The Telegraph – What does Erdogan’s setback at the elections mean for Turkey’s role on the global stage?


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TurThe original version of this article can be found on The Telegraph

The results of Turkey’s elections are nothing short of striking. For the first time in more than 12 years, the Turkish president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered a major electoral setback.

It is no longer able to single-handedly rule the country since its first success in the 2002 elections, only a year after it was founded by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, former president Abdullah Gül and others.

Since 2002, the share of votes cast for the AKP has grown from 34.2 per cent in that year to 49.8 per cent in 2011. In Sunday’s elections the party failed to go beyond 40 per cent of votes, falling some twenty seats short of being able to form its own working parliamentary majority.

Perhaps even more striking is the success of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its leader Selahattin Demirtaş, which obtained 13 percent of votes. The party’s progressive electoral agenda managed to bring together Turkey’s Kurdish minority and a large nationwide share of those voters who oppose AKP’s increasingly authoritarian political approach.

Successfully passing Turkey’s electoral threshold of 10 per cent means that for the first time, a pro-Kurdish party has won political representation in the National Assembly.

On the opposite ideological extreme, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) also increased its share of votes, and with 16 per cent of preferences the party might be a fundamental actor in this post-electoral phase.

It remains to be seen whether AKP will take the lead as a minority government, attempt to form an equally fragile coalition government, or it will leave the incumbency to the other parties. There is a chance the Republican People’s Party (CHP) as well as HDP and MHP will try to cooperate and find an almost impossible compromise under the watchful eye of President Erdogan.

While an AKP-MHP alliance seems to be one of the more likely options on the table, this will be uncharted territory for AKP.

The Kurdish issue and Syria

One of the main outcomes of Sunday’s elections is that HDP’s clout in the Turkish parliament will move Turkey’s Kurdish issue higher up in the country’s political agenda. This, in turn, might give a new impulse to the negotiations between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who is currently committed to a ceasefire after a three decade-long conflict in south-east Turkey.

An all-round stronger parliamentary opposition might bring about a more incisive debate over Turkey’s role in Syria. A report by Cumhuriyet newspaper appeared to confirm long-standing allegations about the government’s direct involvement in arming Syrian rebels via the MIT, Turkey’s intelligence agency. This triggered President Erdoğan’s reaction, who accused the journalists behind the report of working to tarnish Turkey’s international reputation and filed a criminal complaint against the newspaper’s editor-in-chief.

On the other hand, a potential coalition government that includes the ultra-nationalist party would definitely compromise the dialogue with the PKK, and might not lead to a less active role in Syria: while the MHP aspires to nurture relations with Turkic peoples across the globe, it is particularly concerned with the status of Syria’s Turkmen minority, and might push for increased support and assistance for Turkmen fighters in the Syrian conflict.

Perhaps paradoxically, Turkey’s already limited willingness to be involved in actively contrasting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) might be even further reduced. Despite MHP’s own firm stance against ISIL, support for Kurdish Syrian fighters woul be out of question, as the party sees them as an extension of the PKK, and claims their ultimate goal is the formation of a Kurdish state that would include the Southeast of Turkey.

Initiatives such as the one that took place last October, when the AKP government eventually agreed to allow Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga to transit through Turkey in order to reinforce Kurdish defences in Kobani, which was under ISIL’s siege, would not receive MHP’s green light.

Turkey and the EU

The EU described Sunday’s elections as a “clear sign of strength of Turkish democracy”, and as an opportunity to “further strengthening the EU-Turkey relationship and to advance in broadening EU-Turkey cooperation”.

Yet, over the past decade, Turkey’s bid to become a member of the EU has made minimal progress towards meeting the requirements for accession, due to a number of long-standing political divergences – the main one being the dispute over Cyprus, and Turkey’s refusal to formally recognise the country, which is itself a member of the EU.

Should the new government include the MHP, there would be no margins for progress.

Over the years, AKP has pushed Turkey further away from hopes of accession, and towards becoming a more Erdogan-centric and compromise-averse system.

If there is a coalition with the AKP, the smaller party will dictate the extent to which the party will follow a more moderate political approach. Whatever the outcome, the EU will closely monitor how HDP’s human rights-centred political agenda will be received in this new phase of Turkish politics.

Aspenia Online, Mideast Flashpoints (The Aspen Institute) – Turkey’s Domestic Tug of War: Fragmented Politics and the Security Sector


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mitpatchThe original version of this analysis can be found on Aspenia Online, Mideast Flashpoint

Recent events have revealed the extent to which the alliance between Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Gülen movement (a vast, faith-based community that supported Erdoğan’s AKP party since it was founded) has become strained. Over the last decade, the AKP and the movement mutually benefited from the alliance: Gülen followers offered a formidable and loyal constituency for the ruling party, while the AKP’s consent proved fundamental in allowing members of the community to gain prominence within key national institutions (primarily in the judiciary and in the National Police). However, the anti-corruption operations that have shaken the Turkish government since mid-December seem to have marked the end of the AKP-Gülen ticket, and point towards the beginning of an all-out political war between the two.

