Domestic Policy Issues in Turkey

Domestic Policy Issues in Turkey

by

Howard Adelman

As we approach the G20 Summit to be held on November 15-16 in southwest Turkey in Antalya, it is important to understand not only the outcome of the Turkish election, but the various foreign policy issues with which Obama and other leaders will have to wrestle. The war in Syria, the threat from IS, especially its control of one-third of Iraq, and other crises in the Middle East, are bound to be high on the agenda. Domestic policy in Turkey also cannot be ignored since police continue to arrest people – 18 IS suspects in Antalya (2 are Russian) – in the lead up to the G20. Moreover, there is an intimate connection between domestic and foreign policy since foreign threats, at the very least, are used to rally support for the President.

Economics

Though Turkey’s economic crisis was the main issue of the June election, Erdoğan almost singlehandedly shifted it entirely aside for the 1 November election. In June, 53% of voters put Turkey’s economic downturn as the number one priority. In September, only 12% insisted that economic problems were Turkey’s foremost issue. This was in spite of the fact that Turkey’s economic performance had not improved one iota since June. This seemed to belie Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s own statement twelve months ago, in anticipation of the Antalya summit and his role as chair, of the inseparability of economics and politics, and the depiction of the G20 as “the premier platform for economic and financial issues.”

The Great Recession in 2008-09 taught us that the solution to global challenges rests in global actions. The rise of the G20 is a manifestation of this spirit. As the major economies of the world, we adopted a more integrated, coordinated and effective approach to the challenges we have been facing. During these difficult times, the G20 has clearly demonstrated its capability as a global crisis resolution forum.

As the OECD Report on Turkey noted at the time, although, “GDP growth is projected to increase from 3% in 2015 to above 4% in 2017, as political uncertainties are assumed to fade, employment continues to rise, and the exchange rate depreciation and the gradual strengthening of global markets support export growth. The geopolitical crisis at the southern border and the associated influx of refugees pose challenges. Currency depreciation until October has strengthened price competitiveness, but has also weakened household confidence, created pressures on corporate balance sheets and added to already high inflation.”

Economic improvements in Turkey were premised on a further decline in the political troubles in the southeast. Those troubles increased as the war with the PKK was resumed. Turkey is now more involved in the military conflict in Syria than ever before. IS now poses an internal domestic threat to Turkey. Employment has not continued to rise. Trade imbalances persist. Inflation rates remain above targets. In this context, currency depreciation that led to weakened household and corporate confidence continued, and the very factors that usurped the focus on the economy of voters exacerbated the economic problems.

Rule of Law

The prosperity of Turkey cannot be separated from the status of the rule of law. As described in my last blog, the government seized the assets of Koza ĺpek Holdings and placed the assets in a trusteeship. While such seizures are sanctioned by law in cases of mental incompetence and in the case of minors, there is no legal sanction in Turkey – or in the rest of the developed world – for the arbitrary seizure of commercial assets without  legal due process. In modern Turkey, even when under a military dictatorship, this seizure of private property was unprecedented. When a company is implicated in criminal activity, Article 133 of the Turkish Criminal Procedures Code is applicable requiring a trial and a definitive judgment before an asset seizure can proceed. There was not even any presentation or even an allegation of intention to commit a crime. There was not even a hint that Koza ĺpek was engaged in narcotics, money laundering, human trafficking, prostitution, embezzlement, or espionage.

Once, the AKP was closely allied with the Gülenists who had been disproportionately represented among judges, prosecutors and the police. Erdoğan now considers them the enemy and he has been systematically purging the criminal justice system of Gülenists, especially ever since prosecutors began pursuing the AKP government for corruption. Ali Babacan, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister with an MBA from Northwestern earned with a Fulbright scholarship, put it very well just before the June elections: “Public trust in the justice system is in steady decline.”

In January of last year, the Turkish police stopped and searched three trucks in southern Turkey traveling towards the Syrian border. The trucks were accompanied by officers from Turkey’s military intelligence. They contained missiles, rockets, mortars, ammunition in crates with Russian Cyrillic markings. Bizarre! But perhaps not for the world of international espionage. What was truly bizarre was the subsequent purging of the police which had stopped the trucks. Those police and four prosecutors were even charged with espionage. The widespread belief was that the arms were intended for IS of all parties. Not so strange since the NYT just before the June election reported that tens of thousands of kilograms of ammonium nitrate fertilizer used for explosives were being transported from Turkey into IS-controlled sections of Syria.

