Turkey: From “NATO’s Anchor” to What?

On Monday, the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Gazetesi published the backstory to President Recep Erdoğan’s meeting in St. Petersburg with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 9 August.[1] The report credited two persons for acting as go-betweens in the eventual “rapprochement,” Ramazan Abdulatipov and Cavit Çağlar. A number of Russian[2] and regional[3] media outlets published accounts of the Hürriyet Gazetesi report.

Welcoming Turkey’s “restoration of legitimate and constitutional order,” Mr. Putin said in St. Petersburg, “We have always opposed anti-constitutional actions.”[4] The Kremlin used that same term—anti-constitutional actions (antikonstitutsionnykh deystviy)— in its official statement after Mr. Putin spoke to Mr. Erdoğan on 17 July in the aftermath of the attempted coup (a conversation, the Kremlin hastened to point out, Russia initiated):

“Vladimir Putin…stressed the principled position of Russia regarding the categorical inadmissibility in the conduct of public affairs of anti-constitutional actions and violence.”[5]  

Turkish press reports emphasized Mr. Putin’s “decisive opposition to unconstitutional actions”[6] against Mr. Erdoğan’s government, some repeating Mr. Putin’s phrase verbatim.[7] That phrase is also the same one Mr. Putin used after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.[8] It was echoed then by other members of his government—for example, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s condemnation of “radical unconstitutional actions of Ukrainian oppositionists.”[9]

The Hürriyet Gazetesi account of events leading up to the meeting in St. Petersburg is worthy of a spy novel, and Ramazan Abdulatipov and Cavit Çağlar are among its central characters. Mr. Abdulatipov is said to have taken his directions from Yury Ushakov, a long-time Russian diplomat and aide to Mr. Putin. In September 2013, Mr. Putin appointed Mr. Abdulatipov to his second four-year term as Head of the Republic of Dagestan, a Russian federal republic located in the North Caucasus.

Mr. Abdulatipov ‘s counterpart, Cavit Çağlar, is said to have taken his directions from General Hulsi Akar, Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff since April 2015. Mr. Çağlar’s usual description as “a Turkish businessman” does not do him justice. In 1999, he was a central figure[10] in a covert operation in Kenya conducted by the Millî İstihbarat Teşkilâtı (Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency, aka “MIT”) to interdict and capture Abdullah Öcalan, a founding member of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party known as the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎). Mr. Çağlar’s private aircraft was used to spirit Mr. Öcalan from Nairobi to Turkey. In late April 2001, he was arrested by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation in a parking garage at New York’s JFK Airport and extradited to Turkey, which had issued an Interpol Red Notice pursuant to his conviction in the collapse of Turkey’s Interbank. 

The precursor to the St. Petersburg meeting was President Erdoğan’s letter to President Putin. In it, Turkey apologized for the 24 November 2015 downing of a Russian warplane in Turkish airspace that was taking part in a combat mission in Syria.[11] Hürriyet Gazetesi reported a 30 April meeting in Istanbul, during which President Erdoğan authorized General Akar and Mr. Çağlar to open discussions with Russia about “normalizing” relations. Messrs. Abdulatipov and Çağlar then spent several weeks shuttling successive drafts of the letter (written by prior agreement in Turkish and Russian, not English) back and forth, with the support of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. This led to a 24 June meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where President Putin was scheduled to meet President Nazarbayev at the conclusion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. The Kazakh ambassador to Turkey contacted an aide to President Erdoğan, Ibrahim Kalyn, to set the meeting in Tashkent. After several last minute hitches—there were problems reconciling the Turkish and Russian versions of the letter, and Uzbekistan had closed its airspace due to the SCO summit so Kazakh President Nazarbayev had to ask Uzbek President Islam Karimov for permission to fly “his friends from Turkey” (whose aircraft, low of fuel, had landed in Shymkent) to Tashkent—President Putin and President Erdoğan agreed to the final wording. The timing was uncanny, coming a fortnight before the attempted coup in Turkey. As the Hürriyet Gazetesi report points out, the first leader to phone President Erdoğan with a message of support was President Putin.

