Turkey is undergoing the most severe domestic political crisis of recent years. In previous years, R. Erdogan and his moderately Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) managed to consolidate Turkish society with neo-ottoman foreign policy slogans, iron out conflicts between secularists and Islamists, balance the role of the army in Turkish politics, bring to the end armed resistance of KWP (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) fighters and evolve to finding a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem. The current situation, however, has once again become severely strained.
The Turkish parliamentary elections in June 2015 fell short of Erdogan and his supporters’ expectations. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) couldn’t poll enough votes in order to form a single-party government for the first time since 2002. As compared to the 2011 elections, it lost 10% of the vote. Erdogan’s plans to make amendments to the constitution, with the help of the new National Assembly (medzhlis), in order to transform Turkey from a parliamentary into a presidential republic and push through a series of radical reforms in Turkish politics have been put on hold indefinitely.
AKP’s attempts to make a coalition in the National Assembly with opposition parties also failed. Erdogan was forced to announce new parliamentary elections on November, 1st 2015 and entrusted the current Prime Minister to form an interim government.
AKP’s decline in popularity inside the country can be explained by a number of reasons. For instance, failures in foreign policy, the financial and economic decline, general tiredness of voters and Erdogan’s inconsistent actions, his ever more complicated relationship with radical Islamists, local nationalists.
Thus, voters became public witnesses to Erdogan’s conflict with Fethullah Gülen, the influential Muslim preacher whose doctrine enjoys considerable influence among the Turkish public. Another significant factor of AKP’s weakened position was the relatively large percentage of votes polled by Turkish Kurds. Previously, Kurdish National Assembly members only gained seats in single-party constituencies, as no Kurdish party had been able to pass the relatively steep 10% vote threshold. In the previous elections, the AKP and Erdogan received a higher percentage of the voters’ support namely in areas densely populated by Kurds. This time, the pro-Kurd Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) decided to stand independently and seemed to become the AKP’s biggest competitor, which allowed it to gain approximately 13% of the vote (80 out of 550 seats in the National Assembly.) The legalisation of Kurds as one of the main ethnic groups in Turkey, the possibility of education and local media being conducted in the Kurdish language and the acceleration in the social and economic development of the least developed Kurdish areas – all of this brought about sharp criticism of Erdogan from right-wing parties and Turkish nationalists.
The large-scale terrorist attack carried out by a Turkish suicide-bomber on 20th July 2015 against the Kurds in the border area with Syria in the Turkish town of Suruç and the following inadequate response by Turkish military and the police raids by Turkish authorities on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), broke the fragile hard-won ceasefire of March 2013 between the PKK and Ankara. Instead of cleaning up the country of Islamic jihadists, who have made Turkey their support base and transit corridor used to transfer militants from all over the world into Syria and Iraq, Erdogan used the full force of his repressive apparatus to crack down not so much on the terrorist militants of the Islamic State, but rather on the members of the PKK, who were victims themselves. In the border areas with Syria, Turkish special forces soldiers and police have clamped down on control primarily over Kurdish movements, whereas Islamic jihadists in the area feel unconstrained. It is the Turkish authorities’ inaction that led to the 32 Kurdish deaths and the wounding of several dozen Kurdish activists in Suruç. The direct cause of the start of the repression against the PKK was the murder by the PKK youth wing of two Turkish police officers on the Syrian border and a Turkish citizen in Istanbul, who the Kurds suspected of cooperating with IS.
Having ignored the norms of international law and violated Iraqi sovereignty, the Turkish armed forces conducted a series of air strikes and shelling fired from tanks and artillery camps and PKK bases in remote mountainous areas of Iraqi Kurdistan. It should be noted, that as a result of these strikes and shelling civilians and refugee Christians died and infrastructure was destroyed. These acts were accompanied by Kurdish demonstrations and protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities. A series of terrorist attacks and strategic detonations of important buildings (pipelines) ripped through the country, several dozen Turkish police and military officers were killed and wounded. It can be acknowledged that another large-scale fratricidal war between the Kurds and the Turks has once again broken out (There are currently 15-20 million Kurds in Turkey, which means every fourth or fifth Turkish citizen is an ethnic Kurd.)
Even though the pro-Kurd party is a member of the National Assembly, the leader of the PKK, A. Öcalan and the moderate wing of his party condemned the acts of violence on both sides and called for an end of the bloodshed, the Turkish authorities continued their military and police operations against all Kurdish activists in the country and freedom fighters in the mountains Qandil mountains of Iraq. Dozens of Kurds have been killed and wounded. In ruling circles in Turkey there is talk of the possible deprivation of Kurdish National Assembly members’ mandates and the prohibition of pro-Kurd HDP, which is alleged to have connections with PKK terrorists.
Thus, Erdogan is taking his lead from IS provocators and local nationalists, and instead of definitively cleaning up the country of radical Islamists and international terrorists, he is clamping down on control over the Turkish Syrian border, and has used the full force of his repressive apparatus on cracking down on the Kurds. He even suggested to his partners at NATO that there a so-called “buffer zone” should be created in the Turkish areas bordering Syria, where there are three autonomous Syrian Kurdish regions, controlled by their self-defence units. Ankara is planning to entrust the policing of the Turkish border areas with Syria to militants of the Damascus-opposed Free Syrian Army, who are to be supported from the air by the Turkish and US air forces. It isn’t impossible that with this suggestion, Ankara is pursuing the aim of not only to consolidate the division of Syria into enclaves, but also to isolate the Syrian Kurds, thus impeding their cooperation with their Turkish counterparts, and generally weaken the Kurdish national movement in the region. It seem that Erdogan is counting on the fact that the upcoming parliamentary elections in November will take place under martial law thus denying the HDP a chance to pass the 10% threshold, and is also hoping to gain the support of the Turkish nationalists.
Stanislav Ivanov, Leading research fellow of IMEMO and the Institute of Oriental Studies, Ph.D., exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”