You’ve probably noticed that Turkey has been flexing its regional muscles a bit lately. They’ve invaded Syria and are currently pounding America’s Kurdish proxies north of Aleppo–which may seem confusing if you’re still under the assumption that Turkey and the US share anything more than a very nominal NATO alliance. They’ve also effectively invaded northern Iraq under the guise that they were invited, and are currently lobbying to be included in the Mosul offensive–though it remains to be seen if President Tayyip Erdoğan’s “you’re not fit to clean my toilets” charm offensive will win Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi over.
We’re seeing this assertive regional policy for a number of reasons (containing the PYD/YPG in northern Syria, asserting Turkey’s long-held view that Mosul is part of its near abroad, a bit of typical international dick-measuring, etc.), but the main reason is that Erdoğan believes an assertive regional policy will help him increase his support back home, and thereby help him finally push through a constitutional amendment to increase the formal powers of the office he holds, the Turkish presidency. This cause, though it’s faced setbacks in the past and has kind of been pushed under the radar a bit, is the driving force behind pretty much everything Erdoğan does. It’s his ultimate goal.
And it looks like he’s closer than ever to finally achieving it. Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman reported a couple of days ago that Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is planning to hold a referendum in April on constitutional changes that would transform Turkey’s government from a parliamentary system with a relatively weak president to a presidential system on steroids, in which most of the power rests with the executive–or, in other words, with Erdoğan. I say “presidential system on steroids” because while, for example, the US operates under a presidential system, what Erdoğan has in mind is something far more like Russia, where the president has virtually total authority over every part of the government.
AKP has been reluctant to push for a referendum in parliament because even with its current 317 seats, it’s still short of the number of votes it would need to either institute changes outright (367 seats) or call for a referendum (330 seats). But, as Zaman reports, help may be on the way:
MHP leader Devlet Bahceli asserted that while he favored sticking with the current parliamentary system, his party would be prepared “to carry out to the letter whatever falls upon us [to assure] Turkey’s political and legal stability.”
In follow-up remarks this week about a possible referendum Bahceli said, “There is no problem asking the people.”
Only months ago, Bahceli had blasted Erdogan’s presidential ambitions, saying a presidential system would “inevitably lead to despotism.” Bahceli has sought to cast his volte-face as that of a statesman uniting behind democracy in the wake of the failed coup attempt in July. He has since championed Erdogan’s twin clampdowns on the Gulenists and the pro-Kurdish opposition. He has also backed the extension of emergency rule and Erdogan’s calls for Turkish intervention in Mosul.
Erdoğan has been courting the ultra-right wing nationalist MHP for many months now:
The MHP’s condition of a presidential regime that takes into account its “sensitivities” is the first signal to that effect. And the party’s “sensitivities” basically mean that:
- any formula of decentralization, like autonomy, regional administrations or enhanced powers for existing local administrations, should be ruled in the context of the Kurdish issue;
- existing constitutional provisions that define citizenship on the basis of “Turkishness” should be preserved; and
- national symbols like the flag, the language and the education language should remain the same.
What these preconditions have in common is that they all block political avenues in the Kurdish problem, like negotiations, political settlements and peaceful initiatives. This, however, would be no bother for the AKP. On the Kurdish problem, Erdogan has adopted an approach similar to the one of the MHP, thus opening the door to their alliance.
The Kurdish problem is also a key aspect in Erdogan’s interventionist policies in Syria and Iraq. While in Turkey, his policy is based on ruling out any effort other than the military one; in Syria and Iraq, it is focused on curbing the Democratic Union Party and the Kurdistan Workers Party and keeping them away from any negotiation table.
In sum, a common fear of Turkey’s breakup and partition, sparked by the rise of the Kurds in the Middle East, is the basic ingredient of the AKP-MHP partnership under the presidential regime umbrella.
Erdoğan veered right in the hopes that he could either form an arrangement with Bahçeli or peel away enough MHP voters to get a parliamentary supermajority. As it’s become clear that Erdoğan will never stop pushing to award himself more unchecked authority by whatever means necessary, it would seem that Bahçeli has finally decided he’d rather get on board the Erdoğan train than get run over by it. But if you’re hoping that Erdoğan will ease off on, say, killing Kurds once he’s gotten what he wants, I wouldn’t hold your breath. The fact that he’s had to throw in with the virulently anti-Kurd MHP to accomplish his goals augurs pretty poorly for the chances of a dramatic shift in his Kurdish policy.