Education

The purges in the criminal justice system and the attacks against the media documented yesterday were complemented by attacks against the universities, especially universities close to the Gülen community, such as ĺpek University in Ankara. University assets have been seized by amending regulations governing the Higher Education Board (YOK). On 2 November, a pro-government journalist listed, as next in line for seizure, Fatih, ĺpek, Zirve, Süleyman Sah, Mevlânâ, Turgut Özal and Istanbul Şehir universities as well as other media outlets – the Zaman daily, Samanyolu TV and Samanyolu Haber TV. YOK was evidently being empowered to close down and seize the assets of any private university if and when the university becomes “the focal point of acts against the state.”

Part of the reason for these seizures, and for the introduction of Arabic language training in Turkish schools from Grade 2 onward announced immediately after the AKP won the 1 November elections, has been the need to supply employment for the increasing numbers of graduates from Islamic universities, virtually the only graduates equipped to teach Arabic other than Syrian refugees. There was also an ideological issue of religion versus secularism in the public realm. Kemel Atatürk, the founder of modern secular Turkey had introduced the Latin alphabet 87 years earlier to the date of the 1 November election, and that change was made part of the Turkish constitution in Article 174.

Minorities and Rights

One of the positive outcomes for education, property as well as minority rights was the final success, after decades, of the Armenian community in Turkey getting back control and ownership of its children’s camp, Camp Armen. The Armenian Evangelical Church of Gedikpaşa was assigned the deed after an interminable court case. Whether this was simply a gesture for Westerners, and particularly Americans, to sell the image of the AKP as a party of tolerance and a protector of rights or not, it was a good first step. The real test will be whether all the other properties seized from Armenians will be returned or whether this restitution was merely a publicity stunt.

However, though non-Muslim minorities have realized this benefit, other Muslim groups have certainly not. The other major group under attack, besides the Gülenists, have been the Kurds. Not just members of the PKK. According to Ferhat Encű, a Kurdish MP for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), after the AKP victory, members of the Turkish gendarmerie went on the warpath against Kurds. “Many people throughout Kurdistan have been arrested wholesale lately. Some of them participated in the election campaigns for our party.” He claimed that the police “started the violence and conflicts… they murdered civilians knowingly and intentionally.” Seyfettin Aydemir, the co-mayor of Silopi, accused the police of firing on ambulances that raced to help the wounded. Young men were gunned down by Turkish snipers. Kurdish towns, such as Cizre, have even been bombed from the air.

The HDP may have made a strategic error in the five months leading up to the 1 November elections by supporting the young Kurds who put up barricades against the police, but those activities in no way justified the systematic military attacks against Kurdish areas in south-eastern Turkey and the widespread abuse of human rights. For many, the unending curfews, arrests of politicians, attacks, torture and murder by Turkish security forces seemed to be an effort to intimidate voters who supported the HDP and signal the instability to follow if the AKP was not returned to power with a majority. After the military attack on Cizre, the 21 dead were all civilians; none were members of the PKK. This number does not include the large numbers who were arrested and tortured. Yet in Cizre, which in June had cast 97% of its votes for the HDP, the government decided for the 1 November elections, out of ostensibly safety concerns, that there would be no ballot boxes provided in the Nur, Cudi and Sur quarters of Cizre district in the province of Şırnak. 65% of Cizre’s Kurdish population lived in those quarters.

Domestic Terrorism

There are three sources of terror in Turkey: the PKK, IS and, the most dangerous and extensive, the state security apparatus. The biggest attack within Turkey, was the bombing of the largely Kurdish-led protest for peace in Ankara on 13 October. It was the largest terrorist attack in the history of the Turkish republic, Turkey’s 9/11. IS was blamed together with the PKK. But the PKK and IS are sworn enemies. Further, why would the PKK attack a mainly Kurdish rally? Why even would IS? And if the latter did, why did it not behave according to its own norms and broadcast its responsibility for the attack? Why, again, were security forces so absent from the demonstration? Why were ambulances impeded from aiding the wounded? Why had Turkey not classified IS as a terrorist organization until the courts ordered it to do so on 15 July?

What does seem clear, and as I tried to document yesterday, is that the huge victory of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) was in good part a result of the resumption of the war on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its alleged threat of terrorism. The AKP won both Kurdish votes and votes from the more right-wing nationalist MHP.

Corruption

In February of last year, one of the most respected international organizations dealing with corruption wrote an important report on Turkey. The Transparency International report indicated that the real catalyst for tackling widespread corruption in Turkey had been the effort of Turkey, beginning in 1999, to acquire full membership in the EU. The Report noted that efforts, both on human rights and in fighting corruption, had improved from the base line. Nevertheless, “the country faces high levels of corruption,” a situation that continues in spite of the adoption of an anti-corruption action plan in 2010 and a series of commitments in June 2012 to cover incrimination and presidential candidate funding. As the Report stated, “the country continues to be confronted with challenges of rampant corruption and existing anti-corruption measures are still in question.” Turkey lacks an overall strategy, coordination in the campaign and a system of transparency and accountability in the political system. Immunity regulations continue to protect high-ranking officials.

