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Context Matters: Turkey After the Failed Coup

2 Aug

 

 

 

 

The legendary American pro-football coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, famously remarked when asked about his sports philosophy, “Winning isn’t everything. It is the only thing.” In thinking about the Turkish failed coup I paraphrase Lombardi: “Context isn’t everything. It is the only thing.” Without an adequate depiction of context every inflamed political happening is twisted in its presentation to fit the preconceived notions of the commentator opening the way for endless polemics. I am aware that as ‘a commentator’ I am subject to the same standards that I apply to those with whom I disagree. By being attentive to context, at least there is added an important degree of transparency and even self-scrutiny, enabling others to evaluate the line of interpretation put forward.

 

The element of context that I wish to underscore is that of location: distinguishing the interpretation of the events in question by persons mostly inside or mostly outside Turkey. I have been struck in recent days by the extent to which friends, opinion piece writers, journalists, and politicians writing from outside of Turkey are preoccupied with what the Turkish government has done wrong since the coup, especially presenting the post-coup as an atmosphere where Erdoğan is opportunistically pursuing his authoritarian goals under the false banner of enhancing the security of the state.

In contrast, most friends and commentators inside Turkey, including those holding similar critical political views to the outsiders, emphasize the encouraging and generally responsible steps being taken by the government since of July 15th and the widely shared belief, including among strong Erdoğan critics, that this is a time for unity and a shared sense that the defeat of the attempted coup benefitted the whole of Turkish society.

 

Of course, these generalizations are nothing more than strong impressions. It is obvious that there are a wide range of insider and outsider accounts of the failed coup in both groups, including a considerable overlap, but at least from my limited angle of vision there differences worth noticing.

 

Writing from inside the country is one reason why I feel far more sympathetic with the real insiders, and believe that an essential difference is one of context with respect to location. Those outside, influenced especially by the domination of the political discourse by strident anti-Erdoğan, anti-AKP intellectuals and media in Europe and North America, devote almost all of their attention to post-coup abridgements of freedoms, the anti-democratic state of emergency, and to finding signs pointing to the further advancement of Erdoğan’s autocratic agenda by taking advantage of the surge of popular support for the government that is allegedly reinforced by the intimidation of oppositional viewpoints.

 

There is another feature underscoring the relevance of location, which results from greater familiarity with and proximity to the accused culprits, giving real meaning within Turkey to the political truism, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ The wide public acceptance of the allegation that the coup was both genuine and the work of the quasi-religious, secretive, and cultic movement led by Fetullah Gülen has created a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt with respect to most of the steps so far taken by the government. The international media has not reacted in a similar fashion. It has surrounded the attempted coup with a series of question marks. In particular, it has suggested that maybe the coup was undertaken by discontented secular elements in the Turkish armed forces rather than by Gülenist forces or FETÖ (Fetullahist Terror Organization).

 

Those inside, tend to take greater notice of Erdoğan’s apparent return to a pre-2011 more pragmatic and inclusive approach to governance during these two weeks since the coup attempt. During this period Erdoğan has also been leading the effort to eliminate from government and civil society those who actively support FETÖ. The risk of leaving many coup sympathizers in places of influence within the various bureaucracies of government is disturbing to many not otherwise supportive of AK Party (AKP; Justice and Development Party) leadership. It is to be expected that for the country’s elected leaders who were nearly assassinated the issue of purging government of suspects touches directly issues of personal survival. This immediate concern is often confused with longer range efforts to prevent the educational system from nurturing FETÖ loyalists, which helps explain the closing of all military high schools that had been a prime recruiting site for Fetullahists.

 

By and large, Erdoğan’s public demeanor of calmness since the coup attempt has also been reassuring to the general public here in Turkey. It goes along with his welcome decision to drop the numerous pending criminal cases underway to prosecute those accused of violating a Turkish law that prohibits insulting the president. Such charges should never have been initiated in a democratic society that values freedom of expression, but what is worthy of comment is that at a time when Erdoğan is being accused of using the stressed atmosphere as a cover for his autocratic designs, he signals this new willingness not to punish his political adversaries as he is permitted to do under Turkish law. This move has been explicitly welcomed by Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, head of the Peoples Republican Party (CHP), the most prominent among those previously charged. Along a similar line is the rehabilitation of several prominent generals with known strong secular credentials, which seems part of this AKP unity platform to incorporate followers of Kemal Ataturk in the governing process, which if such a trend continues, is a major development.

 

Of course, considering the complexity and uncertainty of the post-coup reality, both insiders and outsiders are, at best, looking through ‘a glass darkly.’ There are many hidden factors, the situation is fluid, and there are appearances that could either vanish in a flash or become suddenly magnified. Aside from the Gülenist threat, the biggest internal problem facing Turkey is posed by the ongoing struggle with the large Kurdish minority, which may turn out to be the decisive test of whether these post-coup gestures of political unity evolve into a new and more hopeful form of political development for the country.

