Turkey: Erdogan's ruthless bid to retain power risks return to dark days

[Green Left Weekly, #1064, August 11, 2015]

The outcome of Turkey's June 7 parliamentary elections promised so much. The leftist, Kurdish-based People's Democratic Party (HDP) resoundingly surmounted the undemocratic electoral threshold and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recip Tayipp Erdogan suffered a sharp rebuff, losing its ability to rule on its own.

Many people hoped that the country would turn away from the widespread corruption and authoritarianism that had particularly marked the last few years of AKP rule, that the settlement process with the Kurds would be revived and Turkey's support for Islamist forces in Syria would end.

A bare two months later, such hopes lie in ruins. Instead, the spectre of a return to the dark days of the bloody, decades-long civil war against the Kurds now hangs over Turkey.

The military is today conducting offensive operations against PKK forces in northern Iraq and in Turkey itself. The recent agreement with Washington for stepped-up action against the Islamic State in Syria means little — the only war Turkey will fight is against the Kurds.

Losing power a mortal threat

How did all this come about?

Erdogan and the AKP have been in power for 13 years. Whatever people's hopes at various times, AKP rule has been increasingly marked by cronyism, corruption, a war on dissent and a drive to subordinate the legal system, the police, and various regulatory bodies.

In August 2014 Erdogan moved from being prime minister to being the country's first popularly elected president. This was to be the first step in his plan to create a dictatorial presidency. The second step was for the AKP to win a two-thirds majority in the June 7 elections, enabling it to amend the constitution through parliament. The HDP's great success frustrated his scheme. A majority of voters opposed his plan for an enhanced presidency.

The election result means that no party can govern on its own. Only a coalition or a minority government is possible.

But losing power, or even having to share it, is a mortal threat to the AKP and, especially, to Erdogan personally. He is desperate for the AKP to remain in office with its own clear majority in parliament. He does not want the AKP to be forced to take on a coalition partner or to be a minority government reliant on external support for its survival.

And unless his party can regain a parliamentary majority, Erdogan will remain marooned in the presidency, without the powers that he wants. The president is meant to be an impartial figure above party politics which means that everything Erdogan does is a clear abuse of his constitutional role.

Corruption scandal

In addition, very serious corruption allegations continue to hover around the AKP and Erdogan himself. If the AKP is not in total control, Erdogan and his partners in crime are at risk of prosecution and jail.

In December 2013 a major corruption scandal erupted. 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 dispose of huge sums of money — tens of millions of dollars! — 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 US-based cleric 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.

Recently fresh revelations been made relating to this scandal. No doubt they are serving to focus Erdogan's mind on keeping the AKP in office.

It is ironic that recently Erdogan has called for the parliamentary immunity of HDP leaders to be lifted! He wants to prosecute them on ridiculous charges of "treason". The HDP responded by calling for the immunity of all 550 MPs to be lifted and has initiated petitions for the immunity of all its 80 MPs to be lifted!

Erdogan's plan

Erdogan's survival plan is utterly ruthless. It has a number of related elements.

1. Drag out the discussions on forming a coalition. If there is no result by August 23, Erdogan can legally call fresh elections. He aims to create the conditions whereby the AKP can undo its June 7 setback.

2. Scrap the peace process with the Kurds. Manufacture a war "crisis" around the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the gains of the popular forces in Rojava, the Kurdish-majority liberated zone in northern Syria.

3. Attack the PKK forces so strongly, both in northern Iraq and in Turkey, that they are forced to respond militarily. Then use the pro-government media to present them as an existential terrorist threat. Erdogan wants blood to be shed and he is determined to make it happen.

4. Hold PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan — imprisoned since 1999 — completely incommunicado so that he cannot use his immense authority to urge his supporters to hold back.

5. Smear the HDP by association. It has long been a theme of right-wing nationalist propaganda that the HDP is just a sock puppet of the PKK. The AKP can now ramp up such rubbish to the limit.

6. Go after the HDP's leaders, especially Selahattin Demirtas who is a tremendously attractive, youthful, dynamic politician and an enormous asset to the party. Both Demirtas and female co-leader Figen Yüksekdag are being threatened with jail on trumped-up "treason" charges.

7. If the smear campaign against the HDP bites, and especially if its top leaders are removed, perhaps the HDP's vote will fall below the 10% threshold and all its seats would be allocated elsewhere, mainly to the AKP.

8. In addition, in an election held under emergency terror scare conditions, the AKP might win seats from the rightist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Through such a campaign Erdogan hopes the AKP can regain its parliamentary majority and possibly even the super-majority necessary to amend the constitution.

But this is still an enormous gamble and things may not go as Erdogan wants. And in any case, Turkey may well be set back decades, with its economy ravaged, hatred and violence unleashed, Islamist and rightist forces strengthened and the large Kurdish minority further marginalised and denied its rights.

Abdullah Öcalan's message

In his prison writings Öcalan stresses that the only realistic road to Kurdish liberation in Turkey today is not through armed struggle for an independent state but through political struggle for real autonomy and democratisation. As he put it in his 2013 Newroz (Kurdish New Year) greetings:

The period of armed struggle is ending, and the door is opening to democratic politics . . . I say a new era is beginning; an era where politics gain prominence over weapons. We have now arrived at the stage of withdrawing our armed forces outside the borders . . . This is not an end, but a new beginning. This is not abandoning the struggle . . . we are initiating a different struggle.

Since we are entering a period where demonisation of the PKK will escalate (including in the West), it is important to remember that whatever concerns they may have had, the PKK leadership fully committed itself to the peace process. Öcalan convinced the PKK and it was prepared to do what was required.

In a recent extremely revealing interview with Hürriyet Daily News, Selahattin Demirtas explains in detail how Erdogan deliberately torpedoed the peace negotiations early this year just as they were about to take major steps forward. Why? Because polls showed a sharp growth of support for the HDP and a drop in support for the AKP.

The June 7 elections showed the Turkish people's strong desire for change. Even many AKP voters shared this feeling. But for Erdogan and his party, the election results were an unfortunate aberration which they are plotting to undo and are evidently willing to countenance any crime in the process.