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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

For Erdogan and his cronies, losing was never an option

He was ready to deploy all of the resources of state and media the AKP controls, writes Henri Barkey

Outside the Justice and Development Party (AKP) headquarters in Istanbul. Aris Messinis / AFP
Outside the Justice and Development Party (AKP) headquarters in Istanbul. Aris Messinis / AFP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a resounding victory at the polls on Sunday. Not only did he manage to win a majority of votes for a first round victory but also, through his alliance with the arch-nationalist party MHP, the National Movement Party, he has secured a parliamentary majority.

He is, therefore, set to rule unencumbered for the next five years under an enhanced presidential system that reduces parliament to a rubber stamp.

These results could not have been better for Mr Erdogan. To be sure, his own Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost votes, down from 49 to 42 per cent. But while this might be bothersome, it is largely inconsequential in the short-term.

The pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) succeeded in crossing the 10 per cent threshold and getting into parliament despite the AKP’s Herculean efforts to thwart its candidates – by arresting poll-watchers, moving ballot boxes and using emergency law to prevent gatherings (indeed, the HDP’s own leader Selahattin Demirtas, a presidential contender, is still in jail).

But paradoxically, the opposition’s progress will end up benefiting Mr Erdogan. He will be able to deflect criticism – especially that coming from Europeans – of election manipulation and unfairness by pointing out that the Kurds did manage to get into parliament after all.

Had the opposition won a majority in parliament then the HDP’s presence would have significantly mattered, which is why Mr Erdogan used all the powers of the state apparatus to thwart them.

The opposition is bound to be disillusioned; after all, the main opposition candidate, Muharrem Ince, who was recruited to run by the CHP, the Republican People’s Party leadership, had managed to inject a dose of excitement and dynamism rarely seen before into opposition ranks. The staid CHP leadership that routinely spews dull and outmoded ideas was replaced by a charismatic, energetic and quick-on-his-feet candidate whose rallies were filled with enthusiastic, full capacity crowds. Mr Ince’s performance convinced many observers that there would be a second presidential round between the two top contenders.

But there are two factors the opposition in its enthusiasm overlooked. The first is the fact that for Mr Erdogan and his cronies, losing was never an option. They were ready to deploy – and they did – all the resources of the state and the media they controlled, which today amounts to about 90 per cent of print and television outlets. The AKP introduced unprecedented loopholes into the electoral laws that undermined the once unassailable fairness of the voting system.

Like all other institutions, the electoral one is now under the control of the party.

Second, the AKP is a party that is in continuous electoral mobilisation mode. Its local apparatus is extremely effective, has direct knowledge about voters at the local level, can mobilise supporters, bring them to the polls and ensure high participation rates.

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Only the HDP in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish provinces is a match for it. After 15 years in power, the AKP and the state have fused into one organism to create a system of rent distribution that first amply enriches cronies but also makes sure that supporters down the food chain also get a share, however small. This has succeeded in attaching a significant segment of the population to the AKP.

One can add to this an information system – one cannot call it a press anymore – that regurgitates the message from above 24/7.

Not only does the CHP have none of these advantages but it also has always had an aversion to politics at the retail level. This will have to change if it wants to be competitive in the future. Perhaps a brand new leadership that overhauls the party from top to bottom might succeed.

But with AKP ensconced, what can we now expect? Mr Erdogan is certainly emboldened. He will see this as a vindication of everything he has done and plans to do. He said as much in the first of his victory speeches.

Turkey is now formally a personalised autocracy with all powers concentrated in the presidency.

This was the plan all along; he did not build a gargantuan presidential palace because he envisioned luxurious accommodation but because he planned to run the whole country from one location. Space is needed for all of his advisers and others he will be appointing.

For the countries of the Arabian Gulf, an empowered Mr Erdogan spells trouble. He is intent on augmenting Turkey’s military and diplomatic footprint beyond his immediate neighbourhood, Iraq and Syria.

He has already established a military base in Djibouti, deployed troops to Qatar and signed an agreement with Sudan.

It is too early to tell what Mr Erdogan has in mind other than this being the beginning of an effort to emulate the grandeur of the Ottoman empire or become a lynchpin of sorts in the region.

Only great powers have far-flung bases. That said, unexpected opportunities that would not normally have been there could present themselves precisely because presence is in itself a form of action.

Still, Mr Erdogan, however well-established he might feel, faces two dilemmas: under the new constitution he is now president and also leader of the AKP – that is, his office is a political one now.

These elections demonstrated that the country is deeply divided; the divisions are likely to deepen and, in turn, governing the country will become more challenging.

Second, the reason he called for early elections – originally scheduled for 2019 – was because he feared the political ramifications of a potential economic downturn.

Turkish growth over the last two decades has been impressive but was largely fuelled by construction and foreign borrowing, especially recently, at a time of worldwide policies that favoured quantitative easing by the major central banks.

This has now come to an end and a number of large conglomerates in Turkey are in desperate need of bailouts.

The election might be over but the economic doldrums will surely come. Mr Erdogan has a certain margin of freedom of action he did not have a week ago.

However, it is worth remembering that under the new politicised presidential system, the buck stops with him and him alone.

Henri Barkey is a professor in international relations at Lehigh University and senior fellow for Middle East Studies in the Council on Foreign Relations