Atatürk's Republic

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Posts Tagged ‘elections

Turkey’s War on the Islamic State has Turned into a War on the PKK

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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.

Written by ataturksrepublic

July 28, 2015 at 1:11 pm

Turkish Democracy: Still Alive, but Still Flawed

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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.

Written by ataturksrepublic

June 9, 2015 at 8:24 pm

Attacks at the HDP Rally: What We Know (and don’t know)

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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.

Written by ataturksrepublic

June 6, 2015 at 7:58 am

Reflections on Two Years since Gezi Park

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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.”

Written by ataturksrepublic

May 28, 2015 at 9:01 pm

Sinan Ciddi on the Current State of Turkish Democracy: Summary and Assessment

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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.

The politics of Suleyman Shah

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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.

Written by ataturksrepublic

February 23, 2015 at 7:56 pm

Last Week in Turkey

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The start of a new year brings with it the alternately loved and loathed tradition of year-in-review listicles.  During the course of last week, the first full week of 2015 (Monday, January 5 to Sunday, January 11), the major events in Turkey provided a ready-made listicle of the political highlights of the previous year.

The December 13, 2013 Corruption Probe
Though this case broke in 2013, it continued to dominate headlines throughout 2014.  Over the course of last year, thousands of judicial and law enforcement officials were demoted, transferred and/or arrest as a result of their involvement in the case or connections with the Gulen Movement, which the government believes is the motivating force behind the corruption charges.

On Monday, a parliamentary committee voted not to pursue charges against four former government ministers indited in connection with the corruption probe.
Also on Monday, 20 police officers in districts across the country were arrested and accused of illegal wire tapping in connection with the case (much of the evidence in the case came from recorded phone conversations, transcripts of which may be soon slated for destruction).  Meanwhile, the central implicated figure in the case bought a new private jet for himself.

On Thursday, six private Turkish TV broadcasting companies were fined for reading the testimony of the ministers accused in the corruption scandal on air.

Suppression of Civil Society, Free Speech and Freedom of the Press
This has been an ongoing problem in Turkey, arguably going back to the founding of the Republic and beyond.  However, after the Gezi protests of summer 2013, the government has been quick to subject protests directed against them with liberal doses of tear gas and high pressure water.  Ordinary citizens, even children, have been brought to court for anti-government statements, particularly when these are posted on social media.  The targeting of citizen free speech has gone hand in hand with a crack down on freedom of the press, with Turkey ranking as the top jailer of journalists for the first half of 2014.

On Monday, a protest organized by civil society groups against the jailing censoring of journalists was tear gassed and water cannoned, despite the freezing temperatures, outside the Constitutional Court.  It is likely that these groups are connected to the Gulen Movement, who’s publications and journalists were particularly targeted throughout 2014.

On Tuesday, Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink, the only foreign journalist based in Diyarbakir, the defacto capital of Turkish Kurdistan, was briefly detained and had her housed searched by the Turkish anti-terrorism police squad.  She was accused of spreading negative information about the Turkish state as well as PKK propaganda.

On Wednesday, another Dutch journalist was detained and released pending his appearance at court in relation to an act of journalism committed in 2013.

On Thursday, it was announced that Turkey had bought 1.9 million new tear gas canisters from a manufacturer in South Korea.

Environmental Degradation
The destruction of trees and the degradation of natural areas in the service of economic and industrial progress was a major source of controversy throughout 2014.  The start of construction on the new Istanbul airport, the ongoing work on the third Bosphorus bridge and the completion of the new presidential palace as well as smaller incidents like the cutting of olive groves for the building of a new power plant meant that hardly a week went by in 2014 without a story featuring a photo of muddy, clear-cut land.  Many infrastructure projects, including the ones mentioned above, went ahead despite court orders and civilian protests.

A large number of cedar trees in an old growth forest were cut over the previous weekend to make way for a marble quarry, triggering a protest by hundreds of locals on Monday.

On Friday, there was a rare victory for environmental activists when a court order suspended the sale of coastal land that was slated for development.  The land in question is a sea turtle nesting ground and beloved by locals and tourists alike.

