Sultans ruled the Turks for 470 years until Kemal Ataturk proclaimed a republic in 1923. “Away with dreams and shadows!” he exulted. “I have banished the rottenness of the Ottoman Empire!”
A crucial election on June 7 may determine whether Turkey falls back under a form of sultanic rule, led by a supreme leader empowered to control every aspect of national life.
The sultan-in-waiting is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was Turkey’s prime minister for 11 years before ascending to the presidency in 2014. Turkish presidents have limited authorıty, but Erdogan is seeking to change the constitution and give himself sweeping powers like those wielded by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and other elected dictators. To achieve his goal, he needs 367 votes in the 550-member parliament; with 330, he could make changes if voters approve them in a referendum. These numbers have transfixed Turkey as the election approaches.
By a delightful quirk of history, the main obstacle in Erdogan’s way is Turkey’s newly invigorated Kurdish political movement. Under a charismatic young leader who has brought a new style to Turkish politics, the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has broadened its appeal. It could score an electoral triumph that would deny Erdogan the sultanate he hopes to lead.
Commentary leading up to this election is focused on a single question: Can the HDP win the minimum 10 percent of votes required to enter parliament? If it succeeds, it will take enough seats to join with other opposition parties and block the constitutional changes that would allow presidents to rule more or less by decree. If it fails, Erdogan may be able to push through “reforms” that would make him the most powerful leader Turkey has had since multiparty democracy emerged in 1950. Suspense is growing as polls show the HDP tantalizingly close to its goal.
Kurdish rebels fought a bitter war against Turkish authority in the 1970s and ’80s. Although the fighting is over, demonizing Kurds has remained a reliable way to win votes. This year, though, the climate feels quite different. Leading Kurdish politicians are soft-spoken cosmopolitans committed to reconciliation, while Erdogan and his comrades sound increasingly angry, strident and divisive.
This election is mainly about Erdogan and his outsize ambitions. His name is not on the ballot, but all Turks understand that by voting for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), they are endorsing his neosultanic project. Every vote for an opposition party is a rejection of that project. Both of the traditional opposition parties — one that appeals to Turkish nationalists and the other claiming the mantle of social democracy — appear likely to clear the 10 percent hurdle and return to parliament. They, however, will probably not have enough votes to block Erdogan on their own. Only with a bloc of Kurdish seats will the opposition be able to stop Erdogan.
Although Erdogan is universally recognized as the AKP’s strongman, its official leader is Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, an affable former professor whom Erdogan plucked from obscurity and placed in office last year. In the early years of their partnership, when Erdogan was prime minister and Davutoglu was foreign minister, the two of them launched an ambitious and largely successful foreign policy based on the principle of zero problems with neighbors. It solidified Turkey’s role as a valuable mediator and peacemaker in the Middle East and beyond. Like much of what Erdogan achieved during his early years in power, this policy has collapsed into a mess of emotion and geopolitical shortsightedness. By angrily straining Turkey’s ties to the regimes in Israel, Egypt, Armenia and Syria because those regimes did not accept Turkey’s policy ideas, Erdogan and Davutoglu all but extinguished Turkey’s value as a bridge connecting hostile factions and countries.
Erdogan presumed that Davutoglu, who lacks a political base of his own, would be a faithful lapdog. During the current campaign, however, Davutoglu has sounded less than thrilled about the idea of an Erdogan superpresidency — in part because it implies a reduced role for any prime minister. Neither he nor any other leading Turkish politician projects anything like the outsize ego and grandiose self-worship that Erdogan embodies.
Erdogan’s role in the campaign is extraordinary. By law, Turkish presidents represent the nation and may not favor any political group or candidate. Erdogan has scorned this tradition and is openly campaigning for the AKP. One opposition leader has called this “a constitutional crime.”
Turks have spent countless hours wondering what happened to Erdogan — what produced his astonishing transformation from a reformist leader admired around the world to an angry, divisive politician who appears blinded by unlimited personal ambition. Various theories have emerged. Some believe Erdogan is acting according to a hidden agenda he developed years ago. Others suspect that he has become psychologically unbalanced or that his reported brush with cancer made him a man in a hurry. The most common explanation is one as old as politics itself: He has been corrupted by his long time in power.
Eager to show how different they are from Erdogan, opposition leaders have promised to restore freedom to the beleaguered Turkish press, assure the independence of the increasingly politicized judiciary and end corruption, which has reached spectacular levels under the Erdogan regime. This has left the AKP as the only one stuck in the old Turkish political pattern of rants, wild charges and scary threats.
As the election approaches, opposition leaders have said they fear votes will not be counted fairly. This is a new concern in Turkey. Over the last 65 years, Turkish democracy has functioned under a variety of limits, but fraud at the polls has not been a serious concern until recently. Davutoglu called warnings about vote tampering “a terrible slander.” Opposition parties are mobilizing to monitor the count as closely as possible. If the HDP fails to win at least 10 percent, some of its militant followers will presume they have been cheated and could take to the streets in protest. Erdogan has warned that if they do, “They will pay heavily for it.”
The most intriguing figure to emerge during this campaign is 42-year-old Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s leader. A longtime human rights activist who was a co-founder of Amnesty International’s chapter in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, he represents the maturing of Turkey’s Kurdish political movement. Unlike many politicians in Turkey, he speaks calmly and without rancor. He does not stress his Kurdish ethnicity. “None of us has a single identity,” he said in one speech. “We are all joint representatives of all identities.”
Candidates running under the HDP’s banner include socialists, environmental activists, members of minority ethnic groups, promoters of gay and lesbian rights and even a draft resister. Nearly half are women. Demirtas gives speeches denouncing militarism and sexism. Asked in an interview about the slaughter of Ottoman Armenians in 1915, which the government has staunchly denied, he replied, “We recognize the Armenian genocide without question.”
Some of the loudest cheers for Demirtas come when he predicts that on June 7, his party “will smash the 10 percent election threshold to pieces.” If it does, the course of Turkish political history could shift profoundly.