Turkey: The high cost of a power grab

Here is the analysis by David Gardner, Financial Times, today:

After voters stripped his party of its majority in June, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, known for lecturing Turks on what to eat or how many children to have, retreated behind a curtain of silence so unwonted that local wags set up an online timer to see how long he could stay off the air. Not long, it transpired.

Before the election he had urged voters to give his neo-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) a supermajority that would allow him to replace the parliamentary government with an executive presidency. Evidently unconvinced by the case for one-man rule, they did not oblige. Some secular Turks voted for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP) led by Selahattin Demirtas, torpedoing the president’s plans. Mr Erdogan in effect told them they had given the wrong answer and would have to vote again.

But while polls show no sign that voters want to reverse the result on November 1, Mr Erdogan’s response to it risks making the country ungovernable. Turkey is showing alarming signs of a descent into chaos.

Fighting between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) has reignited after more than two years of ceasefire, testing Turkey’s cohesion and reviving memories of the PKK insurgency that raged for 30 years and took 40,000 lives.

The resumption of the Kurdish conflict comes at a time when the country is polarised by Mr Erdogan’s ambition, its stagnating economy and falling currency are vulnerable to external shocks, and the region around it is on fire. The jihadi extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are not just pressed up against Turkey’s southern borders, but starting to attack inside them.

This Nato ally and EU candidate member, which is due to host a summit of the G20 group of leading economies in southern Turkey in November, is at risk of being held hostage to the ambition of one man, analysts say.

“In his search for a majority, Erdogan may be picking apart the seams of this country,” says Hakan Altinay, former head of the Open Society Foundation in Turkey now at the Brookings Institute.

In speeches and interviews, Mr Erdogan — who served as prime minister from 2003 to 2014, the year he was elected president — gives the impression that power has already migrated into his presidency, and voters and laws simply have to catch up.

“There is a president with de facto power in the country, not a symbolic one,” Mr Erdogan said in August. This month he told television interviewers that “if a party had managed to secure 400 [of 550] deputies or a number that could change the constitution, the situation today would have been very different”.

The president’s loyalists insist that, with a hung parliament and the failure of the AKP to reach coalition terms with the Republican People’s party (CHP), the main secularist opposition group, he had no choice but to call new elections.

But accounts from both sides of the coalition talks suggest they never stood a chance. They were overshadowed by a president determined to eclipse Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of a secular republic Mr Erdogan’s entourage dismisses as a mere parenthesis separating his “New Turkey” from its glorious Ottoman past.

Challenged in the past two years by widespread protests over his authoritarianism and intrusive policies and by corruption probes reaching deep into his inner circle, the president needs to stay firmly in power or risk facing the courts.

“For him this is existential,” says a former official in Ankara. “There is still accountability in this country, and he knows it.”

The president’s critics say he has launched a war of choice against the PKK, tearing up his own initiative to end Turkey’s conflict with its Kurdish minority by granting it greater cultural and self-governing space. This, they claim, is being done in a bid for rightwing nationalist voters, while also trying to push down turnout in Kurdish strongholds in the south-east.

Mr Erdogan is mindful that the AKP was denied its majority by the electoral breakthrough of the HDP. Its 80 MPs would mostly revert to the AKP if the president succeeds in painting them as separatist wolves in sheep’s clothing — and pushing them below the 10 per cent threshold for entry into parliament.

The turmoil began last autumn when Isis laid siege to the Kurdish town of Kobani just over the border in Syria, within sight of Turkish tanks. Mr Erdogan pronounced that Kobani would soon fall, branding the Kurdish resistance as no better than the jihadis who had pledged to massacre them. Kobani survived, but not before violent rioting broke out across south-eastern Turkey.

With the help of US air strikes, the Syrian Kurdish militia of the Democratic Union party (PYD) went on to capture the town of Tel Abyad, clearing Isis from that part of the border and cutting its supply lines out of Turkey. Until this year, Turkey gave free passage to jihadi volunteers on their way to fight President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which allowed Isis and others to set up sleeper cells inside the country.

“Daesh [the Arabic acronym for Isis] has capacity inside Turkey,” says a regional security expert in Ankara.

In July, Isis bombed a Kurdish cultural centre in Suruc near the Syrian border, killing 33 young socialist activists about to cross over to help rebuild Kobani. The PKK, accusing the government of complicity, murdered two Turkish policemen in response. Ankara carried out three air strikes on Isis positions in northern Syria, but launched hundreds of bombardments against the PKK in its mountain strongholds in northern Iraq.

Mr Erdogan expresses alarm at the prospect of the PYD, a sister organisation of the PKK, establishing another self-governing entity on Turkey’s border, alongside the quasi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. With US air cover, it has taken almost two-thirds of the Syrian borderland below Turkey; the Turkish air force is targeting Isis in north-west Syria, but not to the east where Isis is holding the PYD at the Euphrates river.

One government official says this is about to change, now that Turkey has signed up fully to the US-led coalition against Isis and opened its southern airbases to coalition warplanes. “In three to four months we will see real results,” he says. “We are aiming to clear the Turkish border from Daesh, to create a Daesh-free zone.” This would be 98km long and 45km deep, he adds. But this zone would be limited to north-western Syria, giving the impression Ankara thinks Isis is still useful against the Kurds farther east.