Gender Equality
2014 was the year of President Erdogan and the AKP making decidedly illiberal and downright silly statements about relations between the sexes.

The proposals for maternal leave and parental accommodation in employment announced Thursday were greeted with skepticism as they came on the heels of many statements by the government encouraging a more maternal, traditional role for women.

The Kurdish Settlement
The ongoing dialogue between the government and the long-oppressed Kurdish minority population was on shaky ground for most of 2014.  A number of Kurdish civilians were killed by police and police and military personal were killed in attacks which likely linked to the PKK.  Little to no progress was made on allowing for greater cultural rights such as Kurdish-language primary schools.  Most notorious was the actions of the Turkish government after the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobane was attacked by the Islamic State.  While Turkey did allow civilians to flee across the border in fits and starts, the Turkish government’s refused to let Turkish Kurds cross the border to join the fighting and made it clear that it had no interest in providing official military aid.  The Turkish government brought into question its commitment to the peace progress when President Erdogan equated the PKK (whose jailed leader was critical to starting and sustaining the peace process) with the Islamic State.  The situation in Kobane, and the widespread (mis)perception that Turkish government was secretly supporting the Islamic State, lead to riots in Kurdish majority areas.  Dozens of civilians and two police officers died and scores were arrested.  There were also deaths as the result of intra-Kurdish violence.

On Monday, a pro-government paper announced that there would soon be a new set of laws introduced that “will put an end to the country’s Kurdish issue.”  According to the article, the new laws will include measures to disarm, repatriate and reintegrate into society members of the PKK, though exactly how this will be carried out is unclear.  It was not announced when this legal package would be introduced in parliament.  Previous legal packages meant to reconcile previous legal discrimination of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens have been met with mixed reviews at best.

On Wednesday, a 14 year old boy was shot and killed by police during intra-Kurdish clashes in the town of Cizre.

International Diplomacy or Lack There Of
Turkey’s international relations continued on their downward spiral in 2014.  Relations were strained even with long-time allies such as the US and efforts to restart Turkey’s long idle EU ascension progress basically went no where.  True to form, Erdogan and members of the AKP made multiple un-diplomatic statements that only added to Turkey’s perception problem abroad.

After the attack last week in Paris on the staff of the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine, Prime Minister Davutoglu released an unequivocal condemnation while other members of the government, including President Erdogan, choose to try to shift some of the blame for the attacks to what they perceive as Europe’s widespread Islamophobia.  Other members of the AKP speculated that the attacks were staged and/or part of an elaborate conspiracy.

Terrorism
This is one of the few categories in which last week unfortunately stands out from 2014.  The major terrorism related incident of 2014 was the kidnapping but eventual safe release of the staff of the Turkish consulate in Mosul.  However, there had not been a major terrorist attack targeting civilians in Turkey since the attempted suicide bombing of the US Embassy in Ankara and Reyhanli car bombings in February and May respectively of 2013.

On Tuesday, a woman walked into a police station in the old city area of Istanbul and blew herself up, killing one police officer and seriously wounding another.  The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front, the militant leftist organization that perpetrated the 2013 US Embassy bombing, initially took credit for the attack.  However, it was latter forced to retract its statements when it was revealed that the bomber was not a member of the group as originally thought, but likely a Chechen in Istanbul on a tourist visa.

On Saturday, two bombs were found in two different Istanbul shopping malls but safely removed and destroyed before they could explode.  It is unclear who planted the bombs and why.

What’s Missing
It is important to note that there were a few major issues and events of 2014 that was noticeably absent from the major stories last week, including the ongoing refugee crisis and the Soma disaster.

What’s in Store for 2015 
It’s likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of the same. Most if not all of the issues above, including suppression of the press, lack of environmental stewardship and failing foreign relations are chronic problems that will take years to fix.  Despite their absence from the headlines last week, both refugees and industrial safety problems are guaranteed to make an appearance multiple times in 2015 as well.  There is a general election coming up in June of this year, and due to the main opposition’s lack of organization, popularity and general political acumen, in all likelihood we can look forward to continued political domination by the AKP.