The St. Petersburg meeting, write Gallia Lindenstrauss and Zvi Magen,[12] “is likely to be a beginning of a new phase in Turkish-Russian relations.” It may very well mark the beginning of something wider, given the pivotal Kazakh and Uzbek roles in brokering the rapprochement between their neighbors. There is another, less noticed factor as well: as Mr. Erdoğan met with Mr. Putin in St. Petersburg, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu declared his country would suspend its migration agreement[13] with the European Commission unless the Commission established a definitive date to abolish visa requirements for Turkish citizens.[14] Where that goes is anyone’s guess. What is certain, however, is that Turkey’s traditional role as NATO’s “anchor” on the Black Sea is indeed ripe for revision, exactly how much and to what extent nobody today can know.

NOTES

The translation of all source material is by the author.

[1] ” Türk-Rus krizini bitiren gizli diplomasinin öyküsü.” Hürriyet Gazetesi [published online in Turkish 8 August 2016].

[2] See for example: “Ramazan Abdulatipov yakoby okazal sodeystviye v vosstanovlenii otnosheniy mezhdu liderami Rossii i Turtsii.” Seryy zhurnal [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. http://kopomko.ru/ramazan-abdulatipov-yakobyi-okazal-sodeystvie-v-vosstanovlenii-otnosheniy-mezhdu-liderami-rossii-i-turtsii/. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[3] “Negocieri secrete. Cum au reuşit Turcia şi Rusia să-şi restabilească relaţiile.” Publika.md [published online in Romanian 9 August 2016]. http://www.publika.md/negocieri-secrete-cum-au-reusit-turcia-si-rusia-sa-si-restabileasca-relatiile_2708501.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[4] “Putin: Rossiya i Turtsiya vystupayut za vozobnovleniye dvustoronnikh otnosheniy.” Novaya Gazeta [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. http://www.novayagazeta.ru/news/1705969.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[5] ” Putin v razgovore s Erdoganom zayavil o nedopustimosti antikonstitutsionnykh deystviy.” TASS [published online in Russian 17 July 2016]. http://tass.ru/politika/3462009. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[6] ” Putin’den Erdoğan’a telefon.” Hürriyet Gazetesi [published online in Turkish 17 July 2016]. http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/putinden-erdogana-telefon-40150943. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[7] See for example: “Putin’den Erdoğan’a: Anayasaya aykırı hiçbir eylem kabul edilemez.” İleri Haber [published online in Turkish 17 July 2016]. http://ilerihaber.org/icerik/putinden-erdogana-anayasaya-aykiri-hicbir-eylem-kabul-edilemez-56902.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[8] For example see: “Putin po telefonu obsudil s Merkel’ i Netan’yakhu ukrainskiye sobytiya.” Vesti.ru [published online in Russian 16 April 2014]. http://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=1483262. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[9] “Ukraina na krayu. Vozmozhnyye stsenarii razvitiya sobytiy.” Vechernyaya Moskva [published online in Russian 24 January 2014]. http://vm.ru/news/2014/01/24/ukraina-na-krayu-232373.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[10] One of the best descriptions of the events surrounding Mr. Öcalan’s flight and capture was published in the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s Studies in Intelligence series. See: Miron Varouhakis (2009). “Fiasco in Nairobi: Greek Intelligence and the Capture of PKK Leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.” Studies in Intelligence. 53:1. https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol53no1/fiasco-in-nairobi.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[11] A Russian language report about the Hürriyet Gazetesi article stated that the language of President Erdoğan’s letter in Russian used words that were ” stronger than ‘sorry’ but not as strong as ‘apology’.” Mr. Putin, it wrote, “approved the text, despite the fact that he found it a little closer to the Turkish position, because he read it as a request for forgiveness.” See: “Ramazan Abdulatipov vsplyl v istorii s izvineniyami Redzhepa Erdogana pered Vladimirom Putinym.” On Kavkaz [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. http://onkavkaz.com/articles/2781-ramazan-abdulatipov-vsplyl-v-istorii-s-izvinenijami-redzhepa-erdogana-pered-vladimirom-putinym.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[12] Gallia Lindenstrauss & Zvi Magen (2016). “The Russian-Turkish Reset.” FPRI E-Note 8 August 2016. http://www.fpri.org/article/2016/08/russian-turkish-reset/. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[13] According to the European Commission Fact Sheet dated 4 April 2016, “On 18 March 2016, EU Heads of State or Government and Turkey agreed to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU and replace it instead with legal channels of resettlement of refugees to the European Union. The aim is to replace disorganised, chaotic, irregular and dangerous migratory flows by organised, safe and legal pathways to Europe for those entitled to international protection in line with EU and international law. The agreement took effect as of 20 March 2016.” It provides for unauthorized migrants to be returned to Turkey and for Turkey to block “nee sea or land routes for irregular migration.” In exchange, Turkey received a payment in the amount of EU payment of €3bn (USD3.3bn). http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-16-1221_en.htm. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[14] “Turtsiya postavila EC ul’timatum po bezhentsam.” Lenta [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. https://lenta.ru/news/2016/08/09/stop_implementing_agreement/. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

