I have a new piece in Muftah today on the evolving conflict between Turkey and IS, and Turkey and the PKK.
You can check it out here: Turkey’s War against the Islamic State is also a War Against the PKK
I wanted to add the following addendum on the motive and timing of the end of the Turkey/PKK ceasefire.
I don’t believe that the Suruc bombing was manufactured by President Erdogan or any other facet of the Turkish government or military as an excuse to renew hostilities with the PKK. However, I do believe that Erdogan is seizing the opportunity that has presented itself in order to play some very cynical domestic politics. In addition to the obvious military and national pride motives behind the PKK airstrikes, it is very possible that, as Turkey technically has no government (coalition talks are still technically ongoing), President Erdogan is taking advantage of the moment in an attempt to allow the AKP to win back its majority in a fresh set of elections. Renewed hostilities between the PKK and Turkey could very well serve to alienate the Turkish voters which helped the Kurdish HDP party break the election threshold in June and bring back nationalist voters which had deserted the AKP for the more extreme nationalism of the MHP. If this is the case, and we will know soon enough, then Erdogan will have proved he is willing to sell out Turkish peace, security and prosperity for the hope of holding on to his unchecked power and further isolating Turkey’s Kurdish population.
The results of Sunday’s general election in Turkey are (almost) official. With 40.8% of the vote, translating into 258 representatives, the AKP is still the largest party in parliament. However, in contrast to the previous three general elections where it won a plurality of the vote, the AKP is 16 delegates shy of being able form a government. The party will likely have to partner with one of the three other parties sending representatives to parliament: the secularist CHP, which won 25% of the vote (132 representatives), the Nationalist MHP, which won 16.3% of the vote (80 representatives) and the Liberal Kurdish HDP, which broke the election threshold with room to spare and won 13.1% of the vote (80 representatives). For a details on governmental rules and formalities governing the creation of coalition government in Turkey, see this BGN news explainer. For an indepth breakdown of all the possible and probable political scenarios, see Aaron Stein’s masterful piece for the Atlantic Council.
There are dozens of different aspects of these election results that are ripe for discussion, from the unprecedented number of women and minority representatives to the effect that the war in Syria (and seige of Kobane) had on the vote distribution. The topic that has rightfully dominated the blog-o-sphere is what do these election results mean for both the immediate and long-term future of Turkish politics and democracy.
Despite the fact that the AKP is still the largest party by far, I do think it is fair to interpret these results as a reprimand to the party generally and to Erdogan’s leadership specifically. Simply pointing out that the AKP is still won 15% more of the electorate than the next most population, or even spinning the results the opposite way and saying that 60% of Turks voted for another party, fails to take in to consideration the crucial context of both Turkish politics and this election. First, Turkey still has a political opposition problem. For millions of average Turks, there is still no party that better represents their interests than the AKP. The traditional opposition parties of the CHP and the MHP, despite some decent efforts during this campaign, still have not figured out how to put together a policy program that will convince voters that they can actually govern. The HDP succeeded in selling itself as not just a Kurdish party, but pluralist identity that represents a number of marginalized groups (Kurdish nationalists, LGBTQ, Christian, feminist and other minorities). The politics of the HDP is arguably the politics of the next generation of Turks, a party that fulfills many of the ideals of the Gezi movement. Unlike its compatriots, the dynamic and (for Western liberals in particular) appealing HDP has a definite agenda and policy program. However, it is simply never going to draw enough votes from the current pool of average conservative, ethnic Turkish voters. Until a new center-right alternative comes along (and barring any major crises such as a full out economic crash or invasion of Syria) a great number of Turks will continue to vote AKP. There is no other party that better suits their beliefs and interests, and hence the AKP numbers will remain relatively high. Even a dislike for the main plank in the the AKP platform, namely a constitutional change in order to create a strong presidential system, seems to have not been enough to drive many AKP voters into the arms of another party.
There is no doubt that both the AKP and Erdogan consider their party’s showing to be dismal and downright embarrassing. The AKP’s share of the vote dropped 9% from the last parliamentary election in 2011, but more telling the party went from enjoying a near super-majority to not even being able to form a single-party government. The party leadership looked like they were listening to a eulogy during PM Davutoglu’s post-election speech. President Erdogan for his part has gone into hiding. During the election campaign, Erdogan crisscrossed the country and dominated the airwaves asking, neigh demanding, that Turks grant the AKP a super-majority and, more importantly, allow him to be installed as the real (and not just de facto) executive authority in the country. The election result was a firm rebuke of Erdogan’s authoritarian dreams and I suspect that, given the unpopularity of a presidential system among even those who were likely to vote AKP, that many AKP voters are quietly happy with the result.