The serious new developments from last week were the bombings in Istanbul.  It is unclear what motivated the suicide bomber.  There are speculations she may have had connections to the Islamic State, though IS has not taken responsibility for the attack.  This may very well be an isolated incident but the second attempted bombing coming close on its heels makes it more worrying.  Unfortunately, we again don’t know what motivated the bomber or bombers in the second incident and no one has taken responsibility.   These two incidents mark a fairly ominous start to 2015 for Turkey and we can only hope that they are indeed an anomaly.  Istanbul has experienced and recovered from terrorist attacks in the recent past.

The possible involvement of IS, until ruled out, is deeply troubling.  The lack of credit for the bombings could be a deliberate strategy on the part of IS.  If they are indeed behind the attacks, the Islamic State might be trying to avoid drawing the direct wrath of Turkey.  IS’s territory shares long borders with Turkey and is reliant on foreign recruits and supplies being funneled through Turkey.  Turkey has faced harsh criticism for not doing more to stop the flow of foreign fighters, including those loyal to the Islamic State, across its southern border.  If IS has started targeting Istanbul, it may hard to thwart them.  Turkey would have to finally plug the leaks in its admittedly very long and hard to defend southern border.  Perhaps more dangerous are the IS sympathizers, both Turks and foreigners, already in Turkey.  As the attacks in Paris demonstrate, even terrorists already under suspicion by the state can manage to pull off deadly attacks.

No Where to Hide

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The anniversary of last year’s Gezi protests has reopened the lively debate regarding what if anything these events say about the changing nature of Turkish society.  The political impact of the protests is highly debatable but there is no doubt that Gezi marks a turning point in the relationship between the AKP government and it grass-roots opponents.  The Gezi movement initially caught the government off guard and put them in a defensive position.  In Turkey, with its history of strong-man politics, being put in a defensive and weak position can spell death for a political party.  The AKP’s need to maintain its aura of power doomed the chances of a peaceful and productive ending to Gezi from the start.  The AKP sprang back with an offensive campaign designed to crush Gezi physically and politically and reassert its power.

Unfortunately for opponents of the government, this offensive campaign hasn’t ended.  The AKP has allowed and probably encouraged the police to adopt a shoot first ask questions later strategy when dealing with any government opposition groups.  It is this kind of reckless behavior that has led to the vicious cycle of protests and deaths, particularly in Alevi towns and neighborhoods.  The government did not even bother to take a more nuanced approach to the understandably angry crowds that gathered in the wake of the Soma disaster.  Many outside observers were shocked by these tactics, but most Turkey watchers have come to expect nothing less from the current government.  Erdogan has made it clear in his nearly daily speeches that all opposition or discontent will be considered traitorous.  Grief over the preventable death of a loved one is no excuse for lashing out against the AKP or its leadership.

Soma proved that no one is immune from the AKP’s offense against opponents, but those with any association with Gezi, however tenuous, have been the target of an organized government legislative and propaganda campaign.  The AKP’s strategy for preventing another Gezi is to eliminate all places of refuge for protesters, whether they be physical, legal or social.

The government eliminated physical refuges by outlawing the emergency treatment of injured citizens without authorization.  Part of the impetus behind this law is to force injured protesters into state owned hospitals where the police can document and arrest them.  Erdogan has also done his best to discourage private or religious institutions from offering protesters shelter during clashes with the police.  The Koc conglomerate, which owns the hotel off Taksim square which allowed protesters to take shelter in its lobby, was hit with an unexpected audit.  One of Erdogan’s favorite antidotes regarding Gezi is the instance where protesters turned a historic mosque into a shelter and triage site.  Erdgoan has accused these protesters of not only desecrating the building but also drinking inside the mosque.  The muezzin of the mosque, who had reportedly invited the protesters to take shelter there, was soon after exiled to a small town. The protesters themselves are also facing criminal charges.

