A nation divided.

Photographer: Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg

Erdogan the Conqueror

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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Two recent anniversaries define the choice Turkey will make in elections on Sunday. The first, marked by a huge rally last weekend led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recalls the capture of Constantinople by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. The other was the second anniversary of protests in Istanbul's Gezi Park, which Erdogan crushed. Turkish police blocked its commemoration.

It is the Gezi protests that voters should remember when they go to the polls. Along with the rest of the world, Turks should hope that the Kurdish party, now attempting to rekindle the spark of Gezi Park, ends up winning a share of seats in parliament.

QuickTake Turkish Divide

Erdogan towers over Turkish politics, and the elections will almost certainly keep his Justice and Development Party, the AKP, in power. But Turkey's president is looking for more than that. He is tapping into a deep Turkish tradition of "bigman" leaders, described by the sociologist Jenny White as both father figures and heroes:

Until the 1990s, Turks still referred to the state as Devlet Baba, “Father State,” and related to it as dependents with rights due to a member of the family. Poor women sometimes tried to give their children to the governor or to another political figure to care for.

Elections, White says, serve for many Turks to give a kind of magical imprimatur to the Bigman.

Erdogan isn't shy about the bigness of his ambitions. He has built a presidential palace four times the size of Versailles and, for Saturday's rally, the AKP rolled out the largest poster ever made (the Guinness Book of Records measured it) of himself and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Also in attendance were members of the 500-strong, Ottoman-styled ceremonial (and personal) guard that Erdogan recently had the army create for him. Erdogan wants the elections to give him enough votes in parliament to adopt a new presidential constitution for Turkey, which would consolidate power in his hands.

This Bigman appeal is more in tune with Turkey’s political experience than are the demands for individual rights and freedoms that the diverse, mostly youthful crowds made in Gezi Park. That's why it is a tiny Kurdish party -- not the main secularist opposition founded by Turkey's previous Bigman, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk -- that's trying to capitalize on the Gezi Park spirit.

The Kurdish-led Peoples' Democratic Party, or HDP, will struggle to get the 10 percent of the vote that's required to enter parliament. If it succeeds, though, it will take about 50 of the 550 seats in parliament, in all probability robbing Erdogan of his presidential constitution: Without these 50 seats, the AKP is unlikely to get the 330 seats needed to call a constitutional referendum, let alone the 367 to adopt a new basic law with a simple parliamentary vote.

If the HDP gets 9.9 percent of the vote or less, however, it will get no representation at all. Any seats it wins would be transferred to Erdogan's AKP, giving Erdogan what he wants.

It's reasonable to ask, so what? If most Turks prefer a personality-centered leadership style, what's wrong with that? And if they'd like to see their country be more Middle Eastern than European, why not?

But Turkey -- unlike, say, Russia -- is roughly evenly divided between those who love and loathe having an autocratic leader. And -- again unlike Russia -- Turkey has had decades of experience with highly participatory and relatively clean elections: Democracy is not a dirty word.

Turkey is also a complex polity in terms of the way people identify themselves and vote: By religion, as Sunni versus Alevi (close cousins to Syrian Alawites, accounting for 15 percent to 20 percent of the population); religiosity (devout or Islamist versus secular); and ethnicity (Turks versus Kurds, who make up about 18 percent of the population).

Erdogan's genius has been to play these identities against one another at various times, shuffling and then resplitting the deck as circumstances change to maximize support for himself and the AKP. Most recently, to minimize the threat from the HDP, Erdogan has abandoned the Kurdish peace process he had -- to his credit -- been pursuing. During the campaign he has instead encouraged fears about Kurdish separatism that are held even by liberal Turks. And he has raised suspicions among devout Kurds that the leftist HDP is irreligious.

All's fair in love, war and election campaigns, of course. Yet what might happen if the Kurds are excluded from parliament should concern everyone. The HDP say they wouldn't restart the Kurdish war, which killed some 40,000 people since the 1980s, yet they may not be able to prevent that happening. The combination of angry Kurds and increasingly authoritarian presidency could be explosive.

Less commented on is that the HDP is also appealing to Turkey's Alevi minority. A third of the 450 HDP candidates are Alevi. Only 100 are Kurds; and the rest are Sunni Turks, Armenians and others. Alevis have traditionally voted for the main secularist opposition to Erdogan, the Republican Peoples' Party, or CHP. Yet Turgut Oeker, an Alevi HDP candidate, told me that the spectacle of Kurdish fighters defending Yazidi and Assyrian minorities in Iraq and Syria, together with their powerful defense against the Sunni extremists of Islamic State at Kobani, has for the first time persuaded him that it's acceptable to back Kurds he once saw as a terrorist threat. He's hoping that the HDP will get most of the extra votes it needs from Alevis.

All of this matters, says Oeker, because it creates the space for a party to develop based on ideas, rather than religion, nationalism or ethnicity -- what you might call a normal democracy.

The Bigman -- Erdogan's supporters call him "the Tall Man" -- is bound to go on dominating political life after Sunday. But for the country's weakened democratic institutions to survive, and for Turkey to remain delicately balanced between East and West, the Kurds and their new friends need to win, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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