Michael Koplow argued in Foreign Affairs that Erdogan is still quite dangerous given the defacto powers he has accumulated and the fact that many outgoing AKP MPs will be drawn into his circle of advisers. I agree that Erdogan’s political career is far from over, but the fact that he has not been able to yet been able to find a way to spin these results in his favor, or even fall back on blaming one of his imaginary legion of enemies, speaks volumes. There is also no way he will be able to continue on acting with the unchecked impunity as he has for the past year as President. There is a reason that Erdogan campaigned so hard to have his powers officially enshrined in the constitution. Without a constitutional change to a powerful Presidency, the parliament and Prime Minister still officially have the real power in government. Erdogan knows this and hence put everything he had into trying to legally secure his position. Irony is that unpopularity of the proposed presidential system was very likely a main contributing factor to the AKP’s loss of support. The opposition parties, particularly the MHP which is most likely to partner with the AKP in a coalition government, have jumped on this and made it clear that will not work with an AKP which is dominated by Erdogan. There is no way the AKP can move forward, and form a government, without addressing, and restraining, the Presidential elephant in the room.
The good news is that the Turkish people have definitively voiced their rejection of a president for life and a single party state in what was, despite widespread fears of fraud, a free election. The bad news is that democracy requires more than periodic elections, and Turkey is still burdened with a sycophantic media, weak civil society, corrupt oligarchs, and a majoritarian approach to rights. The country’s institutional system, and political culture, are still set up to allow one party or individual to accumulate undemocratic levels of power. Addressing and fixing so many ingrained problems would be a challenge for the most united, progressive government let alone a coalition government which will be lucky just to be able to hold itself together. The party with the most reformist agenda, the HDP, is unlikely even to be part of the ruling coalition. A majority of Turks voted for change, and they are likely to get their wish in the form of a cowed President, but much needed institutional reform probably won’t even make it to the parliamentary floor. I still truly believe that Turkey has a brighter, more liberal future ahead of it but the road leading there will be long and require a drastic overhaul of both the political parties and the institutions that govern Turkey.
In Diyarbakir on Friday, two explosions erupted at the final HDP rally prior to Sunday’s elections. The latest reports indicate that four people died, including 2 teenage boys, and close to 200 hundred were injured (update- more than 400 with at least 25 critically) as a result of the blasts. Initially blamed on a malfunctioning generator, it now appears that a gas cylinder packed with ball-bearings was deliberately planted and responsible for one of the two explosions that were heard. Immediately after the explosions, police targeted the crowd with tear gas and water cannons. The rally was canceled and some of the crowd regrouped outside the HDP headquarters in the city where party leader Selahattin Demirtas (who was scheduled to speak around the time the explosions occurred) urged HDP supporters in general, and those gathered in Diyarbakir specifically, to remain calm. His message seemed to be taken to heart and no rioting occurred. Instead, peaceful protests in the form of banging pots and pans and flickering lights in both Diyarbakir and Istanbul. Prime Minister Davutoglu condemned the attacks. President Erdogan offered condolences and promised to investigate the bombings before going off on a tangent about how roaches in the old Prime Minster’s residence forced him to build a new palace for himself. He also expressed his annoyance at the fact that Demirtas was refusing to answer his calls, which lead to a curt war of words between the two. Despite the obvious news-worthiness of this event, today’s pro-government papers lack any front page coverage on it.
The superlative importance of the Kurdish vote in this election has been explored in depth numerous times and there is no need to reiterate it here. The potential for Kurds to decide the election makes it safe to assume that the perpetrators behind these attacks wished to affect the outcome of the election by either 1) provoking violence 2) intimidating HDP voters 3) pinning the attacks on the PKK or 4) a combination of all three. Motives one and three would feed into the pro-government media machine’s characterization of Kurds as uninterested in sustaining the peace process. and, ultimately, as a treacherous 5th column who will tear Turkey apart is allowed to gain political power. The HDP and their supporter’s maintenance of calm in the face of this provocation took much of the wind out of the sails of this narrative, but some pro-government elements still suggested that it was the “Kurds themselves” who planted the bombs.
