As Erdogan manoeuvres to retain power, Turkey faces an uncertain future

[July 7, 2015]

One month after Turkey's June 7 parliamentary elections, the country still does not have a new government. Ahmet Davutoglu of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) remains as caretaker prime minister. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains the dominant figure in the AKP and is actively manoeuvring to retain his party's leading position. The president is supposed to be an impartial figure above party politics but Erdogan pays scant regard to such constitutional niceties.

Election result

The elections were marked by two significant and related developments.

Firstly, the left-wing People's Democratic Party (HDP) smashed the undemocratic 10% threshold, achieving 13.1% (6.1 million votes) — an increase of 7.5% over its 2011 result — and 80 deputies in the 550-seat Grand National Assembly. While the HDP's core support lies in the downtrodden Kurdish community, the party reached out to all the oppressed and exploited across the country.

Secondly, the AKP dropped almost 9% from 2011 (four million votes) and lost its parliamentary majority. The biggest factor in the AKP's slide was the collapse of its vote in the Kurdish community. The two main elements here were Erdogan's failure to help the Kurdish-majority northern Syrian town of Kobanê last year when it was besieged by the Islamic State gangs, and his failure to seriously commit to the peace negotiations with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Disenchanted Kurdish voters largely moved over to support the HDP.

Other factors were widespread opposition to Erdogan's desire to set up a dictatorial presidential system and popular concern over the worsening economic situation (an April report said that two-thirds of Turkish children live in extreme poverty according to European Union standards).

The AKP now has 258 deputies. It can rule only in coalition with one of the other parties or with their external support. The Republican People's Party (CHP) has 132 deputies and the rightist, anti-Kurdish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has 80. So far a viable coalition has proved elusive.

According to the constitution, if no new government is formed within 45 days of formal negotiations beginning, fresh elections must be held. But unless something major changes, much the same result can be expected.

A 'restoration' government?

In theory, the three opposition parties could come together and form a "restoration" government to repeal and undo the worst of the AKP's antidemocratic laws and practices. The AKP's grip on the courts, the police and the media should be broken; anti-corruption investigations that were halted should be reinstated; the president's constitutional impartiality should be enforced; the state's undercover military support to the Islamic State forces in Syria should be stopped; and the 10% election barrier should be scrapped. After a period such a coalition could call fresh elections which, with these reforms in place, could be expected to yield a markedly different result.

However, such a government is impossible due to the MHP's extreme anti-Kurdish stance. It refuses to even talk to the HDP, let alone be in coalition with it or be in a coalition dependent on its support. The MHP is also vehemently opposed to peace talks with the PKK.

On July 1 a new parliamentary speaker was elected. Despite its minority position, the AKP got its candidate up due to the backhanded support of the MHP. In fact, the AKP is politically closest to the MHP and an AKP-MHP coalition would seem to be quite likely. However, each party is scared of losing supporters to the other so a lot would depend on exactly how such a coalition is packaged.

A coalition with between the AKP and the CHP is also a possibility. The HDP has always said it will not enter into any coalition with the AKP.

Fresh elections?

Erdogan is doubtless also weighing the option of going quickly to fresh elections. But unless he can create a new situation (e.g., a security "crisis" involving the PKK or the Kurds over the border in northern Syria) a new election would be unlikely to deliver a majority for the AKP and might even make its position worse.

Furthermore, business wants stability. Writing in the June 29 Hurriyet Daily News, Mustafa Sönmez reported: "Turkish business circles want to see the end of post-election uncertainties and express their concerns to politicians. Many of them are under huge debt burdens. Their biggest concern is the possibility of the non-establishment of any coalition government and entering a snap election period, which will both increase political risks."

The same article also reported that business groups want the Kurdish peace process continued. Clearly, a resumption of the war between the PKK and the state would be an economic disaster for Turkey.

Erdogan desperate to keep power

Erdogan has been the dominant political figure in Turkey since 2003. He has been the driving force in establishing a very authoritarian, undemocratic and corrupt system. He has sought to bring all independent power centres under AKP control. A government not fully under the AKP's control threatens all this.

A few examples illustrate the reality of AKP rule in Turkey.

1. In December 2013 a corruption scandal erupted as police investigations became public. It involved cabinet ministers, family members, senior state officials and businessmen. Tapes of phone conversations made at this time were later leaked revealing then-prime minister Erdogan instructing his son Bilal to "zero" (i.e., dispose of) huge sums of money stashed in various relatives' houses for fear of raids by prosecutors.

Erdogan's response was to label the whole thing a conspiracy by his former allies in the Islamic Hizmet movement of Fethullah Gülen to topple the government. He launched a crackdown on supposed Gülen supporters, targeting thousands of police, prosecutors and judges across the country. This January the AKP-dominated parliament voted not to lift the immunity of four ex-ministers implicated in the scandal.

