Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s gamble to hold a snap election just months after voters denied his party a parliamentary majority may pay off, but only just, according to pollsters.
The combative president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) appears to be regaining the approval of nationalist voters in the run-up to next month’s crucial parliamentary elections — thanks mainly to tough nationalist talk, including bruising rhetorical attacks on the West, and the government’s counter-terror operations against separatist Kurds.
Erdoğan has promised his counter-terror fight will continue until "not one terrorist is left”. And by talking tough on the Kurds, the AKP hopes to win back voters who either didn’t vote in June or switched to other parties.
Ankara-based pollster Mehmet Murat Pösteki says his analysis suggests Erdoğan’s counter-terror fight focused on the Kurds is “paving the way for the AKP to regain votes that shifted to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)." He thinks the AKP at the moment is short just one seat to be able to form a single-party government.
With just 12 days to go to the November 1 polls, Erdoğan and top party officials have intensified their belligerent rhetoric, lambasting Europeans and the West in general and maintaining an 'us-verses-them' view of the country. The Kurds, members of other minority communities, leftists and opposition activists are being relegated to 'them' status in a politics of polarization which will make it highly difficult to agree on a coalition government after the November 1 polls, if the AKP fails to secure a majority.
At an election rally last week heralded as “Millions of Breaths as One Voice against Terror,” Turkey’s president implored Turks to vote on November 1 for “domestic” candidates.
“I think you understand what I mean, don't you?" he thundered at the rally held in Istanbul's working-class district of Yenikapi. Erdogan's target was clear: the pro-Kurdish opposition, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), that helped deny the AKP a majority in June.
In a report earlier this month the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, said Erdoğan’s muscular nationalism would likely secure the AKP the 276 seats required for a parliamentary majority.
Supporters of Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) celebrate as their leader and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu arrives to deliver a speech during a rally, in Istanbul, Turkey, Oct. 7, 2015.
Loss of support
Some pollsters say the AKP lost some ground in the immediate wake of the twin suicide bombing in Ankara 10 days ago that left 102 people dead.
Accusations of government incompetence — and even collusion leveled by some pro-Kurdish leaders — hurt the party’s standing among swing voters. But overall the Erdoğan electoral playbook may work this time round.
In June it didn’t. The nationalist MHP picked up some traditional AKP voters and enough centrist voters moved from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) to the pro-Kurdish HDP to deny Erdoğan’s party a majority, dashing the President’s hope of re-writing the country’s constitution.
Pre-election surveys by pollsters Gezici Research suggested the AKP lost significant popular support because of President Erdoğan's nationalist rhetoric.
But with the breakdown of a two-year-long peace process with the Kurds and separatist attacks in southeast Turkey continuing despite an election cease-fire declared by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), “anti-Kurdish sentiments have skyrocketed since the June 7 election,” says Lisel Hintz of Cornell University’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. Six more Turkish soldiers were killed at the weekend in two separate incidents.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, following a joint statement after their meeting in Istanbul, Oct. 18, 2015.
Disapproval of West
Not content with taking aim at the Kurds — both with airstrikes and verbal broadsides — Erdoğan and top party officials have maintained a steady beat of disapproval of the West, in the past week symbolized by the European Union.
The visit to Turkey at the weekend by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was seeking to calm a dispute between Ankara and Brussels over a draft deal between them to stem the refugee flow from Turkey into Europe, was used as an occasion by Erdoğan to launch some vintage broadsides.
Erdoğan mocked the Europeans for “insincerity” over a promise to re-energize accession talks and introduce visa-free travel to Europe for Turks. Erdoğan seemed to demand instead immediate Turkish membership in the European Union — an unrealistic stance that is likely to antagonize some European politicians, who have already argued Ankara is trying to use the refugee crisis to blackmail the European Union into agreeing visa-free travel for Turks.
On Sunday in an interview with the BBC, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş said he remains “confident that the [November] election will see a re-run of the June.”
Either way, “Turkey is at a critical juncture in its history,” according to Kati Piri, an EU lawmaker and member of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee. She told reporters here last week: “One of the problems is that Turkey is so polarized that it would need a president at this moment … who will play the role of bringing groups together. I see a president who is very good in dividing groups.”