Guest Post: The Abysmal State Of Turkish Justice

January 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today’s post comes to you courtesy of Nick Danforth. Nick is a fellow Georgetowner and is a Ph.D. candidate in history currently spending his time in Turkey’s archives and writing his dissertation on national identity, democratization and U.S. foreign policy in Turkey in the 1940s and 1950s. Nick also occasionally writes about current Turkish politics, and is the proprietor of a geekily awesome new blog about Ottoman/Turkish/Middle East cartography called The Afternoon Map. If you have any interest at all in maps, go check it out. Nick’s post details the ways in which ideological polarization and using undemocratic means to pursue allegedly democratic ends has made for a hollow sense of justice in Turkey, and I think it is particularly timely given that these are the very same two issues currently tearing Egypt apart. Given the problems that Turkey faces on these fronts, it does not instill a sense of optimism for what lies ahead for the Arab world’s most populous country. But now for the topic at hand, which is Turkey, the AKP, and the courts:

Standing outside in the cold Istanbul rain on the 19th to commemorate Hrant Dink’s death – with a sign saying “For Hrant, For Justice” in Kurdish – it seemed like as good an opportunity as any to meditate on the frustrating contradictions of Turkish democracy.

For the uninitiated, Hrant Dink was a Turkish-Armenian journalist and champion of Armenian rights who was assassinated in 2007. After originally being content to charge Dink’s 17-year old shooter with acting alone, prosecutors recently decided that there was enough evidence to link Dink’s murder to a broader conspiracy. As with so much else related even peripherally to the sprawling Ergenokon case, the substance of the charge is perfectly plausible, even long overdue, but much else about it is suspect. That the shadowy people behind the killing had some shadowy ties to some of the other shadowy Ergenekon figures is all too likely, but it also fits nicely with the AKP’s ongoing efforts to blame every crime Turkey on its political enemies. The government continues to insist, to take only one of the most striking examples, that the brutal murder of three Christian missionaries in southeastern Turkey some years ago was not the work of radical Islamists, but a false flag operation, designed to look like just the sort of crime radical Islamists might have committed.

More broadly, while a number of people have documented the increasing mess the Ergenokon investigation has become, one of the things that makes these prosecutions both insidious and effective is that every round of arrests has included at least several figures who were almost certainly involved in plotting to topple a democratically elected government – alongside all the others whose only crime was being a little too critical. Tellingly, it was in one of the last and most suspect rounds of Ergenekon-related arrests that the government finally nabbed former Admiral Özden Örnek, whose “coup diary” remained one of the soundest pieces of evidence in the whole case.

The recent Paris murders were yet another example of the fact that, for far too many people like Dink who have been killed for being the wrong religion, the wrong ethnicity, or the wrong political orientation, no court’s verdict will ever convince more than half the population in this politicized climate. While many Kurds blame the government and the government blames rival Kurdish factions, the French police have gone so far as to speculate that it might have been nothing more than a crime of passion. Over the years, columnist Ismet Berkan has been fond of pointing out that when any incriminating evidence against one’s ideological allies can be dismissed – often rightly – as propaganda or disinformation, everyone will continue to believe their own version of the truth whatever facts emerge.  On Saturday it was striking how many people were waving signs accusing the AKP of complicity in covering up the murder. When Muammer Güler , Istanbul’s mayor at the time of Dink’s death, was recently appointed Interior Minister,  Dink’s lawyer called it another drop in a sea of shame.

The problem is not that people are overly susceptible to conspiracy theories (though that doesn’t help). The problem is that with the Dink case, as with the PKK murders and Ergenekon, there clearly was a conspiracy of some sort, but the Turkish political system in its current form cannot satisfactorily unravel it. Until the government gives its citizens reason to have faith in the independence if the judiciary and the independence of the press, its investigations, no matter how sincere or successful they are in any particular case, won’t convince anyone.

There are moments in conversations with AKP supporters where it seems like they are troubled by the undemocratic means their party has adopted in handling the Ergenekon case and the way this has politicized the country. Yet at the same time, many suggest that these means are justified by the historic magnitude of the problems they are trying to resolve. That is to say, some false arrests are a small price to pay for finally freeing Turkey from the grip of military authoritarianism. Unfortunately, it seems a similar – understandable but ultimately self-defeating –  rationale is likely to justify the government’s heavy handed approach to resolving the Kurdish issue.

