Turkey’s local election concluded with the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) incurring heavy losses in major cities, and the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) making significant gains. The poll, which will result in the election of new mayors, mukhtars and local assembly members, saw the AKP losing the capital, Ankara; the commercial hub and largest city, Istanbul; and a major city, Izmir. Although the AKP and its alliance still won around fifty per cent of the votes overall, losing major cities is an indicator of voters’ waning confidence in the AKP and its leader (and Turkey’s president) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and punishing the party with its biggest losses since attaining power in 2002.
Erdogan based the AKP’s campaign on national security, side-lining local economic grievances that caused many voters concern about their future. The depreciation of the Turkish Lira against the dollar in 2018 saw inflation increase to twenty-five per cent in October 2018 and resulted in rising unemployment. Although the AKP lodged a complaint with the Supreme Electoral Council, challenging the results in Istanbul and thirty-eight other districts, Erdogan seems to have accepted these election as a learning moment, and has vowed to fix the economy to regain voter confidence ahead of the 2023 national elections. Nevertheless, the current loss signifies the mood of an electorate which finds itself disconnected from the AKP that it once embraced, and is seeking refuge in the opposition. The elections were also seen as a referendum on Erdogan’s rule, after the country moved from a parliamentary to a presidential system in 2018, extending his powers significantly.
Election outcomes reflect a disgruntled electorate
Table 1: Turkish local election results
National security over economic issues
Elections results show that these elections have been challenging for Erdogan. They are the first elections since he was elected in 2018 as the country’s first executive president after a controversial referendum in 2017 that changed the electoral system from parliamentary to presidential. Under the new system, Erdogan can rule the country almost by decree, and many people fear that the country is in the grip of dictatorial tendencies from the president. Since his election, the AKP has focused on positioning the country internationally in a region that is plagued by political instability and insecurity. This continued to be the case as the AKP and its coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party(MHP), campaigned for the election under the banner of the People’s Alliance.
The Alliance’s campaign focused on national security and terrorism, taking swipes at some candidates by accusing them of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and of being western agents. Erdogan further blamed the deterioration of the Turkish Lira on foreign powers trying to destroy Turkey. Erdogan’s rhetoric on national security and terrorism meant that he avoided speaking about the country’s economic issues, whereas his opponents focused on the economic problems, blaming them on his government, which they accused of corruption and maladministration. The CHP capitalised on the discontent of the electorate amid inflation increasing from less than ten per cent in March 2014 to a peak of twenty-five per cent in October 2018.
Turkey’s economic difficulties were exacerbated by its international diplomatic problems, specifically its complicated relationship with the USA. In August 2018, the USA imposed sanctions on Turkey over the detention of US pastor Andrew Brunson, who Turkey charged with aiding the 2016 attempted coup. Although Turkey eventually released Brunson – after a series of bilateral diplomatic talks, the Turkish Lira failed to strengthen amid huge government debt created by massive spending and borrowing. In January 2019, the US president, Donald Trump, threatened to destroy the Turkish economy again if Turkey attacked US-supported Kurdish forces in Syria. The Turkish Lira suffered again, but managed to remain steady after Erdogan cut down on his rhetoric threatening the US proxies in Syria. Nevertheless, relations between the USA and Turkey remain fragile, especially after the latter halted the sale of fighter jets to Turkey because of Ankara’s intention to purchase the Russian S-400 defence system. The decision saw the Turkish Lira fall by three per cent to 5.6590 against the dollar. Many issues remain unresolved between the two countries, including the future of Kurdish forces in Syria, which Ankara sees as the extension of the PKK.
Suppression of Kurdish candidates
Another factor that contributed to the CHP victory was Erdogan’s suppression of Kurdish candidates contesting the election. Before announcing the election, Erdogan removed and replacedmayors in predominantly Kurdish areas with AKP leaders close to him. Soon after the outcomes of the current election were announced, Erdogan threatenedto again replace Kurdish mayors with trusted ones linked to the AKP. Some Kurdish politicians, such as former co-chair of the Kurdish-majority People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, were forced to campaign from prison, while many others linked to the HDP had been charged with terrorism and links to the PKK. Due to this and other factors, the HDP did not field candidates in many areas, including Istanbul, thus losing their voters to the CHP. Further, the HDP did not enjoy much media coverage during its campaign, with over ninety per cent media coveragegiven to the AKP.
Loss of traditional AKP voters
The AKP did not lose only Kurdish voters but also voters in areas where Erdogan had traditionally enjoyed widespread support, such as the Mediterranean region. Adana and Antalya were bothlost to CHP. In the resort city of Antalya, the AKP won forty-six percentof the vote against the CHP’s fifty per cent. This further frustrated Erdogan, who had hoped to tap into nationalist rhetoric for his traditional supporters in the Mediterranean areas. The loss ofMersin and Hatayto the CHP has almost kicked the AKP out of theAegean and Mediterranean region. It lost many strategic areas in these elections despite the political odds being stacked in its favour. Erdogan’s repeated accusations against opposition candidates of terrorism, his jailing of journalists and closing downof independent media, and his suppression of Kurdish politicians still failed to secure the AKP a victory in the country’s major cities. Ankara fell to the CHP’s fifty-nine per cent win,fifty-eight per cent of Izmir’s voters put their cross next to CHP candidates’ names, and in Istanbul, which is politically important for Erdogan, the CHP won by 48.8 per cent.
