Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)
Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Turkey votes — again

Days away from the repeat elections that Erdogan engineered, the ruling party in Turkey is ramping up efforts to win the president a clear majority, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid in Ankara

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Al-Ahram Weekly

It has been a race against time. The pressure is on and now they are desperate. Their behaviour has been fierce and often shady. They have engaged in practices that have fallen into that grey area between right and wrong, and have even occasionally overstepped the bounds of the law.

So it came as no surprise to observers to see them turning to religious fatwas and mobilising pious followers to carry their views to the remotest villages of the country. This is their “religious” backing, which sometimes includes ad hoc militias armed with sticks and cudgels.

Such is the current state of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) in Turkey as it gears up for early elections, to be held three days from now (Sunday). The elections were decreed by the JDP founder, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

When the 7 June general elections failed to deliver an absolute majority to enable his party to form a government on its own, he resolved to use every means to engineer another go. He pursued this aim with relentless tenacity.

He twisted arms and bullied behind the scenes, met with close advisors and wielded powers acquired through his personal interpretations of the constitution, a prerogative he apparently earned by obtaining 51.7 per cent of the vote in Turkey’s first direct presidential elections on 10 August 2014.

His aides and cohorts, of course, helped lay the groundwork, and soon he had his way. Snap elections would be held on 1 November, it was announced, regardless of the strains on the national budget.

Such trivialities would not deter him, so certain was he that another round of parliamentary elections would deliver the key to his ultimate dream. After all, he knows his people better than they know themselves. So he is sure to succeed where presidents Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel failed.

But opinion polls conducted by respected polling firms, including a couple owned by close associates and JDP supporters, have proven equally stubborn. They absolutely refuse to bear out his predictions. They all agree that the JDP will win a majority again, but not the supermajority Erdogan is seeking.

In fact, the surveys all predict that the results of the 1 November polls will be pretty much the same as those of 7 June. This presents a problem, one that compelled top JDP officers to put their heads together to analyse, formulate scenarios and search for solutions. Among those on hand in a secret meeting, the minutes of which were leaked last week, was Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş.

Never before in his 18-year career with the party had he been so worried. The JDP was facing an existential battle. The 1 November election campaign had to be planned as professionally as a war strategy.

As those present at that meeting mulled over what had brought the JDP to this juncture, their remarks hit upon the intense polarisation that has gripped Turkey as a consequence of JDP policies during its 13 years in power.

A close advisor to Erdogan who was on hand that day said: “We’ve made our struggle a religious battle. When the opposition attacked us, we responded as though they were not just attacking us but also attacking our religion and sanctities.”

He continued, “In codifying the nature of the relationship this way we were mistaken. We were casting our relationship with the opposition as though it was that between the [first] Muslims and the polytheists of Mecca. Such tension is unsustainable.”

In a variation on the theme, another participant — Faruk Çelik, former minister of labour — observed that the JDP has a serious problem with its style and its public image. “Be certain that if previous presidents had used against us the type of language that we, today, are using against those who differ with our opinions, our party would have come to power in 1992, not 2002. The language we use against the PDP [People’s Democratic Party] is causing us to lose stock [with the public].”

Hatem Ete, often referred to as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s right-hand man, was franker and more to the point. Abbreviating the party’s policies to one person (Erdogan) is what brought it to its current plight. The president refuses to remain neutral and non-partisan, and he has made politics revolve around himself. This is the source of constant problems.

The people are concerned with the rise in the rate of the dollar, the foreign policy setbacks, and the deterioration of freedoms. “But how can we broach such issues without offending the president or his prime minister? We’re wracking our brains,” he said.

Ete put his finger on something quite concrete. Turks are watching prices soar and feeling the strains on their pocketbook. The Turkish lira has suffered an almost 30 per cent decline in its value since the beginning of the year. The upshot is that yet another JDP promise has been broken.

Four years ago, Erdogan, then prime minister, pledged that he would raise per capita income to $14,000. The trend now is in the opposite direction: the figure declined to $9,000 in 2015.

Selin Sayek-Böke, parliamentary deputy from the opposition Republican People’s Party (RPP) and the party’s economic policies officer, attributes the deterioration to a range of causes, prime among which are gaps in the rule of law and the rise in threats to democracy.

Major government institutions have lost their autonomy, she said, referring to the Central Bank and the constant interventions by the presidential palace that insisted on a hike in interest rates. Other reasons she cited were technological deficiencies and the lack of educational reform.

Sadly, there are those in power who rely on the power of their imagination rather than on facts and, therefore, lack the ability to solve these problems, she said. She described the government’s sudden announcement last week that per capita income had risen to $19,000 as an attempt to delude the public.

It appears that Erdogan has fallen into a trap that he laid for himself. He is staring not only at the vanishing bubble of his dream of a presidential system, but also at the possible end of his political future, regardless of the many “achievements” he has inaugurated.

He is therefore desperately impatient for the polls to open and for the preliminary results to appear and inform him of his and his party’s fate. Will the JDP be able to rule alone again, or will it be forced to look for a coalition partner, again? The latter would mark the beginning of the end for Erdogan and his imperial project.

It is little wonder, therefore, that in these final hours before the polls, Erdogan makes daily appearances on pro-JDP television networks and on state-owned stations, which have become a JDP monopoly. Nor should one be surprised that his prime minister, Davutoglu, has taken on board the very policies for which he had previously criticised the RPP.

Where are the RPP going to get the money to fulfil their pledge to raise the minimum wage, he recently scoffed. But suddenly, as Erdogan’s chief advisor Taha Özhan admitted, the JDP has co-opted this and other RPP pledges.

Still, such last-ditch efforts to improve the party’s image are likely to prove too late. As former President Abdullah Gül pointed out a few days ago, it is not easy to clean out the dirt.

Former deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç, who was recently sidelined by the ruling party and claims to be “embargoed” by the pro-government media, also lashed out at the JDP and Erdogan whom, he said, has “lost my affection.” Both Gül and Arınç were cofounders of the JDP.

They, along with the rest of the Turkish public, anxiously await the outcome of the 1 November polls.

 

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