 

I believe insiders are also more aware of some troubling features that seem of less consequence to the West and the Turkish diaspora—that is, the popular mobilization that are nightly filling the city squares since the night of the coup attempt and will continue until August 7th. At first this show of wildly enthusiastic support for the nation and government, undoubtedly not anticipated by the coup leaders, is correctly regarded by Turkish public opinion as having played a major role in turning the tide of battle on the night of 15th. However, the daily continuation of these populist displays could tempt political leaders to engage in demagogic politics. If such an atmosphere persists it would likely lead to the abandonment of the tentative depolarizing steps taken to soften the religious/secular divide.

 

So far, an impressive dimension of the internal context is being established by the long dominant opposition party, CHP (Republican People’s Party), leading the way, with the backing of Erdoğan, toward exhibiting a post-coup consensus that contrasts with the toxic polarization that has characterized Turkish politics ever since the AKP prevailed in the 2002 elections. The Chair of the CHP, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu commented in this spirit, saying his party’s “biggest wish’ was the continuation of this atmosphere of “reconciliation”: “Today an atmosphere of reconciliation and mutual listening has emerged in politics. My biggest wish is for the maintenance of this atmosphere. My second biggest wish is for the enlargement of a common ground.” Whether this mood lasts or not, such a statement is quite extraordinary against the background of unrelenting opposition by the CHP to every previous step taken by the Erdoğan led government over the course of many years. Erdoğan also deserves credit for fully joining this effort with symbolic and substantive steps, including inviting the CHP and the more rightest MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) to the presidential palace for joint discussions on future policy. The picture is not entirely encouraging as the Kurdish party, HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), although joining with the CHP and MHP in denouncing the coup attempt before the outcome of the struggle for control of the Turkish state was clearly known, did not receive an invitation to attend the meeting in his residence. Such an omission could be more innocently interpreted as an effort to find common ground among the three main political parties on how to address the Kurdish challenge given this altered set of national priorities, and this could be more effectively done with the HDP representative absent.

 

This fragile collaborative tendency does not imply a willingness of the opposition to accept Erdoğan’s approach or even the absence of sharp policy disagreements with respect to such coup related issues as disputes about the application of due process to those accused of Gülenist complicity and affiliations or AKP-led encouragement of the restoration of capital punishment. There are serious criticisms being made of the way some journalists who wrote for Gülenist media have been arrested, mistreated, and charged. Also there are a variety of protests objecting to the dismissals of large number of academicians, dismissed from their jobs in ways likely to harm their career and impose material hardship. These developments are unacceptable and should be opposed, but criticism to be persuasive within the country needs to be contextualized by reference to the intense anxieties raised by the attempted coup and a preoccupation with how to guard against a second attempt.

 

It is helpful for these critics to recall reliance on torture of suspects and detention of Muslims in the United States after 9/11, the establishment of the notorious Guantanamo detention center to imprison Al Qaeda suspects many of whom turned out to be innocent, and the shocking Abu Ghraib prison abuses. These unfortunate developments occurred in reaction to an extremely threatening national experience by the world’s most admired and militarily strongest constitutional democracy. As these events unfolded after the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, the United States was rarely censured by the international media for these encroachments on human rights, but was mainly treated as having endured provocations on such a scale as to justify a temporary suspension of judgment until months later when spectacular abuse became known to the public.

 

This temporary mellowing of domestic politics in Turkey reflects a provisional, substantively significant, inter-party consensus. This is an unexpected reaction to the coup attempt is a reflection of the overall acceptance of the official Ankara version of the July 15th events. Accusing Gülenists is now widely accepted and obsessively discussed across the political spectrum within the country, including the particularly the sinister role played by those called ‘putschists’ in mounting their violent challenge to governance by a fairly elected leadership. This violence included the killing of unarmed Turkish civilians and the bombing of the Turkish Parliament building. Prior Turkish coups had been deftly executed and were relatively bloodless so far as the general population was concerned, despite being harshly vindictive toward displaced leaders and their supporters during the post-coup aftermath. As in 1960 when the elected prime minister, Adnan Menderes was publically hanged, and large numbers imprisoned, dismissed from their jobs, and executed. Or in 1980 when university faculties were purged, numerous journalists imprisoned, and thousands lost public sector jobs. Despite these excesses the international outcry in reaction to past Turkish coups was muted, even sympathetic, due to the geopolitical and ideological context. Since the post-coup targets of repression were concentrated on the secular left it was in keeping with Cold War priorities championed by the US Government. In effect, geopolical context matters as much as or more than the location of the observer. In this regard, it is instructive to compare the cascade of post-July 15 criticism and scrutiny that has been directed at Turkey with the soft international landing given to the 2013 Sisi coup in Egypt, which was not even called a coup by Washington, despite its seizure of power from elected leaders, exceptionally bloody aftermath. In Egypt as was the case for Turkey in 1980 there were several strong political reasons to welcome the results and forego complaints.