Istanbul, the contested jewel in the crown
These major losses led the AKP officially to object to the electoral outcomes, claiming irregularities. The objections reflect Istanbul’s political and personal significance for Erdogan, whose career début was in Istanbul when he was elected mayor in 1994. After the AKP suffered a painful defeat in Ankara, Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council ceased the counting of ballots in Istanbul with around ninety-nine per cent counted. The state-run Anadolu news agency stopped reporting on the vote tallies shortly thereafter. The AKP candidate for Istanbul, Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister, claimed victory over CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu even though the CHP led by around 5 000 votes. The electoral board declared Imamoglu the winner even though the results remain ‘unofficial’ until the objections are dealt with. The indications are that the electoral council will keep the results likely the same despite the AKP objections. Indications are that the electoral council will likely maintain the results in Istanbul, despite AKP claim’s of the involvement of ‘organised crime’ in some Istanbul districts. Despite ongoing recounts in many Istanbul districts, the electoral council is not expected chamge its original result, despite AKP objections.
Together with the overall results and the AKP’s loss of major cities, the Turkish local elections reflect the mood of a discontented electorate. The opposition has been re-energised, and provided with a morale boost to enable it to build support against the AKP and Erdogan ahead of the 2023 general elections. The loss has been a wake-up call to the AKP, which has vowed to work harder to regain lost support. The rhetoric to rebuild AKP support may also be a sign that Erdogan will not take steps to undermine the municipal elections’ outcome by exercising his presidential powers. Turkey’s rampant economic woes, exacerbated by local and foreign challenges that contributed to the AKP defeat might see Erdogan make certain concessions to stabilise the economy using presidential decrees that could undermine democratic processes. With the overall results remaining the same even after the review of the objections, it remains to be seen whether Erdogan will concede defeat in Istanbul. What is more important is what he does going forward, with Turkey mired in a suffering economy and a disgruntled electorate.
In less than a week, on 24 June 20118, Turkish citizens will cast their votes for presidential and parliamentary elections, the first time that both elections will occur at the same time. The elections have been moved to sixteen months earlier than originally scheduled, prompting fears that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is planning for a decisive victory. His decision for early elections are likely linked to the suffering Turkish economy and his desire to usher in the new presidential system, which was decided after a 2017 referendum, so that he may have control of the economy without the impediment of a tedious parliamentary process. Other factors involve the continued state of emergency, the Syrian civil war and resultant migration, regional and national security, and Turkey’s relations with the European Union and other foreign actors. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) hopes to emerge victorious due to a divided opposition and the state of emergency which has resulted in arrests of activists, journalists and opposition members.
The presidential and parliamentary elections
Next week’s elections will be the first time that Turkey votes for the president and parliament on the same day, a new electoral system that was made possible by constitutional amendments adopted after a controversial referendum in April 2017. The referendum sought to convert Turkey’s governance into a presidential system, bestowing more powers on the president, abolishing the position of prime minister, and introducing a vice president. Election for parliament is based on a proportional representation system; a total of 550 seats are contested, allocated by the D’Hondt methodwhich favours larger, national parties over small parties. Each party is required to win more than 4.6 million votes (or ten per cent) to be eligible to enter parliament, a threshold that is critical in determining electoral outcomes.
The ruling party, Erdogan’s AKP, obtained forty-nine per cent of the vote in the November 2015 parliamentary election, winning 317 seats after failing to form government in earlier elections in June (based on Article 116 of the Constitution). The AKP is aiming for more than fifty per cent of the vote in the presidential election so as to win the first round of voting and prevent a runoff, scheduled for 8 July, between the top two candidates. More than three million Turkish ex-patsworldwide started casting their votes on Sunday (17 June 2018), and the AKP is expected to win a significant proportion of votes from over sixty countries where Turkish citizens reside. Erdogan was prevented from campaigningin a number of European countries following Turkey’s spat with Germany and other countries in the run up to the 2017 referendum. Instead, he attempted to reach out to the expatriate community through a massive rally in Bosnia, which attracted a huge number of AKP supporters from Germany, Netherlands, Austria and the Balkans. Erdogan hopes to increase his numbers within ex-pat communities to help secure his majority.
Eleven parties will contest the elections, as announced by the Supreme Board of Elections on 22 April 2018. This includes the new centre-right IYI (Good) Partythat was formed in October 2017 after a split from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). IYI leader, Meral Aksener is a popular former interior minister. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has nominated Muharrem Inceas its presidential candidate. He hopes to eat into Erdogan’s support base using the ‘working-class’ charm offensive that Erdogan had successfully used in his early political career. The CHP has entered a coalition with the similarly conservative Saadet (Felicity) Party, under the banner of Nation Alliance, to challenge the AKP. The alliance also includes IYI and the Democratic Party (DP), and it hopes to gain a parliamentary majority. The Democratic Party, which includes the Motherland Party and the former True Path Party (DYP), will contest the elections with their candidates appearing under the CHP list.