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Turkey’s Greater Unknowns

On July 15 at approximately 10 PM, an attempted coup d’etat was staged by elements of Turkey’s military. Parliament and the presidential palace were bombed. An assassination attempt was made on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tanks took to streets, seizing the Bosphorus Bridge, now renamed the 15 July Martyrs Bridge in memory of the 230 Turks who died that night. Surviving the attack, Erdogan implored people to take to streets in response. Of the deceased, 145 were people protesting the attempt.

A 90-day state of emergency has been declared, giving the state sweeping powers in its pursuit of those allegedly complicit in the action. To date, approximately 60,000 soldiers, police officers, teachers, and civil servants have been suspended, detained, or placed under investigation. 6,000 arrested in a sweep anti-Gulen dragnet. 2,431 schools, unions, charities, and health care centers have been closed. Thirty-five percent (124 of 358) of Turkey’s generals and admirals are under arrest. Forty-two journalists were indicted. Gulen-related businesses are being shuttered. The government suspended the European Human Rights Convention. There are calls to reintroduce the death penalty.

The military and other state institutions have been significantly weakened and are now vulnerable. This is happening while jihadists kill scores of Turkish civilians, outright war is being fought against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgents in the southeast, and the Turkish military is nominally engaged in the coalition against ISIS.

What is the likelihood of Fetullah Gulen’s extradition?

Fetullah Gulen is the clerical leader of the global Hizmet. A murky Islamic-social-educational movement comprised of various service-based organizations, its unifying theme is interfaith and cultural dialogue.  Gulen provides spiritual and executive direction from his Pennsylvania estate, where he has lived in exile since 1999. While Gulen was an erstwhile ally of the ruling AK Party (AKP), Erdogan is at present placing all blame for the attempted coup on Gulen and his followers and has asked the US to extradite him to Turkey.

The US and Turkey have had an extradition treaty since 1979. Officials at the Department of Justice are responding to Turkey’s extradition request. The Turkish state will have to bear the burden of proof, which includes an arrest warrant, statement of facts, and evidence that the offense is prosecutable in the US, although it occurred in Turkey. In sum, it is possible.

Current and past efforts to evidence crimes against the state were a categorical mockery; i.e. in the Sledgehammer cases of 2012, prosecutors presented the alleged 2003 coup plans on documents generated by Microsoft Word 2007. AKP needs to do better than that to win in a US federal magistrate’s court. And if Amnesty International can verify the accusations of suspected coup-plotters being beaten, raped, and tortured, then submitted confessions won’t count for much.

In case of no extradition – What’s the impact on US-Turkey relations?

