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Narrating Turkey at a Time on National Crisis

20 Jul

 

A night before the attempted coup of July 15th, in conversation with an elegant secular business leader and permacologist in the seaside town of Yalikavak I was surprised by the intensity of her negativity toward the government, expressed with beguiling charm. She insisted that Turkey had hit rock bottom, that things in the country could not get worse. I felt speechless to respond to such sentiments that struck me as so out of touch with the reality of Turkey. This woman lives in a beautiful, secluded country house nearby, enjoys an extraordinarily successful career, is associated with a prominent Turkish family, possesses an engaging personality by any measure, and from all appearances lives a harmonious and satisfying modern life of comfort, good works, and human security. And yet she is totally alienated by the Turkish experience of Erdoğan’s prolonged leadership, which she alternatively describes as ‘autocratic’ and ‘Islamic.’ I mention her as the foregrounding of the typical mindset encountered among Turkish secular elites, displaced from their positions of control that lasted until the Kemalist hegemony began to weaken, and an outlook that confines political discussion to enclaves of out of touch likemindedness.

 

When I politely demurred during our dinner, suggesting that while there were justifiable criticisms of the AKP patterns of governance and of Erdoğan’s political style, especially since 2011, Turkey when compared with other countries in the region and its own pre-AKP past, and taking some account of a variety of challenges, still offers the region a positive example of what can be achieved by an energetic and ambitious emerging economy under what had been until recently generally stable political conditions. There are heavy costs of various kinds that should be acknowledged along side this somewhat affirmative picture—human rights have been abridged, üjournalists and academics suppressed who voice strong public criticisms of Erdoğan, and the Turkish state that he leads. There have also been a variety of charges of corruption and contrary well grounded charges of a ‘parallel government’ operating under the secretive authority of the Hizmet movement led by ‘the man in Pennsylvania,’ Fetullah Gülen, a mysterious Muslim cleric who preaches a moderate message. He is alleged to be the mastermind of the subversion of the Turkish state, and is accused by Erdoğan as having orchestrated the failed coup, and on this basis, Turkey has formally demanded his extradition to face criminal prosecution.

 

Arriving in Istanbul in the afternoon of July 15th with the expectation of participating in a conference the next morning held under the auspices of Koç University on the theme “Migration and Securitization of Europe: Views from the Balkan Corridor.” Listed in the program as the keynote speaker I felt quite nervous as to whether my prepared remarks captured the intended spirit of the tevent, but I will never know as an immediate personal impact of the attempted coup was a phone call to our hotel room at 2:00 AM telling us that ‘unfortunately’ it was necessary to cancel the conference. Our newly opened luxury hotel was almost empty, which itself expressed another facet of the reality of Istanbul in the wake of earlier terrorist incidents, most recently, the ghastly attack in late June at the Istanbul Airport. The only other hotel guests were a few families of rich Gulf Arabs with the women heavily veiled in black with only a slit open for their eyes. It was a strange atmosphere. This highly embellished postmodern hotel with its spacious marbled lobbies barely inhabited. I found the unattended electronic monitor at the hotel entrance a useful metaphor for the flawed security consciousness that, despite everything that has happened in the past year, still prevails in Turkey. The beautifully appointed rooms with exceptional views of the Golden Horn, beneath the softly lit graceful buildings that comprise the Topkapi palace, conveyed a different impression of Turkey’s past, present, and possible future than what this new hotel had to offer even in the best of times.

 

 

Before dinner we had walked slowly through our neighborhood of Karakoy, past numerous crowded and vibrant sidewalk cafes where mainly young Turkish men and women were enjoying water pipes, beers, soft drinks. We ended up in a popular nearby Armenian restaurant, admired for the quality of its food. As we entered we were happily surprised to find two close Turkish friends who we had known for the past 20 years, the longtime dean of the Bilgi University School of Law and his lawyer wife. Even though the restaurant was crowded we found a table that allowed our friends to join us. We had an animated conversation that touched lightly on the current political situation in the country and region but without any sense that we were dining amid an imminent internal crisis that would shake the foundations of the Turkish state.

