To Save Turkey’s Democracy, the Country’s Opposition must Offer Erdogan a Grand Bargain


Turkish democracy is dying. Of the three parties in the country’s legislature that oppose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the leader of the first — the Peoples Democracy Party (HDP) — has been jailed by Erdogan. The leader of the second — the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) — has said he wants to join forces with Erdogan. And the leader of the third, and main opposition faction — the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — has been labeled a “national security issue” by Erdogan’s deputy prime minister.

Erdogan’s crackdown is not irrational. Rather, it is a deliberate calculation. He is a prototype of populist and right-wing leaders that seem to be on the rise in many regions of the world. Since coming to power in 2003, he has demonized so many opposition groups — a number of people Erdogan arrested have died in jail while waiting to appear in court — that he faces certain prosecution if he loses elections. To avoid being ousted democratically, Erdogan has decided to end democracy in Turkey.

The problem for Erdogan is that despite his best efforts to build a majority in his favor, and even with extensive allegations of voter fraud, he only won by 51 percent in a recent referendum to increase his executive powers. Erdogan’s policies have not created a solid majority, but a deeply polarized society.

His opposition — which constitutes nearly half of Turkey, and includes leftists, social-democrats, liberals, secularists, Alevis, and Kurdish nationalists — detests him. And yet by delivering economic growth, and fanning conservative, and often politically Islamist views, Erdogan has built a base that shares his politics — the other half of Turkey, which adores him.

Erdogan’s future hangs by a thread. Although he won the referendum by the slimmest of margins, he lost the vote among 18 to 32 year-olds, who came of political age after his rise, by a 5 point margin. The majority of people raised under him reject Erdogan, and as more of these youth come of voting age, he faces the risk of being defeated in the next elections in 2019. This is why he has been taking steps to stymie democracy in Turkey.

Following the failed 2016 plot against him, which awakened Erdogan’s worst fears about falling from power, the Turkish government put in place a state of emergency to pursue coup plotters.

Erdogan has used the state of emergency to broaden his crackdown on the half of the country that refuses to fold under him. And he has extended the state of emergency, which gives his police the right to detain anyone without a court order, five times. For the most recent extension, Erdogan said that the state of emergency will remain in place “until there is peace and welfare in Turkey.”

Going forward, he will ensure that elections are not free or fair. Allegations of voter fraud have already emerged: in the aftermath of the referendum, statements from European election monitoring body Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe warned that unequally distributed state resources had created an unfair campaign season. But Erdogan dismissed such allegations and refused to allow a voter fraud inquiry after the referendum — because there is no graceful exit for him.

Turkey’s democracy is on a death watch. It will only be saved if factions opposing Erdogan come together and offer him a grand bargain, including a promise that he and his administration will not be prosecuted should they lose elections. This offer of blanket amnesty should extend also to the members of Erdogan’s family who have been implicated in corruption allegations.

Turkey’s intellectuals, in pro- and anti-Erdogan camps alike, can play a role in this process, acting in the common interests of all citizens, by drafting an open letter. It would call for anti- and pro-Erdogan factions in the country to come together around a new social consensus. The pro- and anti-Erdogan blocks, each 40-million strong, are equally large demographically as well as politically, and neither side will vanish regardless of how hard the other side tries to eliminate it. This initiative should proceed on the basis of that social fact.

The way forward for Turkey is a new societal consensus that would simultaneously provide freedom of religion for the country’s pious half and conservatives, and freedom from religion for secularists and liberals. The intellectuals’ role would be to start a public debate that would then be taken up by the country’s four main parties represented in the legislature.

While liberals and leftists have traditionally dominated among Turkey’s intellectuals, at every stage, pro-Erdogan thinkers and opinion-makers ought to be involved in this process which should culminate in joint action by the parties in the legislature. The latter should act to write conjoined freedoms of and from religion into the country’s constitution as an amendment, paving the ground for a grand compromise between the Turkey’s pro- and anti-Erdogan halves.

A joint statement signed by all the parties in the country’s legislature should crown this compromise. The statement should outline Turkey’s history of win-lose politics that extends well into the pre-Erdogan years promising to put a definite end to this brand of national politics once and for all. Erdogan himself is intimately familiar with being on the losing side of politics. He was born in 1954 to a poor conservative family in a working-class Istanbul neighborhood and, for decades, suffered from discrimination in the hands of Turkey’s once secular political system and elites, including a jail term in 1999 — Hopefully this experience has left in him a kernel of sympathy for those who oppose him politically.