The AKP is also in a coalition, the People’s Alliance, with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Great Unity Party. This coalition will be challenged not only by the CHP-led Nation Alliance, but also the new National Union of Kurds, both of which hope to upset the AKP parliamentary majority. The Kurdish group is led by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party(HDP), whose leader, Selahattin Demirtas, has been leading the election campaign from inside prison, where he is being held on terrorism-related charges. The Kurdish alliance has emerged as a strong contender, hoping to sway voters in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast region, which includes some 140 000 voters who feel disgruntled because of the government’s decision to relocate a number of voting stations, affecting 114 000 voters. Demirtas and his party have not been allowed freely to campaign in the run up to these elections, have been given no media interviews except a twenty-minute television slot on Sunday, and have had to rely heavily on social media platforms. If the HDP reaches the ten per cent threshold required to enter parliament, it could significantly alter the percentage of AKP seats, thus threatening the AKP’s ability to win an outright majority.
The AKP has dominated Turkey’s politics for sixteen years, and has been accused of employing repression to continue this domination. The state of emergency, imposed after the July 2016 attempted coup, under which the elections will take place is one such security measure that may influence political outcomes. Further, there is an ongoing crackdownon journalists, academics, activists and opposition members, such as the eleven HDP membersof parliament facing terrorism-related charges, that began after the July 2016 attempted coup. Many opposition figures see this crackdown which has seen pro-government media dominating the news, as an attempt to help the AKP emerge victorious at the polls.
Despite these negative aspects, however, Erdogan remains popular, and is likely to sway voters using the nationalist-Islamist rhetoric that he has successfully used for more than a decade. Despite accusations that he seek to usher in conservative religious politics, and his rivals referring to him as the ‘caliph-in-waiting’, Erdogan insists that Turkey will maintain its secularity even after the presidential system is implemented.
Turkish economy running out of steam?
Despite the AKP’s impressive economic successes, which saw the previously troubled economy (reeling from the 2000s financial crisis) attract foreign investment, boost trade ties, and experience unprecedented growth and employment. The economic boom in the past was largely based on investment and export capabilities of mostly electrical goods, which boosted the manufacturing sector and increased consumption. Over the past few months the Turkish Lirahas steadily weakened and inflation has steadily risen. The weakening economy has been a boon for opposition groups, which have lain the blame for it at the AKP’s door, especially after Erdogan’s statementlast month about taking control of the central bank. His statement followed the Lira’s drop by more than twenty per cent this year alone, causing the central bank to raise interest ratesin an attempt to stabilise the currency. Erdogan’s response in his campaign, was to blame ‘foreign powers’ for the crisis, and offering few solutions except government control of the economy.
The president’s failure to effectively address the economic challenge could lose him significant support even if he does win the election, especially since the opposition seems equally oblivious. The opposition continues to blame him for the weakening currency, but offer few practical solutions. IYI’s presidential candidate, Meral Aksener, proposed a ‘Turkey Solidarity Fund’ to erase eighty per cent of the debt of poorer citizens and students, with the rest of the debt to be paid over ten years. But this proposal fails to address the lack of stability in the economy created by excessive borrowing, government tax cuts, and heavy government incentivising of industries that has pushed up the inflation rate.
This month’s elections campaigning has focused mostly on the deteriorating economy, but other pressing matters around foreign policy in the context of the ongoing Syrian conflictand relations with the European Union have also featured prominently. Erdogan has leveraged foreign policy successes such as the recent campaign against the YPG in northern Syria and cross-border military operations in Iraq and Iran against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). These victories, and the AKP’s former record of high economic growth, supported by a repressive political environment, will benefit Erdogan and his party. Despite AKP denials, the opposition is probably correct that bringing these elections forward is Erdogan’s attempt to leverage government’s popularity before the economic crisis worsens. The opposition alliances hope that economic challenges, coupled with state repression, will help them prevent the AKP attaining a parliamentary majority. However, many opposition parties will struggle to reach the required ten per cent threshold, and divisions within the opposition, reflecting the polarised Turkish society, will weigh against them, and Turkey’s new presidential system will likely be ushered in with the ruling party winning the presidency and increasing its parliamentary majority.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The evening of Friday, 15 July, saw one of the most severe attacks on Turkey’s democracy since 1997, as a small faction of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) attempted to wrestle control of the state. With more than 200 people killed and 1 500 wounded, a state of emergency was declared days later for a period of three months. As the government began its clampdown against those it accuses of being participants in or complicit with the coup attempt, questions have already been raised about the nature of the democratic process in Turkey, the clampdown by the state, and the stability of the strategically important Eurasian country in an already politically volatile region. Much of this discussion is spiced with a range of conspiracy theories.
