July 2, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Following a report in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday that the Turkish jet shot down by Syria was in Syrian airspace and that it was brought down by an anti-aircraft gun with a limited range of only 1 1/2 miles, Prime Minister Erdoğan went on the warpath yesterday, denying the WSJ report and blasting the opposition and the media at large. According to both Erdoğan and the Turkish military, the Turkish F4 Phantom was 13 miles off the Syrian coast and brought down by a surface to air missile. From a foreign policy perspective it isn’t going to matter whether the plane is dredged up in international waters or Syrian waters, or whether it has small anti-aircraft gun perforations in its side or a gaping missile hole when/if it is found. I don’t tend to believe any claims made by Syria, and that goes double for Syrian claims supported by their friends the Russians, but none of this really makes any difference because Turkey isn’t going to war with Syria. The reason it matters where the plane was shot down is because it has the potential to rattle Turkish domestic politics and harm the AKP if Erdoğan’s claims turn out not be true.
Even by Erdoğan’s standards, Sunday’s performance was a doozy. Like he did in May over the WSJ’s Uludere report, Erdoğan once again claimed that the paper was printing lies in order to influence the U.S. presidential election and went after Turkish media outlets for accepting a foreign paper’s word over that of the Turkish military and Turkish Foreign Ministry. Newspapers that translated or relayed the WSJ report were deemed to be “following the path of the cowardly” and the PM attacked CHP opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as standing “shoulder to shoulder with Israel’s values and the Baath regime” for not being supportive enough of the official government position (never mind that last week Kılıçdaroğlu was being criticized by members of his own party for being too supportive of the government). As usual, Erdoğan brought all the subtlety of a jackhammer to his fight with the opposition and the media.
The problem is that by doing so, Erdoğan has really raised the stakes in a situation that could very well backfire on him in a bad way. When he has savaged the opposition or the media in the past, it has not been over the reporting of facts that might turn out the other way. In this case, Erdoğan is banking on his version of events being the right one, and given the ambiguity that exists and the fact that the plane hasn’t yet been found, he might be dead wrong without even knowing it. I don’t think that Erdoğan is in any way lying since I am sure he believes the facts as he laid them out, but there is enough evidence out there – between the WSJ report, eyewitness accounts of the Turkish plane flying at low altitude, and the fact that it was a surveillance plane and was acknowledged even by Turkey to have been flying in Syrian airspace at some point – to suggest that the plane may have been brought down in Syrian territory. If this turns out to be true and Erdoğan is wrong, then his credibility will be damaged in a big way, and it will be tougher for him to cow the media and the opposition going forward by using his well worn scorched earth rhetorical tactics. The next time he accuses Kılıçdaroğlu or any other opposition leader of being an Israeli or Syrian stooge, it will be a lot easier to shake off.
This also highlights the problem that exists when the government is perceived to be less than always truthful and has a reputation for anti-democratic behavior when it comes to the media. Thundering that the press should just trust the Foreign Ministry’s account and ignore any outside reports or evidence to the contrary does not exactly inspire confidence that you are telling the truth, or even that you are interested in it. The Turkish media has been engaging in a lot of self-censorship, and part of Erdoğan’s strategy is to intimidate them to continue to do so. If his claims turn out to be wrong in this case, it will be harder for the media to keep their mouths shut in the future, which will either lead to more open challenging of the official government story line or even more blatant anti-democratic behavior of the type outlined here. Either way, it’s not good for Erdoğan and the AKP, and so yesterday’s performance actually raised the stakes and increased the pressure on the government for the plane to be found where Ankara says it should be and with damage that could only be done by a missile. If not, Erdoğan has dug himself a hole from which he may find it difficult to climb out.
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.