Erdoğan’s fury at the Constitutional Court and the Ankara beltway

Erdoğan’s fury at the Constitutional Court and the Ankara beltway

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan reacted harshly against the release of two journalists, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, on Feb. 28.

Before taking off from Istanbul for a tour of West African states, Erdoğan not only slammed the Constitutional Court, which ruled on Feb. 25 that the pre-trial arrest of the journalists was against constitutionally protected freedom of the press, but also the local criminal court that released them upon the top court’s ruling, ending their 92 days in jail.

“I do not respect to the ruling. I’m not going to abide by it. The [14th Istanbul Criminal] Court could have insisted on its original ruling [when it arrested the journalists] and avoided the Constitutional Court’s ruling. Then they [Dündar and Gül] would have been able to go to the European Court of Human Rights. This whole process is not right at all,” Erdoğan said. 

He also stressed that the two journalists’ actions had “nothing to do with the freedom of the press,” instead insisting that it was a case of “espionage.” 

Daily Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Dündar and Ankara bureau chief Gül had reported in 2015 about documents submitted to court on the alleged transport of illegal military material to opposition groups fighting against the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria in early 2014. Erdoğan’s lawyer, Muammer Celaloğlu, then applied to the prosecutor’s office claiming they should be tried for military espionage and helping an illegal organization. A court case was immediately opened against the journalists and they were arrested on Nov. 26, 2015, put in Silivri Prison near Istanbul.

Erdoğan stressed on Feb. 28 that their release did not mean an acquittal and the court case was still ongoing. That remark might open a debate in Ankara over whether it would mean putting pressure on the court to imprison them. 

But Erdoğan’s fury may not be limited to the case of the two journalists, which has turned into a kind of personal issue for him.

Events over the last couple of weeks in the Ankara beltway indicate an unusual rise of tension within the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), which has ruled for nearly 14 years.

First of all, a fire that could have been set alight by statements from a number of the party’s old guard, including Bülent Arınç - a member of its founding triumvirate – had to be put out by another founding member, former President Abdullah Gül, following a dinner between him and Erdoğan.

Then came an interview with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on Al Jazeera, in which he questioned the reliability of the Arab countries who wanted Turkey to get involved in Syria with ground troops. That would mean breaking the NATO seal, he said, stating that Turkey would not make a unilateral move. But these remarks from Davutoğlu coincided with Erdoğan questioning the Western alliance, right after a long telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama during which the two leaders’ differences of opinion regarding the role of militant Kurdish forces in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and their possible links to terrorist acts in Turkey, continued.

Meanwhile, another example showing that the military is also against any move outside of NATO came on Feb. 27, when Turkish Chief of the General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar addressed the relatives of the victims of the Feb. 17 suicide bomb attack, which blew up military personnel service buses and killed 29 people in Ankara on behalf of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “We are not going to let this go unanswered, but we are not going to let our anger exceed our reason,” Akar said. 

Another example of discrepancies within the ruling party can be observed in the debate over the environment in the northeastern province of Artvin, renowned for its green, mountainous landscape. Locals there have been protesting against a new mining project that has been taken to court but still continued by the company. In a surprise move, Davutoğlu accepted a meeting with the local committee that wanted to talk to him last week. A day before the meeting, Forest and Water Affairs Minister Veysel Eroğlu, who is a long-time fellow of Erdoğan, vowed that there would be “no back-peddling” from the project. But the next day Davutoğlu suspended the company’s works until the completion of the court case. Erdoğan then said on Feb. 27 that he saw the Artvin protests as a “junior” version of the Gezi Park protests in June 2013, which he considered an attempt to overthrow his rule.

Now there are reports, like the one by Nuray Babacan in daily Hürriyet, about the cabinet meeting chaired by Erdoğan on Feb. 22, a day before the Davutoğlu interview appeared on Al Jazeera. It was reported that the meeting saw a lively foreign policy debate, particularly on the AK Parti’s Syria, Israel and Egypt policies.

Ankara has been trying to adopt a new foreign policy line, return to more engagement with the European Union. The question is whether that will take place without anyone asked to pay the bill for evident failures - not only in Ankara’s Middle East policy but also in its handling of the Kurdish issue amid the uptick in terror acts by the PKK, which is related to what has been happening in Syria and Iraq. 

All in all, the outlook shows that Erdoğan’s anxiety may not be limited to the Constitutional Court’s ruling and the release of the journalists Dündar and Gül.