Only days after prosecutors approved the operation that led to the arrest of several prominent figures, including the sons of three (now former) AKP ministers, Erdoğan gave dispositions to dismiss a number of officers involved in the investigation (including Huseyin Capkin, Police Chief of the Istanbul Province) claiming the corruption case was nothing more than a political plot against the AKP. The following weeks have brought a salvo of reassignments, sackings and suspensions within the National Police, along with a strongly contested parliamentary bill that aims at bringing the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK – until today an independent disciplinary authority overseeing Turkey’s judiciary sector) under direct ministerial control.

Long forgotten seem to be the days of the Gezi Park protests that started in May 2013, during which Erdoğan hardly missed a chance to laud the professionalism and the integrity of Turkey’s police forces. Back then, just a few months ago, the police was indeed pivotal in projecting Erdoğan’s power and relentless political will into the streets of Turkey, where millions protested against his increasingly authoritarian style. But now the political dynamics have clearly shifted, as pro-AKP media retaliate by accusing the National Police of having robbed the government of several hundred millions of Turkish liras earmarked for its pension fund, and  AKP representatives label policemen following the corruption case as “criminals”. The politically-driven re-shuffle within police ranks apparently paid off, as the new police chief of Istanbul Province has allegedly decided not to follow up on a prosecutor’s order for a new wave of arrests, calling off the police operation that was under preparation.

If the National Police is thus viewed by the AKP as a potential adversary for its lack of political support, Erdoğan knows he can still count on the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), Turkey’s intelligence services. Over the last few years, MIT has seen its mandate significantly expanded, and its main representative, Hakan Fidan, has worked in very close cooperation with Erdoğan ever since his promotion to chief of the agency in 2010. MIT’s first groundbreaking operation was uncovered by the press in 2011, when a leaked recording revealed that intelligence top officers had held a series of meetings with senior leaders of the terrorist group Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) to discuss an agreement that could have ended thirty years of violence. At the time, the move was so unexpected that even the Turkish military claimed the operation caught them off guard. In fact, the revelation triggered an attempted prosecution of Mr. Fidan and other MIT members who were at the meetings, on the basis that any form of dialogue with a terrorist organization had to be considered a crime in itself. Prosecutors allegedly cooperated with members of the police intelligence, raising doubts over whether the case was nothing more than a turf war between police intelligence. Upon MIT members’ refusal to testify, prosecutors issued an arrest warrant, further fueling the suspicion that the case was running on political, rather than judicial, motivations. At that point, PM Erdoğan took the matter into his own hands and put together an ad-hoc law that instituted a special authorization, to be seeked by prosecutors who wanted to trial MIT officers, that the Prime Minister could grant upon discretion.

If Erdoğan’s intervention momentarily solved the problem, frictions between police and MIT remained. A blame-game between police intelligence and MIT got the attention of the Turkish media in the aftermath of the Reyhanli bombing, when, in May 2013, two car bombs killed more than 50 people in the Hatay province, on the Turkish-Syrian border. In that instance, both the local police chief and the local MIT chief were dismissed. More recently, a new police-MIT clash erupted in the midst of AKP’s corruption scandal, with an episode raising the suspipcion that elements of the intelligence services have been carrying weapons to Syria. AKP ministers offered vague and contradictory statements on the issue, but whether the government is using MIT to send weapons to Syrian rebels remains to be confirmed: this, in any case, seems to be the smoking gun that pro-Gülen media are looking for in order to further discredit Erdoğan’s government. In the meantime, they focused on a leaked recording, that appeared on the web in mid-January 2014, in which MIT operatives allegedly instructed Omer Guney, currently under arrest for the assassination of three PKK members in Paris in January 2013, on how to carry out the murder and evade undetected.

Not even the Turkish military, once the sole guardians of Turkey’s national security, has remained immune from the tug-of-war between Erdoğan and Gülen. Hundreds of military officers, found guilty of coup-plotting, have been imprisoned over the last five years. After a strongly contested trial which the AKP and Gülenists staunchly defended, therefore, what remains of the military’s top brass is the more moderate and politically docile fraction. But now that the fight between Erdoğan and the Gülen movement has become an all-out war, AKP representatives seem to have surrendered to the temptation of setting the military against the Gülenists, by hinting at the possibility that there might be a retrial for those generals who are behind bars. After all, one of Erdoğan’s top advisers has claimed, everybody knows that the trial was a set up. In fact, the gravity of Turkey’s current political crisis seems to be epitomized by the fact that the idea of a retrial has been endorsed by Erdoğan himself. The increased politicization of the security sector might bring short-term advantages to the AKP; long-term consequences, however, will be detrimental for Turkey as a whole.

Aspenia Online, Mideast Flashpoints (The Aspen Institute) – Two Ideals of Democracy Clashing in Turkey


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geziThe original version of this analysis can be found (in Italian) on Aspenia Online, Mideast Flashpoint

Clearly, the protests that are shaking Turkey have very little to do with Gezi Park’s trees. What hit Istanbul first, followed by many other Turkish cities, is the backwash of institutional problems that have been lingering for decades; problems that the AKP, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party, has so far benefitted from, and has in part exacerbated.