How the coup attempt unfolded
The coup operation began around 19:30 Turkish time, and was initially met with shock as many citizens assumed the military presence suggested an imminent terrorist threat; the terrorist attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport two weeks earlier was still fresh in Turkish minds. But as tanks rolled onto two Bosphorus bridges in Istanbul, and social media showed military planes flying low over Istanbul and Ankara, it was clear something was awry. A short while later Prime Minister Binali Yildirim confirmed that Turkey was under threat of a coup d'état. The coup plotters did not, however, expect a strong civilian opposition to tanks, attack helicopters and armoured vehicles. After President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s public call on citizens to oppose the military action by those he claimed were members of the movement of US-based Turkish businessperson and preacher Fethullah Gulen, Istanbul and Ankara streets became sites of determined civilian resistance.
The coup plot seemed to have been organised well in advance, and was supported by a significant number of senior officers of the TSK’s air, navy and ground forces. Importantly, the chief of staff, and the heads of the airforce, naval and ground troops refused to cooperate with the plotters, resulting in the breakdown of communication within the army. Had the heads of these strategic arms of the army cooperated, a substantially different picture might have emerged. The putschists incorrectly assumed that they would receive the support of a significant part of the armed forces.
The execution of the plot seemed to have been accelerated by about six hours because of security warnings issued by the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) to senior TSK commanders that afternoon. The operation was planned to begin in the early hours of Saturday morning. The confusion resulting from the change of plan helped make the coup a failure. Another failure followed the disorientation of conscript soldiers who faced public resistance, and who were unaware of the intentions of the putschists, having been told they would be performing an anti-terror exercise. The plotters’ strategy was severely weakened by the fact that they failed to shut down satellite communications, and media was was able to broadcast messages from the prime minister. Further, they seem to have been blindsided by the calls from minarets around the country for civilians to oppose the coup. The Turkish media played a major role in encouraging resistance to the coup, and, in a rare show of unity, media outlets from across the political spectrum declared the coup illegal and a threat to Turkey’s democracy. (In contrast, some western and Arab media such as CNBC and Al Ahram falsely reported Friday night that Erdogan had fled, and sought asylum in Germany.)
Whose coup is it anyway?
From the first announcement about the unfolding coup by Erdogan, Yildirim and other government sources linked the operation to Gulen and his Hizmet movement. His followers around the world are estimated at between three and six million. US court records estimate his institutions’ worth as being between 20 and 50 billion dollars in the USA alone. Some figures put the total global assets as 150 billion dollars. Some opposition groups, notably the fiercely secular Hurriyet newspaper and the opposition Republican Party (CHP) – both extremely critical of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – also pointed fingers at Hizmet. Hurriyet’s Ahmet Hakan, one of the loudest critics of the AKP and Erdogan, also dismissed the theory posited in western media that the president had planned the coup to strengthen his grip over the state. A number of other theories also allege conspiracies, with some accusing the USA, including the claim that the CIA had plotted with Gulen; and others adding that the MIT had been pre-emptively informed of the coup by the Russians as part of their attempt to strengthen relations with Turkey. These theories were spurred on by the fact that western politicians waited for the coup to fail before condemning it, and that the aircraft involved in the coup took off from Incirlik military airbase where the US airforce fighting the Islamic State group (IS) is based.
The timing of the coup attempt is likely linked to the fact that the government already had plans to shake up the top ranks of the army before the end of 2016, with a number of officers, it is suspected, being dismissed, retired or tried. In addition, the annual meeting of the Supreme Council of Ministers, which is tasked with the appointment of military personnel, is to take place in August 2016, and Gulenists expected that meeting to result in a purge of their members in the army. An MIT list of alleged Gulen ‘infiltrators’ was to be used at the meeting, and it is likely that a number of the putschists’ names were on that list. The July coup would, then, have been their last opportunity to protect their positions and oppose Erdogan and the government. Many of the coup plotters, government sources claim, had graduated from Hizmet schools.
The Gulen-AKP alliance and split
The Gulen movement – now outlawed in Turkey as a terrorist organisation – has a long history in Turkish politics dating back to the early 1970s when Gulen's exceptional oratory skills made him a popular preacher, and his network of schools was started. Gulen’s views on the need to mainstream Islam within the major organs of the state in the 1980s, when the Turkish state was a secular fundamentalist state ruled by an anti-religious military junta, gained it favour with Islamists such as those from Necmettin Erbakan’s MilliGorus (Felicity) Islamic Party. Erdogan, a former student of Erbakan, became the mayor of Istanbul in 1996 on a MiliGorus ticket. Although Erbakan remained sceptical of Gulen’s ideology, the AKP, a MiliGorus breakaway that won national elections in 2002, perceived Gulen as an ally against a hostile state that positioned the military as the guardian of the republic.
Erdogan saw Gulen as politically significant precisely because Hizmet, although never openly contesting for space on the Turkish political stage in its forty-year history, was regarded as apolitical. This perception allowed the preacher to cross the boundaries between politics, religion, power and influence. A core arm of Hizmet is its huge school network which includes around 930 schools in Turkey – many catering to the upper echelons of Turkish society, and whose graduates have occupied significant positions in the state apparatus since the mid-1980s, as well as about 2 000 schools in 160 other countries around the world, including South Africa. These cater for a total of around 1.2 million students.