What we very clearly don’t know at this point is who planted the bombs, or if they are related to the dozens of other attacks against HDP supporters, election vehicles or party headquarters. Of course, many are blaming the AKP, if not for directly perpetrating the bombing, for their encouragement and use of offensive and goading language against the HDP. With Turkey’s history of unsolved political violence, there is a chance that there may never be a clear answer to who perpetrated the attacks against the HDP and what if any organizations they were working for.
We also don’t know how this latest and most damaging attack on the HDP will affect the election outcome. The best analysis of all the available polls indicates that the HDP will likely pass the 10% threshold (barring fraud, which is unfortunately likely to at least some degree). Given the fact that both the leadership and the base of HDP supporters reacted coolly and called for peace in the face of ongoing violence, the bombing may very well serve as a last minute boost pushing undecided voters to the HDP.
1. Neo-Ottoman mall that was planned to replace the park has still not been built.
2. It has basically become a style rule that you can’t write anything about current Turkish politics without bringing up the protests.
3. The protests marked the first time that the superiority/sincerity/humane nature of Erdogan and AKP’s political program was publicly questioned.
4. It took years for the objectives other famous anti-government protests to come to fruition (i.e. in the Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War).
5. Polls show that Turks of all political affiliations don’t want a strengthened presidency and associate it with authoritarianism.
6. Erdogan is currently in the fight of his political life. As Michael Koplow put it, “there’s blood in the water.”
As of a few days ago, I am officially a new co-editor of the Iran, Iraq and Turkey section of Muftah.org. I will have a regular post up on the site every Sunday, but will continue to maintain this blog as well for my more specialized and theoretical reflections. You can read the pieces I have already contributed to the site here. I am very excited to be working with the great team over at Muftah and encourage you to spend some time checking out their great collection of articles.
Last Thursday March 19 Sinan Ciddi of the Georgetown Institute of Turkish Studies spoke at Boston University on “Elections and the Struggle for Political Legitimacy.” His focus was the current state of Turkish democracy, namely how and why current President Erdogan has come to dominate all aspects of the Turkish government and the likely course of Turkish politics in the near future. Ciddi offered some thought-provoking and timely insights into the current trajectory of AKP rule and the possible outcome of the June 7th general elections.
Erdogan’s rise to power was until recently enthusiastically supported by Western governments and, despite his increasing authoritarianism, Ciddi reminded us that a large plurality of Turks still enthusiastically support Erdogan and his party. During the last ten years the AKP has transformed the economy and infrastructure of Turkey. Lower class and rural Turks in particular have seen a significant, positive change in their income and access to necessary services. Those Turks whose lives have been significantly bettered under Erdogan’s leadership are extremely loyal to his party and him personally and care little about the more abstract political issues at stake.
Ciddi characterizes President Erdogan’s efforts to convert the Turkish government into a Presidential system as “regime change.” The change is already de facto, but it is important that it has not yet been legally established. In other words, though Erdogan operates as if he already the official head of the Turkish government, the office of the Presidency still retains only limited official abilities to influence legislative functions. During the early years of AKP rule, the party and its leadership were hailed as denizens of [relatively] liberal, democratic change and shining examples of how Islam and democracy could co-exist. Now Erdogan is daily, and not undeservedly, characterized as an aspiring dictator by the international media.
Erdogan’s seeming transformation from a committed democrat to a committed autocrat has been distressing and puzzling to many of his former Western allies, but Ciddi believes that Erdogan’s current trajectory was in many ways set before he even ascended to the office of Prime Minister. Ciddi identifies Erdogan’s Islamist background as a significant influence in his current political vision and the instigator of his authoritarianism. For Turkish Islamists, Kemalism and its program of modernization and Westernization serve as their political foil, and Erdogan’s current political agenda is still significantly motivated by opposition to everything the “old” Turkey represents. Ciddi points out that though Erdogan insisted that he had accepted the secular, democratic nature of the Turkish state, he provided no proof of his reformation besides his declared conversion. Ciddi asserts that Erdogan never reformed his beliefs and deep down still maintained a commitment to the illiberal Islamist political vision. Ironically Erdogan is attempting to eradicate the monolithic ideologically of Kemalism, only to replace it with his own monolithic vision for a “new” Turkey.