Negotiations with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan already have already produced one striking example of questionable means directed at admirable ends. After a prosecutor called the legality of these negotiations into question and demanded that Turkish Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan testify about them in court, the parliament speedily passed a law, recently upheld by the  Constitutional Court, saying that the Intelligence Chief could only be forced to testify with the express approval of the Prime Minister.

The whole issue offers the depressing sight of arbitrary executive power pitted against arbitrary prosecutorial power, with the intelligence service a little bit closer to regaining the immunity it enjoyed in the heyday of the deep state. Where we once all hoped the AKP would steer Turkey toward a more democratic future in something resembling a straight line, Turkey now seems at best to be tacking towards that destination like a sailboat, moving closer to it in one direction and further away in another.

More depressing is the growing realization that in the coming year, the AKP will use the power it has amassed by bullying and censoring the press in order to win support for a policy of ending official intolerance and forced assimilation of Kurds. And those challenging the government by highlighting these undemocratic means will likely not be progressive liberals but the MHP, alongside the more nationalist wing of the CHP. With tolerance and minority rights ranged against against press freedom and rule of law, justice for Dink and his fellow citizens seems more elusive than ever.


A Turkish Course Correction

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.

Did Israelis Give The Center A Big Win?

January 24, 2013 § 9 Comments

Now that the final results of the Israeli election are in, everyone is rushing to declare that centrist parties were the big winners and that the Israeli electorate has made a surprising shift away from the right. This is understandable in light of the fact that Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party won 19 seats to become the second largest party in the Knesset and Bibi Netanyahu led the Likud-Beiteinu list to an extremely disappointing 31 seats, down from the 42 seats that Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu control in the current Knesset. Nevertheless, I think that this view of things is incorrect. As I argue in Foreign Affairs, this does not take into account that the other so-called centrist parties did poorly and finished well below expectations and that many Likud voters chose to move even farther to the right by giving Habayit Hayehudi 12 seats. In addition, Yesh Atid can be characterized as centrist in some ways but as pragmatically rightwing in others, and so dubbing yesterday’s results as an unabashed win for the center is misleading. In fact, the center controls 28 seats in the current Knesset, but will control 27 seats in the next one (19 for Yesh Atid, 6 for Hatnua, 2 for Kadima), so in reality the center actually lost ground. No doubt Lapid scored a big victory, but one centrist party doing well does not mean that Israel is now avowedly centrist, particularly when other centrist parties turned in disappointing performances and the banner rightwing nationalist party more than doubled its current Knesset representation. Here is a teaser from my piece in FA:

The problem with this narrative, however, is that Tuesday’s results were not really a victory for centrists and Yesh Atid is not really a centrist party. The largest vote-getter was still Likud-Beiteinu, made up of arguably the most right-wing version of Likud in the party’s history and the nationalist and pro-settlement Yisrael Beiteinu. Bayit Yehudi also did well, and it will be the fourth largest party in the Knesset with 11 seats. On the left, Labor underperformed and could not even garner enough votes to win second place as expected. Livni’s Hatnua, meanwhile, won fewer seats than even the parochial ultra-orthodox party, United Torah Judaism. Kadima, a real centrist party, has all but disappeared, plummeting from 28 seats to two. Even though the right-wing parties did not do quite as well as they had hoped, the larger picture does not support the claim that the center scored a great victory.

Furthermore, the grouping of Labor, Hatnua, and Yesh Atid under a centrist or center-left banner is analytically lazy. On economic issues, those three parties do indeed fall within the left and the center. On security and foreign policy issues, Labor and Hatnua are centrist as well. Yesh Atid, however, cannot be accurately described as centrist when it comes to the peace process. Lapid has stated that Jerusalem cannot be divided under any circumstances and insists that standing firm on this issue will force the Palestinians to recant their demand that East Jerusalem serve as the capital of a future Palestinian state. During the campaign, Lapid chose the West Bank settlement of Ariel as the place to give a major campaign speech calling for negotiations with the Palestinians, and declined to endorse a settlement freeze. None of this is enough to put him into the far-right camp, which rejects the two-state solution and calls for annexing the West Bank, but it also does not make him a centrist. In fact, Lapid’s views on security issues are close to those that Netanyahu has publicly staked out.

To read the rest please click over to Foreign Affairs, and comments and emails are welcome as always.