 

 

In relation to Turkey, despite the complex challenge directed at the Erdoğan leadership after the failed coup, Europeans and American public figures have been quick to express their criticisms and admonitions in isolation from their Turkish post-coup context. Federica Mogherini, the current EU official responsible for foreign policy, condescendingly urging restraint upon the Turkish government, insisting that Turkey be held responsible if it exceeds ‘proportionate’ post-coup responses, whatever that might mean. Did the EU issue any cautionary response when France declared a state of emergency after the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015 and extended it in response to the mid-July truck massacre in Nice? This posture of moral tutelage directed at Turkey is definitely an expression of a colonialist mentality that continues to bias Euro-American thinking about Turkish political realities.

 

There are a variety of well intentioned civil society petitions being circulated abroad, warnings issued, including calls for the suspension of EU accession negotiations. Some in the West have even urged the suspension of Turkey from NATO membership in view of alleged human rights infringements during the post-coup period. Some responses in the West are so wildly exaggerated as to be suspect. Consider the outburst by Tom Brake, the foreign affairs spokesperson of the Liberal Democrat Party in the UK. Brake argued that the wave of arrests in Turkey “should send shivers down the spine of any person who believes in a free and open society.” “Erdoğan’s ongoing purge of newspapers, academics, teachers and judges has nothing to do with Turkey’s security and everything to do with blocking opposition to his increasingly authoritarian rule.” Again it is helpful to wonder why the much worse crackdown after the Egyptian coup of three years ago received so little critical attention and the Turkish reaction to a truly frightening challenge to the political system has been so harshly judged.

 

It is no doubt useful and constructive in this period to express cautionary concerns about controversial initiatives taken by the Turkish government, and specifically, Erdoğan, in this post-coup period, while at the same time showing sensitivity to the urgent necessity for the government to restore security for the public and to rebuild confidence in relation to the armed forces, intelligence, judiciary, the police. Such a nuanced viewpoint is admirably contextualed by Mustafa Akyol, among others. In a column published in the Hürriet Daily News, July 30-31, 2016 Akyol couples an appropriate tone of sensitivity to the need for action against those suspected of potentially harmful associations with the Gülen movement with critical comments focused on the extension of punitive action to Gülen sympathizers, including journalists and academics, who pose no plausible threat. Akyol is a credible observer of the present scene partly because he was such a high profile critic of Erdoğan’s leadership. He is an internationally known commentator on Turkish developments who is as a regular contributor to the opinion pages of the New York Times. Akyol incidentally strongly endorses the view that the weight of the evidence supports blaming the coup attempt on the Gülenists, and their leader.

 

Here again, context matters. Turkey is confronted by a situation where it is nearly impossible to distinguish reliably between friends and enemies, and where the failure to do so could in the future make the difference between life and death for individuals and could possibly close down the democratic governing process in Turkey altogether. There remains much concern that a second coup attempt could be soon organized by Gülenist forces responsible for the July 15th attempt who are still believed here to retain their positions within the Turkish governmental machinery. If you are worried along these lines, you are likely to act more vigorously than if you don’t.

 

To invoke a bit of folk wisdom, ‘it doesn’t matter where you look, it’s what you see.” The Turkish post-coup context that I am experiencing makes me generally sympathetic with the efforts of the government and its leadership as part of its security policy to move toward a more inclusive democracy than existed during the last five years. If this development is sustained it will diminish the paralyzing effects of polarization that has prevented Turkey from achieving its political and economic potential nationally and internationally during the last decade or so.

 

It is yet to be seen whether the US Government can absolve itself from a widely suspected involvement with the Gülenists and their plots, and what this will mean for Turkey internally, regionally, and in relation to the European Union and NATO. The visit of the American Chief of Staff, his pledge of American solidarity with the Turkish government, although belated, at least recognizes the importance of correcting the belief here in Turkey that the US was directly or indirectly supportive of the July 15th attempt.

