If Turkey’s main opposition leader gets arrested…

If Turkey’s main opposition leader gets arrested…

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Aug. 16 that her country “will not pursue” an upgrading of the European Union’s Customs Union with Turkey due to ongoing political tensions.

The statement coincided with a number of developments in Turkey that have a bearing on Ankara’s political links with Brussels and EU member countries. For example, just hours before Merkel’s statement the Turkish Foreign Ministry said it had sent a diplomatic note to Germany about whether Adil Öksüz, a fugitive accused of working as an operative in the July 2016 coup attempt was in Germany. The claim followed a number of media reports, but Germany immediately replied that there was no information that Öksüz was currently in the country and this answer had already been delivered to Turkey. 

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has been asking Germany to send back former Turkish military officers who requested political asylum following the coup attempt, accusing Berlin of harboring members of the network of U.S.-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, indicted to be behind the plot. Merkel, however, has been urging Turkey to release German citizens in Turkish jails on suspicion of espionage. On Aug 15 French President Emmanuel Macron also reportedly called President Erdoğan on the phone to discuss the issue of a French journalist, again arrested on suspicion of espionage.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan made remarks over the weekend about the possibility of a connection between the sentencing of main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Enis Berberoğlu to 25 years in jail with CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Berberoğlu was convicted on charges of espionage over giving news material to daily Cumhuriyet about assistance provided to Syrian rebels by the National Intelligence Agency (MİT) in 2014, and Erdoğan’s words implied that Kılıçdaroğlu may also be embroiled in an espionage case.

The remarks shook Turkish politics with the question of whether the country’s main opposition leader would be prosecuted and even jailed, at a time when another opposition leader, Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş, is already in prison awaiting trial on terrorism charges.

When CHP spokesman Bülent Tezcan denounced the claims as a plot against Kılıçdaroğlu and the party, ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) spokesman Mahir Ünal said an “immediate answer” would be given to the CHP, but a scheduled press conference was cancelled later on. 

As rumors spread in Ankara’s political lobbies about the possibility of Kılıçdaroğlu being arrested, Ünal issued a statement on Aug. 16 - again hours before Merkel’s statement that Germany is “against unfair arrests” - calling on Kılıçdaroğlu to “elaborate on the claims” without detailing what these claims were.

Kılıçdaroğlu, on the other hand, had told the media that President Erdoğan wanted to “liquefy” his political opponents, but vowed that the CHP would “not stay silent against injustice.” The party is currently organizing a “Justice Congress” on Aug. 26-30 in the western province of Çanakkale, as a follow-up of the recent “Justice March” led by Kılıçdaroğlu from Ankara to Istanbul in reaction to the jailing of Berberoğlu on June 14. 

If the leader of the main opposition party gets arrested it would be very difficult for Erdoğan and the AK Parti government to explain to the West that it is simply the initiative of independent courts in Turkey. 

All these developments are raising concerns that the political atmosphere in Turkey is becoming more charged, as Erdoğan has started to push his party for a “radical restructuring” ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for November 2019.

Around this time one year ago, Turkey was trying to cope with the shock of a terrible military coup attempt, which was hard to believe. It is now discussing another hard-to-believe possibility: The arrest of the main opposition leader on charges of espionage.

Under these circumstances, Merkel’s statement about the Customs Union, made ahead of the German elections on Sept. 24, may indicate more than it seems at first glance.