 

In fact, the recent decisions of the government to repair the frayed relations with Russia and Israel were widely welcomed as signs that the Erdoğan leadership might be returning to a more pragmatic foreign policy based on nonintervention, refraining even from pro and con judgments about the political orientation of governments in the inflamed Middle East. This shift was reinforced by indications that efforts were underway to normalize relations with Egypt that had deteriorated badly after the Sisi coup in 2013 against the elected government of Mohammed Morsi, followed by the bloody crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and other anti-coup activists. There were even hints by the new prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, that Turkey might be soon softening its insistence that there could be no peace with Syria until Bashar al-Assad gave up his role as leader, and this despite the continued massive genocidal atrocities being carried out the Damascus regime against the Syrian people.

 

Although not articulated in this manner, it certainly seemed that Turkey was moving away from an ideologically driven foreign policy in the Middle East that reflected sectarian biases, and trying to live at peace with all of its neighbors, virtually ‘a second coming’ of ‘Zero problems with neighbors’ as well as the brief flirtation with the unsustainable posture of ‘precious isolation.’

 

As our meal was nearing its end, the manager of the restaurant came to tell our friends, who ate there regularly, that he was hearing startling reports of a coup underway, with the Bosporus bridges closed and occupied by tanks, and Erdoğan’s whereabouts unknown and rumors circulating of his assassination or capture. We were told that people were returning to their homes as soon as possible if they could do so without having to pass over the bridges. We walked calmly in the warm Istanbul night close to the water, heeding the advice to get off the streets.

 

When we got to the room, we tried our best to find out what was happening by listening to TV, trolling through the channels to find some relevant reporting in real time. CNN Turka seemed to be doing the best job, at least until briefly taken over by coup supporters. The news we received at first was that there was sporadic fighting and casualties, and most significantly, that the coup was succeeding in gaining control over key governmental institutions and communications sites. There was an announcement that a state of emergency had been declared by the coup leaders and a curfew imposed. There were pictures on TV of the tanks on the bridges, of explosions in Ankara, gunfire in Istanbul and a report of a helicopter attack on the Parliament, which was meeting in a special session. These announcements were followed by conflicting claims as to who was in control with a dramatic focus on the whereabouts and reaction of Erdoğan.

 

Via CNN Turka Erdoğan was then interviewed by way of an I-Phone feed. He seemed shaken and uncertain, while vowing to take back control of the government, and apprehend those who were seeking its overthrow. It was later learned that the coup planners had changed course at the last minute, aware that the government was onto their scheme, initiating the coup attempt several hours ahead of schedule with the hope of capturing or killing Erdoğan, which seemed to be the key element in their plan. Apparently warned in the nick of time by the head of the Turkish Intelligence Organization (MIT), Hakan Fidan, Erdoğan managed to escape 10-15 minutes before the plotters arrived at the hotel where he was vacationing in Marmaris with 28 soldiers on board two helicopters. After that, according to a Reuters report, Erdoğan made a hazardous journey by plane back to Istanbul, both harassed and protected by F-16 jets aligned on opposite sides, arriving while the airport, including the flight tower, was still apparently under the control of pro-coup forces. The pilot made a dangerous manual landing with minimum lights, and by then the airport was again under the control of government supporters. Erdoğan held a dramatic press conference sitting between large Turkish flags and beneath a huge framed portrait of the founder of the republic, Kemal Ataturk, and speaking confidently that the coup was being defeated, and that forces loyal to the government were generally in control of the country. Erdoğan called on the people to come to the airport, and to the public squares throughout the country, asserting their loyalty to the government and their antipathy to the coup.

 

As night became morning we remained transfixed by the TV reportage of these unfolding events, including how they were being presented to Western audiences by CNN International and BBC. This

kind of passive witnessing contrasted with existential fears produced by F-16 military jets flying continuously over the city at low altitudes, breaking the sound barrier, causing ear-splitting sonic booms that were terrifying and seemed to threaten the onset of major combat. We were strongly reminded of the ordeal faced by the people of Gaza often traumatized by the sound of sonic booms from overflying Israeli jets and Syrians huddled in ruined cities being continuously subject to the terrorizing impact of barrel bombs dropped on the authority of the Syrian government. Unlike the real time abstractions of TV, the ominous activities of these jets, whose purpose we could not then fathom, gave the coup a frighteningly real dimension.