 

All in all, valuing context matters greatly when it comes to assessing Turkish reactions to the failed coup. Considering context is one way of trying to see as ‘the other’ sees. At this post-traumatic moment of political reconstruction Turkey deserves sympathy from the outside while it is seeking to maximize unity on the inside, and as the process proceeds, constructively encourage the leadership to correct some early reflexive moves taken in the name of internal security that could otherwise unjustly damage the life experience of many individuals and do great damage to the international reputation of the country. There exists a crucial challenge posed by the resumption of open warfare in the Kurdish region, and the importance of reviving a peace process that seeks inter-ethnic accommodation. Part of the prescribed contextualization, given Turkish realities, is to avoid premature international appraisals, admit underlying uncertainties, and allow enough imaginative space to enable a hopeful future for Turkey.                                

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Nonagon of Toxic Conflict: Notes on the Turkish Quagmire

2 Oct

 

 

The lethal complexity of politics in the Middle East has become overwhelming. The main political actors producing a continuous stream of swerves and turns that randomly juggle alignments and almost casually switch the identity of friends and enemies. In practical terms what this means is that there are indecipherably opaque conflicts, a multitude of state and non-state actors with distinct agendas, a bewildering array of seemingly contradictory and shifting conflict patterns, and controversial media manipulations orchestrated from various sources of governmental and insurgent authority situated both within and without the region. This geometry of conflict can be best approximated as a nonagon connecting the US/Turkey/Kurds/ISIS/Iran/Syria/Russia/Saudi Arabia/Israel, and even this is a crude simplification that leaves out many important actors. It is little wonder the Middle East has become a puzzle so daunting that only fools are clear about what should be done. The best we can do is to pick up a piece at a time, and hope it makes some sense a few weeks later.

 

Amid all these complexities there are some crucial developments bearing on Turkey’s relations to the overlapping realities of civil, national, regional, and extra-regional warfare. Turkey had deftly managed to avoid toxic engagement with the troubles of the region until 2009 when it began to cross swords with Israel, followed by jumping imprudently and overtly onto the anti-Assad side after the 2011 uprising in Syria. These prior problematic issues were temporarily eclipsed recently after Turkey crossed several additional treacherous thresholds of turmoil: the renewal of the deadly clash with Kurdish aspirations in Turkey and Syria; a formal joint undertaking with the United States to combat ISIS presence while still proclaiming solidarity with ‘moderate’ anti-Assad forces; and the recognition that the scale of the unmanageable flow of Syrian refugees across the Turkish border and outside of the camps is becoming unmanageable and a threat to domestic order.

 

As if this is not enough to worry about, polarized domestic politics in Turkey was unable to produce either a governing majority for the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in the June elections or in the aftermath an agreed coalition. As a result Turkey has an embattled interim government until a new election on November 1. The country is also beset by a divisive controversy that targets Recep Tayyip Erdoĝan as primarily responsible for all the above alleged wrongs, accusing him both of harboring the unabashed ambition to run the country as its executive president and of needlessly arousing Kurdish hostility and fears by adopting an ultra-nationalist posture during the electoral campaign that ended in June. The Turkish opposition seems to forget the uncomfortable reality that if by magic Erdoĝan disappeared the array of formidable problems facing the country would not disappear with him. And perhaps, even more uncomfortably, awake to the realization that the AKP since 2002, despite some notable errors and deficiencies, has been responsible for a remarkable series of positive economic, social, and political developments, as well as the upgrading of the country as an importantly independent regional and global political actor.

 

After 30 years of struggle between the Turkish state and it large Kurdish minority (14-18 million) causing up to 40,000 battle deaths there were finally hopes of peace raised in 2013 when a reconciliation process was started and a ceasefire established by the AKP led government. Now these hopes have disappeared and been replaced by daily violence as well as dire fears of what is to come, which includes the possibility of a full-scale civil war. In reaction to these developments Erdoĝan, emphatically declared the end of the peace process, although somewhat later ambiguously renewing a call for national unity, a new ceasefire, and a revived search for reconciliation. As might be expected, conditions were attached by Erdoĝan to such a proposal: abandonment of armed struggle by the Kurdish movement , the PKK (or Turkish Workers Party), which has been operating out of its main base area in Iraq’s Qandil mountains.

 

The recently proclaimed military collaboration of Turkey and the United States with the agreed goal of jointly battling ISIS adds to the confusion. It is Kurdish armed groups, including the PKK, and especially its Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga militia that have proved to be the most effective forces combatting ISIS and the Assad government in recent months, and an indispensable complement to America air strikes. In effect, the anti-ISIS campaign is at cross-purposes with the renewed Turkish preoccupation with the fight against the PKK and the Assad regime. Fighting against the Kurds weakens the fight against ISIS and Assad, and vice versa.