There is little doubt that Gulen wields significant influence, and that millions of dollars flow through his global education network and associated business, media and other organisations. The ease with which Gulen schools operate around the world, employing hundreds of teachers, enrolling thousands of students, and with strong government and civil society contacts, has resulted in allegations that its activities are convenient for intelligence gathering and exercising political influence. Unlike various Middle East Islamist parties which have usually been met with sanctions, Hizmet has become an influential lobby in the USA. It cultivates the image of a ‘moderate’ Muslim group led by a ‘moderate’ Muslim personality who focuses on what Hizmet calls ‘cultural Islam’ – as opposed to ‘political Islam’ . This brand of Islam made Gulen popular in the West, particularly in post-9/11 USA where Gulen became a significant voice in the US ‘war against terror’.
The Gulenist emphasis on interfaith dialogue and its relaxed attitude in some circumstances on issues like alcohol attracted the attention of states that view Erdogan and the AKP as more extreme. As important for his critics is the fact that Gulen never criticised Israeli policies or US foreign policy in the Middle East – even when this seemed detrimental to Turkish interests. Gulen was scathing in his criticism of the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ that attempted to ferry aid to the besieged Palestinian territory of Gaza. In contrast to global condemnation of the murder of nine (Turkish) civilians on board the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the 2010 Freedom Flotilla, by Israeli security forces, Gulen blamed flotilla organisers because they did not obtain Israeli permission. He also said those in the flotilla knew that they had put their lives at risk, suggesting they deserved the treatment they received from the Israelis.
The AKP’s first decade in power helped strengthen Gulen’s power base in Turkey. The AKP-Hizmet alliance proved useful for both parties – even after Gulen criticised Erdogan for the Mavi Marmara debacle – until 2012 when MIT head Hakan Fidan was arrested. Fidan was leading secret peace talks with the leader of the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. The arrest was seen by the government as an attempt at sabotage by Gulenists within the judiciary who were loathe to see reconciliation between the Kurdish rebel group and the state. In response, the government sponsored a bill which, after it was passed in 2014, threatened closure of Hizmet’s chain of preparatory schools in Turkey. This was followed by corruption allegations against AKP politicians, leading to the arrests of top AKP officials, and a number of resignations and dismissals of officials. The AKP alleged this was a campaign by Gulenists in the judiciary who were part of what the AKP began calling a ‘parallel state’. Relations between the former allies descended into distrust and acrimony, with tit-for-tat actions that included banning of pro-Gulen media and judicial attacks against AKP members.
Aftermath and impact
The most obvious result of 15 July was the mass arrests that include people from the military, police, judiciary and the education sector. The coup attempt provided the AKP government an opportunity to crush Hizmet and get rid of its members in state structures, and also to clamp down on other dissenting voices. Around 10 000 people have been detained, with around 9 000 of those being soldiers, and there have been allegations that some detainees are being tortured. In addition, around 40 000 military officials, police officers, judges, governors, teachers and academics have been suspended or dismissed.
While most Turkish opposition parties have expressed support of the government’s security efforts after the defeat of the coup attempt, various western governments have been vocal in their criticism of the mass arrests and clampdown in Turkey. In particular, European and US spokespersons have repeatedly insisted that Turkey must deal with the coup within the ‘rule of law’ – even before the arrests had begun.
This places Turkey on a collision course with the USA. Although a formal extradition request for Gulen has not yet been submitted to the USA, various Turkish officials – including Erdogan – have emphasised that it will be. US officials, including secretary of state John Kerry, have responded by insisting that such a request will only be considered if sufficient evidence is provided that Gulen is guilty as claimed. Relations between Turkey and the USA – fellow NATO members and ostensible allies – have been rocky for the past few years. Despite the US use of Turkey’s Incirlik airforce base to launch attacks against IS, the relationship is fraught. An extradition demand, together with the warming of relations with Russia, will likely make US-Turkish relations even more tenuous.
Turkey’s relations with the European Union and various EU member states are also likely to sour. Erdogan’s ignoring of European demands regarding the mass arrests are set to be significantly readjusted. Anti-EU sentiment has risen in Turkey, reflected in the opinion columns of newspapers. This is a result of what many in Turkey see as the hypocritical stance by the EU that was reflected in its slow reaction to the attempted coup, and threats that Turkey might will disqualify itself for EU accession should it reinstate the death penalty will help ensure that Turkey becomes even more distant from the possibility of EU membership. However, the manner in which . Turkish officials believe that if their country had not been able to join the EU after fifty-three years, it is unlikely to succeed now. EU accession has been used as a carrot by the bloc and its members, they believe, to garner Turkish support in the Middle East with little benefit to Turkey. Turkey, meanwhile, has been a benefactor for NATO states. With Turkey’s interest in the EU waning, the country seems more concerned in rebuilding relations with its neighbours.