Netanyahu’s Conundrum

January 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Yesterday morning before any of the election results were in, I had a piece up at the Atlantic arguing that the coalition stability that was a hallmark of the current government was destined to end. In my view, the choices that Bibi Netanyahu was likely to end up with were going to create pressures from one side or another no matter which path he decided to go down. Here is the relevant passage:

There are two factors that are going to contribute to detonating Netanyahu’s coveted stability. The first is that unlike during the past three plus years, Netanyahu is going to have a significant presence on his right flank both within his party and outside, creating constant pressure to take a harder line on settlements and the peace process. The Likud primary in November created the most right-wing version of the party that has ever existed. For instance, among the returning Likud MKs in the new Knesset will be the inciters of May’s anti-immigrant race riot, a mass of supporters for annexing the West Bank, and new MK Moshe Feiglin who wants to be the Mohamed Morsi of anti-Arab remarks. This group largely distrusts Netanyahu and will be waiting to pounce at even the slightest digression from their preferred policy of holding on to the West Bank forever.

In addition, Netanyahu will be dealing with the newly empowered nationalist Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) Party, which is poised to become the third largest party in the Knesset. This party is led by Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Naftali Bennett, who also advocates unilaterally annexing Area C of the West Bank and recently got into trouble for saying that he would refuse orders to evacuate settlements. ( He recanted after the predictable furor that arose.) Either as part of the coalition or as a constant thorn in Netanyahu’s side, the large Habayit Hayehudi bloc will be pushing Netanyahu constantly to the right.

The second new factor, which operates at complete cross-purposes to the first, is that Netanyahu will be looking at a renewed push by outside actors on the peace process at a time in which international pressure on Israel is beginning to reach a critical mass. John Kerry is going to want to tackle the peace process as one of his priorities as Secretary of State, and Britain and France intend to present their own plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the support of Germany and possibly the full European Union. Anger toward Israel over settlements and the breakdown of the peace process has lately intensified. Whether this is justified or not, given Palestinian foot-dragging, the anger exists to the point that even Israeli diplomats are beginning to get frustrated over the heat they are taking over West Bank construction.

Now that the results are in, I think this analysis still holds, and is perhaps even more salient to understanding what will happen next. Netanyahu is almost certainly going to have to build a coalition that includes Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi, and this means foot-dragging on the peace process and a storm of international pressure. The option of trying to pivot to the center on security and peace process issues is a lot more difficult today than it was yesterday. Netanyahu had some serious problems within Likud before, since the newly empowered crop of hardliners did not really trust him to begin with, but now he has to deal with the fact that he has led his party to the hollowest of victories. His gambit of merging with Yisrael Beiteinu backfired badly, particularly since only 20 of the 31 Likud Beiteinu MKs hail from Likud because of the seat allocation deal he worked out with Avigdor Lieberman, and undoubtedly Likud members are not very happy this morning. If Yisrael Beiteinu separates from Likud in thirty days as the merger agreement allows, Likud will be the largest party by only one seat. In order to prevent this from happening, Netanyahu is going to have to promise Lieberman the moon and the stars, which also does not bode well for any new push to slow down settlement growth or fast track negotiations with the Palestinians. Any moves that Netanyahu makes in that direction will imperil his leadership as head of Likud and prompt a rebellion within the ranks. Nobody should underestimate just how much pressure Netanyahu is now under from his own side, let alone from the parties on the left of the spectrum that would like nothing more than to bring him down. Netanyahu is in a very difficult spot, and while I am relatively sure he will be able to form a coalition and serve as prime minister, don’t expect it to last very long.

Welcome to Israeli Election Day

January 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

Finally, the day we’ve all been waiting for – Israelis go to the polls today to elect a new Knesset and a new government for the first time since 2009. Despite the fact that we don’t have any results yet, I thought I’d set out a list of things we know and things we don’t.

