling station at the Firuzaga Elementary School in Istanbul, it was easy to identify their political allegiance by their dress alone, the most obvious indication being whether not women were wearing headscarves.

The 78 million Turks may be polarised, but the size of the groups into which they are divided are very unequal: the AKP has won 49 per cent of the vote, the secular centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP) 25 per cent, the right wing anti-Kurdish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) 12 per cent and pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) 11 per cent. 

The Turkish government is still deciding if Isis or the PKK is the greatest threat to its security

 

None of this should have been too surprising except that, as with the British general election, the opinion polls had, with one exception, predicted that little would change from the election five months earlier on 7 June, when the AKP lost its majority for the first time since 2002. This was because of the rise of the HDP vote above the 10 per cent threshold below which parties cannot enter parliament.

The AKP needed to win just 18 more seats to regain its majority and the odds were always stacked in its favour. It controls most of the levers of power in Turkey, from the security forces to the judiciary and the media. The AKP is led by the Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, but it was Mr Erdogan who was the architect of its victory, making no pretence of being a politically neutral President and rejecting any suggestion of a coalition government. 

He was helped in this by the CHP and MHP both having moribund leaders, while the HDP could be demonised as political proxies for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which most Turks revile as terrorists.

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AKP supporters celebrate the party’s unexpectedly decisive victory in the Turkish election (Reuters)

Mr Erdogan stoked Kurdish-Turkish antipathy, resumed military action against the PKK and played the patriotic card for all it was worth. When 102 demonstrators were killed in an Isis-linked bomb attack on 10 October, mourners at the funerals shouted “Erdogan murderer!”  An atmosphere of fear developed in which voters, including many Kurds as well as extreme Turkish nationalists, opted for the AKP as the guarantor of stability. 

In the circumstances, this was an understandable choice, even if the AKP had stirred up the insecurity it promised to quell. The opposition parties hate each other too much to form an alternative government. The AKP is denounced for its authoritarianism, but it has real achievements to boast of, even if these are exaggerated by a compliant media. 

According to IMF figures, Turkey now has the 18th largest economy in the world and its GDP per capita increased from $3,576 in 2002 to $10,529 in 2014. The AKP is often described as a right-wing Islamist party, but it is also populist and nationalist, drawing support from almost all parts of the country, including Istanbul and Ankara. In the wake of its triumph, AKP will presumably move to secure such levers of power and influence not already in its grasp. The shares of the media group that might be its next target fell sharply as the result of the election became plain. 

Secular Turks feel threatened by creeping Islamicisation, though in practice these threats have never quite been realised. Measures have been taken against the consumption of alcohol, though so far these are often mild, such as it not being available at festivals when people under 25 are present. But this does not mean that intrusive Islamic norms might not be enforced and the very extent of the AKP’s dominance makes secular Turks feel vulnerable.

Polarisation there certainly is in Turkey: many Kurds feel alienated, as do the 10-20 per cent who belong to the Alevi minority, whose beliefs are distantly connected to Shiaism. But forecasts of civil war bruited about during the election campaign are exaggerated: the AKP may be authoritarian, but it is not a dictatorship, since elections are real and the opposition lost because they did not have enough support.

The threats to Turkey post-election relate primarily to the Kurds and to the war in Syria. The PKK is stronger than it was in the 1980s and 1990s because it now has its own quasi-state in Syria. The other threat comes from Isis, which showed during the election how its suicide bombers can envenom existing antagonism between Turks and Kurds. 

The Turkish government is still deciding if Isis or the PKK is the greatest threat to its security. The greatest danger to Turkey remains the war in Syria, where its policies have been spectacularly unsuccessful. It wanted to get rid of President Bashar al-Assad and he is still there. It did not want the Syrian Kurds to form a de facto state controlling half of Turkey’s border with Syria and they have done so. The great test for the next Turkish government will be the Syrian war.

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