Desecrating a mosque isn’t the only crime Gezi protesters have been charged with.  The AKP has used every legal maneuver and thrown every criminal charge they can at protesters, from creating an illegal organization to wearing inappropriate clothing.  The Turkish government has also prosecuted dozens of people for “thought crimes,” prosecuting or suing twitter users who dared criticize the government.

The social offensive against Gezi protesters and their supporters may be the most damaging in the long term. Erdogan has ensured the continued political domination of the AKP by characterizing “Gezi People” as the ultimate “other” from good Turkish citizens. They are traitors who burn the Turkish flag.  They are terrorists.  They are guilty of murder and assault.  No one in their right mind would support the goals of such people.

Despite this multifaceted attack on grass roots opposition in general and protesters associated with Gezi in particular, Erdogan has failed to eliminate the serious undercurrent of discontent in Turkey.  Instead, he has created a dangerously polarized society, with supporters of the AKP convinced of evil of government opponents, and opponents of the AKP (correctly) convinced that the government is out to get them.  This is unfortunately the contemporary legacy of Gezi: a government which is determined to reinforce its power through the persecution, prosecution and demonization of the opposition.  The good news is that grass-roots opposition to the AKP has not been crushed and barring a catastrophic crackdown, most likely will remain active.  The AKP and Erdogan in particular have compromised their moral and politically authority in the process of undertaking this blanket offensive against opponents.  Soma starkly highlighted that the government has overstepped the boundary of who and what they can legitimately include in their smear campaign.  As I stated previously, Soma will not bring down Erdogan.  However, it would be ill-advised for Erdogan to repeat the performance he put on for the crowds gathered at the mine.  Telling mourners that certain people are simply fated to die tragically, then kicking and punching members of the angry crowd that subsequently gathers is not the way to win votes; and Turkey is (still) a democracy.

Written by ataturksrepublic

May 30, 2014 at 10:43 pm

What Lies Ahead for Turkey

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The massive storm of scandal that has enveloped Turkey for the last several weeks has finally begun to ebb.  In its wake it has left three ministerial resignations, a handful of defections from the AKP, a massively reshuffled cabinet and over a thousand dismissed or reassigned law enforcement officials.  Analysts seeking to predict what lies in store for Turkey in the months ahead have focused primarily on two questions: Will Erdogan ultimately survive this scandal? (see here and here) and Will this incident end up strengthening or weakening Turkish Democracy? (see here here here and here)

It is indisputable that in the short term, Erdogan isn’t going anywhere.  He has utilized the same defensive strategy with which he rode out the Gezi Park protests; namely blaming foreign conspirators and agitators for sparking the incident while viciously clamping down on any public protests.  However Erdogan has not been successful in convincing all party members to echo his talking points.  One former minister who was not implicated in the scandal but who recently resigned from the AKP out of protest harshly criticized the Prime Minister’s interference in construction projects, saying that ” he never really quit the Istanbul mayor’s office.”  The Minister for Environment and Urban Planning, who was forced to resign as part of the scandal, went so far as to directly implicate Erdogan and call for his resignation.

Despite these damning words from former allies, not to mention the fact that his son has been caught up in the inquiries as well, Erdogan has loudly maintained his strategy and refused to quit.  We shouldn’t expect anything less.  Erdogan is nothing if not tenacious and stubborn.  He remains convinced, rightly or wrongly, that he has a precedent to rule and he is acting in the best interests of the Turkish people.  Even if evidence is uncovered that directly implicates him in construction bribery and graft, Erdogan will simply remain consistent in his blame of foreign plots and deep state actors.

The million dollar question is how will the events of the last several weeks affect the health of Turkish democracy.   Though undoubtedly the rampant corruption and collusion between the AKP and the Turkish construction industry needs to be addressed, some have expressed concern about the fact that the Gulen Movement is likely driving the current probe.  The Gulen Movement is believed to count among its members a significant proportion of the Turkish police and judiciary.  The firing and reassignment of hundreds of police officers involved in the scandal investigation is just the latest effort of the current government to purge the Movement from positions of power.  Though the Gulen Movement’s penetration into the Turkish government is hard to accurately ascertain, the fact that the government has been able to punish with impunity so many law enforcement officials for pursuing this corruption investigation leads me to believe that Gulen’s power has been over estimated.  It is certainly a poor sign for Turkish democracy that this investigation was at least partly motivated by revenge against the government by a shady private organization.  However, at this point I believe that it is even more concerning that every attempt to further the corruption investigation is immediately shut down.