 

From Ankara’s perspective there is logic to the seeming irrationality of stepping up the fight against the strongest enemy of its main Syrian enemy. Ever since the Iraqi Kurds established their state within a state in northern Iraq and the Syrian Kurds seemed within reach of their goal of establishing Rojava (or Syrian Kurdistan), the more radical parts of the Turkish Kurdish national movement, evidently had second thoughts about negotiating with the Turkish government a peaceful end to their struggle in exchange for rights and some measure of limited autonomy. After so many years of struggle why should Turkish Kurds settle for far less than what their Kurdish comrades in Iraq and Syria achieved? It should be appreciated in raising such a question that the Kurdish minority in Turkey is about three times the size of the Iraqi Kurdish population, estimated to be between 15 and 20 million, which happens to be more than eight times the size of the Syrian Kurdish minority. It would seem that what the reconciliation process would offer Turkish Kurds fell below reasonable expectations, and it could be argued that the success of the Kurdish political party (HDP or Peoples Democratic Party) in the June elections associated with electing 80 members of Parliament as a result of crossing the 10% marker for the first time accentuated rather than alleviated Kurdish anxieties. There is no direct evidence at this point, but circumstantially it seems as if the HDP’s success was not welcome news to the PKK as it seemed to augur a premature accommodation with the Turkish state, and thus a betrayal of more ambitious goals for the Kurdish national movement. How else can we explain the PKK repudiation of the ceasefire with Turkey on June 11th only four days after the historic HDP electoral success in June?

 

Then the ISIS suicide attack on July 20, 2015 in the Turkish border town of Suruç killing 32 young Turkish civilian activists made clear that Ankara could no longer ignore the threat posed by ISIS despite the disturbing contradiction of battling against an opponent of both the Kurds and Assad. Hence, the agreement with the United States with respect to ISIS, and the accusations that Turkey was nevertheless using most of its military capabilities to fight against the Kurds and Assad.

 

In this atmosphere of growing political violence the Turkish government faced a mounting internal security threat. Between the June 7 Turkish national elections and late July, there were over 281 violent attacks carried out in Turkey by PKK operatives, including a series of lethal assaults on police and military personnel. In retaliation, unsurprisingly, the Turkish armed forces launched air attacks against PKK positions in the Kandil area of northern Iraq. To blame this upsurge of violence on Erdoĝan is not only simplistic but deeply misleading.

 

Two other factors can better explain what happened. First, the Kurdish militant leadership in the Kandil base areas came to the conclusion that the political success of Kurdish armed struggle in Iraq and Syria could be duplicated in Turkey; secondly, a concern that the rewards of the reconciliation process started by the Turkish state if allowed to continue would reward Kurdish politicians and business people who took few risks to advance the national movement in Turkey, while the PKK fighters enduring decades of hardship, loss, and danger would end up being invited back to Turkey with an inadequate acknowledgement of their long struggle. Of course, in between the Turkish state and the AKP there were many Kurds and Turks to yearned for peace and political compromise, and opposed any behavior on either side that would resume a zero-sum bloody struggle in which one side or the other would be a winner and the other a loser.

 

The prolonged Syrian civil strife burdens Turkey further. It is relevant to recall that in the years immediately before 2011, and the Arab Spring, when Turkish regional diplomacy was capturing the imagination by its call for ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ it was then Assad’s Syria that served as the poster child of the policy reaching an unprecedented level of cordiality as between the two governments and their respective leaders. Earlier tensions were dissolved and forgotten, friendship and trade flourished in relations between the two countries, and overnight the governments of Syria and Turkey seemed to reconcile their differences, opened their borders, increased economic and cultural interaction, creating an impression that durable harmony will persist long into the future.

 

Then came the Arab Spring in early 2011, which spread to Syria in March shortly after the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The Damascus government responded with torture and crimes against humanity in its reactions to peaceful demonstrators who were initially suppressed in Daraa, and later in many parts of Syria. Turkey, along with the UN, tried for several months to coax the Assad leadership into meeting the political demands of the Syrian people by instituting democratic reforms. Assad seemed to agree, but no power-sharing steps were taken. Instead there was a spread of insurgent activity, and an intensification of indiscriminate violence and frequent atrocities by the government, including heavy bombing of rebel held Syrian cities and towns, and eventually recourse to chemical weapons and barrel bombs. Syrian casualties rose, mass atrocities were documented, and hundred of thousands of refugees streamed across the Turkish border, creating a major humanitarian challenge that continues to grow, reaching the astounding figure of over 2 million.