 

Twelve hours after the coup started it was over, and immediately questions were raised, suspicions surfaced, and political analysis reflected the deeply held contradictory views that had preexisted these tumultuous happenings. There were expressions of political unity, a rarity in Turkey, in which all of the leading parties expressed their hostility to the coup and those who undertook such a violent path, signing a declaration to this effect. This could be taken either as a sign of going with the winner in this bitter struggle for power or an indication that the political culture in Turkey had matured to the point where civilianization of political authority had made it unacceptable to mount a military challenge to a democratically elected government of the country under any circumstances. The sea change in Turkish political culture was the conviction across the entire spectrum of polarized politics in the country that change of government must be brought about through the electoral process. In effect, the armed forces no longer were able to claim credibility as the guarantor of the Ataturk principles of republican governance as had been the case in such earlier coups as 1960, 1971 (bloodless coup by threatening memorandum), 1980, and 1997 (a so-called ‘post-modern coup’ that proceeded by way of ultimatum). In retrospect, one of the great achievements of the AKP period of leadership was this assertion of the primacy of the political, as interpreted by elected leaders, and the accompanying marginalization or constitutionalization of the Turkish deep state (composed of military leaders and heads of the intelligence services). As suggested, the opposition leading secular party, CHP, in this coup crisis affirmed civilianization as an integral element of Turkish democracy, but its polarizing opposition to the AKP and Erdoğan withheld any expression of appreciation for this achievement. Many years ago, my dear friend, Erich Rouleau, after serving as ambassador in Ankara for several years and an expert on the politics of the region, expressed the view that the deep state’s veto over the political process was such a formidable obstacle to the establishment of a democratic constitutional order in Turkey that it was unlikely ever to be overcome. Now, of course, the country confronts the opposite problem: an excessive consolidation of power in the office of the presidency with or without the blessing of constitutional reform.

 

With the crisis of the failed coup seemingly effectively resolved, there is emerging what might be described as ‘the crisis of the aftermath.’ So far, it consists of several main strands: (1) how wide to draw the circle of criminality and civic responsibility with respect to the movement of Fetullah Gülen as operative in the government [as of July 19 almost 20,000 suspected members of FETÖ (Gülenist Terrorist Organization) have been suspended from army, judiciary, and police, which is additional to 7,453 suspects now detained that include 100 police officers, 6,038 soldiers, 755 prosecutors and judges, and 650 civilians]; there exists also a preoccupation with the prosecution of Fetullah Gülen himself, which depends on whether the United States can be persuaded to grant extradition; there are also present anxieties about a witch hunt being extended to all critics, especially the faculty of universities and media journalists; (2) the extent to which ‘democracy’ is being deliberately confused through the mobilization of ultra-nationalist populism mingled with calls in the nightly demonstrations in the public squares for Sharia governance; (3) the degree to which in a period of insecure borders, transnational terrorism, and a domestic insurgency the effectiveness and credibility of the Turkish armed forces can be restored; (4) the extent to which the call for restoring the death penalty with respect to the coup culprits will lead European Union to end Turkish accession talks, and how this will impact on Turkey’s NATO membership; (5) overall, how relations with the United States will be affected by the policies that are adopted by the government in this period of aftermath and with other states in the region.

 

It is worth observing two tendencies that cause in one instance hope and in the other deep concern. The hope arises from the unity that has so far been maintained as between the main opposition political party and the AKP built on the consensus that the coup operatives and supporters must be brought to justice, but without a spirit of revenge and in accordance with the rule of law. The concern arises in response to the sweeping dismissals, suspensions, and detentions of those in the civil service, educational system, and armed forces under the misleading banner of anti-terrorism. The Gülen movement certainly seems guilty of treason, and some acts of terrorism against

Innocent Turkish civilians, but it was a criminal undertaking to be differentiated from terrorism in the pattern of recent attacks in Nice, Dhaka, Orlando, or the Istanbul Airport.

 

Returning to my pre-coup conversation in Yalikavak I think again

of the view so prevalent among oppositional secularists that due to recent political developments, things in the country could not get any worse. What this failed coup demonstrated convincingly is that things could, and almost did, get a lot worse: a bloody military regime that would have needed to be harshly oppressive to deal with the massive civil resistance that would have certainly emerged, and probably producing an insurgent challenge taking the form of a civil war, possibly in the Syrian mode. With such a prospect in mind it was particularly encouraging that even the bitter CHP opposition to the AKP during these past 14 years realized from the outset of the coup attempt that its success would have been a disaster for the country far, far worse than the continuation of AKP governance.

 

There has now surfaced in this unsettled period of the aftermath a quite different set of concerns about things getting worse, that the experience of the coup will lead Erdoğan to seek and obtain further enhanced powers that enable him to purge public institutions, and even the private sector of all its opponents, which it should be realized, make up about 50% of the country. And as well, use his populist mandate to move the country further in an Islamic direction

so far as regulatory framework and cultural atmosphere are concerned.