Unless we see another dramatic twist in this saga, for better or worse the Gulen Movement probably will not serve as an outside check on the AKP government.  However, like many Turks, the Movement may be putting their faith in the upcoming election cycle to do the job for them.  Turkey has held free and fair elections for decades and over the next year and a half or so there will be 3 important votes.  The first, coming up in March, is for local governments and is widely expected to act as a much needed gauge of the AKP’s current popularity.  This summer the first popular election for the important but largely ceremonial office of President will take place followed by parliamentary elections next summer.

Though much to Erdogan’s chagrin the presidency still does not wield significant power, the race for this office will in some ways be a crucial junction for the AKP administration.  According to AKP party rules, Erdogan cannot serve another term as Prime Minister.  However, it is eminently clear that he does not want to give up power and go quietly into the night.  Since his plan to become an “American Style” president has failed, Erdogan has two options if he wants to stay in power: he can run for President or change the party rules and serve another term as Prime Minister. Health of Turkish democracy will be able to be gauged by the challenges or lack thereof that Erdogan will face when embarking on either of these paths.  Current President Gul, who more popular among the Turkish citizenry than Erdogan, has not given any clear indication as to what his future political plans are.  If both run for President or Prime Minister another nasty intra-AKP war is likely to break out.  However, given that the lack of current significant challengers to the AKP, this kind of fight could ultimately serve to break the AKP’s current hegemony.  The highly respected scholar of Turkey Erik Zurcher recently wrote a convincing piece arguing that we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the AKP.  A Gul challenge to Erdogan could facilitate this and, in a best case scenario, lead to a new conservative party purged of many of the more extreme elements that have poisoned the party’s once admirable platform in recent years.  Even if it does not come from Gul, a challenge to Erdogan must come.  There is no need to elaborate on the fact that allowing Erdogan to change the AKP party rules and continue to remain Prime Minister would be a very bad blow to Turkish Democracy.

The possible retrial of those convicted in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases* adds a wild card to this already complex mix.  Erdogan is trying to poison the reputation of the Gulen Movement by placing blame for all the shady elements of the trials on them.  He is also using the possibility of a new set of trials as a public demonstration that the AKP no longer needs the help of the Gulen Movement in order to keep the secular establishment at bay. However it is anyone’s guess as to whether the retrials will happen and, given the recently proposed law which would effectively muzzle the  judiciary, what the outcome will be.  I worry that Erdogan may under the illusion that he can convince the military that Gulen Movement acted without the knowledge of the government.  I think the possibility of a fully reinvigorated military remains remote, but it would be dangerous to assume that the leash on the military could be loosened without it attempting to reestablish at least some of their former power.

An investigation into the unholy relationship between the AKP government and the Turkish construction sector has been a long time in coming.  Any savvy Turk or Turkey watcher will tell you construction graft and bribery have been an open secret for years now.  The government reaction to the scandal has seriously undermined the independence of the police and the judiciary, and in following the at least temporarily tightened the AKP’s hold on power.  However, Turkey has faced far worse challenges in much more fragile periods of its democracy and yet has continued to slowly but surely progress in its political development.  2014 is going to be a tough year for Turkey but the demonstrated resilience of the Turkish people and their commitment to democracy should make even the most hardened cynic pause before diagnosing a mortal wound to Turkish democracy.

*The AKP and Gulen movement are generally believed to have worked together during these cases in order to neuter the secular-military establishment.

