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Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a gamble after his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority last June 7: he would call another election, rather than let Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu look for a coalition partner in good faith. Contrary to most preditions, last Sunday the AKP regained its majority with 49% of the vote and 317 of the 550 seats in parliament. Next February it will start its 14th year of continuous rule.
That rule is increasingly marked by creeping Islamization, cronyism and corruption (especially in the burgeoning building industry), clampdown on dissent, attacks on independent media, and government attempts to control the judiciary. Above all it is now marked by Erdogan’s authoritarian behavior at home—his nickname is “the Sultan”—and his reckless neo-Ottoman foreign policy, which is creating endless problems for Turkey and for the region. Its proclaimed policy of “zero problems with all neighbors” of a decade ago has morphed into the grim reality of very serious problems with most key players in the region: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Egypt . . .
Erdogan has violated the constitution by brazenly politicizing the nominally nonpartisan office of the president. He is the key architect of Turkey’s decade-long shift from post-Kemalism to anti-Kemalism—a process of historic significance for the Greater Middle East—which may end for ever the hope that a traditionally Muslim society can modernize on the basis of constitutional secularism and Western-style democracy. Although the AKP fell short of the two-thirds majority required for a referendum on changing the constitution and creating an ultra-powerful presidency, Erdogan will not give up on that ambition of long standing—even if it requires engineering still deeper divisions within the Turkish society, and calling a snap election at a moment of crisis.
To achieve the desired result last Sunday, Erdogan has taken a number of steps which confirm his reputation of a ruthless political operator. In July he announced the end of a two-year ceasefire between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants. His political opponents have accused him of deliberately escalating violence in Turkey’s southeastern, predominantly Kurdish regions in order to present the AKP as the only reliable guardian of public order.
Erdogan’s likely parallel objective was to put pressure on the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which entered parliament for the first time last June with 80 seats and 13 percent of the vote and thus ended his dream of having a constitution-changing supermajority. That party stopped all campaining after two bombs exploded on October 10 at a rally in Ankara it co-organized to protest the renewal of violence, killing 102 perople and wounding over 400. The attack was officially blamed on ISIS, but in view of Turkey’s crucial early support for the jihadist monster it is understandable that many among Erdogan’s opponents—and most Kurds—believed that the Turkish “deep state” had a role in the atrocity.
In a statement on November 2, a day after the election, head of the OSCE Observer Mission Ignacio Sanchez Amor stated that “physical attacks on [HDP] party members, as well as the significant security concerns, particularly in the south-east . . . imposed restrictions on its ability to campaign.” The party nevertheless managed to get into the national assembly again, with just over 10% of the vote. Its repeated success in one of the most restrictive electoral systems in the world guarantees Erdogan’s continued hostility.
OSCE’s Sanchez Amor also expressed concern that pressure on journalists—including a police raid on the Koza-Ipek media group in Istanbul last week—cast a shadow on the electoral process. European Parliament President Martin Schulz tweeted that he was “deeply concerned” by the raid, and even U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby urged Turkish authorities “to ensure their actions uphold universal democratic values . . . including due process, freedom of expression and assembly, and of course access to media and information.” Erdogan feels that he can ignore such criticism: Europe needs him to stem the massive flow of migrants into the EU—75% of them come via Turkey—and the U.S. needs him in order to pursue its Syrian strategy, whatever that may be.
The Koza-Ipek raid was only the latest in a series of incidents amounting to a comprehensive crackdown on the independent media. Journalists critical of government policies have been fired from newspapers supportive of Erdogan and even physically attacked – notably Ahmet Hakan, a prominent columnist and TV host who had his nose and ribs broken by AKP sympathizers last month. Opposition papers are taken to court under a law that forbids “insults against the president,” a sweeping piece of Stalinist legislation that was used even against a paper which (correctly) alleged that Turkish government trucks were illicitly delivering arms to Syrian rebels. (Let it be added that this is unsurprising, considering the fact that Turkey—together with the Gulf monarchies—was an early promoter and supporter of ISIS. Without that support al-Baghdadi would not have achieved so much so quickly.)
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) joined the OSCE in criticizing the irregularities and characterized the entire electoral process as flawed. According to Andreas Gross, head of the PACE delegation, “the campaign for these elections was characterized by unfairness and, to a serious degree, fear.” Erdogan’s response was characteristically combative, with a hint of paranoia: “Now a party with some 50 percent [of the vote] has attained power,” he said. “This should be respected by the whole world, but I have not seen such maturity.”
Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies will become more starkly visible after last Sunday’s vote. The moderate, non-PKK Kurds will feel increasingly alienated from the Turkish state which is no longer seeking a negotiated solution to their striving for some degree of autonomy, and which is indifferent—nay, openly hostile—to their attempts to pursue their goals through its institutions. Turkish air force raids against Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq will continue, and probably intensify, even though they are battling ISIS and enjoy nominal U.S. support. Most significantly, Turkey will continue its transformation to an Islamic republic—in character if not in name—to the chagrin of the overwhelming majority of its educated professionals, students, and urban secularists who cherish the legacy of Mustafa Kemal.
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