Relations with Russia are set to improve. The coup attempt came three weeks after Turkey began a rapprochement with Russia, following a break in relations after Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet. Turkish-Russian relations have been tested by Russia’s airstrikes on the Turkmen region of Bayirbucak in Northern Syria. However, the soldiers responsible for downing the Russian jet have been arrested on suspicion of being part of the coup network. Some Russian officials suggest that their government has accepted the Turkish version that the Russian jet was shot down as part of a Gulen plot. Russia having been one of the first governments to condemn the coup, and with Erdogan and Russian president, Vladimir Putin, set to meet in weeks, Turkey will seek to advance its political and economic relationship with Russia. Turkey’s suggestion that it will improve relations with Syria will likely be taken forward – with Russian help. And relations with Iran – with whom there is already booming trade – will also likely improve.
A key question relates to the seeming intelligence failure that allowed the plot to proceed as far as it did. Erdogan’s irritation at the lack of intelligence has been plain. Fidan’s role as MIT head will likely be reviewed, with questions already raised about why, if Fidan’s office had information about the plot, it was not timeously directed to the presidency.
The instability in the intelligence sector and armed forces will definitely impact upon Turkey’s war on the PKK, with the Kurdish group being handed an opportunity as a large number of senior officers are removed from the army. As the instability is exploited by Turkey’s southern nemesis, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Asad, matters will be further complicated for Turkey by the PKK’s links to the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD). Syria has, previously, successfully used Kurdish grievances against the Turkish state.
Domestically, the AKP will use the fallout from the attempted coup to its advantage. With Erdogan riding a wave as a saviour of Turkish democracy, it is possible that at the end of the state of emergency there will be either a snap election or a constitutional referendum on the question of a presidential system, which Erdogan could not have won before the coup attempt but which could now turn out favourably for him. Already there are indications that most opposition parties will support constitutional amendments, although it is unclear what precise amendments they are referring to.
There is no doubt that after the dust has settled in the squares and the sense of unity that is generally being felt across the country in response to the coup becomes less tangible, Turkey will be faced with greater challenges than the overt violence of a week ago. The Turkish state is fragile, and state institutions could either be stabilised or could further weaken as a result of the current purges. Should the Gulen movement be legally charged with subversion, its networks in Turkey and globally could be seriously affected. This could have implications for Turkey’s foreign relations, especially its policy towards countries that maintain links with the Hizmet movement, and, in particular, with the USA where Gulen resides. Turkey’s view of and its role within NATO could also be considered more carefully, given that no assistance was given to a member whose institutions were being attacked from the air by hostile forces. Whether Turkey will be able to weather the storm in the long term will depend on the willingness of all political forces to cooperate in the best interests of the broader society, and whether the government considers the rights of its citizens as important as it does the security of the state. Of course, as long as the legitimate grievances of its Kurdish population are not addressed, the Turkish state will remain in a state of uncertainty and instability. It also remains to be seen whether Turkey decides to reprioritise its domestic and regional imperatives over those of its global alliances.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The outcome of Turkey’s 1 November snap election was an unexpected surge in support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) which will comfortably dominate parliament with 49 per cent of the vote (up from 41 per cent in the June election) and 57 per cent of parliamentary seats. This is in stark contrast to the results of the June election that had produced a hung parliament and led to five months of political and economic instability. This latest outcome sets a different scene for the country’s future social, political and economic agendas as the AKP takes 317 of the 550 parliamentary seats.
With large numbers of refugees arriving in Turkey daily, the Syrian crisis certainly influenced the the socio-economic environment and the election, but there is little doubt that the resumption of violence between the state and the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) was extremely crucial in how votes would be cast. While opposition media, particularly those aligned to the Gulen/Hizmet movement, portray the outcome as a personal victory for the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the results highlight the collective weakness of the three main opposition parties, underlined by the spectacular losses suffered by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – which shed 40 parliamentary seats – and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – with a decrease of 21 seats. Both parties could have been king-makers in a coalition government after June but, like the AKP, they gambled on securing more seats in the second election. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) maintained its position, losing only two seats.
The AKP’s revival as majority party with four million votes more votes than in June can be attributed mainly to a popular desire for ‘stability’ which, many voters believed, can be delivered only by the ruling party. Further, the Kurdish issue and related violence loomed large, and coalition governments in Turkey have historically failed to help in resolving the Kurdish question. Turks became instinctively distrustful of coalition governments after the turbulent 1990s when frequent military interventions into politics became the norm. This week’s outcome can, thus, also be read as an attempt by voters to prevent a situation where Turkey can only be governed by a coalition. Five months ago analysts and exit polls predicted the AKP’s decline as a result of internal and external pressures, particularly because of contestation between the party and its former ally, the Fethullah Gulen movement. The Gulenists’ withdrawing support from the AKP in June strongly influenced the party’s poor showing.