Erdgoan’s actions are not pure motivated by political ideology however. Ciddi believes that there are two other significant factors driving Erdogan: a desire for revenge and the need to escape criminal inquiries. Turkey’s Islamist movements were subject to decades of political oppression and marginalization. Erdogan’s mentor, who was also the first Islamist Prime Minister of Turkey, was forced out in a virtual coup and the AKP party itself narrowly avoided being shut down by the constitutional court. After the constitutional court case against the AKP, Erdogan set about systematically crushing or usurping the power of all the institutions that previously targeted the AKP or its predecessors, in particular the military, the judiciary and the presidency. But Erdogan may have some even more unsavory rational for curtailing the independence of Turkey’s political institutions. The corruption charges that were brought to light a little over two years ago were never full investigated. While Ciddi refuses to say definitely that Erdogan, his son and his closest ministers were involved in graft, he rightfully insists that the allegations need to be fully investigated. However, it is very clear that the investigation will never see the light of day so long as Erdogan maintains his grip on power.
Ciddi concluded his talk with general observations and predictions about political future of Turkey. Turkish society is currently extremely polarized politically. largely thanks to Erdogan’s handling of the Gezi protests and his subsequent consolidation of power. Though the opposition parties remain divided, unpopular and ineffective, Erdogan has been unable to crush the grassroots opposition. The individualistic, disorganized nature of the popular opposition actually works in its favor. Erdogan can and will continue to arrest individuals who dare to speak out against him but the lack of organization and leadership means that he will never be able to silence even a fraction of his citizen critics. In this line, Ciddi expects that there will be social and political turbulence in Turkey for the foreseeable future. The Gezi protests made clear that Erdogan does not know how to manage popular protest movements, and indeed they are a new phenomenon in Turkey. Previous opposition movements were institutionally based, organized through unions and fringe political parties, and Turkish politicians have no political playbook for dealing with disorganized popular movements. Turkey has not seen such social unrest since 1978. At this point, “anything can happen.”
I am in general agreement with the majority of Ciddi’s analysis, with my major point of contention being the origins of Erdogan’s authoritarian ambitions. I have argued elsewhere that it is the illiberal nature of Turkish political institutions, not his Islamist roots, that set the stage for Erdogan’s consolidation of power. Ciddi’s introduction of the idea that revenge was a motive in Erdogan’s campaigns to crush the power of the military and judiciary is an interesting one. I don’t rule out revenge as a factor, in all probability it did play a role. However, I still believe that the major motivating factor behind the efforts to subvert the power of the military and judiciary, not to mention Erdogan’s coveting of the presidency, was simply to consolidate and retain power.
There were several interesting points brought up during the Q&A after Ciddi’s talk. Prescient of yesterday’s very public intra-AKP spat, Ciddi asserts that there are very real fractures within the leadership of the AKP and that the rank and file of the party are increasingly unhappy. He attributes some of this frustration to the fact that since become president, Erdogan has closed himself off to all but his most inner circle of advisers. During his years as Prime Minister, Erdogan had a very open and even collaborative relationship with his advisers and other party members according to Ciddi. He characterized party divisions and infighting as natural given Erdogan’s de-facto one-man rule. Such a political system is inherently a house of cards and all those within the system are aware of its weakness. Ciddi also posited that Davutoglu may not be the simply Erdogan puppet many are making him out to be and he may assert his independence after the upcoming election.
Regarding the most talked about component of the election, the Kurdish vote, Ciddi urges caution. He reminded us that the HDP and its leadership have their own ideological agenda centered around Kurdish nationalism and autonomy. and predicted that even if the HDP breaks the 10% threshold and is able to seat its candidates in parliament, they may very well be induced into forming an alliance with the AKP in return for greater Kurdish regional autonomy. Ciddi added that this would ultimately be a misguided political gamble as he believes that Erdogan in the end is not truly committed to meeting Kurdish demands for equal rights and political autonomy.
I agree with Ciddi’s assessment of Erdogan’s position on this issue but would posit that the HDP leadership, and even most ordinary Kurds, are well aware that Erdogan is largely disingenuous in his efforts toward Kurdish-Turkish reconciliation. It is like the Turkey-EU assention situation, Turkey knows that the EU will never actually allow it to join them but is unwilling to fully pull out of the assention process. In both situations the spurned party is willing to let talks go on as there is no desire to upset the status quo and risk returning to the bad old days. The HDP will indeed bring their own agenda if their candidates are seated in parliament, but unlike Ciddi I don’t believe they would acquiesce to being the AKP’s puppets. To become a partner in the AKP’s illiberal policy agenda would be to support policies that are likely to be disproportionally used against Kurds. If the Kurdish party earns more than 10% of the vote, and this is still a big if, it will be a significant net positive for Turkish democracy.