Things We Know:

Bibi Netanyahu and Likud Beiteinu are going to win the most seats in the Knesset and Likud will be the largest party. This is an easy one given the polls, since even with the Likud Beiteinu list losing about a seat a week for months now, no other party is going to come close to the 32-36 seats LB is likely to take. The irony of course is that Netanyahu created the joint list in order to create an unbeatable force, yet Likud might have done better on its own as banding together with Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu likely cost Netanyahu seats for a host of reasons (and from the Department of Shameless Self Promotion, remember who told you months ago that this was a very bad idea on Bibi’s part). Despite the blunder, Labor is probably going to come in second with 15-18 seats, and Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid are going to be battling for 3rd and 4th place. It is possible that the LB list will have twice as many seats as the next largest party despite its free fall in the polls, although this is a bit misleading since the two parties agreed to merge until only 30 days past the election, at which point they are free to revisit their agreement and separate. The most interesting little nugget about Likud being the largest party in the Knesset is that despite having served two terms as prime minister, this will be the first time that Netanyahu leads his party to a Knesset victory. When Netanyahu was elected in 1996, Israel was in the midst of its decade-long experiment of directly electing the prime minister, and so while Netanyahu beat Shimon Peres by 1% in the prime ministerial vote, Likud won 32 seats to Labor’s 34. In 2009, Likud came in second to Kadima, but after Tzipi Livni was unable to form a government, Netanyahu swooped in and cobbled together a governing coalition despite controlling the second largest party in the Knesset rather than the largest. By the end of today, Netanyahu will finally be able to say that he led his party to an electoral victory.

Things We Don’t Know

Everything else. And I mean that. Aside from Likud Beiteinu winning the most mandates, I cannot say with 100% certainty what else will happen. I am 99% sure that Netanyahu is going to be the next prime minister, but there are enough weird things going on to give me that minuscule 1% pause. To begin with, there are an unusually high number of undecided voters, and while they might break Bibi’s way, I don’t think that Bibi’s base is one that is marked by indecision, unless that indecision comprises whether to continue to vote for Netanyahu or to go with the trendier rightwing choice of Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi.

Furthermore, Netanyahu’s margins are going to be very tight, and this means there is an outside chance that he pulls a Livni and can’t pull off putting together a viable government. I am as confident as I can possibly be that HH is going to be in the coalition, but then the coalition math becomes very tricky. It involves bringing in a centrist party such as Yesh Atid, which will clash with HH and the more extremist Likud voices over peace process issues, or going with Shas and UTJ, who are toxic to HH over the draft and toxic to Yisrael Beiteinu over both the draft and the religious-secular divide. Then there is the possibility that Aryeh Deri’s return to Shas means it is no longer so reliably rightwing and will give Netanyahu a harder time when it comes to coalition bargaining.

To throw another monkey wrench into this, there are the rumblings from all sorts of quarters that the electorate has shifted in the past few days and that the leftwing and centrist parties are going to do better than their polling indicates. If voter turnout is high, it means that left and center parties are going to do better than expected, in which case there is even a possibility that Netanyahu is denied the first chance to form a government. Last month I brought up the possibility of a unity government, which started to look ridiculous in the interim but now I am not so sure that I was off-base. Then there are the rumors that were flying around last night that Ehud Barak is going to be defense minister and Tzipi Livni foreign minister, which I find to be completely far-fetched given the rancor toward Barak exhibited by all sorts of newly influential Likud members and the fact that Netanyahu would never give Livni any real power as foreign minister while Livni would never accept the position to be a mere figurehead. All of this is to say that while Bibi is almost definitely going to remain as prime minister, the possibility of a black swan would not be entirely out of the blue. As for what type of coalition he will put together assuming he remains prime minister, your guess is as good as mine. If I have to predict something, it’s that we will see a nationalist bent due to the inclusion of Habayit Hayehudi, that the haredi parties are going to be left out, and that Yesh Atid will be brought in. This will allow Bibi to keep his rightwingers happy on peace process and settlements, let Yesh Atid have its pet issue of reforming the draft, and not have to worry about the secular-religious divide issue bringing down the government. I can also see Labor being brought into this mix if Netanyahu wants to have the coalition be as big as possible or if the numbers are such that he needs another party but wants to avoid bringing in Shas. Whatever happens, the next few weeks promise to be an entertaining ride.

Guest Post: The Foreign Policy Implications Of The Ocalan Talks

January 21, 2013 § 3 Comments

The always excellent Dov Friedman needs no further introduction at this point to O&Z readers (his previous guest posts are here, here, and here), and he weighs in again today to look at the foreign policy angle to the talks between the Turkish government and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, and to point out that we have seen a similar dynamic before under the AKP.