If a federal judge denies the extradition request, the judgment will likely be problematic for US-Turkey relations. The latter will see it as a political decision, rather than a genuine legal ruling.

At greatest risk would be the end the government’s (i.e. the ruling and two largest opposition parties’) tolerance of continued US material and financial support of a ground force highly effective in killing ISIS recruits in Syria – the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Then, there’s the US Air Force’s use of the Incirlik air base in southeast Turkey, from which at least 25 sorties are flown daily. Without it, American strike capabilities in Syria would be drastically limited.

Finally, there’s the concern of Turkey withdrawing from NATO. The USSR is no more, anti-Americanism is running exceptionally high, the European Community staggers from crisis to crisis (and it is not likely Turks believe they’ll someday be living in an EU Member State, according to polls), so what’s the point as long as there is trade? Diminished sovereignty in exchange for what, exactly?

Yet another go at alliances on eastern horizons?

Something rather extraordinary happened in late 2013. After centuries of wars between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, topped off with decades of teeth bared at the border between the USSR and Turkey, then prime minister Erdogan proposed the idea of a Turkish bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Comprising member states such as Russia, China, and Uzbekistan, this Eurasian political, military, and economic group is as far in aims and practices from the EU as it is geographically. Primarily a swipe at the EU’s foot-dragging on Turkey’s EU membership accession process, it nonetheless struck a rather anxious chord in the West.

Fed up with constant cries of an increasingly “authoritarian” Turkey in the halls of European capitals, worn of limited sovereignty, and boiling mad over what will be a lengthy extradition process regardless, might Erdogan throw up his hands and be done with whole affair?

And enmity between Turkey and Russia over the former’s downing of the latter’s jet in November last year? Well, a genuinely authoritarian Turkey would be a boon to the geostrategic interests of Putin, whose cronies seize each and every opportunity to weaken the Trans-Atlantic Alliance and the EU. Values are a feel-good luxury when one is a political animal of such ruthless caliber. Case in point: Erdogan finally came around to apologizing for the affair to Putin just last month and is set to fly to Moscow on August 9.

Is a broader witch hunt coming?

This remains to be seen. If the ruling party’s previous court-approved purges such as Ergenekon and the aforementioned Sledgehammer afford a guide, then the spies are in the shadows and evil-doers at every pass. The sheer magnitude of detentions, arrests, and investigations suggest that a greater net may be soon cast.  

Yet there is a silver lining. Turkish entities once considered enemies of AKP rejected the attempt outright. Backed into a corner, Erdogan took full advantage of the video chat application FaceTime—despite his repeated attacks on social media—to call citizens to the streets. This was broadcast live by CNN-Turk, previously lambasted by the president with accusations of working to undermine the government. On July 24 the main opposition party CHP and AKP held the joint “Republic and Democracy” rally in Istanbul on the following day. The following Monday, Erdogan met with the leaders of all major political parties (except the People’s Democratic Party – HDP) to discuss post-coup plans and measures. Could the base for a limited-but-unifying common ground be forming in a society otherwise toxically divided?

Consider that Turks of every political and social color came out in solidarity to protest the Friday coup attempt. The message was this:  We’re done. We’ve moved on from those days. Our rights to democratically participate in our own governance won’t be denied yet again.

These are the same Turks who voted down the mighty AKP in June 2015, forcing them to try to form a coalition government after years of parliamentary dominance. Why? AKP was bruised by corruption scandals and, perhaps more importantly, polls consistently indicated that Turks were weary of their president’s efforts to corral and then enlarge executive powers. Unfortunately, the renewed war with the PKK in the south changed that trend with November’s elections. People quite like stability, after all. Yet coupled with last summer’s election and strikingly unified stances taken on and after July 15, there is a genuine sign of hope, and one most deserving of our respect.

Editor’s Note: In view of the current ambiguities in Turkey concerning academics and journalists, the author wishes to remain anonymous.

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What Should We Make Of The Islamic State’s Ramadan Wave Of Violence?

