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.