Turkey: Erdogan’s ruthless bid to retain power risks return to dark days

Turkish police repress protests against Erdogan's renewed war.

The outcome of Turkey’s June 7 parliamentary elections promised so much.

The left-wing Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) resoundingly broke the undemocratic electoral threshold of 10% of the vote to secure parliamentary representation. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recip Tayipp Erdogan also suffered a sharp rebuff, losing its majority and the ability to rule on its own.

Many people hoped the country would turn away from the widespread corruption and authoritarianism that had marked AKP rule. They hoped that the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which had waged a decades-long armed struggle for Kurdish liberation, would be revived and Turkey’s support for Islamist forces in Syria would end.

Just two months later, such hopes lie in ruins. Instead, the spectre of a return to the dark days of the bloody, decades-long civil war against the Kurds now hangs over Turkey.

The military is now conducting offensive operations against PKK forces in Turkey and northern Iraq. The recent agreement with Washington supposedly for action against ISIS in Syria actually enables the opposite. The only war Turkey has shown any willingness to fight is against the Kurdish forces who have proven the most successful anti-ISIS resistance.

Threat to power

How did all this come about? Erdogan and the AKP have been in power for 13 years. Despite many people’s hopes in its early years, AKP rule has been increasingly marked by cronyism, corruption, a war on dissent and attempts to destroy the independence of the legal system and various regulatory bodies.

Last August, then-prime minister Erdogan became the country’s first popularly elected president. This was to be the first step in his plan to create a dictatorial presidency. The second was for the AKP to win a two-thirds majority in the June 7 elections, enabling it to amend the constitution through parliament.

The HDP’s unprecedented success, based on uniting left and progressive forces behind its campaign, frustrated his scheme. A majority of voters opposed his plan for an enhanced presidency.

The election result means that no party can govern on its own. Only a coalition or a minority government is possible.

But losing power, or even having to share it, is a mortal threat to the AKP and, especially, to Erdogan. He is desperate for the AKP to remain in office with a clear parliamentary majority. The president does not want the AKP to be forced to take on a coalition partner or to be a minority government reliant on external support for its survival.

Unless his party can regain a parliamentary majority, Erdogan will remain marooned in the presidency, without the powers that he wants. The president is meant to be an impartial figure above party politics, which means that everything Erdogan does is a clear abuse of his constitutional role.

Very serious corruption allegations continue to hover around Erdogan and the AKP. If the AKP is not in total control, Erdogan and his partners in crime are at risk of prosecution and jail.

A major corruption scandal erupted in December 2013. It involved cabinet ministers, senior state officials and businesspeople. Tapes of phone conversations made at this time were later leaked.

These revealed Erdogan instructing his son Bilal to dispose of huge sums of money — tens of millions of dollars — stashed in various relatives' houses for fear of raids by prosecutors.

Erdogan's response was to label the whole thing a conspiracy to topple the government by his former allies, the Islamic Hizmet movement of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.

He launched a crackdown on supposed Gulen supporters, targeting thousands of police, prosecutors and judges across the country. In January, the AKP-dominated parliament voted not to lift the immunity of four ex-ministers implicated in the scandal.

Fresh revelations have been made relating to this scandal, no doubt focusing Erdogan’s mind on keeping the AKP in office.

Ironically, Erdogan has called for the parliamentary immunity of HDP leaders to be lifted. He wants to prosecute them on trumped-up charges of “treason”. The HDP responded by calling for the immunity of all 550 MPs to be lifted and has initiated petitions for the immunity of all its own 80 MPs to be lifted.

Erdogan’s plan

Erdogan’s survival plan is utterly ruthless. It has a number of related elements:

● Drag out the discussions on forming a coalition. If there is no result by August 23, Erdogan can legally call fresh elections. He aims to create the conditions whereby the AKP can undo its June 7 setback.

● Scrap the peace process with the Kurds. Manufacture a war “crisis” around the PKK and the gains of the popular forces in Rojava, the Kurdish-majority liberated zone in northern Syria.

● Attack the PKK forces so strongly that they are forced to respond militarily. Then use the pro-government media to present them as an existential terrorist threat. Erdogan wants blood to be shed. The July 20 ISIS suicide bombing in Suruc, for which there is evidence of government complicity, and the air strikes against the PKK and Kurdish civilians, show he is determined to make it happen.

● Hold PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan — jailed since 1999 — completely incommunicado so that he cannot use his immense authority to urge his supporters to hold back.

● Smear the HDP by association. It has long been a theme of right-wing nationalist propaganda that the HDP is just a sock puppet of the PKK. The AKP will ramp this up to the limit.

● Go after the HDP’s leaders, especially the popular, youthful and dynamic Selahattin Demirtas and his co-chair Figen Yuksekdag. Both are being threatened with jail on trumped-up “treason” charges.

Erdogan hopes that the smear campaign against the HDP bites and, with its top leaders removed, the HDP’s vote will fall below the 10% threshold. Under Turkey’s undemocratic electoral laws this would mean its seats would be allocated elsewhere — mainly to the AKP.

Also, in an election held under emergency terror scare conditions, the AKP might win seats from the secular far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Through such a campaign, Erdogan hopes the AKP can regain its parliamentary majority and possibly even gain the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution.

Regardless of whether this gamble goes as Erdogan wants, Turkey may be set back decades — its economy ravaged, hatred and violence unleashed, Islamist and far-right forces strengthened and the large Kurdish minority further marginalised and oppressed.

Ocalan’s message

In his prison writings, Ocalan stresses that the only realistic road to Kurdish liberation in Turkey today is not through armed struggle for an independent state, but through political struggle for real autonomy and democratisation of all Turkey.

In his 2013 Newroz (Kurdish New Year) greetings, he said: “The period of armed struggle is ending, and the door is opening to democratic politics … I say a new era is beginning; an era where politics gain prominence over weapons.

“We have now arrived at the stage of withdrawing our armed forces outside the borders … This is not an end, but a new beginning. This is not abandoning the struggle — we are initiating a different struggle.”

In a new period where demonisation of the PKK will almost certainly rise — including in the West — it is important to remember that the PKK leadership fully committed itself to the peace process.

In a revealing interview with the July 28 Hürriyet Daily News, Demirtas explains in detail how Erdogan deliberately torpedoed the peace negotiations early this year just as they were about to take major steps forward. The HDP co-chair said this was because polls showed a sharp growth of support for the HDP and a drop in support for the AKP.

The June 7 elections showed the Turkish people’s strong desire for change. Even many AKP voters shared this feeling. But for Erdogan and his party, the election results were an unfortunate aberration that they are plotting to undo and are evidently willing to countenance any crime in the process.

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