Just two months after his hold on power looked tenuous, with his party failing to obtain a majority in parliamentary elections, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan all but acknowledged on Wednesday that his government would call new elections, believing that his Justice and Development party (AKP) can win at the polls a second time around.
But separate violent incidents across the country on Wednesday underscored how fraught Erdogan’s domestic political position remains.
“Because of the failure to form a government, we have to seek a solution with the will of the people ... so we are heading rapidly toward an election again,” Erdogan said on Wednesday, a day after his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, broke off negotiations to from a government with the opposition parties.
That, according to analysts, was Erdogan’s strategy since a surprising electoral defeat in June meant that for the first time since 2002 the AKP had not won a parliamentary majority. “That was his plan from the get-go to call for early elections,” said Gönül Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C.
Erdogan’s AKP has dominated the Turkish political scene for more than a decade, finding a strong base of support among Turkey’s Muslim social conservatives. But at times he has also won plaudits across the political spectrum for bringing stability and economic growth to a country that had for decades lacked both. The AKP also had been able to garner support from the country’s disaffected Kurdish population for pursuing a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an outlawed group that for decades has pursued a violent campaign for an independent state.
But Erdogan's star has fallen lately, with many Turks recoiling at his attempt to increase his power in ways that some feel is authoritarian. In 2014, after serving 12 years as prime minister, Erdogan was elected president, part of a longer-term goal to consolidate power under a presidential system. But opposition parties have criticized his attempt to change Turkey’s constitution to formalize authority in an executive presidential system that would implement the power that he already wields in practice.
Tol described the chief demand of the opposition parties in joining with Erdogan as, “‘If you are interested in a coalition government with us then the president has to withdraw to his constitutional limits.’”
That, Erdogan suggested last week, is not in the cards. Speaking on Aug. 14, Erdogan said, “There is a president with de facto power in the country, not a symbolic one,” he said. “Whether one accepts it or not, Turkey’s administrative system has changed. Now, what should be done is to update this de facto situation in the legal framework of the constitution.”
Part of the reason that Erdogan feels the AKP’s electoral fortunes will differ with new elections is tied to increased tensions with the PKK since June, analysts suggest.
“As a politician who considers himself the supreme protector of security … Erdogan has embraced the position of being a national guardian in a time of war,” Joseph Dana, a Middle East analyst and columnist, wrote in The National news site.
For weeks the government and PKK fighters have engaged in a series of back and forth attacks, which included the killing of eight Turkish soldiers by PKK fighters in the southeastern province of Siirt on Wednesday.
Despite the carnage, however, a resumption of fighting with the Kurds could prove electorally useful for Erdogan. Tol called the bombing campaign against the PKK in aftermath of the June election defeat as “very related to Erdogan’s political ambitions.” A number of Turkish polls have shown the AKP gaining ground since then.
To regain a majority in parliament, Erdogan has tried to appeal to nationalists who were previously wary of his outreach to the Kurds, and weaken the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which in a surprise received more than 10 percent of the vote in June, by putting it in a politically difficult position given the collapse of the peace process. “He did that very successfully,” said Tol.
But while Erdogan’s political fortunes seem to have shifted since the surprising June defeat, his new strategy is nonetheless risky.
Whereas once his AKP proudly trumpeted a “zero-problems” foreign policy with its neighbors and sought to reinvigorate a flailing Kurdish peace process, it is now part of the U.S.-led coalition against fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and it is locked in an increasingly bitter fight with the PKK in Turkey, as well as in Syria and Iraq.
Potential blowback from those conflicts was felt on Wednesday, with the PKK attack in Siirt, and a separate incident where two people, whose affiliation is unclear, fired on Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace. A video released on Monday by a pro-ISIL social media account called for a “conquest of Istanbul” and a war against the “treacherous” Erdogan.
With elections not likely until October at the earliest, conflict at home and abroad could further complicate Erdogan’s hopes of solidifying an AKP majority and strengthening his own position.
“To go the polls at a time when people are being killed every single day can have a downside,” Sinan Ulgen, chairman of EDAM, an Istanbul-based think tank, told the Associated Press. “The arithmetic in Parliament won't necessarily change.”