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The Sky Above Turkey

23 Aug

 

[Prefatory Note: An earlier version was published by Middle East Eye on August 10, 2016. It seems so important at this time for the sake of the future of Turkey that the West look at the country and its political circumstances in a far more balanced way than how the situation has been portrayed since the coup. How to explain this imbalance is another matterthat should be explored at some point, but for now is largely put aside.]

 

 

 

 

Much uncertainty remains in Turkey, but there is enough evidence of positive tendencies to raise a tentative banner of hope. Being a witness to the political atmosphere in Turkey that has emerged after the failed coup of July 15th puts me at odds with the secular consensus in the West, which looks up at the sky and sees only dark, ominous clouds of human rights abuse and autocratic leadership. What I have experienced and observed so far is quite different, a sky with much blue in it.

 

There are two opposed, although overlapping, tendencies present that seemed to be responsive to the political priorities that top the post-coup government agenda: sustaining the anti-coup unity by shifting political gears within the AKP leadership circles in the direction of “inclusive democracy” and pragmatism, and with it, a retreat from the polarizing claims of “majoritarian democracy” that greatly intensified after the 2011 national elections and were particularly evident in the clumsy, unacceptable way the Turkish government handled the Gezi Park demonstrations two years later.

The most important concrete embodiment of this post-15 July move toward inclusiveness has been a series of initatives intended to create a common front between the three leading political parties in the country, including the CHP (secular mainstream) and MHP (nationalist rightest) opposition parties. This has been reinforced by several other developments, including a pragmatic approach to foreign policy and a decision by Recip Tayyip Erdoğan to drop the many law suits under a Turkish law that makes it a civil wrong to insult the president.

 

The Ataturk effect

 There is also a reinforcement of these developments with clear evidence of an AKP appreciation of Kemal Ataturk as heroic founder of the country and defender of its political independence and unity, which had been notably absent from the AKP political profile ever since it initially took power in 2002.

 

It was notable that Erdoğan at his dramatic press conference at the Istanbul Airport on the night of the attempted coup spoke below a giant portrait of Ataturk. This gesture was reinforced by the dominance of huge poster pictures of Erdoğan and Ataturk, and no one else, behind the speaker stage at the immense  August 7th Democracy Watch rally, and even more so by a long Ataturk quotation in the course of Erdoğan’s speech, the highlight of the event. This emphasis on Ataturk’s guidance has also been notable in the CHP effort to interpret the defeat of the coup as a great victory of Turkish democracy, as well as a historic moment of national unity and patriotic fervor. It needs to be understood that invoking the image and thought of Ataturk are ways of expressing two realities: most significantly, a reaffirmation of the secularist orientation of the Turkish state accompanied by recognition that Turkey was experiencing a supreme “patriotic moment” that took precedence over all the pre-coup political divisions that had created such toxic polarization prior to July 15th.

 

Learning from mistakes

 Also notable, and a return to an earlier style, has been the generally calm tone and restrained substance of Erdogan’s leadership. In the domestic pro-AKP media, there have been references back to Erdoğan’s then controversial advice to the Egyptian people to insist on a secular foundation for the governing process following the Tahrir uprising that overthrew Mubarak, a position at the time deeply resented by the Muslim Brotherhood as an intrusion on Egyptian internal politics and distrusted or ignored by the secular opposition to Erdoğan in Turkey and abroad.

 

Looking back, Egypt would almost certainly have benefitted greatly if it had followed Erdoğan’s advice, with the ĸimplication that Turkey’s present crisis was brought about by allowing the religiously oriented movement of Fetullah Gülen to penetrate so deeply into the sinews of government.

 

Of course, anti-AKP voices insist, with reason, that Erdoğan failed to adhere to his own guidelines, both by insinuating political Islam into the appointment and policy process of the Turkish state in recent years and also by striking an opportunistic bargain with Gülen forces that years earlier paved the way for this exercise of pernicious religious influence within the Turkish state. Perhaps it is possible to learn from this past while admitting past mistakes (as Erdoğan has done by his extraordinary apology to the nation for past collaboration with and trust in the Gülen movement).

 

‘As many friends as possible’

 Another facet of the present understanding of July 15th is the widespread agreement across the Turkish political spectrum that the US was involved to some degree in relation to the coup. To what degree is a matter of wildly divergent beliefs ranging from active complicity to passive and indirect support. There is even the opinion present in Turkey that the timing of the coup reflected US government nervousness about Ankara’s seeming turn toward Mosow, and at minimum, if the coup had succeeded, Washington it seems would have shed few tears (just as it did after the democratically elected government was overthrown by a coup in 2013).

 

What lends some credibility to such suspicions is that a major foreign policy reset was underway and in motion prior to the coup attempt. It was centered upon diplomatic initiatives seeking to restore positive diplomatic and economic relations with Russia and Israel, and possibly even with Syria, Iran, and Egypt. Prospects for normalisation with Egypt took a turn for the worse as a result of Cairo’s seeming sympathy with the coup attempt, including possible receptivity to an asylum request from Fettulah Gülen.