In five months the HDP, which celebrated in June for the 13 per cent of the vote it had received, lost three per cent, while its leadership aimed for 20 per cent. To voters for whom stability was a priority – especially conservative Kurdish voters, the HDP’s unwillingness to distance itself from and condemn the PKK was a major factor for its losses. Votes that the HDP received in June from those who viewed a strong HDP as a check on the AKP’s exercise of power, especially in light of corruption allegations against AKP officials, now switched to the AKP. Some observers suggest that the shock decline in AKP votes in June was a result of punitive voting because of a stagnant economy and rising instability brought on by the Syrian crisis. And nationalists wanted to punish the AKP for its seemingly-dovish approach to the PKK. Images of armed PKK members at check points in Kurdish areas such as Cizre stirred anti-AKP sentiment even within its traditional support base.
But the return of violence on a daily basis – with bombings in Turkey’s major cities, and the Turkish army at war with both the PKK and Islamic State group and with deaths on both sides of the state-Kurdish conflict – turned a large number of voters away from the HDP back to the AKP. Most HDP votes this week came from Turkey’s east, suggesting that Kurds in other areas switched their votes back to the AKP. The ruling party seems to be considered by many as a safe bet during tumultuous times. Some critics argue that the AKP manufactured ‘instability’ in the past five months in order to return precisely the result that this election did, that while the government has not been responsible for all the violence, it created the conditions for it and helped paint the PKK (and politicised Kurds more generally) as Turkey’s enemy – in order to win back the parliament.
If this criticism is correct, it is possible the AKP might consider reviving talks with the PKK now that it is again politically secure. Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, will likely face increased pressure from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), which will want him to support a political solution to the conflict. If he is unwilling or unable to do so, the assumption would be that the PKK strategic leadership centre had shifted to the commanders in the Qandil Mountains, and that Ocalan had become irrelevant.
HDP leaders will face similar pressures. To continue to be recognised as the political voice of Turkish Kurds (at least by the state), they will be expected to distance themselves from the PKK. It will also have to consider how it might strengthen its appeal both to Kurds and to Turkish leftists who supported it in June, but might have deserted it in November. As with all parties, the HDP’s survival partly depends on the Turkish economy. This will be a critical factor for the HDP which won most seats through votes obtained in the east where the economy has been particularly hard hit as a result of the government-PKK battles. To complicate matters further for the HDP, it will have to navigate its ‘debt’ to the Gulen movement whose members voted for the HDP as a way of blocking the AKP and opposing Erdogan.
But with the Kurdish question again becoming the most pressing domestic issue – especially with the renewed war between the state and the PKK, the government will want a strong Kurdish political partner that can be an interlocutor with the PKK and encourage it back to the negotiations table. The AKP will likely see the HDP as such a partner and will want to change that adversarial relationship into one of cooperation.
Paradoxically, the AKP also retained votes from supporters who had been critical of the party’s negotiations with the PKK, but who did not shift their votes to the hardline Turkish nationalist MHP; and it won the votes of MHP nationalists who were encouraged by the government’s recent (deadly) confrontations with the PKK. The MHP’s identity-based policies are viewed by many as incapable of dealing with the new reality, including that of Kurdish parliamentarians, and is losing even leaders because of this. The AKP, then, succeeded in winning the votes of both conservative Kurds (from the HDP), and nationalist Turks (from the MHP) – even though that seems counter-intuitive.
Another factor contributing to the AKP’s success was the revision of its candidate lists since the June election. Many well-known leaders who had reached their three-term limit were unable to stand in June, but, having ‘missed’ an election, became eligible again. In a period of uncertainty the electorate seems to have taken comfort in personalities from the past who are tried and trusted.
While in most elections a weak economy results in the incumbent ruling party losing support, in Turkey it has meant that voters supported the incumbent because they believed it could rescue the economy – as it did over a decade ago.
While the Syrian war is ever-present for all Turks – especially since Turkey hosts two million Syrian refugees who have been partly blamed for the country’s economic woes – it and other foreign policy issues were less important in this election than the PKK issue.
With the question of parliament’s make-up settled for another term, there have been two broad perspectives on a future under the AKP. The optimistic view is that the government, with a secure majority, will be able to deal with the economic, foreign policy and Kurdish issues. The other is that the vote was unfair because of repression, and that the AKP will become more authoritarian, further restrict free expression and increase polarisation.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s prime minister and AKP’s chief, acknowledged in his victory speech that polarisation was a problem, and he pledged to form a government that will embrace all Turks. Will he seriously address the problem? Will he reflect that pledge in a new cabinet that includes members of other parties? For many critics of the AKP, the big concern is what they see as Erdogan’s authoritarian tendency and his desire to change Turkey’s political system into a presidential one. Whether this desire or Davutoglu’s pledge will trump will have long-term implications for Turkey.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
On Tuesday, 1 June 2010, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a ferocious speech in Turkey's parliament, condemning Israel for its attack on a flotilla of aid ships bound for Gaza, early on Monday 31 May 2010. Between 9 and 16 activists and aid workers - mostly Turkish - were killed in the raid in an act that has seen widespread international criticism for Israel's excessive use of force. South Africa's Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) added its voice to a chorus of international condemnation for the acts leading to the deaths of civilians, issuing a demarche to the Israeli ambassador in South Africa.
