When it comes to democracy, perhaps Tunisia should now be teaching Turkey.
After the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, it seemed as if it would be the other way around. Then, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now president, toured the region in triumph, promoting the so-called Turkish model of reconciling Islamism with democracy to produce prosperity. He even publicly advised Egypt’s short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government to adopt a secular constitution, much to its irritation.
The Arab Spring, of course, quickly turned to nightmare — except in Tunisia. Ennahda, that country’s iteration of the Brotherhood, chose to share power and form a coalition with secular parties, rather than try to rule alone and impose its views. That consensual approach to politics has made Tunisia a target for attack by extremist groups, such as Islamic State, and the country has struggled to return to pre-2011 growth rates. Still, Ennahda’s choice has made Tunisia the sole democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring, and the country has avoided the civil strife experienced in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen.
Erdogan has now chosen the opposite path.
On Thursday, his ally, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, delivered the unsurprising news that he had failed to form a governing coalition. Elections in June left the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, without a majority, so a rerun of that vote is now inevitable. Only the date remains to be decided.
Davutoglu, however, is a cipher. The decision not to form a coalition was made by Erdogan as soon as the votes were in, because, unlike Ennahda, Turkey’s president is not willing to share power.
After the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, won 13 percent of the June 7 vote, robbing the AKP of the right to rule alone, Erdogan failed to gain the supermajority he needed to adopt a new constitution that would formally concentrate powers in the presidency. He also had to abandon his fallback position: to assume those powers under existing laws, running the country with a compliant AKP government.
But Erdogan didn’t reconcile himself to this result. He quickly started preparing the ground for a new vote, in which he hopes the Kurdish party will score below the 10 percent threshold needed to enter parliament. Since the June vote, he has ended the peace process with Kurdish militants, rekindling a 30-year war that has cost about 40,000 lives. Of course, Erdogan says he is trying to ensure the people’s will is done. And it didn’t take much to get the Kurdish group known as PKK to restart their insurgency, allowing the president to say he is responding to terrorism. But Erdogan hasn’t made much effort to hide his intentions.
In a speech this week, he accused the HDP of being run by the guerrillas. Two weeks ago, he called for the parliamentary immunity of the Kurdish party’s 80 legislators to be stripped, so they could be prosecuted and “pay the price” for their alleged links to terrorists. This is a ludicrous charge: Until recently, he collaborated with the HDP on the peace process.
Erdogan has also made clear why he suddenly turned on the Kurdish political party: It had the temerity to campaign against his constitutional plan, potentially thwarting his goal of becoming the founder of a “new” and transformed Turkey by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the secular republic created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
It is increasingly clear that Erdogan’s personal ambitions are harming the country. Growth and the Turkish lira have been severely undermined as investors have gradually understood the extent to which Erdogan is destroying the institutions of Turkish democracy and threatening the country’s stability. The announcement by Davutoglu on Thursday caused another sharp dive in the value of Turkish equities and the lira, as markets braced for more months of uncertainty. The lira has gone from 1.80 per U.S. dollar in 2012, to more than 2.80 to the dollar. Economic growth declined to 2.9 percent last year, from slightly less than 9 percent in 2012.
If there is hope for Turkey, it is that Erdogan has overreached and will eventually be forced to compromise. He is trying to erase longstanding democratic institutions that are well-understood by much of the population. Tunisia, by contrast, is trying to build those institutions from the wreck of a toppled dictatorship.
There’s little cause for reassurance, though. Erdogan’s support base is fervently loyal and anger at the PKK runs deep in Turkey, so the president may get his way. Even so, perhaps enough Turks and Kurds will see through this attempt to override the popular will for a coalition government, clearly expressed June 7 and ensure that Erdogan isn’t rewarded for demanding another vote.
Erdogan’s scorched-earth tactics are leading Turkey toward violence, instability and democratic and economic failure. There is too much of that in the Middle East already.
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 and the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times. He is based in London.