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The End of the AKP Era in Turkey?

The worst terrorist attack in the history of the Republic of Turkey took place on October 10, 2015 in Ankara. The Ankara massacre. Two suicide bombers killed 102 of the participants in a Peace and Democracy rally and hundreds were wounded.

Why did this happen?

To give some answers, let us go back to 2002.

Turkey’s ruling Sunni Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), took power in 2002. From 2002 until 2015, it had won four general elections in a row and secured enough seats in the national assembly to form a single party government in the first three.

Although the AKP won about 50% of the votes in the third of these elections that happened in 2011, it has been in decline since then. And, in the last general election that took place on June 7, 2015, it failed to secure enough seats to form the government on its own. However, the AKP is still the ruling party, at least practically, because it is the only party in the caretaker government until the coming “repeat” election on November 1. The other parties either refused to join the interim government or left it after a while.

A milestone between the 2011 and 2015 general elections was the presidential election of August 10, 2014. Despite the ongoing decline of the AKP, its leader and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won 51.8% of the vote in the first round to become the first elected Turkish President. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the joint candidate for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Action Party (MHP) received 38.4% whereas Selahattin Demirtaş, the candidate of the mainly Kurdish nationalist People’s Democracy Party (HDP), received 9.8%.

However, this election was of very low turnout by Turkish standards, essentially because İhsanoğlu is a known Islamist also. When a devotedly secularist section of the CHP voters resented İhsanoğlu and boycotted the election, the participation turned out to be a measly 74%. This was the lowest turnout since the coup d’état of 1980; even lower than the 79% turnout of the 2002 election that took place after a major economic collapse in 2001.

But the main event of this presidential election was the 9.8% vote the HDP candidate Demirtaş received. The 10% national threshold imposed by the 1980 military junta has been in place since the 1983 general election and no Kurdish party had ever been able to cross that threshold until June 7, 2015.

Indeed, in the 2002 election, that is, when the AKP took power, only three parties (AKP, CHP and MHP) managed to cross the threshold. With the 2007 election, a fourth party started to appear in the national assembly because the Kurdish parties and their leftist allies managed to bypass the threshold through candidates entering the elections as independents and then reassembling a party in the national assembly. However, despite that they usually secured between 5% and 7%, this trick always led to their underrepresentation in the assembly, because a big chunk of the votes on the independents were wasted.

When Demirtaş received 9.8%, indicating a high probability of crossing the 10% threshold, the HDP entered the 2015 general election as a party rather than as a collection of independent candidates. The significance of this was that had they crossed the threshold, they would have had a much larger representation in the national assembly.

And they crossed the threshold in the June 7 general election, receiving an unexpected 13%. When the HDP got 80 representatives and pushed the AKP below 276 by 18 in a 550 member national assembly, the AKP rule was over, at least legally.

This was a defining moment in the history of the Republic of Turkey.

Coming out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the Republic of Turkey inherited the Empire’s diverse identities and added a new one.

A major identity divide in the Empire had been along the religious lines: Muslim versus non-Muslim. However, there has been a conscious cleansing of the country from non-Muslims since the early 20th century and, as a result, this divide is currently about 99% to 1%, although it was more like 70% to 30% in the beginning.

The new identity the Republic added was that of the secular. So the new and more important religious divide in the country is the pious versus secular divide created by the founders of the Republic (although the origins of this goes way back). Of course, the founders were secularists, and their interest was to engineer a secular, capitalist nation-state along the lines of most advanced capitalist states of the West. Named after their charismatic leader, and the first president of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal, their ideology is called Kemalism.

Interestingly, they defined the nation of this nation-state – that is, the Turkish nation – based on religious identities. Who we call Turkish today – if by that we mean the citizens of the Republic of Turkey – are essentially the grandchildren of the (mostly Sunni) Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire, many of whom sought refuge in current-day Turkey from other parts of the Empire to avoid religious persecution. They can be from any of the many ethnicities in the former Empire as long as their grandparents were or became (preferably Sunni) Muslims.

But, the mostly Sunni Kurds (themselves a collection of many ethnicities) have never bought this definition. And, despite that Sunni Islam has been the “unofficial” religion of this “secular” Republic from the beginning, the Alevites – some of whom are Kurdish – remained, although their number decreased some as percentage.

To sum up, the most notable current identity divides include – but are not limited to – Turkish versus Kurdish, Sunni versus Alevite and pious versus secular.

Lastly, there is the military, out of which most founders of the Republic including Mustafa Kemal came. Until recently, the military had been viewed by many as guardian of the secular Republic. It took power three times: in 1960, 1971 and 1980, although there had been a number of other coup attempts also. Seen as an arch-rival, the military had been “attacked” by the AKP government as of 2010 in the courts captured by the Islamists. Many of its high ranking officers got jailed for a variety of (as recently confessed by President Erdogan, mostly made-up) reasons and the institution has been weakened. Despite this, however, whether the military is now fully under the AKP control is debatable for a variety of reasons including that there still are many Kemalists in its ranks.