The Islamic State has taken the final week of Ramadan to make a big statement: “We will not go quietly.” In the last seven days the terror group has shown that a “wounded Islamic State is a dangerous Islamic State” lashing out in an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings and other attacks around the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia.

smoke

The Islamic State’s gradual decline in Syria and Iraq has finally brought a long expected shift in the group’s tactics from conventional military operations back towards insurgencies paired with regional and international terror attacks. The Islamic State overtook al Qaeda by declaring a caliphate and has since surpassed their forefathers as a terror group by executing a daily string of directed and networked attacks in six countries while narrowly missing in a seventh.

Here’s a quick recap of the Islamic State’s Ramadan Campaign. (For an explanation of the directed versus networked taxonomy see “Directed, Networked and Inspired: The Muddled Jihad of ISIS and al Qaeda Post Hebdo.” I’m estimating whether these attacks are directed or networked based upon available open source information. These classifications may change as further information arises.)

June 27 to July 5: The Islamic State’s Cascading Terrorism

Success breeds success for the Islamic State and their directed suicide assaults seek to amplify their image, rally their base during a down time, and inspire their supporters to undertake further violence in their name. Here’s what the Islamic State has perpetrated in short order.

Interestingly, only two of the above attacks do not involve a suicide operation – Bangladesh and Malaysia. Jama’at ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a group connected with the Islamic State, but not a formal wilayat, had until recently only perpetrated targeted sectarian assassinations and this attack appears to not only be a major, violent step forward for the group but also seems more reminiscent of the Paris attacks and other international hostage seizures. Association of the Malaysian grenade attack with the Islamic State would also be a new trend regionally. In both cases, these peripheral attacks in South and Southeast Asia show the lesser capability of these distant Islamic State associates. It’s difficult to tell at this point whether they don’t have the capability to perpetrate suicide bombings or the personnel willing to execute such attacks.

Ultimately, the Islamic State has cascaded its terror attacks striking one target in a different country each day. Will it inspire attacks globally? Only time will tell, but possibly not. Western media has paid short attention to these attacks with the exception of the Istanbul airport. As al Murabitoon and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb learned with its Western African terror campaign post Paris, Western media coverage endures when Westerners are killed in the West, all other attacks have less value.

Here are some other items of note from this past week’s terror campaign.

The Islamic State against all enemies – Muslim, Christian, Shi’a, Sunni, Arab, Western

Some have incorrectly suggested that the Islamic State nimbly focuses its attacks predominately against Westerners or certain audiences. This week’s Islamic State attacks and resulting deaths point to the opposite conclusion: all enemies of the Islamic State are targets and Muslims have suffered the worst. In Saudi Arabia alone, the Islamic State hit near a Western consulate, a Shi’a mosque and a Sunni holy site. Lebanon saw targeting of Christians. Bangladesh brought a focus on Westerners. The Istanbul attack killed mostly Muslims. Yemen and Saudi Arabia saw the Islamic State concentrating on security forces. Each Islamic State affiliate may pick and choose certain targets for local reasons but as an aggregate, no one faith or ethnicity is spared from the Islamic State’s wanton violence.

Islamic State’s Remaining Fighters: Die In Place Or Go Out With A Bang?

The Islamic State lost Fallujah last week and some of its members that tried to escape were pulverized in massive airstrikes. Many Islamic State foreign fighters can’t return home or have no Islamic State affiliate to drift back to. For those homeless foreign fighters, the choice is simple: they can either die in place fighting for a crumbling caliphate or they can go out as martyrs striking their homelands or a regional or international targets. The Islamic State owns the largest number of homeless foreign fighters in history. As the group loses turf, they’ll likely become part of the largest human missile arsenal in history and be directed against any and all soft targets they can reach. This campaign is likely not the end of the Islamic State’s suicide campaign, but only the beginning.