 

Against this background, Turkey increasingly and overtly sided with the rebel forces. Istanbul becoming the center of operations for anti-Assad political activity, which included explicit backing of the Friends of Syria (a loose and ineffectual anti-Assad coalition put together by the United States and Turkey). Various forms of military assistance were channeled to the Free Syrian Army but it steadily lost ground against the well-equipped Syrian armed forces, which enjoyed support and assistance from Russia and Iran. Early in the conflict Ankara believed that the balance of forces had shifted decisively against Assad, and that the Syrian regime would collapse in a few weeks. It was mistakenly thought that Syria, like Libya, would be easy prey to a popular uprising, forgetting that the Damascus government unlike Tripoli had loyal support from a series of important Syrian minorities as well as from large segment of the urban business world, was strongly backed by Iran and Russia, and possessed significant military capabilities.

 

The situation became even messier. Even before the appearance of ISIS, it seemed that the Al Nusra Front had become the most effective opposition to Assad, was linked to Al Qaeda. In this mix, when ISIS seemingly came out of the blue to mount an even bigger challenge to Damascus the alignments for and against became hopelessly complex. It is not surprising that given these developments the Turkish leadership was initially reluctant to confront ISIS as its battlefield record of success seemed to pose the biggest threat to their biggest enemy! Turkey still understandably wobbles on the tightrope that stretches between opposing Assad and fighting PKK and ISIS.

 

How this interplay of US/Turkish/Kurdish/ISIS actions and reactions will play out is currently unknowable. To intervene in such a zone of multiple conflict is beset with risks, costs, and unknowns but so is standing by as horrified spectators. The assumption in the West has been that military power offers the only way to calm the waters without sacrificing Western interests, but the consistent record of intervention is one of repeated costly failures. Perhaps, the very hopelessness of the situation makes the moment right for bold forms of regional diplomacy. Tangibly, what this means is bringing Russia and Iran into the game, and minimizing the influence of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel seems to be promoting regional disorder, destabilizing the internal public order of the major states in the region. Saudi Arabia apparently cares for little other than the survival of the royal regime in the Kingdom. It can savagely undermine the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza yet claim to be leading the Sunni struggle against the spread of Shia Islam, justifying its interventions in Syria and Yemen. And globally, it is Saudi funds and Wahabi militancy that is bringing extremist politics to the forefront throughout the Middle East.

 

With such tensions, contradictory agendas, and unconditional ideologies at play the outlook for compromise and normalcy is dim. Oddly, Russia without ties that bind is freer to dampen the forces of extremism than is the United States that remains beholden to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Iran despite the theocratic and repressive character of its government has the internal stability that Turkey now lacks, and if allowed could play a constructive force role by helping to work out a political transition in Syria and Yemen and playing a leading part in an anti-extremist coalition needed to cope with ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the Al-Nusra Front operating in Syria.

 

Will this happen? Of course, not. It is far too rational and realistic. The United States despite its power and residual leadership potential finds itself stuck in a geopolitical straight jacket of its own devising, and without its ability to behave like a rational actor. The region seems destined in coming years to fluctuate between chaos and autocracy, and this means that Arab populations will experience repression, displacement, chaos, and cycles of demonic political violence. More than elsewhere, the Middle East is badly in need of political miracles.

 

Turkey is one of the few actors, situated within and without the Arab World, that retains the capacity to be a constructive influence in support of compromise and nonviolence conflict resolution. This helpful performance depends on the Turkish recovery of composure within its borders, which seems dependent of the AKP recovering an effective majority allowing it to form a government after the results of the new election on November 1st become known. The second best solution would be a strengthening of the AKP and CHP (Republican Peoples Party) parties in November, followed quickly by a coalition between these two parties that puts national unity, economic development, and political stability ahead of partisan confrontation. It is the anti- Erdoĝan preoccupation that has mainly hindered Turkey’s effort at regional leadership, although Erdoĝan has contributed to this atmosphere by his reliance on autocratic tactics in quelling the Gezi uprising in 2013 and expressing his views without sensitivity to opposition values and outlooks ever since scoring a major victory in the 2011 elections. It is time for Erdoĝan and the AKP to abandon ‘majoritarian democracy’ and also time for the political opposition parties and media to assess the Erdoĝan and the AKP in a more balanced, and less polarized views. It is unfortunate that even prior to 2011, the opposition to the AKP was unyielding in voicing its intense hostility, giving no credit, and insisting the AKP under Erdoĝan’s leadership was guiding the country away from the secularism of the Republic era, and toward the imposition of an Islamic theology in the manner of Iran. Let’s hope that the CHP does well enough in the new elections to join with the AKP in giving Turkey the government it deserves, and that Erdoĝan will be content to be presidential in a constitutional system that is essentially based on parliamentary supremacy but with some recourse to judicial checks on arbitrary power.