 

It is not a matter of abandoning a critical stance, but it is a reminder of the critical importance of not exaggerating the negative features of a governing process as it undermines the coherence and credibility of political discourse. How can we even talk about conditions that are worse than what exists being already deemed to be ‘the worst’? In times of tension it is particularly important for the defense of what is good and identification of what would worsen the status quo, to strive for balanced assessments, always hoping for the best, while trying to identify and oppose any and all steps toward coercive authoritarianism. I have had the same reaction to conversations in the United States with friends who deem the country to have become ‘fascist.’ Surely, there have been disturbing tendencies, but to assert the actuality of fascism is to misunderstand its truly demonic reality.

 

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After Turkey’s March 30th Local Elections

13 Apr

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            Never in the history of the Turkish republic have municipal elections of the mayors of cities and towns meant so much to the political life of the country as those held on March 30. It is not a sudden turn to localism around the country or in the big cities, although the commercializing of the urban landscape in large Turkish cities, especially Istanbul, is a matter of serious concern to an influential and discontented segment of the citizenry. The primary explanation for this great interest in these local elections, exhibited by a record voter turnout, had to do with an embittered and multi-faceted opposition to the national leadership provided by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and above all, by its controversially charismatic leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both the government and the opposition treated these elections as a referendum on the leadership being bestowed upon the country by Erdogan, its stormy prime minister during the past 12 years.

 

            What was surprising about the outcome to most observers was the persisting strength of public support for AKP leadership, reflecting a widely shared approval on the part of ordinary Turks combined with the sense that the main opposition forces, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the National Action Party (MHP), had little to offer the country, and if given the chance to govern would likely plunge the country into recession and chaos, and possibly even collapse. In such an inflamed atmosphere, the AKP received approximately 45% of the vote, up from 39% in the last local elections held in 2009, while the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) received 28% and the rightest National Action Party (MHP) about 14%. The support of the CHP was mainly concentrated in the large Turkish cities in the West. In the cities of the Turkish East where minorities often dominate, especially Kurds, the CHP turns its back, has no organizational presence, and received less than 1% voter support in such leading cities as Diyarbakir, Van, Sanliurfa. It is a strange anomaly of Turkey that in a country of 77 million the AKP is the only political party that competes for votes throughout the entire country, and seems responsive to the expectations and grievances of all sections and ethnicities.

 

            Looked at differently, the election returns also disclose that 55% of the Turkish public opposes Erdogan and the AKP, and this would suggest that Erdogan’s presumed presidential ambitions might never be realized. In the presidential elections scheduled for this August the winner must poll over 50%, although not necessarily on the first round. Erdogan’s candidacy might still be a possibility, if done with the support, or at least acquiescence, of the current president, Abdullah Gul, and if the Kurds could be persuaded to vote, Erdogan, which is a distinct possibility. As of now, Erdogan has not disclosed his intentions about the presidency or, more generally, his political future. Whatever happens, so long as Erdogan remains active, his presence is likely to be the lightning rod that dominates the Turkish political landscape, and keeps the atmosphere tense.

 

            From an outsider’s perspective this level of reaffirmation of citizen confidence in the AKP and Erdogan seems implausible at first glance. The mainstream international media has been increasingly hostile toward Turkey since 2010 or so, especially contending that his leadership in recent years was slouching toward authoritarian rule. This line of criticism portrayed Erdogan as a Turkish version of Vladimir Putin. This international turn toward a critical view of Erdogan undoubtedly reflected several developments: the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations following the Gaza War of 2008-09 culminating in the Mavi Marmara incident the following year in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turks on a Turkish passenger ship carrying humanitarian supplies to beleaguered Gaza in defiance of an Israeli blockade; the Turkish pursuit of a foreign policy line more independent of American priorities, especially in relation to Iran, highlighted by a 2010 Turkish/Brazilian initiative to resolve tensions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and followed by a related refusal of Turkey to go along with the Western push in the UN Security Council for intensifying sanctions on Iran; and more recently, with Turkey standing almost alone in the Middle East and the West in its refusal to welcome the 2013 military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood led Egyptian government or to be silent when the new military leadership under General Sisi committed vicious state crimes against those that resisted the efforts of the new regime in Cairo to impose total control over the society after overthrowing the elected Morsi government.