When, in April 2007, Erdogan decided to have Abdullah Gul (one of AKP’s most important representatives) running for President, secularist circles erupted against what they perceived as a threat to one of the institutional strongholds of Turkey’s secular identity. In their view, AKP’s unilateral decision to present Gul as candidate for the position once held by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was too radical a break from the tradition that saw the presidential post reserved to generals or, more recently, to political figures of Kemalist inspiration. The Turkish General Staff published a declaration on their website, reiterating the armed forces’ loyalty to the principles of Kemalism, and stressing that they were ready to intervene should such principles be violated – a critique to both AKP’s political positions, and to their attempted concentration of powers into AKP’s hands, as the party also had a solid parliamentary majority.

Shortly after the statement was published, millions of Turks hit the streets to stage a peaceful protest against Gul’s candidacy, many of them chanting “neither sharia, nor coup” – an attempt to express how they were against the potential intrusion of religion into politics, but also asking for the military, who staged four coups (with the most recent one in 1997) and are traditionally considered the guardians of secularism, to stay out of the issue. Regardless of how numerically impressive the rallies proved to be, Turkish society’s ‘silent half’ only emerged during the general elections held in July 2007, when Erdogan won with a 46% majority. The two main opposition parties, the secularist CHP and the nationalist MHP, only obtained a 20% and 14% share of votes. Subsequently, AKP MPs single-handedly elected Gul President, despite CHP’s and MHP’s opposition.

What we see on Turkish streets today has some commonalities with what happened in 2007; however, over the last few years some fundamental changes have also took place. Erdogan has been elected for the third time in 2011, with 49% of votes. CHP has attempted to reshape itself, replacing its traditionalist leader Deniz Baykal with Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who, on paper, was supposed to bring new ideas and new energies into the party. But a real change was never achieved, and after an underwhelming electoral result in 2011 (25%), CHP has progressively backpedalled towards more traditionalist and Kemalism-centric positions.

In the meantime, military circles were shook by the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases, which focus on an alleged clandestine network that, according to prosecutors, has been operating since AKP’s first victory in 2002 in order to facilitate and eventually stage a military coup. The imprisonment of hundreds of military officers had the consequence of delegitimizing, at least temporarily, the military’s footprint in Turkey’s domestic politics, curbing their influence. Over the last years, those more critic towards the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases have defended the hypothesis that the trials would in fact be a mere purge against the armed forces, AKP’s arch-enemy, as well as against the most staunch voices from the opposition, as dozens of journalists jailed due to charges based on opinions expressed on the Turkish media.

The political crisis of 2007 already reduced the military’s political expectations, as they had to take a step back when faced by the overwhelming majority Erdogan obtained through the ballot box; moreover, generals were also aware that none of the alternatives to an AKP government would have guaranteed Turkey’s political stability. Regardless of the extent to which the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases are legitimate, the detentions that were carried out over the last years (about 400 military officers are currently behind bars) played a significant role in isolating the most radical members of the armed forces, and in reducing the general’s influence.

After having consolidated his political power, reduced the military’s political influence, and kept criticism at bay, Erdogan achieved ideal conditions to push AKP’s political agenda ahead without any problem. The protests of Gezi Park want to address this convergence of powers towards Erdogan, his idea of a democracy that should express itself only through elections, and his increasingly confrontational attitude and refusal to accept dialogue. The few activists that first occupied Gezi Park a few days ago were dealt with by the police through a disproportionate use of force, in what became the brutal crackdown of a peaceful protest. That event turned into the boiling point for a large share of Turkey’s society, who, over the last months, felt like Erdogan was running a one-man show. The fact that the Turkish media purposely ignored the protests (turning CNNTurk’s penguins into a powerful symbol) did nothing but further radicalising the protest, exposing even more how the Turkish system is suffering from a concentration of powers and from the lack of a functioning system of formal and informal checks and balances.

Among those protesting, a small minority has been calling for the military to intervene; however, their expectations clash against the lack of political and social conditions that triggered military interventions in the past. On the contrary, the protester’s vast majority claims decisional autonomy on a range of social issues on which Erdogan demands sole authority – just what military juntas did in the past. Erdogan’s rough style has simply triggered protests that have been lingering for quite some time among AKP opponents – and those who expected a more moderate AKP alike.

However, Erdogan’s electoral weight should not be overlooked. Since 2002, general elections systematically turned into quasi-plebiscites for his party, while the CHP has regularly lagged behind, and the 10% threshold kept smaller parties from emerging. From the position of strength he gained over the last ten years, and being well aware of Turkey’s political dynamics, Erdogan showed a defiant stance towards the ongoing protests. He also accused the international media, social networks, and foreign secret services of (respectively) having provided biased and false information, and of having fuelled protests to destabilise his government.

We can see two different ideals of democracy clashing in Turkey today. On one side, the ideal held by that part of society who protests against a model that, recent democratic achievements notwithstanding, still maintains the rigid and centralised structure that the Constitution (written by the military in the aftermath of the 1980 coup) embeds. On the other there is Erdogan, his political project, and the ‘silent’ part of society that supports him.


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