 

The focus on Turkey, and its role with respect to Syria and the conflicts with Syria, PKK, and ISIS is not meant to minimize the importance of the other actors in the region that are part of the geopolitical nonogon. There are several overlapping regional proxy wars that have complicated, perhaps precluded, a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, including serious intraregional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Syria as well as the extraregional rivalry between the United States and Russia. Also of indeterminate significance are the variety of undisclosed Israeli regional moves and the leverage exerted by way of its often dysfunctional special relationship with the United States (preventing negotiation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone or allowing Iran to play an appropriate diplomatic role). Although not as notoriously described, the willingness of the United States to give Saudi Arabia a free pass with respect to internal repression and recourse to force as in Yemen, and earlier Bahrain, is a further source of regional turmoil.

Turkish Elections: It’s Not Just Erdoğan!

9 Jun

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The Turkish general election on June 7th ended more or less as the polls predicted. The only small surprise was that the Kurdish Party (HDP) ended with 13% of the vote rather than either falling just below or above the 10% threshold needed for parliamentary participation. By clearing the 10% hurdle, the HDP denies the winner, Erdoğan Justice and Development Party (AKP), the majority required to form a new government. This means either a coalition, currently deemed unlikely and even undesirable, or a minority government with a new set of general elections scheduled in coming months.

 

The spinning of the Turkish election results in the West is rather malicious. It seems designed to generate two kinds of reactions: first, that the outcome was a personal defeat for Erdoğan and the AKP; and secondly, that now Turkey faces a period of instability and uncertainty, an atmosphere supposedly confirmed by a drop in the Turkish stock market and currency value. Such assessments, although not totally wrong, are misleading in dangerous and possibly self-fulfilling ways if taken by the Turkish opposition and the world as the real meaning of what took place. It is disturbingly reminiscent of the effort of the opposition in Egypt to discredit the Morsi presidency as soon as he was elected in mid-2012, generating a crisis of legitimacy despite his electoral victory, setting the stage for a populist revolt and the Sisi-led coup a year later. This undermining of electoral results is one of the most dangerous games being played by certain elements in the United States and the Middle East, and could lead the way to yet another regional disaster.

 

I believe what is most important about the Turkish elections is their affirmation of the growing strength and poise of Turkish democracy. If ever there existed a temptation to manipulate the vote so as to keep the HDP below the 10% margin, it was in this election as it would have enabled the AKP to have the majority in the Turkish Grand National Assembly so as to form a new government on its own and later have the parliament mandate a referendum on the shift to a presidential system in which the governing party would be quite sure to prevail. The fact that enough voters, especially among young and progressive Turkish citizens voted for the HDP, exhibited a healthy resistance to the perceived efforts to consolidate power further in Ankara, especially in the person of Erdoğan.

 

When the Conservatives in Britain won 36% of the vote to 30% for Labour the media called it a landslide, and a decisive vindication of Tory policies. In Turkey, although slipping 6% points (and losing 2.5 million votes compared to 2011), the AKP still prevailed in the election by more than 15%, winning 41.8% of the popular vote, with its closest competitor being the old Ataturk party, the CHP, winning only 25%. It might be well to recall that in 2002 the AKP formed the government although winning only 34% of the overall vote, gathering its majority because 45% of the total ballots were cast for parties that fell below 10% , resulting in their transfer mainly to the AKP.

 

The fact that HDP will now have 79 members in Parliament despite being an overtly Kurdish party is a further healthy development that might make a long overdue reconciliation more attainable. Also notable was the election of 97 women to parliarment along with four Christians, the first Roma ever, and a member of the Yazidi community. Such increased diversification refutes in a very vivid manner the contention that the AKP leadership was gradually turning Turkey into an Islamic republic, a so-called ‘second Iran.’

 

What is so striking about the world media reactions is their failure to note these encouraging developments, or to take balanced account of the dignified acceptance of the public will exhibited by the existing Turkish leadership. The AKP Chairman and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, said simply “This nation’s decision is the best decision,” indicating respect for the outcome. So far, as well, Erdoğan has in no way challenged the vote that was certainly, in part, a defeat for his insistence that the ‘New Turkey’ would be more successful if it shifted to a presidential system. He has not lived up to the Putinesque persona that his detractors have long insisted upon.

 

The other failure of world perception has to do with some attention to some other contextual explanations for some decline in AKP popularity. In the background, is the fact of holding the reins of government in Turkey ever since their surprise victory in 2002, reaffirmed with increasing margins in 2007 and 2011 general elections. It is always a sign of a healthy democracy when a portion of the voters indicate their belief that ‘it time for a change.’ There is truth in the adage that ‘power corrupts,’ and a shift of leadership to a responsible opposition can be a revitalizing development for a country. Unfortunately, a persisting weakness in the Turkish political firmament is the absence of a credible alternative to the AKP. The opposition parties lack leaders of suitable stature or any kind of alternative program that commands widespread support. In this sense, I would suppose that there would have been a larger defection from the AKP in this election if a viable alternative did exist. Why there is no such alternative is something that constructive critics of the AKP should be devoting their attention to rather than giving their energies over to incessant and mean-spirited attacks.

