Dov Friedman – who is depriving the world of his prodigious knowledge by not starting his own regular blog – is resuming his spot today as O&Z guest poster par excellence to write about whether or not the Gezi protests necessitate a political shift from Prime Minister Erdoğan. In particular, Dov thinks that Erdoğan is not thinking strategically when it comes to the Kurdish peace process, which is in many ways the most important issue facing Turkey in both the short and long term.
We’re one month past the outbreak of spontaneous protests connected to the redevelopment of Gezi Park, and by now, the events have been analyzed pretty robustly. There are essentially two narratives—one forwarded by protesters, their supporters, and most journalists, and another advanced by the government and its supporters. Respectively excellent examples of those narratives may be found here and here.
But as the protests have subsided, observers are beginning to ask what comes next. Their answers can vary considerably based on their own political preferences. However, what happens next still depends overwhelmingly on the actions of Prime Minister Erdoğan.
Which leads me to make two different, seemingly oppositional claims. First, that politically speaking, Erdoğan need not diverge from the playbook he was following before the Taksim protests. Second, that based on some very early indicators, Erdoğan himself seems to believe otherwise. Allow me to explain.
It may be hard to remember now, but even before Gezi, the prospects for a new constitution establishing a strong presidential system were diminished. Erdoğan had already begun to intimate this publicly, deploying the soft sell and professing satisfaction with whatever the outcome might be. Not two weeks before Gezi Park became international news, Erdoğan deputized Sabah—a newspaper with close ties to the government—to explain how AK Party would proceed if a strong presidential system were rejected.
These subtle moves stemmed less from magnanimity toward the opposition than from Erdoğan’s finely calibrated response to shifting political dynamics. The Kurdish gambit—which Erdoğan hoped would alter the Grand National Assembly’s legislative math in favor of constitutional overhaul—only partially delivered. The BDP—which gives political voice to Turkey’s ethnic Kurds—stated its desire to work toward a new constitution, but declined to support a presidency with increased authority. Despite an obvious setback to Erdoğan’s expressed preferences, it seemed the Prime Minister might content himself with being the figure to transform Turkey’s Kurdish Issue while enabling the ancillary benefits to accrue to AK Party.
Erdoğan still had options, which Sabah did an excellent job of laying out. He could rewrite party rules to allow him another term as prime minister. He could accept a simple constitutional change allowing the president to sit as the head of a political party as well. In Erdoğan’s best-case scenario, the president could assume executive control, appointing both the prime minister and the cabinet members as well.
The Taksim protests mostly enlivened an essential conversation about authoritarianism in Turkey; however, they also gave rise to the false narrative that now the prime minister’s plans were really dead. Perhaps Erdoğan bought into the coverage. As the AK Party has unveiled its post-Gezi political strategy, the early indicators dishearten. In a speech addressing the Wise Persons commission on June 27th, Erdoğan said that AK Party had plans neither to support a lowering of the election threshold nor to prepare for native language education. Perhaps thinking he had not done enough to upset Kurds, Erdoğan also opined that only 15 percent of the PKK fighters in Turkey had crossed the border with Iraq—subtly suggesting that the government need not take any action at present to advance the precarious opening.
These distressing moves typify a party seeking to burnish its nationalist credentials more than advance a tenuous peace process. Is that Erdoğan’s intent and goal? There is no definitive answer. What we do know is that the Prime Minister has embarked on a monumental speaking tour to galvanize the base. He has used divisive language—even by his estimable standards—and deployed increasingly religiously tinged talking points. We know that to an unprecedented degree, AK Party scrutinizes poll numbers. We also know that before Erdoğan was the overnight champion of a historic deal with Turkey’s Kurds, he had been just as vociferous in his nationalist message and tone. Is AK Party’s analytics team gleaning information about skepticism to the Kurdish opening within the party faithful? Is this merely Erdoğan’s shopworn political crisis management strategy of hunkering down, playing to the base, and using divisive issues to divert attention? Again, we do not know. But we should never forget that Erdoğan’s political juggling puts Franklin Roosevelt to shame.
Erdoğan’s crisis management skills are proven, but it’s not clear to me why he has signified another directional shift. The nationalist strategy is inherently a defensive one. It appeals to the most conservative, reactionary elements in Turkish society. In response to protests centered on Erdoğan’s—and the AK Party’s—high-handed politics, how is retrograde divisiveness the smartest play? The point becomes all the more salient when we consider nationalist party MHP chairman Devlet Bahçeli’s pointed critique of the Prime Minister post-Gezi:
“He rebuked the teachers. He scolded the students. He tried to become a Twitter police. This is the final stage of hubris. It’s been revealed that our country being an example is a lie. The party that does not accept democracy has nothing more to offer.”
Does that sound like someone who sees profit in joining forces politically? For Erdoğan, the nationalist strategy is regressive. For Bahçeli, partnership with Erdoğan—at least for the foreseeable future—is politically toxic. At the risk of repetitiveness, what led Erdoğan to believe this was his dominant strategy?
What made the Kurdish opening so surprising was its daring—it sought to rejigger Turkey politics in search of a new, more robust coalition and vision. Post-Gezi, Erdoğan could have modeled consistency by expressing acceptance of modest tweaks to the political system and continuing his full-throated advocacy for a Kurdish peace. This would not have satisfied the protestors—I leave discussions about the wisdom of Erdoğan’s response to that conflict aside—but at least it would have revealed a gritty, principled leader maintaining his vision in a political storm.
Instead, in addition to the ongoing low intensity conflict with the protest movement and the fragile economy, Erdoğan adds tension with political forces representing Kurdish interests. The fissures have already begun to show: the BDP has organized rallies in the southeast to pressure the government to take the next step in the peace process, and Party Chairman Selahattin Demirtaş is agitating for the government to take action in response to soldiers killing one protestor, and injuring 10, who demonstrated against the rebuilding of a gendarmerie facility.
It is too early to say the peace process is broken. But anyone who tells you everyone has come too far should be met with skepticism. Erdoğan has borne intense criticism for his handling of the Taksim protests. His political signaling in the protests’ aftermath is more dangerous still.