 

            Such Turkish deviations from the Western consensus on regional policy were not really as dramatic or systemic as made to appear. The Turkish Government has long made it clear that restoration of normal diplomatic relations with Israel would be welcomed if Tel Aviv acted reasonably, and accepted responsibility for the Mavi Marmara deaths and lifted its unlawful blockade of Gaza maintained since mid-2007. In relation to Iran, the NATO group has always claimed, as does Turkey, to seek a diplomatic solution, and seemed at one stage even to encourage and welcome the Turkish/Brazilian initiative to find a solution for the storage of Iran’s enriched uranium. Besides, Ankara’s relations with Iran have cooled considerably in light of their opposed positions in Syria. Further, given the bloody record of the post-Morsi leadership in Egypt, the United States and others in the region should by now feel ashamed of their failure to stand up for democratically elected leaders and insist that the Sisi leadership show at least minimal respect for the rule of law and human rights before lavish economic assistance is forthcoming.

 

            Additionally, on a host of other issues Turkey remains solidly in the Western camp, including the controversial deployment of defensive NATO missile systems on its territory, strong opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, provision for over one million Syrian refugees in a form that meets international standards, tendering of crucial and unwavering support for the Syrian rebel insurgency, and participation in the NATO intervention of 2013 in Libya, and even in the controversial NATO operation in Afghanistan. On balance, Turkey in recent years was doing nothing more disruptive of its long-term Western orientation in foreign policy than to behave like an independent sovereign state of rising regional influence and global status. Turkish behavior should have been viewed in Washington and Europe as a positive and natural development in this post-Cold War era, especially if compared with the violent instability, entrenched authoritarianism, and economic stagnancy that continues to prevail throughout most of the Middle East.

 

            Undoubtedly, the domestic realities of Turkey, even ignoring the recent flare ups, seemed likely to weaken Erdogan’s hold on popular support. To begin with, any democratically elected leadership that has been in power for more than a decade has a tendency to make an increasing proportion of its citizenry restless. Furthermore, most political parties to long in control of the government become increasingly susceptible to corrupting temptations. Such extended governance even without scandals generates feelings in the public that it is time for a change. Although in Turkey such a prospect of change is worrisome, as the alternatives to AKP leadership seem so lacking in capacity and vision. It is a definite weakness of Turkey’s political life that there is absent a responsible opposition that could at least elevate the level of policy debate and offer constructive ideas about addressing national policy options. Without such a responsible opposition the body politic of a democratic society is subject to the unhappy choice of relying indefinitely on a single governing party or taking its chances with the irresponsible opposition that may not even be able to manage the economy, much less steer the ship of state through the perilous political waters of the region.

 

            In the background, was a deep seated and uncompromising opposition to the AKP and Erdogan on the part of the old secular establishment that had ruled the country ever since its initial electoral success in 2002. Such sentiments of discontent in Turkey were given a fierce endorsement by the Gezi Park demonstrations of mid-2013, and even more so by the lethal force used in response by the government to maintain public order. Whether these developments did more than strengthen the will and intensify the shrillness of anti-Erdogan forces is hard to say, but the recent electoral results suggest that no serious erosion of pro-AKP support occurred. Erdogan’s abrasive refusal to address the Gezi protests in a respectful and statesmanlike language that sought reconciliation produced widespread critical comment at home and abroad. His initial praise for police tactics also alarmed commentators, and reinforced the impression that Erdogan was insensitive to the abuse inflicted on aroused citizens who were doing nothing more than exercising democratic rights of peaceful protest. It is also relevant to note that the international media was much more critical of Erdogan’s response to Gezi Park than to the far bloodier responses of General Sisi’s regime to peaceful demonstrations of the Muslim Brotherhood in the public squares of Cairo. Also, it should be taken into account, that what started in Gezi Park as a youth movement of environmental protest against the destruction of a heritage site in Istanbul quickly escalated into an anti-Erdogan hate fest, calling for his resignation, if not his head, and savagely attacking the entire economic and political program being pursued by the AKP. Also overlooked by the international media and internal opposition were the several moves toward reconciliation made by Erdogan, including meeting with opposition leaders, accepting a judicial decision as to the future of Gezi Park, and generally, trying, if belatedly to calm the situation and move on.

 

            What followed after Gezi in recent months came as a startling surprise to most outsiders, and seemed far more threatening to the AKP hold on political power: the split between the Hizmet Movement headed by Fetullah Gulen from his unusual command center in rural Pennsylvania and Erdogan. This split dramatically ruptured the unity of the two leading Islamic tendencies in Turkish political and cultural life. Without considering the complexity of what produced this bitter conflict between these two powerful Islamically oriented personalities, it seemed that such an organizational cleavage would gravely weaken the AKP appeal, especially against the background of seemingly rising dissatisfaction that seemed on the increase throughout Turkey in recent years. This dissatisfaction seemed further magnified by the spectacular corruption charges put forward on December 17, 2013, purporting to implicating the highest levels of the Erdogan administration, and inducing four ministers to resign in disgrace. There were additional accusations of major corruption also directed at Erdogan and his son, but the evidence made public so far relies on untrustworthy and possibly fraudulent, and certainly unlawful, surveillance tapes that did not enjoy high credibility.

 

            Assessing the overall leadership of Erdogan is not an easy task. Ever since the AKP came to power Erdogan has been hated by the Turkish secular opposition and adored by his populist followers. In the early years of the AKP administration, Erdogan was cautious, pragmatic, and exceedingly effective in steering the country onto a course of action that involved economic growth, the control of inflation, a pronounced effort to accommodate the European Union’s criteria for membership, control of the armed forces, relative mildness in his personal pronouncements, and a range of regional and extra-regional foreign policy initiatives that won widespread admiration around the world. Despite the electoral mandate and difficulties associated with a resistant bureaucracy that reflected largely CHP and MHP views as to Turkish national policy, it seemed clear to most objective observers that Turkey was under capable leadership impressively pursuing constructive national goals, especially as compared to unfolding events elsewhere in the Middle East.

 

            Yet, the opposition was unwilling to act responsibly, seeming to be only interested in finding reasons to attack the Erdogan administration, and even to generate a crisis of legitimacy that would be conducive to a coup of the kind that had displaced several elected Turkish governments in the past. Talking to secular critics in the early years of AKP governance, there were several lines of response all aggressively hostile: the main one was the suspicion that the real intentions of the AKP was secretly to prepare the ground for making Turkey into ‘a second Iran,’ that is, a governing process reflecting Islamic values and contrary to the secular principles associated with the founding vision of Kemal Ataturk and enshrined in the Turkish constitution; a somewhat less belligerent theme of the AKP critics was to belittle its record of success, which was difficult to deny altogether, as a byproduct of the Turkish effort to satisfy EU requirements for membership or benefitting from the good luck of an economic package that had been bestowed on the country by the IMF and took hold just in time for the AKP to claim credit for a record of sustained economic growth that it didn’t deserve.

 

            As time passed, two things became obvious: first, the Turkish armed forces were not willing, as in the pre-AKP past, to take control of and responsibility for the state, suggesting that the democratically elected AKP was no longer on a collision course with the military as had been a widespread conjecture in the years immediately following their electoral victory in 2002; and secondly, the Turkish citizenry confirmed their support for the AKP in election after election up through the just concluded local elections of 2014, and especially exhibited an expanding base of support for AKP in the 2011 national elections. This trend and the 2011 outcome added to the polarization that reflected the atmosphere of distrust and hostility on both sides of the Turkish political divide. It is true that after 2011 Erdogan often behaved as if intoxicated by political success and the tangible achievements during his time as head of state. The opposition became hysterically alienated, both convinced that they possessed no democratic path by which to displace the AKP from the commanding heights in Turkey and fearful and angry about Erdogan’s more strident and opinionated portended a descent into oppressive rule. Putting the issue in more conceptual terms, Erdogan was becoming more of a populist leader buoyed by the enthusiasm of his political base, interpreting the 2011 electoral mandate from the perspective of majoritarian democracy, that is, without taking into account the views of the opposition, ruling on behalf of the majority rather than exhibiting sensitivity to the interests of the whole of Turkish society.

 

            On the night of the March 30 elections, Erdogan delivered a victory speech from the balcony of his official residence that could be read in either of two ways, and probably should be understood as expressing an unresolved tension in his own mind. Because of some aggressive language directed toward the opposition, especially bitterness toward the tactics and behavior of the Gulen movement, it could be viewed as it was in a NY Times editorial as indicating Erdogan’s thirst for revenge. His words were strong: “We’ll walk into their dens..Now is the time to comb them out, with the law. Why? Because from now on, neither the nation nor we will show tolerance to such networks.” It seemed to suggest that with the elections behind, a purge of Gulen adherents would be carried out with merciless resolve by the Turkish state.

