Politics in Turkey is seldom what it seems

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu hinted that the President would be toning down his style of active political leadership and meddling in government. Hours later the President seemed to demur.

Firdevs Robinson
11 June 2015
People walk by Turkish PM billboard.

People walk by Turkish PM billboard. Demotix/Alexandros Michailidis. All right reserved.Barely three days after an increasingly autocratic government was dealt a severe blow for its arbitrary rule at the June 7 general elections, nothing is certain. Hopes were raised for a more inclusive and representative system to be created, but already Turkey has been forced to live in despair.  

While the supporters of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were celebrating their party’s extraordinary success in overcoming the 10 % threshold to enter parliament for the first time, violence broke out in the predominantly Kurdish south-eastern town of Diyarbakir.

Four people were killed on Tuesday and seven wounded, three of them journalists. A cache of weapons including rifles, pistols, machine guns and ammunition was seized. There were reports of armed gangs patrolling the streets while plain clothes security officials looked on. Pro-government media, ignoring the fact that victims were from both sides, instantly declared the culprit to be the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and their sympathisers, for attacking the rival Islamist Kurds.

But the PKK denied it was behind the attacks. Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the HDP warned against “people who are taking steps to push the country into a civil war” and criticised the prime minister and the president for being silent about it. Mr Demirtas also claimed that an earlier bomb attack on their campaign rally and the killings in Diyarbakir three days after the election were originating from a single centre.

No strangers to stirred up trouble  

Turkey’s Kurds are no stranger to deep and dark forces stirring up trouble in their midst. The first signs are that, this time, rival Kurdish groups will keep calm and not react to any provocations. There has been an overwhelming desire for Sunday’s vote to be the culmination of a decade’s long struggle to gain recognition and equal political and cultural rights for Kurds. A veteran politician of the Kurdish cause, Sirri Sureyya Onder called the electoral success of the HDP “the victory of peace against war”.  

Just as it may be too early to declare that a historical turning point has been reached, it is somewhat premature to assume that the electoral setback of the AKP to be a decisive blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s power and influence. Voters took away the parliamentary majority of the AKP and an early election does not seem to be a viable option for the time being. Yet coming first, with 41 per cent of the vote, the AKP has not yet digested the message from the ballot box. It is still behaving as if nothing has happened.  

A day after the government officially resigned on June 10 another 118 police chiefs were forced to retire in the ongoing purge of the law enforcement agency. A day later, the top judicial body, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) dismissed another 37 judges and prosecutors, accused of being sympathetic to the Pennsylvania-based preacher, Fethullah Gulen.

Pro-government media, too, with few exceptions, has continued its arrogant attacks on opponents.  Columnist Ibrahim Karagul, the editor of the daily Yeni Safak, has claimed that there were plans to turn Turkey into another Egypt. Describing the election result in Turkey as “A Sisi-like coalition”, he wrote: “In our latest War of Independence, this is not a defeat. The struggle will get tougher. A century-old reckoning has not finished yet.”

Divided opposition

The prospect of weeks of political turmoil in Turkey is very real. This is not only because of the unpredictability of the president himself and the clear determination of the AKP to hang onto power at all costs, but also because of the sharp divisions among the opposition. All three political parties that ran against the AKP and got into parliament have had common agendas to fight corruption and to repair the damage inflicted on the country’s institutions during the 13 year-long AKP rule.

As well as promises of restoring an independent judiciary and freedom of the speech, the Kurdish-affiliated HDP alone made the Kurdish peace process its priority before the vote. Sure enough, one of the first things the co-chair of the party, Selahattin Demirtas did after the election was to call  for the resumption of talks in the stalled peace process.

The right-wing Nationalist Movement Party MHP, which tied with the HDP for third place, was the polar opposite. The MHP has fiercely opposed the peace efforts to end the long-running conflict with the PKK and campaigned to stop the process altogether. 

The Kurdish peace process will be the make or break issue during intense negotiations to secure a coalition government yet there is almost no consensus between the three opposition parties on this subject. As for the AKP which started the process of negotiations with the jailed leader of the PKK and the representatives of the Kurdish political movement in 2012, no one is entirely sure where they now really stand.

The anti-Kurdish rhetoric of the AKP government and the President during the past year or so, especially in relation to their Syria policy, ended up alienating their Kurdish voters in the south-east. The AKP’s biggest loss of support happened in the southeast.

Sensitive issues

There are two other crucial issues for the potential coalition partners - dealing with corruption and nepotism, and reigning in the president’s exercise of self- appointed, non-constitutional powers.

They are both sensitive issues for the AKP. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said that given the current political picture, the AKP is open to any scenarios. He also hinted that the President would be toning down his style of active political leadership and meddling in government by saying that Mr Erdogan would not be directly involved in efforts to build a coalition. However, hours after his statement, the President came forward to prove him wrong. First, he invited the former leader of the main opposition The Republican People’s Party, Deniz Baykal for a surprise meeting. The next day, he outlined his views about what needs to be done next.

President Erdogan still has considerable influence over the party. More importantly, both the AKP and the President’s interests lie in the same direction.

If long years of Turkey watching has taught me anything it is that its politics is seldom what it seems.  Another lesson has got to be that it is always easier for politicians to compromise on protecting their mutual interests than to uphold their higher principles. 

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