January 28, 2013 § Leave a Comment
There were a couple of extremely consequential stories out of Turkey toward the end of last week that I didn’t get a chance to write about with the Israeli elections going on, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity now to highlight them and comment. First was the Turkish cabinet shuffle, with the big move being the replacement of Interior Minister Idris Şahin with Muammer Güler. Şahin is about as hardline on the Kurdish issue as any Turkish government official – he referred in May to the civilians killed in December 2011′s Uludere air strike as “PKK extras” – and his sacking is important for two reasons. First, it signals that the Ocalan talks and Imralı process might actually be a real reorientation of the government’s policy and not just a ploy at running out of the clock or buying more time. Getting rid of the minister overseeing the terrorism fight who was absolutely despised by Kurdish politicians and ordinary Turkish Kurds and replacing him with someone who is likely to be a little more open to Kurdish sensitivities is an important step, and while there are concerns about Güler given his actions while governor of Istanbul, literally anyone will be an improvement over Şahin.
Furthermore, replacing Şahin with a new face in the Interior Ministry is important inasmuch as it signals a tacit admission on the government’s part that its strategy of pounding the PKK without making a real effort on the political front has been a mistake. The Imralı process also fits into this idea as well, and a new interior minister communicates a fresh start and that the old approach was not working. Prime Minister Erdoğan rarely if ever publicly admits that he was wrong, but this is as close to a public admission as you’ll see. The optics of this are important by themselves divorced from what ever actual policy emerges. By the same token, putting Ömer Çelik in the cabinet as Culture and Tourism Minister is important too as he is one of Erdoğan’s two or three closest advisers and has advocated a much more conciliatory approach than the government has adopted in the past. I expect him to be influential in the new Kurdish policy as well despite his portfolio, and his elevation to a cabinet position now is also a signal that the government has erred and that it needs to find a different formula if it wants to be successful.
The other noteworthy development last week was Erdoğan’s full about-face on the government’s assault on the military as embodied by the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer) prosecutions and widespread imprisonment of officers. After crowing for years about the defanging of the armed forces and how Turkey is now coup-proof, Erdoğan acknowledged over the weekend that things have gotten out of hand and said that the detention of generals is negatively impacting the fight against terrorism. As an example of just how dire the situation is, the Turkish navy now has no full admirals left after the resignation of Admiral Nusret Güner in protest over the fact that the officers under his command have mostly been arrested. There is literally nobody to fill the positions of Navy chief and fleet commander, since all that remain are vice-admirals, and there is never any way of knowing when those officers will be arrested either. While the situation is the worst in the navy, the other services are not in great shape either and have been decimated by arrests. Erdoğan now seems to realize just how out of control things have gotten, but the damage has already been done and there is no quick fix for the low army morale or the military’s readiness level. Like with the Kurdish issue, however, this is a very public admission that policy needs to change, and like the moves on the Kurdish front, this should be applauded.
While both of these developments were undoubtedly positive ones, there is some political maneuvering involved as well. As I wrote last week, the backtrack on the Kurdish policy has to be seen in context of Erdoğan’s desire to get his new constitution through the Grand National Assembly, and it seems even more clear now that he is going to turn to the BDP for support. The cabinet shuffle is all part of this longer view, and so the nakedly political angle to all of this should not be ignored. On the military issue, it’s difficult for me not to view it partially as a broadside against the Gülenists, who have lately turned on Erdoğan and the AKP. The military prosecutions have been driven by Gülenist prosecutors and judges, and when Erdoğan calls on the courts to either hand down verdicts or release the imprisoned officers, and even casts doubts on whether the accused were ever part of a conspiracy at all, you have to consider why he has suddenly decided that the Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations are a net negative rather than a net positive. There is little doubt in my mind that Erdoğan’s new position is the correct one as a matter of policy, since the government cannot be in the business of holding people on trumped up charges indefinitely – not to mention the side effect of making it far more difficult for the Turkish military to operate – but there is also an element of score settling here, with Erdoğan laying the groundwork for a possible public push against the Gülenists and the cemaat down the road. Whatever the case, it looks like from a policy perspective, 2013 is going to look a lot different than 2012 did in Turkey.
