eneral elections will be held no later than 2023, and opinion polls show the Erdogan-led AKP in decline. The ruling AKP-MHP bloc has fallen below 30 percent, and Erdogan’s chances of being re-elected president are dwindling with each passing day.
The primary effort of Erdoğan’s palace staff is focused on reversing this negative picture. The tactic so far has been to try to split the CHP-Iyi Party bloc by demonising the HDP. However, as the election date approaches, this anti-Kurdish practice becomes increasingly difficult to sustain. On the contrary, even the release of Kurdish political detainees, especially Demirtaş, may take place before the elections.
In these conditions, sensitive arithmetic calculations are made with the participation of MHP leader Bahçeli in order to lower the electoral threshold and switch to a narrowed electoral district system. More significantly though, until coming to the ballot box, important political and ideological manoeuvres are being made to reunite the religious/conservative votes under the AKP umbrella.
Islamist revival through de-secularisation
The most important attempt to regain and consolidate the religious electorate was to drag the Chairman of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), Ali Erbaş, to the frontline and create a believer-nonbeliever polarisation over the secularism debate. The government’s strongest de-secularisation signal was having high court judges pray behind Erbaş at the opening ceremony of the judicial year in September. However, the Diyanet chairman’s bombardment of statements in a short time suggests much more than the de-secularisation of the judiciary: his call to regulate social media according to Islamic principles; emphasis on the need to reorganise commercial, social and private areas on the axis of belief; coding of eating/drinking preferences and the language used in daily life according to religious criteria, etc. These statements herald a comprehensive totalitarian intervention from the state to all aspects of life, including civil society, family and even the individual, by subjecting all political, civic and private entities to religious control. This combined de-secularisation and Islamisation move, which started with the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, should be expected to intensify as the election date approaches, with tightening legal regulations, prohibitions and sanctions.
Another important step in this direction is to re-wear the ‘National Vision’ shirt, which was taken off twenty years ago by Tayyip Erdoğan and his friends while founding the AKP. National Vision is the name of the Islamist movement initiated by Necmettin Erbakan in the 1960s. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Erdogan, was formed by splitting from the Virtue Party, the last in a chain of Islamist parties that were constantly formed by Erbakan and his followers and closed by the authorities. The founders of the AKP announced that they were leaving this line with a moderate and modern Islamist program. With Erdoğan’s new turn, this ‘classic’ Islamist line, which had been left behind, is now being reclaimed.
The first meeting between Erdoğan and Oğuzhan Asiltürk, the ‘trustee’ of the ‘National Vision’ movement and chairman of the advisory board of the Saadet Party (SP – the main Islamist party in the opposition), resulted in Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, which protects women’s rights. After Erdogan’s second visit to him last August, Asiltürk announced that SP would join the ruling bloc in exchange for the guarantee of 20 parliamentary seats. The SP leadership did not approve of this statement. The hospitalisation of 88-year-old Asiltürk right in the middle of this controversy with the diagnosis of Covid-19 must be really worrying for Erdoğan.
A covert move of the unity attempt on the religious front is spoken of as re-establishing the dialogue with the Gülen community. Especially since the coup attempt of 15 July 2016, Erdoğan declared war on the religious leader Fethullah Gülen and his community, with whom he had previously cooperated. Erdoğan’s war consisted of the imprisonment of hundreds of Gülenists, and the expulsion in their thousands from the ranks of the military, judiciary, police, universities and national education. Gülenist spokesman Emre Uslu confirmed the alleged rapprochement attempt, stating that one of the leading figures of AKP, Mücahit Aslan, requested to meet with the leaders of the community in the USA. Known as Erdogan’s ‘black box’, Mücahit Aslan is also known for unsuccessful lobbying attempts in the US for Erdogan’s request for an appointment after Biden’s election as president. As an indication of a secret Erdoğan-Gülen deal, it would not be a surprise if some of the Gülenist prisoners were released when the election date becomes clear.
