North Africa, West Asia

An inward looking Turkey in a turbulent Middle East

The deteriorating situation in Turkey since the failed coup raises many questions about the future of the country and its role in the region

Francis Ghilès
24 November 2016

Police close a road leading to the headquarters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, (HDP), in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016. Picture by Burhan Ozbilici AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Beginning this century with a new political party, AKP, and a new philosophy, Turkey started asking itself: why do we not abandon this cold war mentality? Why not have a zero-problem foreign policy with our neighbours? We may not support Iran but we refuse to see it as a threat. We have Syria on our borders and we need to encourage it to join the ‘modern’ world. The world of realpolitik has offered a harsh reminder that reengaging with your neighbours when you sit on such a regional fault-line is not easy. Turkey is now reengaging with Russia and Iran, two of Syria’s key backers which it had tried ineffectually to topple after 2011, to the extent of allowing jihadis more than a little freedom until the later, in the form of ISIS, launched two frontal attacks on the Turkish state.

The road is now open to an executive presidency of the kind not available in the current constitution.

But it is the failed coup attempt of last July which has, more than any aspect of the country’s foreign policy, offered a stark reminder that the new political philosophy of a decade ago was not producing the modernisation and stability that many inside and outside the country had hoped for. Ruling by decree, the Turkish president jails those he holds in contempt, be they judges, university teachers, generals or Kurdish MPs. Having just put behind bars the most popular Kurdish leader among non-Kurdish Turkish citizens as well as in international public opinion (the ‘Kurdish Obama’), Salahettin Demirtas and his fellow MPs of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party HDP, the road is now open to an executive presidency of the kind not available in the current constitution.

To get a new charter through parliament, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has played the nationalist, xenophobic card to the hilt. This policy is paying dividends as he is likely to win the support of the Nationalist Movement Party which has sufficient MPs to help the AKP pass a draft constitution through parliament. But, deprived of the HDP, this is a rump parliament.

For many years, the president had good reason to worry that the antipathy towards him and his political allies, which included the Gülenists, now in disgrace after the alleged role they played in the attempted coup, that was shared in much of Turkey’s ultra-secularist establishment would seek to remove him from power. In 2007 the military opposed the AKP’s candidate for president, then largely a figurehead, and the following year the party narrowly escaped being shut down by the country’s top court for “anti-secularist activities”.

To get a new charter through parliament, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has played the nationalist, xenophobic card to the hilt.

Rather than pursue a less confrontational style, Erdogan, encouraged by the followers of the cleric-in-exile Fethullah Gülen set about culling the top ranks of the army and jailing journalists accused of plotting against him. Paranoia became the trademark of the president’s approach to domestic politics and international affairs which included ever harsher attacks on the West, notably the US, for plotting to overthrow him.

Already infiltrated in the security apparatus, the Gülenists were able to place their own sympathizers in the senior ranks of the officer corps vacated by officers targeted by sham trials. The sad irony of last July’s attempted coups was that it was apparently a pre-emptive move by Gülenist officers, fearing a major purge of their ranks decided by the president. A further irony is that the Gülenists helped AKP build a network of sympathisers in the judiciary, the police, and the educational establishment as well as among junior officers that AKP did not have when it first came to power in 2003.

Upwards of 100,000 teachers, public officials, and army officers have been dismissed from their jobs, 170 journalists detained, including the director of the board and editor of the arch-secularist Cumhuriyet, founded by the builder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk in 1923. According to the association of Turkish journalists, 107 publications have been closed down, 105 journalists detained and 777 press cards withdrawn since last July. Many of these journalists appear to have no links with the Gülenists. The rule of law is seriously under threat in Turkey and few Turks are willing to speak out. Few dare to criticize the president as they could easily end up in jail accused of sympathising with the coup plotters or the outlawed Kurdish organisation, the PKK.

There are those in Turkey who wonder whether Mr Erdogan might have responded differently, arguing that the failed putsch created a rare opportunity for national unity. All political parties, including the HDP condemned the coup attempt, as did the vast majority of ordinary people, regardless of their political orientation. Millions of them poured into the streets in towns across Turkey in a show of national unity, defence of democracy and support for the president. Mr Erdogan could have used the opportunity to rise above Islamist, liberal, secularist and Kurdish identities and attempted to build a new political consensus around democratic norms. He has chosen repression on a massive scale rather than a policy which could have unified Turkey around democratic norms.

By keeping Turkey on high alert against perceived enemies and inflaming nationalist and religious passions, the president keeps his base mobilized.

Had he moved down that road, the EU would have given its blessing and relations between Europe and Turkey might have improved. Many Turks felt European leaders were lukewarm in their condemnation of the attempted coup, maybe they were simply confused. Whether they were actively involved in supporting the plotters as many Turks like to argue is open to doubt. Paranoia is gaining ground among many Turks.

By keeping Turkey on high alert against perceived enemies and inflaming nationalist and religious passions, the president keeps his base mobilized. This has the added advantage of neutralising the very nationalistic MHP party, whose votes he needs to change the constitution but not the old Kemalist CHP which is asking for the release of all imprisoned journalists and MPs. MHP is a valued ally in the war against the PKK but CHP is keen to explore political solutions. This nationalism further alienates Turkey’s western allies but that does not bother the president. Turkey’s never ending cycle of victimisation – of Islamists, communists, secularists, the Kurds perennially and now the Gülenists does not bode well for the future stability or economic wellbeing of the country. Both in 2014 and 2016, Erdogan has spurned respect for democratic norms and made moderation into a dirty word. Turkey could pay a high cost for the president’s paranoia and his tragic mistake.

Whether his legacy will be one which gives Turks the confidence they need to move ahead in a troubled region is an open question. Steering the Turkish ship of state through the troubled waters of the Middle East requires a greater consensus at home than currently exists. By the same token, the EU does not want to criticize overtly a country which plays a key role in stemming the flood of refugees from the Middle East from crossing into Europe. Greater forbearance and understanding of the complexities of the situation in Turkey will be required in Europe if the EU hopes to keep some influence in Turkey.

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