However, the issue will not go away and both the CHP and MHP have called for the graft probe to be reinstated and for Erdogan's son to be investigated. This will be an issue in any coalition negotiations.

2. The campaign to intimidate the police force and convert it into a docile instrument of the regime continues. Recently, hundreds of police trainees were prevented from graduating on the basis of an oral test. Clearly, perceived loyalty to the regime was the criterion.

3. In January 2014 gendarmerie officers stopped three trucks bound for Syria. The trucks were under the control of MIT, the Turkish security service. Ostensibly carrying humanitarian supplies, they were found to be carrying weapons (presumably destined for Islamist forces). The government denounced the gendarmerie action, saying it breached national security. Erdogan called the gendarmes "traitors". This year, four prosecutors and a gendarmerie colonel were arrested over the incident.

4. In June, Bülent Kenes, an editor of the English-language Today's Zaman, was given a 21-month suspended sentence. His crime? He sent a tweet implying that Erdogan's late mother would have been ashamed of her son for what he was doing to Turkey. Many others have been charged with insulting Erdogan.

5. Previously the nine-person board of the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), which oversees (censors) broadcast media, has been dominated by the AKP. Following the election it was expected that the AKP would lose its majority but it now wants to adopt a new method of filling the board positions which would allow it to retain control.[4]

6. Lately the media in Australia have been focusing on mafia links to the major political parties. Such things are not unique to Australia . . . On June 13 Erdogan was photographed chatting with leading crime figure Sedat Peker. The occasion was the wedding of notorious anti-Kurd hate propagandist Taha Ün who was marrying the personal secretary of Erdogan's wife. Erdogan was an official witness at the wedding.

Preparing for war against the Kurds?

Initially many Kurds had high hopes for Erdogan and the AKP but that is long gone. Erdogan has shelved the so-called settlement process with the PKK and the Kurds. He now denies there is a Kurdish issue.

For reasons of political survival, Erdogan appears to be stoking the fires of an anti-Kurd Turkish nationalism and trying to create a scare campaign around Kurdish gains in Rojava (the Kurdish-majority liberated zone in northern Syria).

There have even been reports that the army is giving military training to the Kurdish Hizbullah (Hüda-Par) organisation. This is an Islamist outfit that in the past has carried out armed attacks on the PKK. Is the state once more going to use Hizbullah to promote Kurd-on-Kurd violence? Recently a Hüda-Par leader in Dyarbakir was killed and then several HDP members were assassinated. These killings have all the hallmarks of an operation of the Turkish security forces.

The great June victory of the YPG/YPJ (Peoples Protection Forces/Women's Protection Forces) and their Arab and Assyrian allies in liberating Gire Spi (Arabic name: Tel Abyad) and linking up Rojava's Cezire and Kobanê cantons has deeply disturbed the chauvinistic Turkish regime. It is charging the liberation forces with "ethnic cleansing" of Arabs and Turkmens and with promoting "demographic changes".

These charges are baseless. While the YPG/YPJ is predominantly Kurdish it includes many non-Kurdish elements. The Rojava charter, to which the YPG/YPJ scrupulously adheres, is all about different ethnic and religious groups cooperating, controlling their own affairs and living amicably together. In the territories between the cantons, Kurds are in the minority. Progress against IS forces in these areas is only possible on the basis of alliances, especially with Arab groups.

If part of the population of Gire Spi fled the town into Turkey prior to its liberation, it was mostly to escape the expected fighting and destruction. Many refugees are now returning.

Threat of intervention in Syria

Following the liberation of Gire Spi, Erdogan tried to promote a Turkish intervention in northern Syria, along a line from Jarablus westwards towards Efrin canton. Ostensibly aimed at the Islamic State, its real aim would have been to stop further advances by the YPG/YPJ. However, he met with a lot of opposition and this project now appears to be off the immediate agenda.

Turkey's military command was unenthusiastic, most likely fearing a potential clash with Washington which has been providing close air support to the YPG/YPJ against the Islamic State forces. IS-controlled Jarablus is to the west of Kobanê, on the Turkey-Syria border on the west bank of the Euphrates river. It is a major supply point for the IS forces in northern Syria. It is probably the next big target for the YPG/YPJ and its allies — and their current US partners.

Furthermore, a caretaker Turkish government has no authority to undertake such an intervention, especially on such a contrived basis. The CHP has denounced any increased involvement in Syria. The public would be largely against it. It would have risked igniting the Kurdish population within Turkey. All in all, it would have carried enormous risks.

After June 7 many hoped that some of the worst aspects of Erdogan's rule would now be undone. But things are turning out to be a lot more complicated and so far there has been no "restoration". At this point, Turkey's future is uncertain. If Erdogan and his backers prevail, it is unlikely to be a happy one for the mass of the people.