Turkey on Fire

Is President Erdogan behaving more like Bashar al-Assad?

Two years ago a former supporter, the Lebanese editor Jihad al-Zein, wrote: “Erdogan’s behavior has seemed closer to that of an old-style Arab military ruler,” and who can disagree?

The Turkish election results in June were a major setback for the ruling AK (Justice and Development) Party and even more so for President Erdogan, who had reckoned that his party would be returned with an overwhelming majority, which would make it possible to change the constitution and give him full executive power.

Instead of 400 seats in Turkey’s 550-seat parliament, which Erdogan had called for, the AKP ended up with 258, less than its previous 312 and not enough to govern alone. The fly in the ointment, and a big fly at that, was the Kurdish-based HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), which broke through the electoral barrier and ‘stole’ 80 of the AKP’s seats. Every obstacle was put in the HDP’s way – there were over 120 attacks on party offices, members and vehicles before the election and two bombs exploded at an HDP rally in Diyarbakir, the capital of Turkey’s southeast, where the party’s co-chair Selahattin Demirtas could have been killed.

There was worse to come. President Erdogan, who until August last year was prime minister, had reckoned on support from the Kurdish ‘ummah’ (fellow Muslims) after his government had secured cultural and linguistic rights for Turkey’s Kurds, which, however, fell short of their demands for regional autonomy. Nevertheless, at the end of February a ten-point plan was agreed on by the AKP government and the HDP, which would have paved the way for a settlement of the conflict.

Therefore, it must have taken Erdogan aback when the HDP’s co-chair in March declared the party would not support the President’s plans for a constitutional change. In return, Erdogan turned his back on the peace process and called the HDP an extension of the banned PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party).

After the election, Demirtas warned that steps would be taken to destabilize south-eastern Turkey, and this is precisely what has happened. The turning point was a suicide bomb in the Kurdish border town of Suruc on July 20, killing 33 activists planning to help rebuild Kobane across the border. The AKP government claimed ISIL was behind the bombing, but it was seen by the PKK as yet another provocation.

Two days later the PKK claimed responsibility for the murder of two police officers in revenge. The following day Erdogan allowed the US to use Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey for attacks on ISIL, and the day after Turkey launched air strikes against PKK bases in Iraq together with three symbolic strikes against ISIL on the other side of the Syrian border.

Turkey’s attacks on the PKK’s bases have intensified and there are almost daily reports of clashes between security forces and the PKK. In the meantime, the casualty lists mount, and so far more than 130 security personnel as well as around 1,000 PKK militants are estimated to have been killed. The Kurdish town of Cizre, which earlier declared autonomy, was placed under curfew for eight days and 22 civilians are believed to have been killed.

There have been outbursts of rage against the AKP government at military funerals, and the Turkish weekly Nokta on its front page published a mock-up of a grinning Erdogan taking a selfie with a soldier’s coffin in the background. The managing editor was arrested and charged with insulting the president and the issue has been banned.

Attempts to form a coalition government have predictably collapsed and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is generally regarded as Erdogan’s stooge, is now leading an interim government before new elections are held on November 1. Every effort is being made to undermine the HDP, so that it fails to pass the electoral threshold, making it possible for Erdogan’s AKP to regain power.

More than 130 attacks have been made on the HDP’s offices by nationalist mobs and a number of their offices were set on fire. There are also reports that some of the attacks purported to have been carried out by the ultranationalist Grey Wolves might in fact have been carried out by AKP supporters masquerading as Grey Wolves.

There is also a concerted attempt to silence what is left of Turkey’s free press ahead of the new elections. Police have raided the offices of the Ipek Media Group and a mob incited by an AKP deputy and leader of the party’s youth branch attacked the offices of Hürriyet, a leading secular daily.

The Turkish economy is now in the doldrums, so it will be interesting to hear what President Erdogan has to say when he addresses the G20 summit hosted by Turkey in the coastal resort of Antalya in mid-November.

Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.