Islamist Politics and Turkey's Disunity

This post was co-authored by Veli Sirin, European director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.

The Islamist atrocities in Paris on November 13 have overshadowed a different but relevant crisis in radical Muslim politics. In Turkey, on November 1, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan regained its parliamentary majority. AKP had lost its control over the national legislature in June, when its representation fell from 327 to 258 out of 550. Erdoğan's followers have now clawed back to 317 seats.

Erdoğan has resigned from AKP officially, and the party's latest electoral campaign was led by Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Prime Minister. In June, two opposition parties made stunning gains. The secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) secured 132 members, reflecting the decline of its appeal. But the mainly-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) and the ultra-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) each received 80. In November, CHP rose to 134, while HDP dropped to 59 and MHP to 40. CHP was once the unquestioned dominant force in Turkish politics. Support for MHP has fluctuated during the first decade of the 21st century. Efforts between this year's two polling cycles to create an opposition coalition failed.

For Turks and Kurds inside the country and in its diaspora, the main immediate issue is that of Erdoğan's ambitions. The president has made clear that he seeks to impose a "hard" presidential system in Turkey, where he would be responsible for all significant decisions. Already, last year, he declared that the presidential institution had changed in Turkey and that it only remained to be made permanent in law. For him the November 1 victory is a means to continue his political agitation in that direction. Still, AKP failed to secure 367 seats, a two-thirds majority needed to change the Turkish constitution by parliamentary vote, centralizing command in the president's hands. To call a referendum on amendment of the constitution, he would need 330 seats, which AKP still lacks.

AKP and Erdoğan are set to form a one-party government that will pass laws and administer the country against considerable popular resentment. Turkey's problem with its discontented Kurdish minority will not go away. On the international stage, especially after the latest Paris terror assault, the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria are a little-acknowledged but important element. They have shown that they alone can defeat the so-called "Islamic State" (ISIS) on the ground. Support for the Kurds could save the rest of the world considerable expenditure of blood and treasure. Kurdish action could also help reverse the tide of refugees through Turkey to Europe, an increasingly-unmanageable problem.

Yet in his post-electoral victory speech Erdoğan repeated his adherence to the principle that Turkey would wage war against the Kurds. Turkey is an ostensible ally of the anti-ISIS coalition, but has allowed ISIS members to transit the national territory for combat in Syria, and has provided an outlet for ISIS sales of oil looted from Syrian and Iraqi territory.

This is Turkish reality: Erdoğan has already introduced, de facto, the far-reaching presidential powers he seeks, even without a two-thirds' majority in the parliament. He escaped the limits of parliamentary control long ago. He has won elections by weakening state institutions systematically, imposing his personal authority, and creating new instruments of power.

Regardless of constitutional referenda, Erdoğan behaves already like an authoritarian ruler. His followers admit that as a fully-empowered president, according to his vision, he would rule over the military, approve and obstruct laws and appoint and dismiss ministers. His position would be almost untouchable.

Erdoğan cannot unite Turkey. A new constitution might, however, bring the country together, alleviating the revived Kurdish insurgency, and ameliorating the divide between Western-minded people and the conservative Muslim majority.

Constitutional revision could be good for Turkey. The current constitution was promulgated in 1982, after a military coup. It reflects the mentality of the generals, and was intended to protect the power of the state rather than the freedom of the citizens. It defines all of the country's inhabitants as "Turkish," which remains provocative to the Kurds. Indeed, it established a 10-percent voting hurdle that long kept Kurdish representatives out of the parliament. The constitution has been modified but more improvements are needed; even the secularist CHP supports a constitutional change if it reinforces the foundations of the Turkish Republic as established in 1923. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş said after the November election that all models of governance could be considered, except one-man rule.

Erdoğan's position is not guaranteed. Prime Minister Davutoğlu may be dissatisfied at restrictions on his authority. In a pre-election interview with the London Financial Times, former president, prime minister, and foreign minister Abdullah Gül said the country needs more democracy. He praised the success of the HDP, affirmng that "problems should be solved by engaging with parties, not excluding them."

The world needs a genuinely democratic Turkey to help defeat ISIS. But can Erdoğan be diverted from his personal, overreaching political appetites to assume an essential global role?