Turkish election map

As a policy this could set Turkey at odds with the US and its Nato allies, who see the PYD militia and the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga as reliable ground forces against Isis. Some even see the Kurdish movement — in which women fighters have caught the popular imagination — as an emerging secular force in a region mired in religious extremism and savage sectarianism. Ankara is acting from “a mix of genuine national security concerns with a lot of paranoia”, says a Nato ambassador. “They think only the Americans can halt further [Kurdish] advances, so let’s give them some of what they want.”

The security expert in Ankara says: “Erdogan’s problem is not Isis or the PKK. It’s that his career plan collapsed” in the June election.

Since his ascent to the presidency in August last year, Mr Erdogan has continued to expand his power at the expense of the rule of law and basic freedoms of expression and assembly. The president is issuing writs for defamation like confetti. Twitter, says one journalist fired for a disobliging tweet, “is regarded as equivalent to an armour-piercing bullet”.

There is also pushback from institutions such as the constitutional court, which has overturned the president’s periodic attempts to ban social media. But the AKP has gone on the offensive by mobilising its own digital army, spearheaded by intimidating trolls.

With AKP-incited mobs attacking HDP party offices and independent media operations, and daily xenophobic outpourings against the international conspiracy supposedly out to get Mr Erdogan, the military he had defanged is edging back into the circle of power. Army commanders, champing at the bit after PKK roadside bombs killed dozens of soldiers and policemen in recent weeks, have been handed effective control of a dozen south-eastern provinces.

“Because of Erdogan’s intoxication with power we lost the opportunity to democratise this country under civilian rule,” says one leading analyst.

It is not just the permissive attitude towards transiting jihadis that has damaged the country. The purge of Turkey’s generals that Mr Erdogan launched in 2008 has weakened military intelligence, while police intelligence officials and prosecutors have been stripped of authority in the wake of the now-shelved corruption probes against the AKP. The national intelligence agency, which reports in the Turkish press have detailed as being involved in arms shipments to Syrian rebels, is configured to fight the PKK but not necessarily Isis.

“I think until recently there was a live-and-let-live thing between Turkey and Isis,” says an analyst and former AKP supporter.

The ruling party, too, hitherto a mass movement that carried all before it, is in a parlous state. The president has packed it with trusted associates, including his son-in-law, after a carefully orchestrated congress this month. Worn out by long years in power, the AKP has run out of stories to tell.

“There is an Islamist ideology at work but above all there is a lust for power, for prestige and position, for affluence,” says Sinan Ulgen, head of EDAM, a liberal Istanbul think-tank. Mr Erdogan, like his party, “is intuitive and tactical, still very street-smart, but totally lacking in vision or statesmanship”, says Cengiz Candar, a veteran commentator. Any implosion of mainstream Islamism, moreover, could open space for radical, Salafi alternatives, he says.

But that is a question for the future. The question facing Turkey now is whether it is governable. If elections go ahead, voters look set to repeat the verdict they gave the country in June — unless the state of siege and PKK pressure in the south-east calls into question the validity of the Kurdish vote.

Either prospect could give Mr Erdogan a pretext to cancel the election. The price for that could be even higher, says Kadri Gursel, a leading columnist fired by his paper in July under government duress. “Cancelling the elections will create a huge loss of legitimacy and unleash all the demons.”

Kurdish talks: PKK and president ‘strange bedfellows’ facing Demirtas
In June’s general election, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP) leapt over the 10 per cent threshold devised to keep Kurdish nationalist groups out of Turkey’s parliament. Led by Selahattin Demirtas, a personable new face who won support even among secular Turks, the HDP and its 80 MPs were well placed to press for cultural parity and a degree of self-government for Turkey’s 15m Kurds.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had, after all, engaged in opaque talks with Abdullah Ocalan, jailed leader of the proscribed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), during a two-year lull in a three decades-old insurgency. Now parliament could be the arena for the peace initiative, with the HDP as the legitimate Kurdish protagonist. It was not to be.

It was always moot whether the PKK would internalise the HDP’s electoral breakthrough, or focus on the sudden legitimacy conferred on Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq, pushing back Isis jihadis in de facto alliance with the US. PKK commanders, based in northern Iraq, had in any case used the ceasefire to train militia for a new, Iraq-learned style of urban warfare in south-eastern towns where Kurdish leaders have made advances in self-government.

Events have conspired against the primacy of civilian leadership and handed the initiative to the gunmen. Analysts say Mr Erdogan bears responsibility for this. The HDP deprived his Justice and Development party (AKP) of its majority and he tars them as terrorists anyway. But long before the rekindling of war with the PKK, he repudiated this February’s so-called Dolmabahce agreement on negotiation priorities with the Kurds.

“After Dolmabahce, Erdogan carried out a poll which showed that as a result [of talks with the Kurds] AKP would lose its majority,” says Nihat Ali Ozcan, a former army officer and expert on the PKK. “Suddenly he changed both direction and narrative.”

That has not brought him greater support but it has sunk hopes of peace and incited civil conflict between Turks and Kurds. “The PKK and Erdogan are strange bedfellows — they don’t want Demirtas to succeed”, says one liberal analyst. Cengiz Candar, an expert on Kurdish affairs, goes further: “I think [peace negotiations are] over, because the damage done before and after the election is very deep and very wide. It’s hard to see how you can undo it.”

About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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