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Voters in polarized Turkey choose stability over freedoms

Analysis: Political and economic instability spark victory for Erdogan’s AKP amid growing polarization

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s election tactic of playing on security fears paid off at the ballot box on Sunday, when his Justice and Development Party (AKP) reclaimed millions of votes from nationalist and pro-Kurdish rivals. But many fear his methods for restoring stability in Turkey have led to growing polarization and could undermine the stalled peace process with Kurdish separatists.

The AKP claimed 49 percent of the popular vote in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, less than five months after the party lost its majority for the first time in 13 years. Those elections, in June, were a historic victory for the pro-Kurdish HDP, which cleared the 10 percent threshold needed to enter parliament for the first time and raised hopes of a formal political process to resolve the question of Kurdish demands for more autonomy in Turkey.

The last five months have been marked by political and economic instability, punctuated by a wave of attacks, including the Oct. 10 bombing of a peace rally in Ankara, which killed 102 people and authorities blamed on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Meanwhile, the outlawed Kurdish separatist PKK, which rejects the HDP’s push to represent Kurds in talks with Ankara, has been re-energized, reprising its strategy of anti-government violence.

As it prepared for the Nov. 1 snap elections, called to resolve the country’s political crisis, the Turkish government launched a crackdown against the PKK, ordering hundreds of airstrikes in the group’s southeastern heartland and arresting members of cells across the country. It also used the crackdown as cover to carry out raids against media outlets hostile to the AKP-led government and jailed several pro-Kurdish journalists, prompting outcries of creeping authoritarianism.

The election results, which give the AKP a clear mandate to rule for four more years, show that Turks were “scared by the potential of civil conflict starting in southeast Turkey again,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute. Forced to choose between security and freedom, he said, “they chose security.”

Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu deny cracking down on civil liberties and herald the AKP success as a win for Turkish unity. “Our nation has sided with looking after the environment of stability and trust that was risked on June 7,” Erdogan said in a statement celebrating the AKP victory.

Suggesting that the HDP and PKK share a base, Erdogan added that Turkish voters “delivered an important message” on Sunday that “oppression and bloodshed cannot co-exist with democracy.”

In addition to capturing security-minded votes from the AKP’s nationalist rival, the MHP, Erdogan may have won over some religious Kurdish voters who do not identify strongly with the secular HDP. Some of those were “shy” AKP supporters who favor stability but are embarrassed to affiliate with the party’s authoritarian leadership publicly, Cagaptay said, while others were simply “appalled by the HDP’s inability to distance themselves from the PKK,” whose decades-long armed struggle is controversial among Kurds.

In that light, the other winner on Sunday was the PKK, he said. The HDP rose to power on the national stage in large part because of its platform of inclusiveness, folding in other ethnic minorities as well as liberal Turks under a leftist umbrella. Many analysts considered the party the best alternative to an increasingly authoritarian AKP, but it was unable to stop the PKK, which succeeded in “making violence the language of Kurdish politics again,” he explained. “The HDP lost, and the PKK won.”

Analysts say Erdogan provoked this response, polarizing public opinion with his rhetoric against the Kurdish and ISIL threats. He and Davutoglu have conflated the PKK and ISIL as one “terrorist” entity, seizing on attacks like the Oct. 10 bombing, for which no group has claimed responsibility, as an opportunity to lambaste the broad “terrorist” threat to Turkish unity.

With the election won, it’s not clear whether the AKP will continue its polarized politics. With the Kurds, Erdogan “may press his advantage and take even tougher action against the PKK’s armed separatists and their allies,” commentator Simon Tisdall wrote Monday in The Guardian. “Alternatively, secure in his new mandate, he could pull back and reinstate the cease-fire and the peace process that he himself set in train several years ago.”

Still, many fear the increasingly sectarian environment he has created is here to stay. “Erdogan was accused by critics of cynically reigniting the conflict after the AKP’s election setback,” Tisdall wrote. “Reduced to its essential components, Erdogan’s unpalatable message was one of division and fear: fear of neighbors, Kurds, foreigners, refugees, the Americans, the EU — and fear of each other. The taste will linger.”

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