National Security & Defense

Turkey Has a Long Road Back to Democracy

A supporter of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party celebrates on election night. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty)

Whenever Islamists lose elections, it is to be celebrated. In that spirit, we should celebrate Turkey’s national election, in which (as Jim, John, Jay, and Pat note) the AKP — the “Justice and Development Party” run by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — lost the parliamentary grip it has held since 2002. However, this is at most a necessary first step in what would have to be a long campaign if Turkey is to beat back the Islamist ascendancy that has gutted its democracy.

Erdoğan’s Turkey was my “Exhibit A” in Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy (2012). The former prime minister, now Turkey’s president, is a sharia supremacist in the mold of the Muslim Brotherhood with which he makes common cause. Erdoğan’s paeans to “democracy” made Western government officials swoon — particularly in the Bush administration, and even more so in Obama’s. But Erdoğan  has never been an adherent of real democracy, as in a culture of governance that promotes liberty and minority rights.

Democracy, Erdoğan has tellingly opined, “is just the train we board to reach our destination.” That destination is a repressive sharia society. What he calls “democracy” is really anti-democracy: popular elections as the procedural route to power for authoritarian Islamists in a Muslim-majority country.

The election AKP just lost is a case in point.

RELATED: Embarassment for Erdoğan: He Wanted a Supermajority, He Got a Minority

The party’s objective was to win a commanding enough majority that it could rewrite Turkey’s constitution to convert what today is the largely ceremonial post of president into the country’s de jure power center. As Spring Fever foretold three years ago, this was Erdoğan’s goal as he laid the groundwork to step aside as prime minister and install his crony, foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, as his replacement. On this, Michael Rubin is characteristically on the money at Commentary: Davutoğlu is for Erdoğan the same sort of factotum Dmitri Medvedev is for Vladimir Putin.

The plan was for Davutoğlu to keep the seat warm while Erdoğan remained the actual ruler, mainly by virtue of his control of the party (and of Davutoğlu). By staying visible on the world stage as president, Erdoğan would inure Turks to the concept of a muscular presidency, simultaneously positioning himself to assume formal dictatorial control once the AKP-dominated legislature he anticipated rewrote the constitution.

RELATED: Erdoğan​’s Double Game: Our ‘Ally’ Supports Jihadists While Joining the U.S.-Led Coalition Against Them

AKP’s defeat has scotched that scheme, at least for now. We should not, however, be overconfident. AKP “lost” in the sense that its majority is gone; yet the 41 percent of the vote it won still leaves it with a sizable plurality of 258 seats — and powerfully demonstrates the growth of Islamic supremacism in Turkish society since the 1990s. The AKP’s haul is well short of the 276 seats needed to control the 550-seat parliament, let alone the 330 needed to ram through a new constitution. Still, it is still considerably more than what its nearest rivals earned.

There are three rivals that matter. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) is the old-line Kemalist party, secularist social-democratic in orientation; it will get about 132 seats after winning about a quarter of the vote. The Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which is secularist and right-leaning (although it has in recent years occasionally and strategically nodded toward Islamism), will get about 80 seats after winning roughly 16 percent. Then there are Kurdish nationalists, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which is politically progressive and made common cause with other ethnic minority groups as well as women.

The HDP is the stunner in this election. Turkey’s quirky system requires parties to achieve a threshold 10 percent of the vote in order to assume any seats. Ironically, the system was designed to keep the Islamists out of power. With the fracturing of their opposition, however, Islamists have exploited it to increase their power. The AKP’s hope was to keep the HDP under the 10 percent threshold and thus scoop up most of the 80 seats the Kurds and their allies will now control.

RELATED: Get Tough with Turkey: Tell the Turks to Stop Supporting Terrorism — Or Get Out of NATO

Still, all is not lost for Erdoğan — far from it. The AKP became a powerhouse precisely because its opponents have failed to cooperate with each other, even though they knew that was the only way to stop the Islamist advance. If they do not align together to form a new government, the AKP will either (a) pick off one to get the numbers it needs to govern (although not rewrite the constitution), or (b) call for new elections in 45 days (assuming no governing coalition emerges).

New elections would be an opportunity for Erdoğan to pull out all the stops. As the massive number of journalists and political dissenters imprisoned in Turkey attests, Erdoğan knows how to use the brass knuckles. This weekend’s result has made clear to him that that is what will be necessary.

It seems to have become trendy to dismiss Erdoğan as an incorrigible solipsist who has lost his grip — his notorious tendency to make outrageous statements is clown-like. It would be a mistake, though, to underestimate him.

#related#Erdoğan established his dominance despite entrenched opposition from the “deep state” that had preserved Ataturk’s secular order for decades. As I illustrated in Spring Fever, he did it by systematically implementing the Muslim Brotherhood’s program: He remained mindful that controlling the culture and boring into the bureaucracy are the keys to taking over a society. He strategically provoked controversies that paralyzed his enemies: leveraging Turkey’s craving for acceptance by progressive European elites against the Turkish armed forces (coup insurance); pitting the population’s Islamic piety against secularist principles (the kind of controversies the Kemalist order had not tolerated); and tapping into deep-seated anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism to promote public support for his movement.

As his position became stronger and the institutions that had checked Islamism withered, he pounced: using his control over law enforcement and judiciary to trump up prosecutions against military officers and his critics; heavily influencing the press coverage of his regime; dramatically changing the tone of what was taught in the classrooms and preached in the mosques.

At every step of the way, he has been given cover by the United States government, regardless of which party was leading it.

A single election of ambiguous outcome barely scratches the surface of what it will take to reverse Erdoğan’s revolution. There will have to be a unified, sustained effort lasting years. Moreover, Erdoğan and the AKP are not going anywhere. Their position, though weakened, remains comparatively strong. They will fight ruthlessly and their opponents have propensities toward self-destruction.

But we can hope that the tide is beginning to turn.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book is Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.

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