Written by ataturksrepublic

January 8, 2014 at 9:02 pm

The Prime Minister’s Speech

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Two speeches to be exact.  On Sunday PM Erdogan spoke for two hours at a rally for his supporters, which may have drawn a crowd as large as 295,000.  His rhetoric was nothing new for anyone who has been following protests- reminders that he has the backing of the majority interspersed with accusations against a wide range of conspirators (more on this speech below).

A few hours later he was at the annual Turkish [Language] Olympics, an event sponsored by the Gulen Movement.  Here Erdogan sought to rally supporters of the Movement to his cause, referring to peace. brotherhood and unity- Gulen buzzwords.  Though supporters of the Gulen Movement are generally conservative Muslims, a demographic that makes up much of the AKP’s base of support, Erdogan knows he can’t take their support for granted.  Even before the protests broke out, the head of the Movement, Fethullah Gulen, was making some very poignant sermons warning about the evils of hubris.  During the last two weeks, Gulen has also made statements urging dialogue and reconciliation- of course, the precise opposite of what Erdogan is doing.  However, Erdogan’s reception at the Turkish Olympics was reported to be extremely positive.  It will be interesting to see if Gulen makes any statements in the near future in response to this weekend’s crackdown.

The wild card of the Gulen movement aside, Erdogan’s message is undoubtedly still convincing to a significant portion of Turkish society.  In contrast to embattled dictators, Erdogan most likely did not have to bribe or threaten supporters into attending his rally (although free and easy transportation certainly did not hurt).  Despite his increasing image problem abroad, Erdogan is still able to hold his base by controlling the reality they experience.  While protesters elsewhere were being gassed by the police, the atmosphere at the AKP rally was relaxed. The free transportation ensured participants would not have to encounter any unpleasantness on the trip to the rally.  During his speech, Erdogan repeated his main talking points, telling the crowds that they represented the “real” Turkey and that protesters represented marginal groups.  The actions of the police were praised and those police in attendance were as relaxed as the crowds around them.  Partnered with the Turkish media’s pandering to the State, it is not hard to imagine that many of the PM’s supporters simply cannot fathom what the other “50%” has been seeing and/or personally experiencing for the last two weeks.  The AKP’s supporters are spoon fed a version of reality that they want to believe for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the PM is “one of them.”  I can’t personally attest to this, but I suspect that if you are a working-class Turk living far from the centers of protest, even on the outskirts of Istanbul, it would be all too easy to believe Erdogan’s propaganda.

I refer to Erdogan’s talking points as “propaganda” because aside from his (former) 50% electoral success, many of the claims Erdogan has made and continues to make in his speeches have been proven false.  I will not review the evidence for these claims, as many have already done so, but discuss one in particular which touches on the crux of the issue.  Erdogan continues to accuse protesters of drinking, fornicating and walking around with shoes on inside the Dolmabahce mosque, which served as a makeshift shelter and triage point during some of the clashes.  As Louis Fishman discusses in his excellent article, Erdogan is acting as if the country is still as deeply divided along religious and secular lines as it was once was.  Those Turks who have gathered in Gezi and Taksim over the past weeks have been nothing if not eminently respectful of the pious Muslims in their midst.  Erdogan seems either unable or unwilling to believe that it is possible to be simultaneously secular and respectful of religion.  This mindset reflects a Turkey that is fading away.  Young men and women, which make up the majority of those protesting in Istanbul, exhibit a classically liberal mindset that was largely unknown in previous generations.  The fight in Turkey is not about the trees, it is not religious versus secular or even AKP verses supporters of other parties.  It is a struggle of classic liberalism against the last vestiges of the democratic but decidedly illiberal Statist Turkey that has existed since its founding.

As I argued previously, Erdogan believes that he can strong-arm the protesters into submission, but he may very well be letting his anger blind him to the damage he is doing to his own position.  I still believe that Erdogan may have no end game, aside crushing the protests and then smoothly sailing into the next election cycle.  However, the chances of this protest movement being summarily crushed without a fight are increasingly thin.   If a true dialogue is not quickly established between the protestors and the government, the situation will inevitably continue to deteriorate.

Written by ataturksrepublic

June 17, 2013 at 1:56 pm