Enduring Erdogan

Print edition : May 16, 2014

Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: ADEM ALTAN/AFP

By leading his party to victory in the general election, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proves that he is still a force to reckon with.

THE RESULTS OF THE local government elections held in Turkey on March 30 showed that the popular support for the ruling party and its Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has ebbed only marginally, despite all the scandals engulfing the government. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won around 45 per cent of the vote and retained the two major cities of Istanbul and Ankara. In Istanbul, the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), got 40 per cent of the vote while the AKP got around 50 per cent. In Ankara, the AKP managed to hold on to power by a wafer-thin margin.

The AKP, however, lost in Izmir and Antakya to the CHP. Antakya is situated along the border with Syria. The residents there have been unhappy with Erdogan’s open backing of jihadist forces using their region as a base for operations across the border. The CHP fared relatively well in the west of the country, its traditional base.

There was only a 5 per cent dip in the AKP’s vote share compared with that in the 2009 general election. The turnout for the elections was around 90 per cent. The opposition in Turkey remains disunited and this helped the AKP to once again retain control over major cities and towns. The Peace and Democratic Party (BDP), representing the sizeable Kurdish minority in the country, retained its strongholds and prevented the AKP from making further inroads. Erdogan has gained a certain amount of legitimacy among the Kurds because of his government’s decision to allow greater cultural freedom and the use of the Kurdish language in the print and visual media. Erdogan had also initiated high-level talks with the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been leading a secessionist movement for decades.

The Kurds remain vehemently opposed to the CHP because that party, while in power, had opposed the recognition of Kurdish cultural rights. The BDP could throw its support behind Erdogan if he stands in the elections to the presidency that is to be held in August. Many Turks view the CHP as an anti-democratic force that still has strong ties with the old, discredited security establishment. The young protestors in Gezi Park, the venue of anti-government demonstrations, had chanted “Neither Sharia, nor coup d’etat”, showing their dislike for both the Islamists and the parties that until the recent past had the backing of the military. The Anatolian heartland, which is the base of the AKP’s electoral support, voted solidly for the party’s candidates. Many Turks, while acknowledging that corruption was an issue, also emphasised that under Erdogan’s stewardship, their quality of life had improved. However, after experiencing a heady economic boom, Turkey now seems to be heading for recession.

Most of the time on the campaign trail Erdogan seemed to be in a belligerent mood, constantly alleging that a “foreign hand” was intent on destabilising Turkey and threatening an all-out war with Syria. He acted on his threats by giving the green signal to shoot down a Syrian air force jet that was well outside Turkish air space. Erdogan had played a key role along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia in kick-starting the uprising against the Syrian government. Erdogan had mistakenly believed that regime change in Syria would be a quick affair. A pliable regime in Damascus would have dramatically increased Turkey’s influence in the region. But four years on, the rebels are in retreat and all of Turkey’s machinations have failed. The Turkish people are overwhelmingly against Erdogan’s efforts to draw Turkey into an all-out war with its neighbour.

Corruption charges and protests

It was a good result for the beleaguered Erdogan, who will now be encouraged to stand for President. The current party constitution bars him from seeking another term as Prime Minister. But it will be difficult for Erdogan to shrug off the charges against him. The first major challenge to Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style of functioning is the countrywide protests that erupted in May and June last year. The protests were ignited by the government’s decision to demolish the popular Gezi Park situated in Istanbul’s historic Taksim Square. The wave of protests was followed by the surfacing of tapes and video recordings in December purporting to show Ministers in his Cabinet in compromising positions. Millions of dollars were allegedly seized from the residence of the Prime Minister’s son. The Turkish media speculated that the money was kickback for housing contracts awarded to companies close to the Prime Minister and the ruling party. In the tapes, the Prime Minister is heard telling his son Bilal to expeditiously dispose of large sums of money. Erdogan insists that the recordings are “morphed”. Three senior Cabinet Ministers were forced to resign after corruption charges were brought against them.

