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.

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