November 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Prime Minister Erdoğan seems to be going out of his way lately to push the European Union’s buttons. First, while in Berlin for meetings with Angela Merkel, he gave the EU an ultimatum that Turkey would halt its accession talks for good if it was not granted EU membership by 2023. Turkey’s frustration at being strung along is quite understandable, but there’s no doubt that Erdoğan’s threat to drop out of the process ruffled some European feathers. While in Germany he also made a strange reference to Turkey not adopting the euro but setting up its own “lira zone” which would presumably compete with the euro zone, thrilling a segment of Turkish nationalists who are convinced that the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU but leaving many observers scratching their heads as the lira has a low trading volume and it is unclear which countries, if any, would ever join such a project.
The biggest salvo aimed at the EU, however, has been the prime minister’s recent comments on the death penalty. Erdoğan has now hinted that Turkey should reinstate the death penalty in a number of different forums, including an AKP meeting, a press conference, and on twitter, where he said that the state is not entitled to forgive a killer and that some killings may warrant the death penalty. Ahmet Davutoğlu and Sadullah Ergin both insist that Erdoğan was only referring to the Norwegian mass murdered Anders Breivik and that no preparations are being made for Turkey to reinstate the death penalty, but the issue rankles the EU nonetheless. While Turkey has not executed anyone since 1984, it officially abolished the death penalty in 2002 as part of its reforms aimed at joining the EU, and this issue is associated with EU reforms perhaps more than any other. That Erdoğan is now bringing up the death penalty is seen as a direct affront to the EU and is being taken by some as a signal that Erdoğan is trying to put some distance between Turkey and Europe. The prime minister’s comments prompted a swift response from Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, who stated in no uncertain terms that a Turkish move to reinstate the death penalty would deliver an enormous blow to Turkey-EU relations.
It seems strange that Erdoğan is going out of his way to upset the Europeans, and while the death penalty row is a patented Erdoğan technique for deflecting attention away from the government’s missteps by bringing up a controversial issue (see his comments on abortion sweeping the Uludere airstrikes right off the front pages over the summer), this time it fits into a larger pattern of implicit and explicit EU-bashing. I actually don’t think that what is going on is about the EU at all, but is a misguided effort on Erdoğan’s part to pressure European countries into being more active in solving the Syria mess. Erdoğan has been trying in vain to get the U.S. or NATO to intervene, so far to no avail, and not only has he not made any progress but has managed to annoy both the U.S. and NATO by keeping up the rhetorical pressure in public and constantly bringing up intervention in private. Instead of recognizing that this strategy has failed and coming up with a new approach, I think Erdoğan is trying something similar now with the EU but from a different direction. Ankara has made it clear that Syria is its absolute top priority right now, and Erdoğan is playing on European fears that the West is going to “lose” Turkey. By threatening to withdraw from the EU process and by implying that he will consider reinstating the death penalty, Erdoğan is trying to do whatever he can to get European states to act to bring back Turkey into the fold - a fold that Turkey has never actually left – and the easiest way to do that is to give Turkey a helping hand on Syria. Deploying Patriot missiles along the Syrian border is the U.S. and NATO response to keeping Turkey happy and by taking constant digs at the EU, Erdoğan is trying to coax some European action in order to pacify Turkey, whether it be greater rhetorical pressure on Syria and recognition of the Syrian opposition (as France did yesterday) or a renewed push in the Security Council for some sort of action. The question is whether Europe is going to play along or call Erdoğan’s bluff, and that remains to be seen. In any event, I don’t think that the recent attempts to imply distancing from Europe is about Europe at all, but like so much else going on with Turkey these days, is actually about what’s taking place with its next door neighbor.
