Tag Archives: Turkish elections

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.

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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.

Turkish Elections: It’s Not Just Erdoğan!

9 Jun

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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.