All the leaks about the alleged malfeasance of Erdogan and his associates started coming out at regular intervals following the open split between him and the Gulenist Movement, led by the exiled Sunni cleric, Fethullah Gulen. The “deep state”, comprising influential elements in the security apparatus and the judiciary, had almost succeeded in removing the first AKP government through unconstitutional means. The “white Turks”, constituting around 10 per cent of the population that remains unreconciled to rule by what they perceive as a non-secular and Islamist party, were sidelined from top positions in the security and judicial services in the last decade. But as Erdogan has belatedly realised, they were stealthily replaced by those owing allegiance to Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania in the United States. Similarly, many of the big media groups that emerged in the last decade were also under the control of the Gulenists. The Gulenists had formed a virtual parallel state under the noses of the AKP hierarchy.

Far from wilting under the double-barrelled attack from the secular parties and the Gulenists, the Turkish Prime Minister has come out with all guns blazing. But in the process, according to his critics, his authoritarian tendencies have only increased. In a belated attempt to stop Turks from viewing or hearing the offending tapes, Erdogan imposed a ban on the online social platforms Twitter and YouTube just before the Turks went to the polls. One of the recordings posted on YouTube was of senior officials in the Foreign Ministry discussing the staging of a “false flag” operation inside Syria as a pretext to open military hostilities against Syria.

Chemical attacks in Syria

The American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, in a recent article published in the London Review of Books, has blamed Syrian rebel forces acting at the behest of the Turkish government for carrying out the chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta last August. According to Hersh, the Turkish government wanted to provide the rationale for a Western military intervention in Syria. Almost on cue, the West was quick to blame the Assad government in Damascus for the chemical attack and coordinated plans were made in Washington and Paris to bomb Syria. Hersh, in his article, said that the U.S. President Barack Obama only called off the attacks at the eleventh hour after the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff told him that the sarin gas was used by the Al Nusra Front with help from Turkish and Saudi intelligence. Hersh reveals that U.S. officials believed that the Turkish government or its intelligence agencies instigated the chemical attack in Ghouta. He cites concerns among the U.S. security and intelligence leaders that there were some in the Turkish government who “supported dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria—and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat”.

Erdogan said on the campaign trail that the release of the tapes “revealing details from a national security meeting, is villainous, dishonest”. One of the voices heard on the tape was that of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the architect of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” policy. That policy is in tatters. When the “Arab Spring” started four years ago, Erdogan’s model of “political Islam” was the political system Islamists in the region were aspiring for. Erdogan was the most popular statesman in the Arab world. Today, Turkey’s influence is negligible. Egypt has recalled its Ambassador from Turkey, blaming the Turkish government for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has been categorised as a “terrorist organisation” by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Ankara’s relations with Washington have also become increasingly frosty after Erdogan put in an application to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a full member. He also asked to join the Eurasian Union that Russia is seeking to create with the former Soviet republics. Turkey also angered Washington after it placed orders for a China-made missile system.

Erdogan, anyway, had concluded during his first term in office that the European Union was not really interested in granting membership of the “Christian Club” to a Muslim country.

Turkey’s Constitutional Court criticised the government’s decision to curtail Internet freedom. The government has since rescinded the ban imposed on social media networks. The earlier struggle of the AK Party was with the “secular fundamentalists” exemplified by the White Turks and the politicised armed forces. The enemy now are the Gulenists. From the beginning of the year, Erdogan presided over the mass transfer of thousands of judges, security officials and prosecutors from their jobs on suspicion of being sympathisers of the Gulenist Movement. The media has since been subjected to government manipulation and censorship and there is no indication that Erdogan is about to relent. In his victory speech, he threatened fire and brimstone against the Gulenists, saying that “we will enter their lair. They will pay for this.” The Hizmet Movement, run by the Gulenists, has a network of educational institutions, charities and media outlets in Turkey and key cities around the world, including in New Delhi and Islamabad.

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