Turkey’s Erdogan fights for his throne by battling Kurds – but will voters buy it?

August 23, 2015
Members of YDG-H, youth wing of outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, sit next to their weapons in Silvan, near the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey

Masked members of YDG-H, youth wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), sit next to their weapons in Silvan, near the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, August 17, 2015. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar

ISTANBUL – If democracy is the art of compromise, then Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no democrat. And if democracy means listening to the electorate and respecting the spirit of parliamentary procedure — then he fails on these criteria as well. 

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) that Erdogan led as prime minister lost its 12-year-old majority at elections on June 7. Instead of using his above-party position to help forge a coalition, the Turkish president was determined to see negotiations fail. Yet no opinion poll suggests that the Turkish electorate will oblige by correcting their “mistake” at a snap election this November.

The result is that an avalanche of uncertainty is gaining dangerous momentum. This threatens to play havoc with Turkey’s immediate future and with an already unstable region where Ankara should be playing a leadership role. Not so long ago the country promised to bring peace to its neighbors as an example of good governance and growing prosperity. While no rogue state, Turkey is now in danger of losing its way.

The most worrying indication of this is the resumption of a civil war through attrition in the largely Kurdish southeast of the country. Large tracts of that part of the country are under a form of martial law, with some areas subject to curfew. The interim Turkish government has shredded the peace process it so carefully cultivated in previous years, sending bombing sorties against encampments of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) even on the Iraqi side of the border.

The raids were said to be in response to the murder of two police officers late July that were claimed by the PKK. These in turn were said to be reprisals for the bombing of a Kurdish youth center near the Syrian border in which 33 people died. Though that incident was attributed to Islamic State, many of Turkey’s Kurds believe that the government quietly supported the Islamic militants — both to support the enemy of their enemy, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, but also to weaken Syrian Kurds allied to the PKK that Ankara does not want to see in control of its long southern border.

The result has been an escalation of attacks — including the Aug. 10 bomb attack on a police station in a suburb of Istanbul. Turkey is reliving the 1990s when the front pages, day after day, were of soldiers’ funerals. Yet Erdogan has now promised to continue the counteroffensive until “not one terrorist is left.” That’s quite a change for the man who championed the idea that a durable peace with Turkey’s Kurds can only come through negotiation, decentralization of government and the guarantee of minority rights.

The timing of this new Kurdish offensive is particularly disturbing because it follows a general election in which a pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HD Party) scored a notable result. For the first time, such a party comfortably jumped over the 10 percent threshold of votes it needed to qualify for seats in the parliament. What better opportunity to solve once for all Turkey’s Kurdish problem than within parliament’s walls?

However, the HD Party’s modest victory was at the expense of the ruling AK Party’s majority. Some liberal Turks supported it precisely as a means of puncturing Erdogan’s dream of an executive presidency. It is tempting to see the bombing raids in northern Iraq, and the vilification of Selahattin Demirtas (the charismatic young leader of the HD Party) in the pro-government press, as revenge.

Yet Erdogan will not take the voters’ “no” for an answer. “Whether you agree or not, Turkey’s regime has changed, What needs to be done now is to give a legal framework to this de-facto state with a new constitution,” he recently explained — indicating that he still intends to run the show.

Yet it is that very regime change that the electorate rejected and they are likely to do so again if they feel Turkeys’ new troubles were deliberately provoked. The financial markets are skittish. The Turkish lira is at a historic low and unemployment has begun to rise. It is a real possibility that the AK Party’s plurality, 41 percent of the vote, could erode further still.

At the same time, sharing power for many within the AK Party would be anathema. While the party didn’t invent corruption, there is more than enough evidence to suggest that the last they thing they want is a coalition partner who will go over the books of the last decade. They might end up not so much sharing power as seeing their own crumble.

Erdogan argues that his victory in Turkey’s first direct presidential election one year ago gives him the legitimacy he needs, no matter that, constitutionally, Turkey still has a parliamentary system. The president has already built himself a 1,000-room palace, but he wants the constitutional powers to rule from it as he would please.

The real concern is that he is deliberately pointing his country toward chaos to get his way.

All this is frustrating for Turkey’s allies who have finally persuaded Ankara to focus on fighting Islamic State by opening Turkish airbases to allied drones. Instead, the sight that confronts them is a Turkish president fighting for his throne.

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