Moreover, corruption reaches the highest levels. At the end of 2013, the anti-corruption wolves were at the doors of the Presidential Palace. Erdoğan responded swiftly and decisively, not only by circling the wagons of his supporters, but by launching a counter-attack against his pursuers. 14 high-ranking officials were immediately purged. The judiciary, police forces and prosecutors offices were swept clean of critics and accusers of the government. Thus was the major motive in the general attack against the Gülenists.

One might think that Erdoğan had his hands full with IS now on domestic soil, with his domestic war against the PKK, with the stalled economy, with his efforts to promote Islam in the secular school system, with the increasing revelation of himself at the centre of a large-scale corruption operation, with his rivalry with the Gülenists and with his war against the critical media, that he would avoid any adventurism in foreign policy. In reality, all the domestic problems were interrelated and the distractions of foreign policy were important in diverting attention away from his domestic troubles as we shall see in the next blog.

Turkey’s 1 November 2015 Elections

Turkey’s Putin: The 1 November 2015 Elections

by

Howard Adelman

My main question is what the re-election of President: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP Party to a majority of seats in the special Nov. 1 election means for Israel. However, a quick summary of the Turkish election results that were widely considered to be an “earthquake” or a “tsunami” is necessary first.

Canada was not the only country that recently held an election that had entirely surprising and unexpected results that flummoxed all the pollsters. In the special election called by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for 1 November, the AKP ruling party, the party Erdoğan himself founded in 2001 and now led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, received almost half the votes and a majority of 327 seats in the 550 seat Parliament, but not the supermajority he needed to change the constitution to give Erdoğan a very significant increase in power. This was up from 40.8% of the vote and only 258 seats in the election just five months previously, those seats down from the 311 seats it had held in the previous parliament. Further, in order to dampen fears of a move towards Erdoğan authoritarianism, unlike the June elections, the AKP played down Erdoğan’s quest for increased powers, and, to that end, his participation in the election was actually significantly reduced.

Unlike Canada, where there was a ready explanation for the election results – votes won at the expense of the NDP as the Liberals replaced the New Democratic Party as the catalyst for change in voters’ minds. In Turkey, there was widespread evidence that, to some degree, the vote had been rigged, but the indications are that most of the shift was a result of an electoral shift between June and November.

June 7     Nov. 1   Seats  Shift

(to AKP)

AKP Party founded by Erdoğan 2001                              40.8%  49.47%  +59=327  +8.67

HDP – the Kurdish-dominated social democratic party   13.1%  10.75%   -21=59    – 2.35

CHP – Turkish secularist party; founded in 1923             25%     25.8%      +3=135

MHP – right-wing nationalist party                                   16.3%  11.9%    -40=40      -4.5

Two small parties; did not compete in the June election

(the small Islamist Felicity Party and the Kurdish

Islamist Huda-Par party)                                                    2%                                      – 2

97.2%                                -8.85

If the significantly increased voter turnout is factored in, the source of the shift in votes is somewhat clear. Yet many claim the elections were rigged. The evidence for rigged elections include the following:

  • The polls suggested that the AKP would improve its vote total, but only by 1-2%
  • The YSK, the Turkish Electoral Commission, closed its website and became incommunicable immediately after the election
  • 10 minutes after the first constituencies reported, the government Anadolu News Agency declared that 70% of the votes had been counted and that the AKP received 50% of the vote
  • There were reports of spikes in the votes of around 10% in many places, that is, where for a short period during the counting, suddenly the AKP was receiving 100% of the votes and its totals suddenly went up by 10%
  • Widespread rumours that the AKP got Syrian refugees to vote (even after the outflow to Europe, there are still over 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country)
  • The AKP, an anti-Kurdish party, significantly increased its vote results in predominantly Kurdish constituencies
  • There were power outages in Kurdish areas
  • There was a 1.5 hour power outage in one area of Istanbul, an active anti-AKP area
  • Some routes to polls had been cut off
  • There were rumours that the voting bags were switched
  • There were rumours that the computers counting ballots were preset by the AKP

The incidents that had preceded the election were already ominous:

