Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no advocate of democracy, having once famously compared it to a street car: ‘You ride it as far as you need and then you step off.” But, he is a man on a mission. While he once parroted the rhetoric of economic reform and democracy, today it is apparent that self-enrichment trumps reform, and he has long since acknowledged that his goal is to “raise a religious generation.” That goal — and its fulfillment of a religious dream — trumps any sort of democratic legitimacy or accountability. Erdoğan will never allow voters to prioritize Kurdish identity or secularism to derail what his behavior suggests he sees as a divine mission.
Over the last 12 years, Erdoğan has had an amazing political streak. With multiple secular parties dividing the vote but almost all failing to surpass the 10 percent threshold, Erdoğan was able to amplify a 34 percent vote into a supermajority. Through talent, constituent services, and perhaps a Gulf Arab-provided slush fund as well, he had an amazing political streak, not only winning successive elections, but also often adding to his majority.
That changed, of course, earlier this month when, despite his fierce and, given his supposedly apolitical position as president, illicit campaigning, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority. Some journalists and pundits jumped the gun with their optimism. Here, for example, is Foreign Policy’s David Kenner calling it a “body blow for Turkey’s ruling party.” Vox’s Zack Beauchamp was equally effusive, not considering much the possibility of no government being formed with repeat rather than simply early elections.
The reality is, however, that Erdoğan will undercut any coalition. He has no desire to share power; if he did, it would be short-term and tactical in order to have a scapegoat. The question then turns to new elections. Erdoğan probably believes the most recent elections to be a fluke. Everyone else may know otherwise, but Erdoğan will never admit it. He has constructed such an alternate, conspiratorial reality; he cannot fathom honest rejection. That said he will ensure there are no more speed bumps in his quest to implement his transformative agenda.
Hence, his most recent comments about doing whatever it takes to prevent a Kurdish state in Syria. First, make no mistake, there already is a Kurdish federal entity in Syria. Turkey may have opinions about Syria and Kurds, but the Syrian Kurds are not Turkish and there is little Turkey can do about “Rojava” absent a full-scale invasion (and that would only bog Turkey down in guerilla conflict in Syria and insurgency in Turkey like nothing it experienced in the 1980s and 1990s). But, by hyping the Syrian Kurds as an enemy, Erdoğan hopes to foment a crisis domestically. After all, it was the triumph of the People’s Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP) in the most recent elections that forced the AKP into defeat. The HDP makes little secret of its sympathy to Syrian Kurds. Both are essentially proxies of the broader Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK), a group that once waged insurgency inside Turkey and which the Turkish government considers terrorists, but with which it is now engaged in a peace process. If Erdoğan hypes the Syrian Kurdish threat and goes on war footing, then he can essentially use emergency powers to disqualify or dirty tricks to suppress the Kurdish vote in any re-count. Selahattin Demirtaş, the charismatic co-head of the HDP, better have good security. It is a Catch-22 for him. He knows threats against his life are real, but if he restricts his public appearances, then Erdoğan wins.
Erdoğan believes that by means of crisis and a new election, he can regain his majority, after which he can push forward his path to constitutional change that will formalize his role, essentially, as Turkey’s dictator. Call it what it is: a self-coup. It happened in Peru in 1992, it happened in Pakistan in 1997, and it may just well happen in Turkey in 2015.