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Turkish Democracy Is Being Quietly Stolen

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Remember how, two months ago, hopes for Turkish democracy were buoyed by the success of a Kurdish party that managed to appeal across ethnic divides and make it into parliament? How that seemed to thwart President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's plans to create a Russian-style presidency? His ruling party seemed poised, for the first time since gaining power in 2002, to govern in a coalition. 

None of that happened. 

The election took place as described on June 7, but Erdogan ignored the result: He never authorized the winners (his own Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP) to form a new coalition government. And while he may eventually ask Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to create a minority cabinet with some nationalists, the goal will probably be only to hold new elections in the fall. 

This is worse than it looks because, in order to reverse the election result, Erdogan will need to break the alliance between Turkish liberals and Kurds that allowed the Kurdish People's Democratic Party, or HDP, to make it into parliament. And the best way to do that is to revive the ethnic hatreds that mired Turkey in a 30-year war starting in the mid-1980s, costing an estimated 40,000 lives and untold economic opportunity. 

To outsiders, it may not be obvious that this is already happening. Erdogan's decision to finally let the U.S. fly airstrikes against Islamic State from its base at Incirlik has diverted people's attention. But at the same time, Turkey renewed airstrikes against Kurdish insurgents (not part of the HDP), who quickly ended a cease-fire they declared in 2013. 

The U.S. air-base rights are helpful, though unlikely to prove decisive in changing the prospects for defeating Islamic State. The renewed war between Turkey and Kurdish militants, on the other hand, is very likely to destroy Turkish democracy. 

Erdogan has by now proved he's no democrat. He is, however, a brilliant politician. In 2009, he began a so-called Kurdish Opening to secure Kurdish votes for himself and his party. Turkey's ethnic Kurds were a natural constituency for Erdogan's conservative AKP, because taken as a whole they are among the country's most religiously conservative people. Yet Kurds had to be persuaded to vote for any ruling Turkish party in greater numbers. So he needed to defuse the conflict without alienating his own Turkish-nationalist base. 

The path was tortuous, but this year Erdogan had reason to hope that those Kurds who didn't vote for his party would win only their customary 6 percent as independents, and -- at least tacitly -- back Erdogan's new constitution in return for certain concessions. Instead, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas categorically ruled out supporting a presidential constitution, decided that Kurdish candidates would run as a party, and appealed for ethnic Turks to back him in order to defeat Erdogan's plans for an elected autocracy.

And Demirtas succeeded. His party crossed Turkey's 10 percent threshold to enter parliament, robbing the president of the strong parliamentary majority he needed to approve a new constitution that would have given him the kind of absolute control that President Vladimir Putin enjoys in Russia.

Rather than accept this defeat and allow a coalition government to be formed, Erdogan has ignored the vote. His preference seems to be to force a new election so that he can try to drive the HDP back below the threshold.

Luckily for Erdogan, the Kurdish peace process was always fragile. The PKK, a military insurgency that uses terrorist tactics and has a bizarre Marxist-style ideology, had always been reluctant to lay down its weapons and has been quick to return to violence. Now Demirtas is in the invidious position of having to either back the government's war against fellow Kurds, or throw in his lot with terrorists. Either course would cost him support. 

If Erdogan succeeds in using a rekindled Kurdish conflict to secure his presidential powers, it will be difficult for Turkish democracy to survive in any meaningful sense. Meanwhile, adding a hot Turkish-Kurdish conflict to the morass of Iraq and Syria will make it that much harder to piece the region's sectarian and ethnic puzzle back together. 

The only way to thwart Erdogan's plans now would be for the HDP to go on condemning Kurdish violence and for liberal Turks to stick by the party in a future vote, banding with Kurds such as Demirtas to defend the democratic process. That, however, would take an extraordinary level of restraint and political maturity from both sides. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net