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Turkey’s Erdogan uses terror fight for political gain

Turkey's bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq has diverted attention from "exploratory talks" between the ruling party and the political opposition for a new governing coalition. However, Turkey's president and commander-in-chief, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is almost certainly seeking to capitalize on the fight against terrorism to reassert himself as Turkey's de facto executive.

Airstrikes constitute part of Erdogan's strategy, of which another aspect is his direct implication of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition party in a spate of recent terrorist attacks in the hope that he can reduce its political traction. This reflects the success of the People's Democratic Party (HDP) in the June 2015 national elections, when, having broadened its support base, the party secured an historic 13 percent of votes.

Erdogan's accusations are an attempt to alienate the HDP's non-core, moderate, liberal, non-Kurdish constituents, partly at least to prevent the party from passing the 10 percent threshold required to enter parliament in the increasingly likely event that new elections are held in November.

If Erdogan succeeds, it will increase the chances of a victory for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)—and the president once again exercising largely unchecked executive power.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Murat Kaynak | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Power for the sake of stability—of course

Erdogan's strategy also targets other parties of the multiflorous political opposition.

The tough, decisive and nationalist stance taken by the government and Erdogan against terrorism and the Kurds is intended to erode support for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which came third in the June elections and shares the AKP's center-right, nationalist and religiously conservative ideological bent.

The MHP's leader, Devlet Bahceli has, until now, differentiated himself from Erdogan and the AKP by calling for the peace process with the Kurdish militants to cease. This platform has now been grabbed by Erdogan, with the militants and the Turkish state effectively at war.

Town of al-Qaim at the Iraqi-Syrian border
Patrick Baz | AFP | Getty Images
Town of al-Qaim at the Iraqi-Syrian border

Coalition talks non-starter?

Meanwhile, Erdogan is in all likelihood seeking to prevent coalition talks with the center-left Republican People's Party from succeeding and to cast the proverbial electoral dice in November this year.

A coalition government based on compromise is a non-starter for a man who is addicted to power, is convinced that he knows what is best for Turkey and wants to protect the interests of an elite network of senior AKP figures and crony capitalists. The latter have large stakes in national construction and infrastructure development projects, which underpin the president's economic growth model.

A left-wing protester waits in front of a barricade during clashes with Turkish riot police in Istanbul in July, 2015.
Ozan Kose | AFP | Getty Images

Deep uncertainty as new elections loom

Erdogan has in the past benefited from the incoherence of the political opposition, used his unrivaled political skills to great effect and enjoyed more than his fair share of luck over the past 12 plus years in power.

If he succeeds in sapping the support of the MHP and HDP, Erdogan would increase the chance of the AKP securing the 276 seats in the 550-seat Grand National Assembly required to govern as a single party. Although Turkey's president is under the constitution not permitted to be attached to any political party, Erdogan would return to business as usual as the AKP's top man.

The opposition however believes or at least hopes that Erdogan's tactics will back-fire. The HDP for one is playing its cards carefully and continues to emphasize its commitment to peace. Local polls following the June elections suggest that the AKP is unlikely to significantly improve on its performance should new elections be held later this year.

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A survey conducted by Metropoll last month reveals that over 50 percent of voters blamed Erdogan, and by extension his abrasive, unilateral, confrontational and winner-takes all style of governance, for the slide in AKP support registered in June. Almost 59 percent indicated that they did not approve of the president.

But Erdogan should never be underestimated and will increasingly make the case that Turkey needs a strong leader rather than a potentially fragmented coalition government to guide the country through the storm. He has almost four months to sway a decisive portion of Turkey's electorate.

—Anthony Skinner is director and head of MENA at risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft.