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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.

 

Assessing Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s Departure from Government

26 May

 

 

[This post was published in modified form a week ago in Al Jazeera Turka. Since then Binali Yildirim has been selected as the new prime minister of Turkey, reflective of a choice made by President Erdogan. Mr. Yildirim had served for many years in the AKP Government as Minister of Transport, Maritime Affairs, and Communications. He was successful in this post, given credit for the great improvement in the public transport systems in Turkish cities and for modernizing Turkey’s network of inter-city roads and highways. Yildirim is widely regarded as an Erdogan loyalist with a pragmatic approach to politics. Of course, only the future will allow us to discern whether this shift in governmental leadership exerts a discernible influence on the domestic policy agenda and on the regional and global role of Turkey. Issues to watch closely include the approach taken to Syria and ISIS, and whether possibilities for reconciliation with the Kurdish political movement are explored, or are abruptly rejected.

There are two disturbing developments. The first is the parliamentary move to deprive members of their legislative immunity from criminal prosecution, which was explicitly aimed at Kurdish parliamentarians who are members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and accused of lending support to PKK terrorism. The other initiative is a call for a constitutional amendment that would end the nonpartisan character of the presidency by allowing the president to be the head of the governing political party, in effect, making Erdogan head of the AKP as well as President of the country. Of course, Erdogan has been indirectly playing this kind of partisan role on a de facto basis, thus the authorization would merely be regularizing a practice that currently violates the spirit, and probably the letter, of the current constitution]   

 

The resignation of Davutoglu seems to be enveloping Turkey in mists of partisan speculation, which opposition forces contend has taken the nation a big step closer to the abyss of autocratic rule. The move does seem clearly dictated by President Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s determined effort to replace the Turkish parliamentary system with a presidential system as legalized through a process constitutional reform.

 

To some extent the confusion surrounding the departure of Davutoglu’s departure from the heights of governmental rule is a reflection of the public posture adopted by the two leaders. On Erdogan’s side we encounter the assertion that “Prime Minister Davutoglu’s decision will be for the better of Turkey and the nation.” This seems at variance with the spirit, if not letter, of Davutoglu’s stark declaration that his resignation “..is not my wish, but it is a necessity.” Possibly, the common ground here is the recognition that the AKP (Justice and Development Party) and the governing process need one clear and undisputed leader for policy purposes, and that explains the apparent downgrading of the prime ministerial post as connected to the overt assertion of the univocal primacy of Erdogan’s presidency.

 

Of course, there are more elaborate speculations and partisan spins, mostly difficult to evaluate, about whether the true explanation of these unsettling events has been friction between these two towering figures who have dominated Turkish politics in the 21st century is a matter of substantive disagreement on any number of issues. Or is this event better explained by reference to the tensions that had developed between Davutoglu and the AKP Parliamentary leadership on more prosaic questions of procedures and appointments. In this latter interpretation, the resignation of Davutoglu, and his replacement by a political figure lacking his international prominence, are enabling Erdogan and the AKP to coordinate their common effort to put the Turkish ship of state in efficient running order from the point of view of the presidency.

 

While Erdogan portrays this dramatic move as ‘Davutoglu’s decision,’ the opposition, always relentless in their often exaggerated criticisms of AKP governance ever since 2002, describes what has happened as a ‘palace coup.’ Reflecting on such an extreme presentation of Davutoglu’s departure suggests its opportunism. The opposition has long decried Erdogan’s takeover of government, portraying Davutoglu during his 20 months of service as head of government as nothing more than being ‘a shadow prime minister,’ sometimes even portraying him unflatteringly as ‘a puppet.’

 

And yet, if Erdogan was actually in full control all along, the resignation, whether voluntary or forced, is merely an outward acknowledgement of the de facto hierarchy that had already made the president the supreme leader of the country. Under these circumstances to treat what happened as a coup is deeply misleading as the resignation creates no alteration in the previously operative structure of political power in Ankara. Additionally, Davutoglu with seeming spontaneity indicated that he would never give voice to criticisms of the president, insisting that he leaves office continuing to have a ‘brotherly’ feeling toward Erdogan. This is hardly the language of someone who has been ousted from power as a result of a coup!

 

What may be really at stake in the course of this reshuffling is streamlining the constitutional restructuring process that seems so high on Erdogan’s agenda. It is to be expected that next prime minister, presumably reflecting Erdogan’s choice, will be a person that possesses sufficient clout with Parliament to push the process through quickly and in accordance with the sort of presidential system that Erdogan favors.

 

There is some reason to suppose that Davutoglu preferred what might be called ‘a republican presidency’ that sacrifices a measure of executive control for the sake of ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers[ while Erdogan is insistent upon ‘an imperial presidency’ that allows the president to run the show with minimum interference from other branches of government. Assuming that constitutional reform will bring some variant of the presidential system into being, this choice of model is crucial to the sort of political future that awaits the Turkish people. It is hard to imagine an imperial presidency, especially with Erdogan at its head, that manifests sensitivity to human rights, including freedom of expression and the human rights of dissenting individuals. The arrest and prosecution of journalists and academicians in recent months even prior to the adoption of a presidential system does seem to vindicate the worst fears about the fate of Turkish democracy.

 

At the same time maybe the issue is being inflated beyond its true importance. Many informed observers have observed that Erdogan had long since transformed the presidency as set forth in the 1982 Constitution into a vehicle for his unchecked authority. If this is a correct interpretation of the way the Turkish government has been operating in recent years, at least since Erdogan became the first popularly elected president in 2014, then the issue of institutionalization of this style of leadership has mostly to do with the future, and especially with the structure of governance in a post-Erdogan Turkey.

 

However, if the opposition is exaggerating Erdogan’s curent power and governing style, then it is possible that a new constitution, which requires a two-thirds supermajority in Parliament, will enhance the actual, as well as the legal role of the office of president in Turkey. By placing such stress on this move from a parliamentary to a presidential system Erdogan appears to believe that his role would be solidified as well as legitimated if the sort of constitution that he seeks is properly adopted as a reality. This may be the most consequential question bound up with Davutoglu’s resignation, and yet it is sometimes downplayed because of public fascination with the dramatic interaction of these two Turkish political figures, which pushes to one side the question of restructuring the constitutional architecture of the Turkish government.

 

Finally, there is the question of foreign relations. The US State Department has formally avowed that Davutoglu’s resignation is an internal Turkish issue lacking any significance for U.S.-Turkish relations. Of greater concern is Turkey’s far more complex relationship with Europe, and particularly the possible impact on Syrian refugee containment, Turkish visa-free travel rights in Schengen Europe, European promises of a fast track approach to Turkish accession negotiations, and European demands that the Turkish anti-terrorism law be amended so that it cannot be used to pursue journalists and professors.

 

There are also many indications that European leaders were comfortable dealing with Davutoglu on such matters, and are far less willing to cooperate with Erdogan. It also seems that Erdogan on his part is disinclined to satisfy European preconditions for an effective working relationship or speeded up accession talks. At the same time, Turkey and the EU are tied together by the presence of strong interests. 40% of Turkish international trade is with EU countries, and European tourism is a vital source of foreign exchange earnings and sustains the tourist sector in Turkey that was already hurting due to the upsurge of tensions with Russia. Besides, the large Turkish minorities in Germany and elsewhere makes these diplomatic tensions have unsettling domestic ramifications in Europe, including an upsurge in Islamophobia.

 

It should be realized that these questions arise in an historical context where a series of security concerns pose dangerous challenges to Turkish stability and development. These issues of leadership and constitutional structure, although serious are clearly secondary to the great challenges facing the Turkish nation at this point, above all the renewal of Kurdish civil strife and horrific urban warfare, but also the spillovers from the Syrian civil war in the form of ISIS and refugee flows, as well as tensions with Russia and Iran. It is to be hoped that people of good will throughout Turkey can find common ground on the urgency of these matters, and not remain distracted by trying to solve the puzzle of the leadership shakeup that has followed Davutoglu’s forced resignation.

 

 

 

On Future Turkish Political Leadership

19 Nov

[Prefatory Note: In a jointly written article, Bulent Aras and I made the case for a more assertive role for Ahmet Davutoglu in the new Turkish governing process that is emerging in the aftermath of the AKP victory in the November 1st snap election. In essence we are claiming that Turkey would benefit from a greater sense of equilibrium in the relationship between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Davutoglu. Such a course of action has the potential of diluting the severe form of polarization that has dominated the Turkish political scene in recent years as well as restoring Turkey as a politically stable and economically dynamic country that could spread a much needed moderating influence beyond its borders. The credibility of such a role depends on three factors: restoring a meaningful peace process with representatives of the Kurdish people; lending support for a Syrian compromise based on an inconclusive and flexible approach; adopting a regional posture of independence that is not seen as distinct from the approach being taken by the United States. This ambition is in our view connected closely with a willingness of Erdogan to confine his presidential role to the existing constitutional framework and to support a process of constitutional reform that does not displace the present parliamentary system.]

 

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/11/winner-turkey-elections-151110083204683.html

 

Hopes for the Morning After in Ankara: Taking Stock (2002-2015)

3 Nov

 

The stunningly unexpected electoral triumph of the AKP and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan creates a window of opportunity for Turkey that will not remain open very long. The country is most likely to experience another damaging cycle of polarization of the sort that has been so divisive ever since the AKP first came to power 13 years ago. Only a radical rupture can disturb this tormented continuity by making a determined move toward moderation. Such a rupture will require a convergence of the unlikely from two directions: an embrace of responsible democratic leadership by Erdoğan and the formation of a responsible opposition platform by the various forces that have been battling against the AKP all these years. Only such a dual embrace has any hope of success, one side without reciprocity from the other side will probably only engender anger and frustration.

Ever since the AKP gained electoral leverage in 2002 sufficient to shape the governing process in Turkey, an intense polarization has been evident. It pitted the displaced Kemalist urban elites of the West that had run the country since the founding of the republic in 1923 against the emergent Anatolian elites who gathered their strength from the religious and socially conservative ranks of Turkish society. The Kemalist opposition initially depicted this ongoing struggle for Turkey’s soul and political future as between the democratic secular legacy bequeathed by Kemal Ataturk, and the Islamic militants that supposedly ran the AKP, and thirsted to make Turkey into an Islamic Republic along Iranian lines. Secularists whispered to one another that regardless of its public utterances of adherence to the Constitution what really motivated the AKP was commitment to this secret Islamic agenda. From the beginning, Erdoğan the dominant political figure in the AKP, was an  anathema to secularists. Also, expressive of this oppositional fervor that accompanied the AKP initial electoral victory were secularist objections to the presidential appointment by Parliament of Abdullah Gul, above all complaining that because his wife wore a headscarf he could not properly represent Turkey in diplomatic circles.

In this first phase of polarization the AKP hardly fought back, but rather tried to compile a record that would make the secularist allegations appear irresponsible, and hence largely to blame for poisoning the quality of Turkish political life. The credibility of this style of response was augmented by the high priority initially accorded by the AKP leadership to seeking European Union membership, a goal also espoused by the opposition. This mainstream posture was reinforced by the achievement of economic success along neoliberal lines and through regional and extra-regional activist diplomacy that seemed at once to enhance Turkish prestige in the Middle East and to be dedicated to the peaceful resolution of all international disputes, what was called, it turns out prematurely, ‘zero problems with neighbors.’ These achievements were acknowledged by the Turkish citizenry in a series of electoral victories of the AKP. By and large this Turkish role was also internationally appreciated, as signaled by its election to term membership m the UN Security Council and by a new acknowledgement of Turkey as an important actor.

Yet these AKP achievements did not mollify the opposition. This passivity only added to the frustration of the anti-AKP forces, even rage as power slipped from their hands, with no prospect of recovery in sight. These electoral rejections of the opposition parties created a depressive mood among the secularists who increasingly, yet rarely openly, pinned whatever hopes they had on a military coup that alone was capable of restoring their rightful place at the top of the Turkish political pyramid. A second disruptive strategy in the early years of AKP governance was to seek the closure of the party by accusing the AKP and its leaders of criminal culpability due to their alleged policies of undermining the Kemalist principles embedded in the Turkish Constitution, and the Turkish Constitutional Court came within vote of dissolving the AKP.

Those in the opposition not willing to endorse such radical initiatives as a military or judicial coup, were still deeply dissatisfied with AKP governance. These milder opponents expressed their discontent verbally. They discounted the seeming success of the AKP economically and politically by insisting that the AKP claim to enact democratizing reforms were not sincere, but were adopted cynically to improve the prospect of qualifying for EU membership. The economic success was also discounted as a lucky windfall, an unearned result of policies put into operation under the guidance of Kemal Derviş, and instituted well before the AKP took over the government.

Even in the face of such mean spirited provocations, the AKP did not counter-attack as it could have, but concentrated its energy on the reform process, seeking to insulate the governing process from the notorious ‘deep state’ that had undermined elected governments in the past at the behest of the unaccountable Turkish intelligence services and the armed forces, and on several occasions mandated coups. The civilianization of the Turkish government should have been celebrated by all democratically inclined sectors of society as a major and unexpected achievement. Instead the elimination of the deep state was totally ignored by the opposition, and probably even resented, as it tended to undermine prospects for an extra-constitutional return to power, which was bad news given the unlikelihood in the foreseeable future of any kind of victory via the ballot box. Privately, many secularists regarded the Turkish armed forces as a brake needed to block AKP ambitions and protect the country against an Islamic tsunami.

As allegations of an AKP plan to turn Turkey into a second Iran faded more and more into a domain of implausibility, a new scare scenario was contrived by the hardcore opposition. It centered on the contention that Erdoğan was intent on becoming a second Putin, pushing the country toward autocratic rule and fostering an unacceptable cult of personality. Ignoring AKP achievements with the help of a strong media presence that demonized Erdoğan, contributing to this nihilistic posture of uncompromising polarization, which actually deprived Turkey of what every healthy democracy needs—a responsible party of political opposition that projects alternative policies, programs, including an alternative vision. It was not in the country’s interest to have one hegemonic party govern all these years in what amounted to a political and ideological vacuum, with no credible alternative leadership competing for power.

This overall portrayal of the Turkish scene changed in 2011 due to two major developments. First, the Arab Spring unexpectedly erupted generating waves of instability throughout the entire region. Ankara quickly and enthusiastically welcomed the Arab uprisings, and Erdoğan’s popularity in the region reached peak levels. But when the regional unrest spread to Syria, there soon arose a growing challenge to the zero problems diplomacy as a result of the draconian response of the Damascus regime to the first stirrings of revolt. If we recall that Syria was put forward as the centerpiece of zero problems diplomacy, we can realize that Erdoğan must have felt great pressure to distance Turkey from this display of Syrian brutality. When Ankara’s efforts failed to persuade Bashar al-Assad, the real autocrat next door, to stop killing Syrian civilians and adopt a reform program, the dye was cast. Turkey found itself gradually drawn into the wider regional turmoil by stages, initially in Syria when it sided with the anti-regime insurgents.

Turkish foreign policy had previously been challenged on other fronts, especially by deteriorating relations with Israel that reached a negative climax in 2010 when Israel boarded a Turkish merchant ship, Mavi Marmara, in international waters killing nine Turkish nationals who were taking part in an international humanitarian mission that consisted of several ‘peace boats’ determined to deliver assistance to blockaded Gaza, whose people had been suffering for years from collective punishment.

Secondly, in 2011 the AKP won their biggest electoral victory ever, leading Erdoğan to adopt a more aggressive style that expressed itself in ways that antagonized the opposition even more. He seemed to be disregarding critics and claiming a populist mandate in the spirit of majoritarian democracy, that is, a mode of ruling that stressed effectiveness and central power, and rejected the republican stress on checks and balances. This shift enraged the opposition, and led to the portrayal of Erdoğan as a dark angel intent on destroying Turkish republicanism in the process of becoming a reigning tyrant. After 2011 Erdoğan’s aggressiveness toward the opposition gave polarization a more symmetrical quality for the first time. This polarization was, however, misrepresented in the international media as solely the consequence of Erdoğan’s autocratic ambitions and brash governing style rather than being a belated reaction to an earlier circumstance of unilateral polarization that the opposition to the AKP had foisted upon the country from the first moment that Erdoğan grasped the reins of power.

Anti-AKP waves of harsh criticism, especially in liberal circles of government and media, began blaming Ankara for alienating Israel and the United States, as well as pursuing an imprudent policy toward Syria. The AKP leadership was accused of abandoning its traditional reliance on American guidance, thereby undermining Turkish security. This was coupled with the insistence that the AKP was at last showing its true Islamic and sectarian face, favoring the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Egypt, and Gaza, pursuing a foreign policy shaped by its Islamic identity rather than based on adherence to secular realism as offering the best approach to the protection of Turkish national interests.

In May of 2013 the Gezi Park demonstrations took place, at first peacefully and later increasingly in confrontational modes, taking slanderous aim at Erdoğan who was being compared by demonstration leaders to Hitler. As the protests against the government intensified after their opening rather mild phase, it became obvious that the ambition of the activists was to create a crisis of legitimacy in Turkey that would produce so much unrest that the country would become ungovernable, and a political process would ensue that brings the military out of the barracks to rescue a country on the brink of collapse. This is what was starting to happen in Egypt, and in a couple of months was consummated by a popularly backed military coup headed by General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to power. Why not also in Turkey?

 

The government response to Gezi led by Erdoğan was defiant and suppressive, with police relying on excessive force that resulted in the tragic and unwarranted death of several demonstrators and injury to many more. The protests failed to ignite the hoped for groundswell of anti-government activism, although it did reinforce the international impression that Turkey was on its way to becoming a police state and it stimulated the domestic opposition to believe that it could build a powerful anti-AKP movement.

Another factor that riled the atmosphere at this time was the sharp break with the Hizmet movement led by the mysterious Islamic figure, Fetullah Gulen. Formerly allied with the AKP, tensions had been mounting, and exploded in response to the December 2013 Hizmet allegations of widespread corruption in the Erdoğan cabinet leading four ministers to resign, and implications that the trail of corruption if properly followed would lead to Erdoğan and his family. As would be expected, Erdoğan struck back, accusing the Hizmet movement of establishing ‘a parallel government’ that was subverting proper lines of authority and policy in the Turkish state bureaucracy. The claim was made that Gulen followers had succeeded in penetrating the police and the prosecutors’ office, and were responsible for bringing false charges against the military leadership, and doing other subversive things.

This accumulation of tactics designed to undermine the AKP and Erdoğan should be taken into account when addressing his still questionable effort to move toward an executive presidency. After all there were credible reasons for the AKP leadership to believe that it had been multiply targeted: polarization, judicial invalidation via party closure, aborted military coups, popular uprising, parallel government. In reaction, it is not altogether unreasonable for Erdoğan to arrive at the view that only a strong presidency could achieve security and stability that was needed if Turkey was to cope with the many challenges that it faces at home and in the region. It is understandable, but still highly imprudent as deep cleavages in the population persists. Even after the election landslide victory of the AKP and Erdoğan half the country remains deeply alienated, and would be susceptible to temptations of insurrection if these ambitions to revise the Constitution go forward.

In essence, this is an occasion on which Erdoğan alone has the capacity to move the country in a more grounded democratic and peaceful direction, softening if not overcoming polarization. Seizing such an opportunity would require Erdoğan to acknowledge the divided polity that Turkey has become, and to respect widespread fears of authoritarian rule. The most convincing way to do this would be to defer to the prime minister and head of the party, Ahmet Davutoğlu in the formation of a new government, and welcome a working partnership that divided authority harmoniously between these two highly gifted political leaders. It is not encouraging to hear Erdoğan talk vaguely of the added de facto powers that the Turkish presidency has somehow acquired without the benefit of constitutional reform and of his intentions to renew his personal crusade to create an enhanced presidency on a de jure basis.

Also menacing Turkey’s future has been the revived violence of the Kurdish struggle, giving rise to a strong military response. After this electoral outcome it is up to Erdoğan and Davutoğlu to take the initiative in declaring a ceasefire to take effect immediately, to welcome the HDP deputies to the Parliament, and to commit to a reopening of the reconciliation process, possibly even giving some sort of role to the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

Let’s hope than when Erdoğan awakens the morning after his glowing victory, he chooses what is best for Turkey rather than to settle for becoming a grandiose figure who is certain to be both revered and feared. Only if he tames his ambitions will Erdoğan ensure his legacy as a great Turkish leader, second only to Ataturk. Such speculations are admittedly in the realm of the fanciful, but little else seems relevant at this stage if Turkey hopes to find ways to reverse the downward spiral of recent years, and move back from the brink of turmoil that is engulfing much of the region.

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.

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.

 

Israel’s Shimon Peres Reacts to the Turkish Elections

10 Jun

 

Newspapers reported on June 9th that former Israeli president Shimon Peres (2007-2014) was pleased by the outcome in Turkey. He is quoted as saying “I am happy about what happened in Turkey – Erdoğan wanted to turn Turkey into Iran, and there is no room for two Iran’s in the Middle East.”

 

It is worth recalling that the downward spiral in relations between Turkey and Israel started in a real way when Erdoğan attacked Israel and Peres personally for defending Israel’s massive attack on Gaza at the 2009 World Economic Forum in the course of a panel in which both he and Peres were members. Erdoğan responded to Peres’ contention that Hamas was responsible for violence against Israeli civilians. His words were undiplomatically blunt: “Mr. Peres, you are a senior citizen and you speak in a loud tone. I feel that your raised voice is due to the guilt you feel. But be sure that my voice will not be raised as yours is. When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know very well how you struck and killed innocent children on the beaches.” So piercing the haze that separates these polite evasions of such international events from the cruel realities under discussion was a welcome rarity: on this occasion Erdoğan was confronting the naked face of power with a truth that needed to be heard. After

interference from the chair, Erdoğan strode off the stage announcing that he was through forever with the World Economic Forum, not for allowing Peres to speak, but for the attempting to stifle a response.

 

The deterioration in Turkish/Israeli relations climaxed the following year when Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, the lead vessel among six in a freedom flotilla containing peace activists bringing humanitarian supplies to Gaza and seeking to break the Israeli blockade. The incident on May 31, 2010 resulted in the death of nine Turkish nationals, and created an enduring rupture in the political relations between the two countries that continues despite efforts by the American president, Barack Obama, to encourage normalization. Turkey is prepared to compromise on the issues raised by the Mavi Marmara attack, but to its credit will not accept normalization until Israel lifts its blockade of Gaza and ceases its use of massive force against the totally vulnerable Gazan civilian population.

 

Erdoğan’s departure from diplomatic protocol at the World Economic Forum illustrated his impulsive tendency to vent his feeling in public places without the usual filters of self-censorship that is second nature for most politicians. Of course, assessing such outbursts generally depends on the context and on whether what is being said so forthrightly has merit or not. Erdoğan’s public venting in relation to policies that were sensitive for secular Turks became particularly frequent, intensifying polarization, especially after the AKP’s one-sided victory in the 2011 general election after which the Turkish leader did seem to embrace a more majoritarian view of democracy (acting on the mandate of the majority of voters), and abandoning the pragmatism of his earlier posture based on an acceptance of republican democracy (that is, respect for minority values and views, checks and balances on the exercise of state power).

 

Reverting to the recent Peres assertion, it is certainly inflammatory and deeply misleading to link Turkey under the AKP with Iran, and to contend that Erdoğan’s hidden project is to convert Turkey into a second Iran. This is both false and insulting, as if Turkey is incapable of self-determination according to the declared will of its own public and elected leaders. There exists no credible evidence that Turkey has in any way endorsed the defining feature of the Islamic Republic of Iran, namely, a theocratic mode of governance.

 

Peres also essentializes Iran, refusing to acknowledge its recent evolution as a result of Hassan Rouhani’s election as president in 2013 and Iran’s forthcoming nuclear diplomacy that went the extra mile in search of a formula that would normalize its regional and global relations, which if accepted by the West and put into practiced, will almost certainly be viewed as a major contribution to regional and world peace. Peres speaks as if Iran is the hermetically sealed embodiment of political evil rather than a country that has struggled to overcome its autocratic past under the Shah, and managed to be stable during this period of exceptional regional turmoil with its theocracy displaying a willingness to indulge a limited democracy despite threats and provocations from the United States and Israel. There is much to criticize in Iran, but for such criticism to be responsible, it should be responsive to actualities, especially in the Middle East where there are such scant grounds for stability, let alone justice.

 

In important respects, the outcome of the Turkish elections is far better interpreted as a Kurdish HDP victory rather than an Erdoğan AKP defeat. Time will tell whether the Kurds will be constructive and creative in this phase of their political engagement within Turkey and in relation to Kurdish political developments in neighboring countries. It will also determine whether Erdoğan is statesmanlike and creative in shaping the political future of the country, taking to heart the electoral message that any shift to a presidential system is not now in the interests of the country.

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