  • Immediately after the 7 June election, a regime of intimidation began, beginning with the termination of the cease-fire with the PKK, the Kurdish rebel force, with clashes that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of members of the PKK and over 100 Turkish soldiers after the PKK had been accused of killing two police officers for assisting ISIS, but for which the PKK never claimed credit
  • There had been 30,000 deaths from the Turkish-PKK war over the past 30 years and the war was now resumed with the peace process dashed to pieces, especially following the killing of 12-year-old Helin Sen by a police sniper bullet and 9-year-old Elif Şimşek by a Turkish rocket
  • Between the June and November elections, 159 Turkish security officials were killed as well as hundreds of PKK fighters and 81 civilians
  • Kurdish activists, many allied with the HDP, the predominantly Kurdish party that broke through the 10% minimal vote requirement in the last election, were arrested in sweeps across the country
  • Turkish officials released a video showing a Kurdish protester, labelled a terrorist, being dragged behind a police vehicle by a rope tied around his neck ostensibly to check that the body was not booby-trapped, though the body was already riddled with 28 police bullets; the body, as it turned out, was that of a relative of Leyla Birlik, a HDP deputy from Şirnak, a 24-year-old actor, Haci Lokman Birlik, who had performed in an award-winning movie, Bark (Home), about the lives of Kurds in Kurdistan; the incident echoed the August video of the bullet-riddled body of female PKK fighter,Kevser Eltürk (Ekin Van) stripped naked
  • Erdoğan repeatedly broke protocol applied to a Turkish president – halfway between a political leader and a ceremonial head of state – and urged voters to cast their ballots for the AKP
  • The AKP was widely accused of being corrupt and many investigations had been launched since the inconclusive results of the 7 June election
  • The most serious incident had been the bombing of the Ankara Peace Walk on 10 October with over 100 dead supporters of the HDP, the Kurdish-dominated social democratic party that had led the rallies; Erdoğan blamed ISIS, Syrian intelligence and Kurdish militants (PKK) for the attacks (the suicide bomber unit of IS, Dokumacilar, was specifically blamed); ironically, subsequently Prime Minister Davutoğlu said the bombings were an attempt to influence the 1 November elections
  • Unlike the usual pattern, as I mentioned in previous blogs, security forces were suddenly noticeable by their absence
  • After the blast, the security forces took a surprisingly long time to show up
  • Further, after the blast, ambulances were allegedly prevented from reaching the victims immediately
  • ISIS was blamed for the explosion, but never claimed credit as per its usual custom
  • The intimidation of the media had grown – following a mob attack on 28 October, a mob made up of police officers and government bureaucrats, the editors-in-chief of the Bugün and Millet dailies, and Kanaltürk and Bugün TV channels were fired; Koza Ipek Holding, which owns Ipek Media, was placed under government trusteeship for supporting “terrorism,” though it only openly supported the Gülenists; at the same time, pressure on the media increased exponentially with a mob attack on Ahmet Hakan, Hürriyet’s popular columnist, who was severely beaten
  • Of the six men arrested for Hakan’s beating, four were released immediately
  • The violence between ISIS and Turkish security forces had heated up with 2 police and seven Islamic State militants killed, 5 police wounded and 12 ISIS militants arrested on 25 October following a raid and firefight in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey with rumours of many more IS safe houses equipped with automatic weapons already established across Turkey
  • Erdoğan insisted that Kurdish militants and ISIS, as well as Syrian intelligence, were linked
  • School teachers from Western Turkey employed in the Kurdish-dominated southeast refused to report to work
  • On 27 October, Turkey attacked the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) (supported by the U.S.) in Tal Abyad, Syria to raise the spectre of Kurdish independence spreading to Turkey
  • At the same time, two days after the Diyarbakir shoot-out, on 27 October, Turkish security forces rounded up 30 alleged IS militants in Konya and Kumar.

However, there were many signs that, in fact, the AKP was moving back towards a more historic pattern of results:

