A risky acceleration in Turkish politics

A risky acceleration in Turkish politics

According to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the seizure of Zaman media group on March 4 has nothing to do with the press freedom under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government; rather, it was a decision by an independent court. He also claims that the probe against the Zaman group has the dimension to curb the support to the “parallel structure,” i.e. the Gülenist movement, including money laundering. 

According to Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the judge that decided to appoint trustees to the media group “carries the stick of political authority in his hand.” He also claims that by maintaining political influence over the judiciary, the AK Parti has been transforming the Turkish state into an AK Parti state and what we are hearing are the footsteps of a “civilian coup d’état.”

The gap between the opinions of the government and the main opposition has increased asymmetrically as developments in Turkish politics accelerate in a risky way.

The seizure of the Zaman media groups is the latest –but perhaps not the last– stage of an inner struggle within the Islamist/conservative wing of Turkish politics. 

Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist ideologue living in the U.S. for many years, used to be an active supporter of President Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Parti for almost a decade after the 2002 elections that brought the party to power. The Gülenists within the state apparatus in the judiciary, security, education and media have played a key role in Erdoğan’s effort to curb the secular establishment in the judiciary, military and education. Thousands of people were purged in court cases like Ergenekon, Balyoz, Military Espionage, OdaTv and others, during which some people lost their lives in prison, while many lost their jobs and social status. But now, many are acquitted and Erdoğan says the AK Parti has been “cheated” by Gülenists; now they call Gülenists the “Fethullahist Terror Organization/Patrallel Structure within State” (FETÖ/PDY).

Those moves were also supported or tolerated by the U.S. and the European Union circles at that time who thought the only problem with democracy in Turkey was the role of military in politics. Now Turkish military is not involved in politics any longer but Turkish democracy is not experiencing its golden age either.

Following a relative peace for three years thanks to dialogue between the government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the clashes resumed as the PKK began its acts of terror as a spillover effect of the Syrian civil war. Since July of 2015 (when the clashes started again), 219 security forces and 1,250 alleged PKK militants were killed, while hundreds of civilians (according to the CHP figures) have been killed between the two fires. Davutoğlu says the operations could come to a turning point by the end of March.

The role of the Kurdish-problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has been reduced to being only a voice against the government operations in the east and southeast where the clashes are concentrated, eroding the influence of the party in the parliament. The AK Parti wants a number of HDP deputies to be stripped of their judicial immunities because of supporting PKK’s autonomy demands.

The PKK fight is the link between Turkish domestic politics and its foreign one, since the government’s main dispute between its major ally, the U.S., and also Russia, as its main rival in the Syria theater (especially after the downing of its plane because of an airspace violation) is the Syria extension of the PKK, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

The dominating factor in domestic politics is Erdoğan’s plan to shift Turkey’s parliamentary system to a strong presidential one where all executive powers are to be consolidated in the hands of president with lesser checks-and-balances, probably through a stronger influence of the executive branch over the judicial one.

Under the circumstances, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli came up with a suggestion that they could support to a proposal to take the presidential system to a referendum with the AK Parti in parliament, providing that the government would take tougher measures against the PKK and on the Kurdish problem in general. That could be a move to stop the MHP erosion towards the AK Parti and to press down the inner-party opposition.

The indications show that in all those fields, the remaining days and weeks of March could be a stage for accelerated political action. If that is considered together with key talks with the EU over the Syrian migrants and possible military action by the coalition in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), it can be seen that this acceleration could be a risky one for Ankara.