 Foreign Fighters Go As Far As Their Passports Will Take Them

 Last winter, the West suffered from the Islamic State’s decision to allegedly dispatch hundreds of European foreign fighters back to their homelands. Paris and Brussels burned and operatives across a host of European countries were arrested. Western passport holders and those hidden in refugee flows pushed as far as they could to hit high profile soft targets. Turkey struggled for years with foreign fighters passing easily through their borders into Syria and fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia found the country quite permissible, likely facilitating this past week’s Russian-speaking suicide bombers. Richard Engel reported that as many as 35 operatives were recently dispatched into Turkey alone. The Yemeni and Saudi attacks focused more heavily on security forces and were likely perpetrated by Islamic State pledges from their respective countries and possibly a Pakistani. The bottom line: the Islamic State is sending its bombers to the locations where they can achieve the biggest results. They are not in short supply of Western, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, or Russian operatives – expect more suicide attacks in places that al Qaeda only dreamed of reaching.

Strong Counterterrorism Matters: The Islamic State Preys On The Weak

Those countries with stronger counterterrorism and security apparatuses have fared the best this past week. The Saudis, long known for squelching terrorists in their midst, sustained far fewer deaths than other countries hit this week. Iraq, despite years of investment, seems unable to protect itself from suicide attacks with yet another massive suicide bombing. Lebanon and Bangladesh, two locations of rising promise for the Islamic State (see Figure 1), have weaker security environments and local conditions ripe for extremism. The Islamic State will likely learn from this past week and exploit those places where they got the greatest return on their investment.

Is The Islamic State Looking For An Exit Strategy?

In conclusion, the Islamic State’s rapid pace of violence may come at a time when they need to find a new home for the brand. Their caliphate revenues and oil production continue to dry up. They will need to shift to illicit schemes and donations to survive. Successful attacks attract investors: will this latest string of violence bring money? Probably not, but what this rampant violence can do is signal to Islamic State’s central leadership which affiliates are still committed to the Islamic State brand. Affiliates, existing or emerging, may want to carry on the Islamic State’s vision outside of Syria and Iraq. Much like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was for the al Qaeda Central during their downturn, Islamic State Central will need an affiliate to carry the black banner forward or their caliphate experiment will crumble as fast as it was created.

ISIS affiliates Figure 1

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Turkey’s Parliamentary System has a Presidential Stage-Manager

In the summer of 2015, I wrote a profile of Turkey’s electoral system and noted the following:

“In essence, the [June] 2015 election was not only a high stakes gamble for the Kurds, it was also a referendum on Erdoğan himself and his ability to affect the structure of the Turkish electoral system.”

Nearly a year later, on May 5th of 2016, Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was pressured by strongman Erdoğan to resign from his position, and on May 22nd the seemingly more pliable Binali Yildirim was elected in his place as the leader of the AKP and new prime minister of Turkey.

Ancient World Map of Turkey

Meanwhile, on May 20th, Turkey’s parliament voted in favor of a law that will lift the legislative immunity of 138 parliamentarians, allowing them to be prosecuted for outstanding offenses, whereas before they were protected. While the parliamentarians who will now be subject to prosecution are not all from one party, the law is clearly meant to target members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) whose two co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, both face potential prosecution.

The international community is not blind to the connection between these two developments or to the concerning tendencies of the man pulling the strings behind them both: Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan.

For some time now, it has been apparent that Erdoğan has harbored aspirations to increase the executive power of the president in Turkey. Yet, in response to the obstacles he has encountered in his quest to formally—that is, constitutionally—change Turkey’s government structure from a parliamentary to a presidential system, Erdoğan’s tactics have become increasingly varied and unconventional.

Until he is able to obtain the political capital to overhaul the parliamentary system completely, Erdoğan has busied himself by slowly chipping away at it from within by increasing his own de facto power, ignoring rules meant to ensure a separation of powers, and manipulating the political landscape to set the stage for a constitutional referendum.