Although the conflict between Turks and Kurds goes way before the start of the Republic, the most recent armed conflict started in 1984. Since then, the Turkish military and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have been fighting on and off (most intensely in the early 1990s) and the total death toll is at the order of tens of thousands. In a nutshell, this is the so-called “Kurdish question” in Turkey

The PKK (founded in 1978) is an armed organization considered by many including the Turkish Government as terrorist. The HDP (founded in 2013), on the other hand, defines itself as a leftist and anti-nationalist party. Further, there are many non-Kurds in the party. However, many consider the HDP as the political wing of the PKK and whether this perception is reality or not is hotly debated in the country.

Enter President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Davutoğlu.

A darling of the West until about three years ago, Erdoğan and the AKP have evidently been running a programme whose objectives were not so obvious to some. That this had been the case can easily be deduced from the recent confessions of many nationally prominent figures – mostly liberal intellectuals – who had been ardent supporters of Erdoğan and the AKP until recently. Over the last year, it has seemed as though not a single day passed without one such figure coming out and claiming that he or she had been cheated by Erdoğan and/or the AKP.

The existence of the programme became obvious to all shortly after Erdoğan won the presidential election. This was because Erdoğan’s handpicked heir – former Foreign and current Prime Minister – Ahmet Davutoğlu publicly named it on August 21, 2014. The “restoration programme”. According to Davutoğlu and his aides, the term does not refer to restoring the Ottoman Empire but to repairing the republic, democracy, foreign policy and a model of the economy that had been “injured” for the past 92 years.

But, what did happen 92 years ago?

Well, the Ottoman Empire ended and the Republic of Turkey was founded.

Indeed, in 2001, a year before the AKP took power, the then academic Davutoğlu published a book, “Strategic Depth,” that set out the basics of this programme, so why these liberal intellectuals feel cheated is difficult to understand.

According to the Davutoğlu doctrine, Turkey is one of those countries which are “central powers”. Because of its Ottoman legacy, Turkey is a Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Balkan, Caucasian, Caspian, Central Asian, Gulf and Black Sea country. It can exercise influence in all these regions and thus become a global strategic player. Or so said Davutoğlu in his “Strategic Depth”. And his now badly failed “zero problem policy with neighbours” was about Turkey’s capitalising on its soft power potential culminating from its historic and cultural links with all these regions, as well as its “democratic institutions” and “thriving market economy”

Given these and that Davutoğlu appeared objecting the Huntingtonian theory of clash of civilisations, his doctrine had often been labelled as neo-Ottomanism. But this label was incorrect because Ottomanism was a nineteenth-century liberal political movement whose objective was to form a civic Ottoman national identity overarching ethnic, linguistic and religious identities. Any careful reading of Davutoğlu’s book could have revealed that his doctrine had nothing to do with any form of Ottomanism. Furthermore, his objection to Huntington’s theory was not to that there was a clash of civilisations. He agreed with Huntington there. Where he differed was that Islam was the better civilisation. Put differently, his doctrine was not neo-Ottomanism but pan-Islamism.

It now appears clear even to many of his unquestioning former supporters as well as Western powers such as the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) that not only Davutoğlu but also Erdoğan agreed with Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis. Except that Erdoğan also believed in superiority of the Islamic civilization. It now appears clear to them also that becoming the leader of the Muslim world and (there are even rumours that) caliph of the Sunni Muslims were two of Erdoğan’s three major fantasies.

Of course, these two fantasies have always been beyond Erdoğan’s reach, if for nothing, for the simple reason that they are based on a third fantasy that Davutoğlu invented. The unifying character of the Ottoman Empire. Ask any Arab or Balkan nation who had lived under the Ottoman rule to see how they feel about the Empire. And there are strong rivals such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and even ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS), and Syria, Iraq and Libya are in shambles, so forth. No doubt, Davutoğlu’s “zero problem policy with neighbours” eventually deformed into his current foreign policy of “honourable loneliness”.

Erdoğan’s third major fantasy was becoming the sultan of Turkey. This was a potentially realizable fantasy because, after his presidency, all he needed was to get the constitution changed to introduce a presidential system which would decorate him with executive powers. Had this happened, he could have become the effective sultan to continue the restoration process through which Turkey would become some sort of repressive Islamic state (which would be even more repressive than Turkey is currently).

For this, the AKP had to win at least 330 deputies in the national assembly.

And Erdoğan had a fear. Had the AKP failed to form a single party government, several legal cases could have been filed against him at the Supreme Council of Judges for a host of reasons with severe criminal consequences.

To avoid this, the AKP had to win at least 276 deputies in the national assembly.

Now, I can offer some answers to the first question I asked, that is, why the Ankara massacre happened. And I will do that in the next part, after the November 1 election.

More articles by:

Sabri Öncü is an economist based in Istanbul, Turkey. He can be reached at: sabri.oncu@gmail.com.

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