Aiming to unite the pious electorate under Erdoğan’s hegemony, these moves essentially hope to strangle the uptrend Deva and Future parties (both AKP splitters), and to tear off the other Islamist party SP from the opposition bloc. In addition, conservative Kurdish votes that have flown to the HDP since 2015 are expected to return to the AKP.
War and civil war: fatal strategies
Recent opinion polls, however, indicate that these populist gestures towards religion did not turn the tables. On the contrary, Erdoğan’s recent position of denial of major issues, including the shortage of affordable student accommodation, rise of inflation and the Kurdish question, has further tarnished the government’s reputation.
The only way to win re-election in this climate seems to be resorting to security discourse by triggering the nationalist paranoia of ‘existential threat’. At a time when even the nationalist opposition demonstrates their will to solve the Kurdish issue, it seems difficult to create an atmosphere of conflict over the Kurds. In these conditions, some Middle East experts draw attention to the possibility of starting a war with Syria with the official annexation of the Idlib province, where tens of thousands of armed jihadists are concentrated under Turkish protection. However, such a move is not possible without the American or Russian consent (or both). Erdoğan was rejected by President Biden during his recent US visit and began to talk about the importance of a meeting with Putin scheduled for later this week.
Although it seems unlikely that Putin would prefer Erdoğan, who does not fit one day to another, over Asad, whom he managed to get his hand on after immense Russian sacrifices, nothing is impossible in the international arena, especially in the Middle East.
If neither the Islamist revival nor nationalist paranoia is enough to save Erdoğan’s waning popularity, then the question arises as to what kind of a ‘contingency plan’ may be put into action. Rumours vary. The first option is to prevent the elections and if this attempt fails, to violently interfere with the polling stations, ballot boxes and election results.
The first scenario envisages the suspension of elections ‘until further notice’. On this path, both the confessional mafioso Sedat Peker and journalist Ahmet Nesin warn that there may be important political assassinations in the near future. As a matter of fact, the original intention of the attack on the HDP Izmir provincial office last June was a political assassination or mass murder. There was a scheduled meeting of the party’s leading figures at the office at the time of the attack, but at the last moment the meeting was canceled without the knowledge of the murderer Onur Gencer. In this case, the shooter only found party employee Deniz Poyraz to kill at the scene. Among the possible victims of the prospected chain of political assassinations is the former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, who seems to have survived July 15 coup attempt by chance. Peker, on the other hand, warns persistently that prominent figures of the Alevi community or Alevi temples may be targeted.
The scenario continues as chaos resulting from such assassinations or mass massacres leads to the declaration of a state of emergency. In the social turmoil, Erdoğan’s paramilitary force SADAT is expected to be deployed alongside the regular army and the police. Sedat Peker claims that SADAT mercenaries were mobilised during the July 15 coup attempt. It is thought that armed Islamist groups formed from various wings of al-Qaeda jihadists under the name of FSA to serve as Turkey’s proxy forces in Syria and Libya will also be included in this equation. In this context, it would be correct to recall that the murderer Onur Gencer, who attacked the Izmir HDP, is also linked to both SADAT and the FSA in Syria as a ‘medical worker’. As part of this plan, the presence of thousands of young male refugees, some in uniform, who have entered Turkey via Iran in recent months and are thought to be Afghan army deserters, is also mentioned.
These nightmarish scenarios would sound like forced fantasies if Erdoğan’s extreme will to hold on to power and what he did between June 7 and November 1, 2015* or on July 15, 2016** were not known.
* AKP lost its parliamentary majority to form a monoparty goverment in June 7, 2015 elections. Instead of searching for coalition options, President Erdoğan decided a snap-election to be scheduled for November 1. Between the two elections, unprecedented violence mainly by the Islamist extremists shook the country. The biggest incidents were the Suruç bombing of July 20, which claimed the lives of 34 pro-Kurdish political activists and Ankara bombing of October 10, when a peace rally was attacked by suicide bombers, killing 109 demonstrators. In the mean time, the Turkish government also declared the end of peace process with the Kurds and initiated military attacks from land and air on Kurdish cities, with the pretext of fighting terrorism. In the end, the tables turned and AKP won the November snap elections.
** Alleged military coup attempt in Turkey