Erdogan called Israel's raid on the ships carrying civilians and humanitarian aid "a bloody massacre which deserved every kind of curse". Speaking at a parliamentary group meeting of his Justice & Development (AK) Party, Erdogan said the "predawn attack in the Mediterranean Sea was one of the heaviest blows on the conscience of the humanity." The ship that bore the brunt of the Israeli attack, and on which the killings took place, was flying a Turkish flag and belonged to a Turkish relief organisation.
"Aid ships were intercepted by force and brutality. The ships loaded with mercy and affection were prevented from reaching their destination. Israeli armed forces illegally attacked the flotilla carrying 600 people from 32 countries and humanitarian aid to Gazan people, and killed innocent people," he said. Erdogan harshly condemned the "inhuman attack on ships carrying civilians including women, children and religious officials from different faiths" emphasising that the raid amounted to an "attack is on international law, the conscience of humanity and world peace".
"The ships declared their cargo and their intention to the whole world before setting sail to Gaza. 60 journalists from Turkey and the other countries were also on board the ships to witness the campaign. It is evident that this attack on 600 people and 6 ships carrying aid to poor Palestinian people who were left destitute, is on the basic philosophy of the United Nations. The ships were loaded with humanitarian aid and they were strictly controlled under the international traffic rules. They were carrying volunteers. But they were subject to such an armed attack," he said.
"We refused Israel's offer to send the injured passengers. We have the will and power to take our own injured people. Two military ambulances left to bring back the injured passengers. Civilians planes of the Ministry of Health are about to arrive there," he said.
Erdogan emphasised the severity of the raid, within the context of global discontent towards Israel, saying, "Israel must inform the world public opinion correctly. It should not refrain from international cooperation. Israel should acknowledge the importance of the situation and correct its mistake."
"No one should test Turkey's patience," he added. "Turkey's hostility is as strong as its friendship is valuable." Turkey has, for decades, been an ally of Israel, cooperating with the latter even on military matters.
Erdogan urged Israelis to question the actions of their government.
"It is damaging your country's image by conducting banditry and piracy," Erdogan said. "It is damaging the interests of Israel and your peace and safety. It is the Israeli people who must stop the Israeli government."
He said that "staging an armed attack on aid ships, killing innocent people and treating civilians as if they were terrorists are nothing but degradation of humanity and vile recklessness. This insolent, irresponsible, reckless and unfair attack by the Israeli government which trampled on every kind of human value must be punished by all means."
The prime minister also called on Israel immediately to end its blockade of Gaza.
Erdogan will meet Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug and ministers who are the members of the National Security Council (MGK) from Tuesday to Wednesday this week, to discuss the Israeli attack on the aid convoy, Anadolu news agency said.
Earlier on Tuesday Erdogan said, "I wish our final decisions will be good for everyone." Turkish media now questions what "final decisions" may be. Will Turkey and Israel sever ties over the flotilla raid?
The flotilla incident is undoubtedly the most serious rift in Turkish-Israeli relations since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, mostly because all states covet the safety of their nationals. For example, the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, in which US diplomatic staff were kidnapped in Tehran, led to the severing of US-Iran ties. The flotilla incident is no less serious because unarmed civilians have been killed by foreign military personnel in international waters. And Israel and Turkey already have strained relations. Earlier this year, a Turkish diplomat was humiliated in a meeting with his Israeli counterpart - the so-called 'sofagate' incident - leading to a diplomatic row between the two countries. Turkey is also likely to get much international support for its condemnation of Israel, as many countries are growing tired of the latter's continued provocative behaviour in the international arena. Israel is assumed to be behind the January assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al Mabhouh - an activity which involved the illegal use of multiple foreign passports. That incident led to the expulsion of Israeli diplomats from Australia and the UK. Additionally, US Vice-President Joe Biden's attempts to re-launch the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were snubbed by Israel earlier this year.
Ironically, then, it is the US that has come to Israel's aid, in the midst of the flotilla row. The US has refused to call for an independent (UN) investigation into the flotilla raid, saying that an internal Israeli investigation would suffice. Turkey will be unhappy if it cannot convince the US, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to appoint a UN investigation into the flotilla raid. Israel, on the other hand, will be relieved if it can avoid international legal scrutiny over the raid. Further undermining Turkey's ability to put pressure on Israel is a $185 million deal for the delivery of 10 Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) from Israel to Turkey, which the Turkish military says will still go ahead.
Whether or not ties are severed between Israel and Turkey, in the coming weeks the latter will try to lobby members of the UN Security Council to pressurise Israel, probably calling for an end to its blockade of Gaza, compliance with UN resolutions over its occupation of the West Bank and an independent investigation into the flotilla deaths. What is certain is that Israel will do its own lobbying to try and clear its name. Already Israel has delayed the release of many of the flotilla activists (thereby preventing many of them media access) in an attempt to manage its public relations campaign. Israel will present its case, show footage to prove that activists attacked its commandos, but all that will have little effect on the end result. The world will judge the flotilla incident as an excessive use of naval force with no clear justification.