Erodgan’s plan for the June 2015 elections was for the AKP (the party which he had formerly led and of which he is still the unofficial leader, despite the fact that the Turkish president is, by law, not allowed to be affiliated with any political party) to win enough seats in the parliament to constitutionally transform Turkey into a presidential system. In terms of numbers, this means that he was hoping for the AKP to win 367 out of 500 parliamentary seats to unilaterally pass the measure. Or, in a more likely scenario, he hoped to garner the support of 330 out of the 500 parliamentary votes in favor of changing the constitution in order to send the measure to the Turkish people in a public referendum.

Yet last summer Erdoğan fell well short of his goal in large part due to an aspect unique to Turkey’s electoral system: the country’s extremely high electoral threshold.

At 10%, Turkey’s electoral threshold is the highest in the world, meaning that a party must win a minimum of 10% of the total vote in order to earn any seats in the parliament. In most countries with a threshold, that number is closer to 5%. This excludes smaller-sized parties from participating in the parliament while over-representing larger parties.

In the June 2015 election, Kurdish candidates who had previously run as independent candidates out of fear of not reaching the 10% threshold should they have run as a party, decided to run for the first time as the HDP. The Kurds won 13.1% of the vote, securing 80 seats in parliament, while the AKP only managed to win 258 seats.

A snap election was held in November of 2015 after a summer of violent clashes between the Turkish government and Kurdish nationalists as well as coalition talks that failed to lead to the formation of a functional government. The November election led to results more favorable for Erdoğan, but still not sufficient for amending the constitution. The AKP won 317 seats (still short of the 330 needed for a public referendum), the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) won 134 seats and 40 seats respectively, and the Kurdish HDP won 59 seats after just surpassing the electoral threshold with 10.7% of the vote.

***

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Erdoğan’s newest pawn, has not been subtle about his intentions in the position. Just after he assumed office, he gave a speech in which he stated:

“The most important mission we have today is to legalize the de facto situation, to bring to an end this confusion by changing the constitution…The new constitution will be on an executive presidential system.”

It is becoming more and more apparent that Turkey has a parliamentary system on paper but has become a presidential state in practice. Turkey is not the only country masquerading as something that it is not. Brazil has a presidential system that, because of the high number of operational parties, acts as a de facto parliamentary system. As Brazil experiences its own political controversies, this has raised some interesting questions about how to oust an unpopular leader within this convoluted political system.

The biggest problem with Turkey is that its de facto presidential system seems to be teetering on the edge of authoritarianism and nobody is sure quite how far Erdoğan will go in his quest for power.

There is no doubt that a referendum and constitutional change is the strongest and longest-lasting method for changing the Turkish system from a parliamentary to a presidential one. This still seems to be Erdoğan’s goal, yet the developments of the past month show that there are other political tools that Erdoğan is using to slowly change the way the Turkish government operates and, more troublingly, to concentrate his own political power.

Last June I thought the success of the HDP had quelled Erdoğan’s presidential aspirations, at least in the short-term; today, I feel there is little that will stop him.

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Is Turkey’s Military Reentering Politics?

Hulusi Akar, the recently selected chief of Turkey’s military, confronts a very tense, if not perilous environment. His August appointment occurred amid political uncertainty and increased security concerns. The Turkish government has been at a virtual standstill since last June’s general election, unable to forge a viable coalition based on the results. Shortly thereafter, after a 2 ½ year ceasefire, fighting renewed between Ankara and the Kurdish separatist PKK movement, reigniting a bloody struggle which has cost an estimated 40,000 lives over the past thirty years. Economic uncertainty adds to the nation’s anxiety, along with neighboring Syria’s strategic and humanitarian dilemmas. Another national vote is scheduled for November 1, but recent polling shows little if any change per voter sentiments.

In the past, such circumstances would have prompted the Turkish military to express serious concerns as to how the country was being managed. If civilian authority didn’t heed these warnings, a coup d’etat would usually ensue.  The last thirteen years of Islamist rule has effectively ended the military’s political interventions, albeit by questionable means.  Then Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) launched a series of investigations that accused the armed forces and alleged civilian cohorts of plotting to overthrow their duly elected government.  These probes are riddled with controversy, begetting trials which have purged large swaths of senior officers from the various branches. The overall result has subjugated the Turkish military to non-political status, ostensibly creating a new generation of leadership that respects civilian governance by not meddling in it.

