Erdogan’s Violent Victory – Roger Cohen/The New York Times

by Newsstand

ISTANBUL — For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, violence made all the difference. It turned “stability” into the key word of an election that ushered his Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., to the decisive victory denied it in the June 7 vote. One-party rule is back in Turkey and one man pulls the strings.

Improbably, Erdogan was able to embody stability when the politics of instability have been his modus operandi over the past five months. Or perhaps not so improbably — Erdogan, in power now for a dozen years, understands the psychology of fear and the force of Sunni Turkish nationalism, especially when the old specter of the Kurdish conflict appears.

The president has played with fire. His stance toward the terror-wielding jihadis of the Islamic State has married symbolic opposition to benign negligence, enough anyway to produce two terrorist attacks, one near the Syrian border on July 20 and one last month in Ankara, that left about 130 people dead. Most of the victims were Kurds. Goaded and attacked on several fronts in recent months, inside and beyond Turkish borders, the militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or P.K.K., returned to violence, killing two Turkish policemen on July 22. The old war stirred. It allowed Erdogan to suggest that only he stood between Turkey and the mayhem in neighboring states.

That, in a nutshell, is what changed between June and now. Erdogan did not respect the will of the people, of which he likes to speak. The June result was not to his liking; he set out, by all means, to overturn it and secure a parliamentary majority. Fragility was his political ally.

The A.K.P., embodying the conservative Sunni nationalism of the Anatolian heartland against the republican secularism of the coast, leapt to 49.3 percent of the vote from 40.9 percent in June. It took 317 seats, enough to govern alone, against 258 five months ago. A far-right party and the Kurdish-dominated People’s Republic Party, or H.D.P., lost votes as extreme nationalists and conservative Kurds opted for Erdogan. The scale of the shift, in short order, was extraordinary.

Still, the H.D.P., the new kid on the Turkish political block, managed to pass — just — the 10 percent legal threshold to enter Parliament. That was critical. Without the H.D.P., the A.K.P. dominance would have been so crushing as to enable Erdogan to change the Constitution and create an executive presidency on a whim. He will still push for that, but there will be pushback. Turkey, long the best hope for a Middle Eastern Muslim democracy, has not yet disappeared entirely over the authoritarian brink, but it is close.

Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic leader of the H.D.P., said, “Maybe we lost one million votes but we are a party that managed to stand up against all massacre policies.” That, he suggested, was a “great victory.” Certainly, it was a significant one.

The H.D.P. is wounded but not moribund, despite widespread arrests of its members. Its future may hinge on how far Demirtas, criticized for not condemning P.K.K. violence with sufficient stringency, is able to chart a new, inclusive and nonviolent Kurdish course. Its appeal to non-Kurdish voters, the surprising development of June, hinges on that.

But Demirtas is vulnerable to Erdogan’s machinations. It is unclear how far the turbulent downward spiral of the past five months can be contained. The president’s genie of violence is out of the bottle. He has attacked a free press, undermined the rule of law, polarized the country and instilled an atmosphere where any opponent is “anti-nation” and treasonous.

“Let’s work together toward a Turkey where conflict, tension and polarization are nonexistent,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, declared in victory. That, from Erdogan’s man, sounded like hypocrisy at best.

Turkey for now seems set on the intolerant path of the 21st century authoritarian democracies that owe much to President Vladimir Putin of Russia — societies where dominance of the media, manipulation of conflict, unbound nationalism and the trashing of the rule of law allow the creation of a democratic masquerade. This represents a betrayal of the fuller democracy, freed of the threat of military coups, Erdogan promised Turkey a dozen years ago and seemed for a moment to represent.

It is time to end that betrayal. The alternative is more violence. This was victory in a democracy undermined.

I spoke to Ahmet Hakan, a prominent journalist beaten up during the campaign by unknown assailants. Hakan comes from a background of A.K.P. sympathy but has become critical. “My biggest criticism is that they do not tolerate criticism,” he told me. “I am not categorically against the government but they are so intolerant they cannot tolerate this. I saw the A.K.P. as trying to democratize Turkey, but step by step it became a one-man party.”

I asked who attacked him. Government cronies? He declined to say. “But the political atmosphere under this government makes this possible.”

Erdogan’s Violent Victory – The New York Times