On Wednesday, Michael discussed the underlying political reasons for Prime Minister Erdoğan’s sudden about-face on the Kurdish Issue.  In short, Erdoğan can count votes.  Both the nationalist MHP and some members of Erdoğan’s own AK Party oppose his desired expansion of presidential power in a new constitution.  A settlement of the Kurdish Issue that rewrites the constitution’s definition of citizenship and codifies primary language education rights would likely draw support from the heavily Kurdish BDP.  The same revised constitution could also include provisions for a stronger presidency—or such is the Prime Minister’s hope.  It may be a long shot, but it may also be Erdoğan’s only shot.

Though domestic politics may have spurred Erdoğan to act, we should not overlook the foreign policy impetus for a new Kurdish Opening.  It will affect Turkey’s relationship with both the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq and Maliki’s Baghdad regime.  It may also have deep implications for Turkey’s regional stature.

After years of hostility between Turkey and the KRG, Turkey wisely corrected course and fostered closer relations with the self-governing enclave.  Meanwhile, Maliki’s government and the KRG have become increasingly oppositional, with the rich oil deposits in the disputed Mosul and Kirkuk regions a key point of contention.  Despite stipulations that oil revenues are a national issue under Baghdad’s purview, Turkey has facilitated the KRG’s nascent efforts to open an independent revenue stream from fossil fuels.  Naturally, Baghdad is livid, and tensions between Turkey and Maliki’s government have understandably risen.  The Ankara-Baghdad divergence on the Syrian conflict certainly has not helped matters.

Turkey assists the KRG because it stands to gain tremendously from the development of Kurdish Iraq into an energy power.  The KRG is landlocked; Turkey presents its most natural geostrategic outlet to world markets.  The infrastructure already exists in the form of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline.  In 2012, the KRG inched toward energy—and some would argue political—independence by signing independent exploration contracts with some of the world’s largest oil companies.  By transporting KRG oil and gas from its port in Ceyhan, Turkey would transform itself into a major energy hub—with huge economic ramifications for Turkey’s underdeveloped southeast and political implications for the country as a whole.

That the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline is a tremendous political asset doubles as the reason it has become a particularly appealing target for Turkey’s militant Kurdish insurgency, the PKK.  In 2010, despite relative calm, PKK operatives bombed the pipeline.  The same thing happened in July of last year.  In October 2012, rebels bombed a pipeline bringing natural gas from Iran.  In absence of a government initiative to solve the Kurdish Issue, these periodic attacks would likely persist.  Turkey knows—as does anyone engaged in commerce—that volatility and uncertainty are bad for business.

In light of the dual domestic and foreign policy ramifications, Erdoğan’s abrupt shift toward finding a solution to the Kurdish Issue makes sense.  The question becomes: will Erdoğan strike a deal with the Kurdish opposition?

Remarkably, the opening of EU accession talks in AK Party’s early years bears similarities to the present Kurdish Opening.  After AK Party took power in 2002, it still faced a secular establishment suspicious of its intentions and a military that had unseated the previous Islamist government in 1997 and banned it from politics. AK Party made opening EU accession talks its first major policy initiative, and Turkey earned a December 2004 date to formally commence the process.  At the time, the foreign policy ramifications were massive.  Turkey had kept one foot in Europe for decades without being permitted all the way in.  This was Turkey’s opportunity to permanently reinforce its unique geopolitical identity.

However, benefits to foreign policy were not Turkey’s only—or even primary—concern.  First, the AK Party’s EU stance was a political winner.  Kemalists, Kurds, and liberals all supported the process, each for different reasons.  Second, in order to open accession talks, the EU required Turkey to implement political reforms that weakened the military’s role in politics.  The National Security Council transitioned from foreign policy arbiter into an advisory role.

In 2002, Erdoğan pursued a foreign policy of EU accession that doubled as stealth domestic policy.  AK Party shored up its liberal credentials while the military zealously agreed to its own subtly diminished power.

Perhaps 2013’s Kurdish Opening is the mirror image.  Undoubtedly, Erdoğan wants to be president with vastly increased power.  That is the obvious way to read his sudden shift on the Kurdish Issue.  Focusing merely on the constitutional implications yields pessimism—who can trust progress hinging on Erdoğan’s cynical calculus about how to retain power.

That is why ignoring the potential foreign policy benefits of the Kurdish Opening would be a major mistake.  In 2002, Erdoğan demonstrated that policies with tangible potential gains in both the foreign and domestic spheres intrigued him and garnered his strong support.  It is far too soon to predict whether the Kurdish Issue will be solved; however, early AK Party history may provide reason for a small measure of hope.