  • The Canadian election had been fought on the grounds of change versus continuity with the question being which party would be chosen as the party of change; the Turkish election had been fought on the basis of stability versus chaos, and if stability was favoured, so, ironically, was the AKP
  • Following on the earlier 20 July IS (alleged) suicide bombing that killed 32 Leftists in Suruç en route to crossing the border to cross into Kobani and fight in Syria, the spark that restarted the Turkish civil war, the explosion in Ankara on 10 October killing 102 peaceniks lent credence to the order versus chaos campaign of the AKP, allowing the party to win support at the expense of both the HDP and the MHP
  • In the face of the renewal of the war with the Kurds, the Kurdish traditional pattern of division between the secular democrats and militants (the Hizb ut-Tahrir) versus the conservative religious Kurds, once again came to the fore
  • In October, the renewed conflict between Ankara and the PKK disrupted the school system in the predominantly Kurdish southeast region because many teachers from western Turkey refused to report to work, inducing fear in parents concerned with their children’s schooling; in a report of the teachers’ union (Ekitim-Sen), 89% of the teachers expressed their belief that schools could not function properly with the conflict underway with 42% seeking reappointment to another province and 41% insisting they would not work in the region even though there was a long waiting list of teachers seeking jobs
  • The HDP lost most of its support in its heartland, south-eastern Anatolia – 24% decline in Muş and a 15% decline in Bingöl
  • The CHP failed to form an alternative government, even though the Kurdish-dominated HDP was offered the post of Prime Minister and even though the nationalist right-wing MHP was offered the prospect of suing Erdoğan and his followers for corruption if they agreed not to bring the new coalition down in a Parliamentary vote
  • At the same time, Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the MHP, rejected every offer of coalition with the AKP just as his hawkish stand against Kurdish nationalists was being usurped
  • Erdoğan’s persecution of the Gülen’s alleged network had increased, and legal proceedings were actually launched by the Turkish embassy in Washington to have a legal firm investigate the Gülen “netwok”
  • In Erdoğan’s attacks against the Assad government in Syria and the Islamic State at the same time, the actual main military attacks in late October were against Kurdish fighters in Syria
  • There were many rumours that if the AKP did not secure a majority in the 1 November snap election, another election would soon be scheduled, the fifth in two years, since Erdoğan could not be counted on to make a prudent rational choice
  • Turkish economic decline, that had so dominated the June election, was overshadowed by the increased focus on physical security in spite of the continuing decline of the lira in relation to the U.S. dollar and the poor results of Turkey’s balance of trade figures
  • Erdoğan was not only instigating polarization against his former Gülen allies and the Kurdish community (not just the PKK), but was fomenting both Sunni-Alevi and Muşlim-secular antagonism; the budget for the Directorate of Religious Affairs now was larger than that of 12 other ministries put together
  • As voters shifted to seeking security, they also looked more and more at strategic voting; the MHP, like the NDP in Canada, was left in an invidious position, for if the party contemplated a coalition with the AKP to ensure stability, the prospect of surviving as an independent party diminished, but if they insisted on remaining independent, then the voter base, which they shared with the AKP, would shift away from them to ensure an AKP majority – which is what took place, particularly since the AKP had adopted their hawkish position against any compromise with the PKK
  • The AKP had already stolen the MHP headliner, Tuğrul Türkeş, the son of Alparslan Türkeş, the founder of the MHP
  • The up-and-down, but overall down, decline in the Turkish currency reinforced the quest for security
  • Thus, in Canada, the external forces pushed for change, whereas in Turkey the demand for stability increased

Erdoğan had a powerful motive to rig the election – he was determined to get the country to switch from a parliamentary to a powerful centralized presidential system, but without the checks and balances of the U.S. and more akin to the Russian system. However,  he needed two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to change the constitution, highly unlikely under any scenario. But why were pollsters so wrong about the results for the Liberals in Canada and for the conservative AKP in Turkey, though it was more understandable in Turkey where the pollsters had to stop publishing polls ten days before ballots were cast? Why did pollsters in both countries fail to predict or even anticipate the real possibility of a majority for one party? In both countries, voters turned out in record numbers. Why did liberals win in one country and conservatives in the other, conservatives with an authoritarian bent?

A key factor is which party ran the best campaign. In Canada, that was an easy choice – the Liberal Party, even though all parties ran relatively solid campaigns. In Turkey, the issue was the opposite – which parties ran the worst campaigns? It is not simply that the HDP and the MHP ran very ambiguous and, therefore, unfocused and weak campaigns. The HDP was never clear enough about distinguishing itself from the PKK, though for the second time running, it still managed to come in above the 10% threshold. At the same time, the MHP was speechless as the AKP stole its thunder. Neither party was helped by the series of attacks on journalists and the free media, but that could not have been a major factor, in spite of how repulsive these attacks were, for they were aimed at Gülen supporters as well as the CHP that held onto and even slightly increased its support.

The biggest irony of the election was that the party that claimed victory, ran on a program of stability. Yet Erdoğan himself and his policies of polarization (a much more radical version of Harper’s) deepened Sunni-Alevi, Islamist-secular and Turkish-Kurdish polarization, with the enemies of the Islamic nationalists of the AKP all in the opposition seats. Voters who gave up their desire for political change bought into the promise of stability by voting for Erdoğan’s party, the almost singular source for the country’s continuing instability. If Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is true to his words in his victory speech, offering to end “polarization and tension,” I suspect he may be sending a direct challenge to his boss, Erdoğan, the mastermind of enhanced tension as the Machiavellian route to increased power.