The end product should promise that neither Erdogan, nor any members of his party, family, or administration will face persecution for their acts in the past 15 years — in other words a truth and reconciliation manifesto. The Turkish Armed Forces, traditionally the most respected institution in the country, can be the guarantor of this manifesto. At first, it may not appear be such a good idea to invite the generals back into politics. Yet, being a conscript-based force, the Turkish military is a sole remaining institution in which pro- and anti-Erdogan Turks alike participate, coming together. The Turkish Armed Forces can not only play a role in bringing together Turkey’s disparate halves, but can also stand behind this proposition with more credibility than any other institution in the country.

This will be a tall order. Erdogan’s opposition comprises various fractions. Some of these groups, such as the leftists, despise him so deeply that consensus will be difficult to secure. And Erdogan himself may not agree to take the olive branch, regardless of how ironclad its terms are, refusing to trust the opposition’s commitment to amnesty. Many people in his camp are unrepentant and might not see the virtue in any sort of deal.

Still, the greatest risk facing Erdogan is that, if he does not reach a compromise with his opposition, parts of his 40-million-strong opposition, such as far leftists, could radicalize, turning violent. At this juncture, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a violent Kurdish nationalist group that has been fighting Turkey for decades, would be more than happy to act as the avant garde of Erdogan’s violent opposition. The PKK has already positioned itself in this role, exclusively targeting officials of Erdogan’s AKP, as well as members of his security forces. The group’s most deadly attack in the last decade took place in December 2016 when it bombed government buses carrying police officers in downtown Istanbul, killing 36 cops and injuring many others.

This outcome is dangerous. Turkey has an unfortunate history of right-left political violence going back to the 1970s Today, it is not implausible that hard-leftist as well as Kurdish violence could trigger widespread unrest in Turkey, with radical right-wing political Islamists in the pro-Erdogan camp taking up arms themselves. Among these groups, ISIL has already demonstrated its eagerness to play storm-trooper role against Erdogan’s detractors: In addition to foreigners, the group has exclusively targeted liberal Turks, social-democrats, leftists, socialists, Alevis (who are liberal Muslims), and Kurdish nationalists — which together constitute the anti-Erdogan camp in Turkey — in terror attacks since 2015, killing over two hundred people.

Erdogan has good reason to take his many rivals at home and abroad and the threat they pose to his rule seriously. For his own part, the Turkish leader has many enemies, from Russia and the Assad regime to the PKK, who hope that he will fail. Despite recent efforts to make up with Ankara, Moscow is ultimately interested in deepening Turkey’s political crisis. According to former State Department official Naz Durakoglu, in the run up to the April 2017 referendum, Sputnik Turkiye, Turkish language version of Russian-government owned news and propaganda outlet, produced many times more the combined output of other foreign media in Turkey, and unlike these other outlets, campaigned almost exclusively against Erdogan.

Putin does not want to replace Erdogan with a liberal or leftist alternative. Rather, the Russian leader wants to exacerbate and prolong Turkey’s crisis between Erdogan’s supporters and opponents. Putin’s overarching goal is to see a weak NATO and a paralyzed Turkey, likely violently divided between pro- and anti-Erdogan camps, reinforces that goal. Turkey has NATO’s second largest military and is an important U.S. ally in the Middle East and southeastern Europe. It is not a matter of if, but when Russia will boost Erdogan’s current violent opposition, ranging from the PKK to Revolutionary Peoples Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), a hard-Marxist outfit, to undermine Turkey’s stability, and therefore weaken the transatlantic alliance.

Bashar al-Assad, who Erdogan has tried, in vain, to oust in Syria’s civil war is guaranteed to be a nemesis to Erdogan. Even if Erdogan slowly untangles Ankara from the Syrian conflict, Assad will not forget the fact that Erdogan has gone after him, supporting proxies, which have tried to kill him. The Syrian dictator will use his own proxies, such as the PKK and the DHKP-C, with which the Syrian government has ties stretching back to the Cold War, to hurt Erdogan, subsequently undermining Turkey’s stability.

This explains why Moscow has deployed troops to PKK-ally People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) Afrin enclave in northern Syria, abutting Turkey. Afrin is surrounded by Putin-ally Assad regime forces and Turkey and its allies in Syria. What is more, with Moscow’s encouragement, the Assad regime has opened up a land bridge from Aleppo to the YPG’s Manbij enclave in northern Syria, saving it from being overrun by Turkey-backed forces in Syria. By inserting himself into Kurdish politics, Putin (together with Assad) is ensuring that he has a Kurdish card to play against Erdogan, in Syria —and in Turkey.

Turkey’s opposition and Erdogan together have a chance to save the country and its democracy. This strategy is not guaranteed to work, but it is the only graceful exit that may be left.


Soner Cagaptay is the author of The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey, and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Image: CHP