Perhaps Erdoğan Is Not As All-Powerful As We Thought

January 16, 2013 § 9 Comments

The worst kept secret in all of Turkish politics is that Prime Minister Erdoğan wants to revamp Turkey’s political system in order to create a strong presidency and make himself the first newly empowered president. Turkey’s constitutional commission had been meeting for the greater part of 2012, and it was expected to recommend that Turkey adopt a presidential system. The idea was for all four of the parties in the Grand National Assembly – AKP, CHP, MHP, and BDP – to come to a consensus, but because this was always going to be extremely unlikely, Erdoğan had plotted out an alternate path toward achieving his goal. He repeatedly warned that if there was no unanimous agreement on what the next constitution should look like, he would drop the consensus requirement and simply advance a draft constitution written by the AKP. In order to do this though, he was going to have to band together with another party, as the AKP is three seats short of the number it needs to have an automatic referendum on the constitution. The assumption that many people – myself very much included – made was that Erdoğan had cut a deal with the nationalist MHP, in which it would provide the votes to give Erdoğan his presidential system and in return Erdoğan would sell out the Kurds and not make any real moves toward recognizing Kurdish rights or Kurdish identity.

For awhile, this appeared to be exactly what was transpiring. Arrests of lawyers, journalists, and politicians sympathetic to the Kurdish cause were up, the government was not making any moves to revive its Kurdish Opening of a few years ago, and the AKP in collaboration with the MHP was refusing to even hold a parliamentary debate on the military operation against the PKK in the southeast of the country. All signs pointed to a new constitution rammed through with MHP votes that would maintain the fiction of one overarching Turkish identity as a reward to the MHP for supporting Erdoğan’s invigorated presidency.

Yet, the constitutional commission’s December 31 deadline came and went, and there has been no move on Erdoğan’s part to follow through on his public threats of abandoning the process and imposing his own vision of what the new constitution should look like. Instead, there has been little talk of what comes next, and haggling over the AKP’s proposed presidential system is delaying agreement on other proposed constitutional articles. More interestingly, the government has begun negotiating with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, which has infuriated the MHP to no end. This is not quite a renewed Kurdish Opening, but in some ways it is even more surprising and remarkable given the view of many Turks that Ocalan is an unrepentant terrorist who should not be lent any credibility through negotiations with the government.

Reading between the lines of all this, it is fairly obvious that Erdoğan’s plan to remake Turkey’s political system and give himself more power in the process has so far failed. I speculated in September that Erdoğan was facing some internal AKP discontent for the first time in his decade as PM, and my strong hunch now is that he does not have the support within his own party that he needs in order to create a strong presidency and force out Abdullah Gül so that he can take over the position. He also clearly does not have the MHP on board, since if he did he would never risk alienating them in the way that he has through the Ocalan negotiations. His dream of creating an imperial presidency is on the ropes, and it might even be entirely gone for good at this point. The only chance he has of rescuing it is trading MHP support for BDP support, and hence the out of the blue approach to Ocalan and the PKK. The AKP has always attempted to compete for Kurdish votes, and in this way it has a more natural partner in the BDP than the MHP since its approach to Kurdish issues is not the hardline one expressed by Turkish nationalists. Faced with the defeat of his ultimate political ambition, Erdoğan has done a complete 180 turnaround and decided that the road to a new Turkish constitution and presidential system is one that embraces Kurdish rights and identity rather than one that flouts them.

This is a good outcome for two reasons. First, any productive move on resolving Kurdish rights and recognizing Kurdish identity is one in which everyone wins and Turkey becomes internally stronger and more cohesive, rather than less so. The Kurdish issue has been dragging Turkey down for decades, and Turkish Kurds have a fundamental right to be able to speak their language and promote their rich cultural heritage free of restriction and discrimination. Second, it shows that Erdoğan is not quite as powerful as we though, which is a victory for Turkish democracy. As his prime ministry has progressed, Erdoğan has demonstrated an increasingly authoritarian side and has not been faced with any real challenges to his power. That he cannot just ram through a new presidential system at will is hopefully a harbinger of things to come and a sign of some greater checks on his power, and this too will ultimately make for a stronger, more prosperous, and more successful Turkey.

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