 

Yet what seems in many respects to be a second coming of Turkey’s pre-Arab Spring approach of “zero problems with neighbours” has been reformulated by the current prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, in a similar formula: “as many friends as possible, and as few enemies.”

This apparent move away from the sort of ideological foreign policy that Turkey has pursued since 2011 may not be pleasing to hardliners in the US and Europe, but it certainly makes sense from the perspective of Turkish national interests, given current national and regional realities.

 

Atmosphere of fear

 Having pointed to some positive responses by the Turkish government to the crisis following the coup attempt, let me mention a few disturbing negative features of the present atmosphere. Erdoğan mobilized mass street support on the night of the failed coup, an initiative that even most of his critics here in Turkey treat as a stroke of political genius that probably turned the tide of battle on the fateful evening of July 15th. Yet some fear that the nightly continuation of populist demonstration that continued for three weeks were leading the country back in the direction of majoritarian democracy and reawakened polarization, and something even worse, if the temporary consensus with the opposition starts to fray.

 

Also extremely worrisome are mass detentions, arrests, dismissals, and suspensions involving many thousands of people, many of whom are viewed as innocent of any incriminating involvement. There are also reliable reports of torture and abuse involving some of those being held, creating a widespread atmosphere of fear and intimidation, making some people even scared to voice their views.

 

Given the fresh memories of the coup attempt, its brutal violence, and the realistic worry that pro-coup elements remain strategically situated in the governing structures of society, great pressure to strengthen internal security exists and should be interpreted with a measure of sympathy, or at least understanding. There is some reason to be guardedly hopeful as many individuals have been cleared and released, and the leadership has repeatedly promised to proceed in accord with the rule of law, including making diligent efforts not to confuse Gülen conspirators with anti-AKP critics. 

 

Populist pressure

 

There is also reason to be concerned about Erdogan’s demagogic appeals that seem designed to mobilize populist pressures on Parliament to restore capital punishment for the intended purpose of prosecuting and punishing Fetullah Gülen. It should be better appreciated in Turkey that any attempted application of capital punishment to Gulen would be unacceptably retroactive, and a violation of the rule of law as universally understood.

 

Among other effects, such a prospect would give the United States a credible legal pretext to deny the pending extradition request, which in turn would create a storm of anti-American resentment in Turkey. It is helpful to do a thought experiment that captures the Turkish political mood. The overwhelming majority of Turks feel what Americans would have felt if after the 9/11 attacks a supposedly friendly government had given safe haven to Osama Bin Laden.

 

The most shortsighted aspect of the current approach is the evident decision by Erdoğan to stop short of including the pro-Kurdish political party, HDP or People’s Democratic Party, in the national unity approach, and the absence of any show of a willingness to renew a peace process with the Kurdish national movement, including representatives of the PKK. The government contends that this is not possible to do so long as the PKK engages in armed struggle, which proceeds on a daily basis.

 

Given ongoing concerns with the Islamic State (IS) group and spillovers from the Syrian war, the future of Turkey will seem far brighter if the Kurdish dimension can be constructively addressed.

 

 

Concluding Observation

 What remains after this look at present pros and cons is a core reality of uncertainty, yet I believe there is presently enough evidence of positive tendencies, to raise a tentative banner of hope about the Turkish future. Such a banner is also justified as a counter to the banner of despair and rage being waved so vigorously by anti- Erdoğan zealots around the world with much support given by mainstream media and not a few governments in the West who withheld support of the Turkish government in its hour of need and have been reluctant to accept the allegations that the coup was the work of the movement headed by Fetullah Gülen from his informal headquarters in Pennsylvania. It is hardly surprising that Ankara should be looking elsewhere for friends, and even contemplating turning its back on Europe, and conceivably even NATO. It could be that a major geopolitical realignment is underway, or maybe not. If it occurs it will be the most significant change in the geopolitical landscape since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of

the Cold War.

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Turkey’s Electoral Maelstrom        

3 Jul

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If I were Turkish, and not merely a sympathetic observer and part time resident, I would write an Open Letter to the opposition political parties that had separately and collectively achieved several goals in the June 7th elections:

            –repudiating Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s push for a constitutional shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system;

            –for the Kurdish-based HDP, a significant gain in support to cross the 10% threshold, and get a rather large foot in the Parliament;

            –for the ultra-nationalist MHP to achieve a significant gain in electoral support;

            –for the secular stronghold of Kemalist republicanism CHP maintenance of their position as by far the strongest opposition party by almost 10% over their nearest competitor.

 

Since arriving in Turkey a couple of weeks ago, the media is filled with a wide range of informed speculations about what will happen, as well as vigorous advocacy about what is best for the country, for the AKP, and for the various parties and political personalities, and none more so, than the diverse passions that swirl around the name Erdoğan. In such an atmosphere it seems foolhardy to venture into such roiled waters. My only advantages the absence of access to insider gossip and great sympathy with the struggle of Turkey and its leaders to find their way in a chaotic and dangerous region at a time of a deepening global crisis fraught with ecological, political, and economic uncertainties.