General Akar represents this changing of the guard. His philosophical bearings noticeably differ from his predecessors, especially concerning Islamist politics. Prior to the AKP’s ascendance, religious activism was a red flag for the officer corps.  There are several episodes in Turkey’s political history where the military deemed Islamist-based organizations to be threatening the nation’s secularist precepts and subsequently were disbanded. A decade plus of the AKP’s governance has effectively chastened the armed forces disposition on this matter.

A more pressing topic for the military these days is national unity.   The renewed hostilities with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) while there’s political impasse raises various questions and concerns throughout Turkish society. Heightening the uncertainty is the increased presence of homegrown radical jihadist networks within Turkey. Much of their material and financial support comes via next-door Syria as well as Iraq, denoting lax, if not compromised border security. (A similar observation can be made about the massive outflow of Syrian refugees from Turkey’s Aegean provinces towards Europe.) Together, the Kurdish and border issues convey an overall impression of teetering state authority.

Another indication of growing restiveness recently appeared at several funerals for soldiers and policemen killed in the latest round of battling the PKK. Their burials have become an outlet for voicing discontent with the current state of affairs. Much of the disgruntling has been directed at Mr. Erdogan, whom mourners accuse of deliberately instigating combat for his own political purposes. The most prominent case occurred at an August funeral ceremony when a uniformed Lieutenant Colonel accused Erdogan of being responsible for his younger brother’s death. It was a widely televised incident, yet pro-government media outlets avoided reporting the officer’s protest and overall clamor. In order to avoid further embarrassment, Ankara subsequently restricted access to these interments, thereby curbing journalistic coverage. Additional methods have been employed to offset the protests via government-friendly social media networks (who accused the Lieutenant General of being a “terrorist” and “PKK sympathizer”) and indictments.

What’s particularly noteworthy about the funeral demonstrations is that they are happening in areas soundly supportive of Mr. Erdogan’s policies. While the AKP effectively represent these citizen’s interests, many questions have arisen about the ceasefire’s collapse and the underlying motives which caused it.

There’s a broad consensus that Mr. Erdogan created the present atmosphere in order to avenge last June’s election results. The  Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) foiled plans that would have allowed Erdogan greater executive authority.  The HDP’s higher than expected vote tally came at the expense of Erdogan’s AKP, ending the latter’s one party dominance since 2003. Adding insult to injury, the HDP is a Kurdish-oriented party that serves as the PKK’s political representative. When Mr. Erdogan was Prime Minister, he took an enlightened stance towards the HDP/PKK arrangement. As President Erdogan, it’s been a complete reversal. The HDP is no longer viewed as an emissary seeking a peaceful solution to Turkey’s Kurdish situation, but a political opponent whose eighty parliamentary seats block the path to an autocratic presidency.

A campaign to discredit HDP is underway which aims at exploiting its PKK connection. There are indications that the PKK wasn’t surprised by recent events and were readily prepared for a new round of warfare.  Nevertheless, analysts believe Mr. Erdogan is taking a huge gamble that will result in a  Pyrrhic victory. The military recognizes what’s at stake and has so far refrained from overstepping boundaries that have been established during the AKP’s reign.  This could change however, depending upon the November 1st election results.

Postscript:

The horrific bombing which recently occurred in Ankara has further heightened pre-election tensions. Indications point to Islamic extremists being responsible for the attack, namely as a warning about Turkey’s Syria policy. The incident has also widened AKP/HDP hostilities. There is a general consensus that the government didn’t adequately safeguard the largely Kurdish gathering. The claim has become politicized with both the HDP and AKP accusing each other of complicity with the operation. Instead of a nation uniting over this tragedy, societal polarization prevails.

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