 

There are additional explanations of some loss of voter support by the AKP. Above all, the weakening of the economy, with growth falling to 3% of GNP, or possibly a bit lower, and unemployment rising to 11%. Such a decline in economic performance is a product of many factors, but it certainly disappointed the expectations of many Turks struggling to get along on a day-to-day basis. Also, important is the deep cleavage that developed with the Hizmet Movement led by Fetullah Gulen, whose followers supposedly shifted votes in this election to the CHP and MHP. And finally, the lingering bad taste associated with the government’s excessive use of force in response to the Gezi Park demonstrations of 2013 apparently led many on the left and among the young to vote for the HDP, and may have given this Kurdish party the support it needed to qualify for parliamentary representation and thereby change the political climate in the country.

 

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There are also understandable dissatisfactions in Turkey about Ankara’s Syria policy, which has resulted in both a huge influx of refugees, numbering about 1.5 million, and controversial tactics in lending some support to extremist anti-Assad forces. It is always easy to second-guess what to do in situations of a severe humanitarian/political crisis, and no governmental actor has emerged with a positive reputation in this post-Arab Spring period. Although the Turkish government seems to have made miscalculations, especially underestimating the strength and resilience of the Assad regime, it has more than most regional or global actors pursued a principled position throughout. It has supported democratizing movements, and opposed efforts to restore authoritarianism or to use governmental violence against peaceful demonstrators as in Syria and Egypt.

 

The election results are very new. What will ensue is not yet at all clear. It is a moment for all sides to show leadership and composure, and most of all, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu. Erdoğan, in particular, has been given a rare opportunity to turn electoral defeat into political victory. All he has to do is make a statesmanlike speech, acknowledging the setback for his vision of Turkey’s future but displaying his respect and admiration for the democratic process, and his commitment to maintaining Turkish political stability and working toward economic revival. It would be an opportunity for Erdoğan to put to rest among all except his most ardent enemies, the contention that he is an aspiring autocrat in the Putin mold. In the immediate aftermath of the elections, Erdoğan has so far taken the high road, but without making his response fully evident. At least, he does not lament defeat, but rather acknowledges the will of the electorate expressed by a vote in which 84% of eligible voters took part, and calls on all parties to evaluate the results “healthily and realistically,” adding that “the esteem of our nation is above all else.” Instead of berating the opposition, Erdoğan praised the turnout as exhibiting “the precious nation’s determination for democracy and for reflecting its will at the ballot box.” There was no bombast or recriminations that has sometimes in the past marred Erdoğan’s performance as a leader. It is too early to be sure that this benign mood will persist, but these early signs are hopeful.

 

 

For Davutoğlu the opportunity presented to him is more complex, but still very present. It is his moment to show firm leadership and demonstrate his dedication to a smoothe transition in the interest of the whole country. Without distancing himself from Erdoğan, Davutoğlu can demonstrate that he is quite capable of leading the country, and sensitive to the benefits of parliamentary democracy. Davutoğlu could emerge as a co-leader with Erdoğan that would not only restore confidence in AKP’s competence and underlying commitment to secular democracy, but would show to the Middle East that non-autocratic rule true to a nation’s history and character is possible. Of course, it is also a moment to move forward with the Kurdish peace and reconciliation process and to improve the human rights record of the government, especially showing a greater capacity to respect criticism from the media and political dissenters.

 

Despite the turbulence of the region, the economic troubles of neighbors in the Middle East and Europe, Turkey has enjoyed a period of extraordinary success during these years of AKP governance. The economy tripled in size, the militarized deep state has been dismantled, and overall democracy has been strengthened and diversified in relation to gender and ethnicity. Beyond these national gains, the regional and global standing of Turkey increased dramatically. Perhaps, more than any country, Turkey in this AKP period showed the world that it is possible to pursue an independent line in foreign policy and yet maintain continuity with its most enduring alignments. It is easy to overlook such notable achievements, especially given the polarizing passions of the anti-Erdoğan opposition.

It may also be a time for bringing back the steady hand of Abdullah Gul to the governing process. It would be a further sign of the ability of the AKP to learn from its mistakes, and to provide Turkey with the best possible leadership.

 

In my view, persons of good will throughout the world and in Turkey, should now breathe a sigh of relief, being glad that the AKP plan to establish a presidential Turkey has been put back on the shelf and yet relieved that the AKP was again supported by a significant plurality of Turkish citizens in an impressively free and fair electoral process.