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The situation created in Turkey by the elections was one that continued the AKP (Justice & Development Party) as the dominant political party, with 40.9% of the vote, an edge of more than 15% over the CHP (Republican Peoples’ Party) winning 25.0% of the vote. Despite dominating the election and winning 256 seats, the AKP still fell short of the majority of representatives in the 550 seat Parliament required to achieve a mandate to form a new government without entering into a coalition with one of the three parties that together gathered almost 60% of the votes in June. This leaves essentially two broad coalition options—either the AKP forms a coalition with one of the three opposition parties or the opposition parties unite in a three-way coalition (as no two of the three parties have enough representation in Parliament to make a majority).

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So far neither alternative has proved feasible. The AKP has seemed quietly receptive, promising transparency in the process, but has made clear that it is not responsive to proposals that seem disproportionate to the electoral showing of the purported junior partner. When the CHP leader, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, demands that it will only enter a coalition if the prime minister is rotated, and starts with himself as prime minister, he reaches so high as to effectively declare himself out of the game. Similarly, when the MHP insists that its entry into a coalition with the governing depends on ending the peace process with Kurds that the AKP began, it is expressing unacceptable demands for a coalition partnership. Moving forward on Kurdish reconciliation is urgent at this time as a breakdown of negotiations is likely to lead to a renewal of internal violence, which given the regional realities, could spill across boundaries and be even bloodier than the earlier decade of struggle with the PKK. Finally, the DHP, perhaps understandably, sees no gain for its prospects arising from a coalition given the hostility to Kurdish aspirations exhibited by AKP leaders during the electoral campaign and considering the hardline taken by the MHP against even a moderate accommodation with Kurdish expectations.

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This gridlocked situation is adverse to Turkey’s national economic and political interests. Already the World Bank has adjusted downward its forecasts of Turkish economic growth in light of this ambience of uncertainty surrounding Ankara’s governing process, and this situation is likely to worsen if no government is formed within the 45 day window allowed for a coalition process to reach closure.

 

It is in this context that the opposition parties stand to lose all that they appeared to have gained on June 7th. If as seems likely there is no coalition formed by the deadline, then the options open to President Erdoğan are eager to invite the AKP to form a minority government or to call for new elections in the shortest possible time. The minority government option, which Prime Minister Davutoğlu has pronounced as unworkable, would also in all probability lead to new elections rather soon, but maybe not immediately. The political process would be very fragile. Whenever the AKP failed to win parliamentary support from any one of the three opposition groups to support its policy initiatives, the government would be paralyzed by inaction, and a call for new elections would be quickly forthcoming.

 

It is this likely, but still avoidable, failed coalition scenario, that remains threatening to the hopes of opposition forces. In the event that no coalition is formed, and new elections are held, the most probable outcome, although this interpretation is contested, is a big swing of more pragmatically inclined voters toward the AKP. After all, for the Turkish economy to fulfill its potential it definitely needs a government firmly in place as soon as possible, and only the AKP on its own or in stable coalition can achieve this result. Given such a perception, the logical step for a Turkish citizen would be to vote for the AKP even if it wasn’t her or his first choice in June. What is more, such a transfer of votes to the AKP could have two other results, possibly depriving the HDP of its parliamentary representation by reaching a level in this second cycle that fell below the 10% threshold, thereby giving the AKP enough electoral strength not only to resume its role as majority party but to allow Erdogan to press forward with his ambition to convert Turkey into a presidential system. Both the CHP and MHP could also do worse on a second go around, and this would certainly dim their stars.

 

Of course, this outcome, while logical is by no means assured. Voters in the sort of polarized atmosphere that has existed in Turkey during the whole of the AKP period of governance, leads many Turks to vote with their hearts rather than their heads. If this turns out to be the dominant pattern, then it is quite possible that this second electoral cycle will resemble the first, possibly strengthening the incentives of both the AKP and the opposition to swallow some pride and reach a workable set of coalition arrangements. Or it might accentuate the dysfunctionality of Turkish political culture at this point, leading to a sharp economic downturn accompanied by a menacing uptick in political instability, including new signs of insurgent violence.

 

Here, then, is the essential situation: above all, if reason prevails, most Turks will likely increasingly act to create the conditions necessary to form a majority government, and in the process could deprive the country of two achievements attributed to the prior election—minority representation for the Kurds and others plus a curtailment of the ambition of its current president. With this understanding, the unwillingness of opposition parties to minimize their bargaining demands to form a coalition seems unfortunate and even irrational under present conditions, making much more likely an overall outcome that will not be pleasing to anti-AKP forces for one or another reason. It is especially likely that this post-election impasse could give new life to the Erdoğan game plan to revise the Constitution so as establish a presidential system.

 

Such reflections may turn out to be far from the manner in which the Turkish political scene unfolds. It purports only to share my attempt to comprehend a situation that seems complex and confusing to most Turks. Americans are notorious at getting non-Western societies wrong, and I do not claim to be an exception, which is part of the reason I have spent many of my adult years opposing American military interventions in distant lands.