 

            There was a different message also contained in the speech. It was a message of reconciliation and unity, addressed to the whole of the country, and celebrating, rather than bemoaning Turkish diversity. “We have said one nation with Turks, Kurds, Laz, Caucasians, Abkhasians, Bosniaks and Roma people. I love them as a Turk for being a Turk, a Kurd for being a Kurd, or a Laz for being a Laz.” This multiculturalism was reinforced further: “Today..the process of national unity and fraternity won. Not even one person among the 77 million lost, because a cadre that is ready to serve them without any discrimination is in office.” This is a welcome departure from an ethno-nationalist past nurtured by Ataturk in the state-building early phase of modern Turkish history, in which being Turkish overrode non-Turkish ethnic identities, producing discrimination and sometimes severe and dangerous tensions, especially in relation to the large Kurdish minority.

 

            As we look to the Turkish future we can thus see two different dominant scenarios of AKP/Erdogan leadership: the first is to remain in an internal confrontational mode with a combative leadership in Ankara lashing out at all those that disagree with its style and substance; the second is to give meaning to the promise of leadership on behalf of the whole of Turkish society, requiring Erdogan to moderate his rhetoric and to be less publicly opinionated about social life style issues, and to restore a foreign policy approach dedicated to the peaceful settlement of regional conflcts and positive engagement with Africa, the Balkans, and Central Asia. Two starting points for this preferred approach would be a concerted revival of the Kurdish initiative, which seemed quite hopeful a few months ago and a reset on Syria that gave priority to ending the violence and addressing the humanitarian emergency in the country and supported an inclusive diplomacy that tried hard to make Iran part of the solution rather than the core of the problem.

 

            At stake, is the quality of Turkish democracy, which must at once value the procedures of election, but also confirm the importance of constraints on the power of the state via genuine support for the rule of law, freedom of expression in the media, accountability of political leaders, a credible anti-corruption campaign, and a respectful attitude toward the political opposition. In effect, what is being proposed is a move away from the excesses of majoritarian democracy, and toward the implementation of republican ideas of separation of powers and checks and balances. Of course, also, the opposition needs to play its part by desisting from demonizing the leadership, acknowledging the accomplishments of government alongside the mounting of criticisms of its shortcomings, and adhering itself to legal and responsible limits associated with respect to surveillance and the use of social media. Turkey retains the potential to carry a bright torch of hope into the future if it can restore political stability, sustain economic growth, engage with the more democratic trends in the region, and resume a foreign policy that rests on ethical principles and ambitions as well as national interests.

 

            The assessment of the deadly sarin gas incident that killed as many as 1500 people living in the Ghouta neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21, 2013 has now cast a new dark shadow across the Turkish post-election political scene. Seymour Hersh, a highly respected American investigative journalist, has recently published a devastating account of how the Turkish government facilitated the acquisition of sarin gas by the Al Nusra Front in Syria with the intention of producing a false flag operation in Syria that would cross Obama’s red line relating to chemical weapons, and lead to a devastating American air attack on Syria, and swing the war there back in favor of the anti-Assad insurgency. [See Seymour M Hersh, “The Red Line and the Rat Line,” London Review of Books, April 6, 2014; reinforcing Hersh’s account is an interpretative article by Robert Fisk, an equally prominent journalist, appearing on April 10, 2014 in The Independent with the inflammatory title, “Has Recep Tayyip Erdogan gone from model Middle East ‘strongman’ to tin-pot dictator?”]

 

            This scenario that came perilously close to happening, being aborted at the last minute by the unwelcome realization in the Obama White House that the sarin attack could not be convincingly attributed to the Assad regime. According to Hersh’s analysis Obama shifted course at the last minute when it became clear that the evidence indicated that it was rebel forces, and not the Damascus government, that fired the missiles containing the poison gas into a crowded urban area. Obama reportedly changed course when presented with the revised account of the events on August 21 by the top American military commanders. Both the United States and Turkish Governments have issued sharp denials of the Hersh allegations, and continue to insist that there still are no reasons to doubt that the attack on Ghouta was done by Assad’s forces. Whatever the reality, this controversy has been seized upon by Erdogan’s foes in Turkey to renew their attack on the legitimacy of his leadership. These charges are extremely serious, and if reliably established and do not just fade away, could tip the Turkish balance against Erdogan as an acceptable political leader.