Ciddi believes that the AKP will still enjoy a majority in parliament after the June 7th elections, though they will not have enough seats to pass the constitutional changes needed to create a presidential system. As he himself confessed, Ciddi is not a fan of the AKP but he also could not envision any other current Turkish political party actually governing. The CHP is notorious among Turks for being corrupt and inefficient and the MHP is more than happy to remain a minority opposition voice. The takeaway from Ciddi’s talk: the AKP is not going anywhere, but that does not mean that Turks will sit by idly as Turkey is transformed into a one-party state.
Saturday night to Sunday the Turkish military carried out an operation into Syria to evacuate its remaining personnel at the tomb of the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Suleyman Shah. Before they left, they removed the remains and destroyed the building. These events came on the heels of rumors that the Turkish guards stationed there had been trapped by the Islamic State, rumors the Turkish foreign ministry denied Friday. The Kurdish PYD forces which control a defacto autonomous region in northern Syria aided this operation by allowing the Turkish military to pass through their territory on the way to the tomb and after the operation was over set up a new Turkish enclave in their territory to house the recovered remains.
Much was written about the history and importance of the Turkish enclave in Syria back in the Fall when the area was first overrun by ISIS- you can read more here and here. Certainly the tomb had/has symbolic significance for Turkey, especially fervent nationalists, and the decision to evacuate it may have political repercussions domestically. However, the transfer of the enclave to another location inside of Syria seems to be a satisfactory solution to the dilemma of how to protect Turkey’s pride while also relieving a dangerous flashpoint. What is most interesting and most consequential for the future policies are the specifics of how and when this operation was executed.
For long time Turkey watchers, one of the most striking elements of this story is the fact that not only did the Turkish military cross through PYD territory, and specifically the recently besieged town of Kobane, and that they are also allowing Turkey to reconstitute their enclave on their territory. The Turks and the Kurds have a fraught history, to put it lightly. During the siege of Kobane, Turkey was heavily criticized for not intervening on the side of the Kurds and the frustrations of Turkish Kurds boiled over into deadly riots. This act of cooperation between the PYD and the Turkish military initially hinted at the possibility that Turkey is seriously changing its attitude toward what now seems like the inevitable reality of living with an autonomous Kurdish enclave on its southern border. More cynically, the current Turkish government could use its cooperation with the PYD to try to win back the political support of Turkish Kurds, who in the past supported the AKP in significant numbers.*
However, the political posturing that has come in the wake of this operation complicates the picture significantly. President Erdogan’s spokesman vehemently denied today that there was any cooperation with the PYD and called them a terrorist group. The PYD has stuck to its frankly far more believable claim that they coordinated with the Turkish military and the operation could not have been a success without such cooperation. The PKK for its part has suggested that Turkey must have notified and coordinated with the Islamic State as well in order to have evacuated its troops so smoothly. IS denies the PKK’s claims.
After official government communications showed and spoke of PM Davutoglu personally directing the Suleyman Shah operation on Saturday, today the President’s office claims that it was in fact Erdogan who personally oversaw it. It was also announced today that Erdogan will be chairing the next Cabinet meeting, something that it is within the powers of the presidency, but was only done in extraordinary situations in the past. This flexing of political muscle on the part of Erdogan could perhaps indicate a rift between himself, the Prime Ministry and/or the military. The potential to convert this successful operation and its aftermath into political gains with Turkey’s Kurds seems high, and Erdogan’s instance on burning bridges strikes me as shortsighted.
Meanwhile, whether it was preplanned or not, Turkey’s parliament took advantage of the distraction provided by the Suleyman Shah operation to Wag the Dog. The AKP members of parliament pushed through 10 parts of the controversial and illiberal security bill in an all-night session Saturday. As could be expected, the Turkish military incursion into Syria is top billing in the news today, rather than the legal encroachment on democratic freedoms.
*The upcoming June elections are a linchpin in the ruling AKP’s plans to amend the constitution to make President Erdogan the du jour instead of just the de facto head of state. The Kurdish party in Turkey, the HDP, has decided to run candidates in the upcoming election not as independents, as it has done previously, but as officially affiliated with the party. According to the election rules, if the Kurdish party fails to gain 10% or more of the total votes in the election, it will not be able to seat any of its members. The seats that it theoretically did win will go to the runner up in any given election, most likely the AKP candidate. Therefore, the future ambitions of Erdogan and the AKP are tied closely to how Turkish Kurds vote.