May 30, 2012 § 2 Comments
A politician blasting the media for keeping alive a story that he believes should be put to bed, courting controversy in order to change the topic from one that is politically damaging to one that is potentially more favorable, curtailing women’s rights in order to appeal to more socially conservative voters, using abortion as a wedge issue…I’m pretty clearly describing American presidential politics in the 21st century, right? In this instance, the above events are taking place in Turkey and are being orchestrated by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a way of changing the conversation away from the Uludere airstrike that killed 34 Kurdish civilians and for which the government has not apologized and has been dragging its heels to investigate. In fact, the Uludere airstrike has been such a thorn in Erdoğan’s side that he has decided instead to start a grand national debate on abortion, which he sees as being far less fraught with danger for him politically and which speaks volumes about the government’s resolve to sweep Uludere under the table.
Erodğan’s frustration at the way the Uludere strike has continued to dog him for months was clearly evident last week, when he said that the government has done all that it can do and that steps to compensate victims’ families amount to a de facto apology (incidentally, Erdoğan has not been willing to grant the same leeway to Israel that he is requesting for himself). He also accused the opposition, the PKK, “Jewish lobbies,” and the Turkish media of unnecessarily keeping the story alive and exploiting the issue, while complaining that the civilian deaths have taken the focus off the fact that smuggling is illegitimate activity (the airstrike victims were smuggling gasoline and cigarettes across the border and were mistaken for PKK terrorists). The day after making these comments to reporters, Erdoğan told those gathered at the AKP’s Women’s Congress that abortion was murder, and that those media members who “live and breathe Uludere” should take note that “every abortion is an Uludere.” Predictably, the controversy has moved away from the Uludere strike itself and is now firmly ensconced on the fact that Erdoğan would compare abortion to civilian airstrike casualties, and Erdoğan ensured yesterday that the conversation would stay on abortion by announcing plans to pass legislation limiting abortion and and possibly prohibiting it altogether along with attacking c-section deliveries as part of a foreign plot to weaken Turkey by limiting its population. Needless to say, the media focus on Uludere is over for the moment.
This is all very smart domestic politics for Erdoğan. While abortion is not such a hot button issue in Turkey as it is in the U.S., taking the stance that he has is a win-win for the prime minister. On the one hand, it is not going to cost him any voters or support since nobody has ever voted for Erdoğan under the illusion that he is a social liberal. In fact, this plays well for his core base of supporters who are socially conservative and economically (neo)liberal; the abortion issue is not going to affect Turkish trade in any meaningful way and it reinforces Erdoğan’s commitment to “traditional” values. In addition, the abortion uproar has been a masterful way for Erdoğan to change the conversation and let him get back to controlling Turkey’s political discourse. Erdoğan’s domination of Turkish politics is no accident and people should not underestimate his political instincts. Using controversy to change the subject, demagoguing opponents, and adopting hardline positions on social issues will be familiar to anyone who follows American politics, and Erdoğan is in many ways an American-style politician. While the Uludere controversy is not dead and buried for good, the recent furor has subsided and it appears that Erdoğan has weathered the storm successfully.
In addition, this whole thing suggests a hardening stance on the Kurdish issue just as the constitutional drafting process is getting underway, which is disappointing to say the least. Erdoğan has held fast to his position that he will not issue an apology over Uludere, and he and members of his government continue to make insulting remarks about the victims and imply that they were connected to the PKK. I and others have noted the importance of dealing with the simmering resentments of Turkey’s Kurdish population in the new constitution by allowing them to become full members of the Turkish polity without forcing them to abandon their language or cultural heritage, and the treatment of Uludere does not inspire confidence that this will be the case. If Erdoğan and the AKP join hands with the MHP in an effort to ram through hardline provisions on the Kurds that do not have the consensus of the entire political spectrum, the new Turkish constitution will eventually come to be as much of an obstacle for Turkey’s further political maturation as the current one.