Tensions in Turkey ahead of November vote re-run – Nikkei Asian Review



Street close to President Erdoğan's homeplace of Kasimpaşa in Istanbul (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Street close to President Erdoğan’s homeplace of Kasimpaşa in Istanbul (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

ISTANBUL — When the office of Hurriyet, a major Turkish newspaper, was attacked by a crowd of around 200 stone-throwing supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sept. 6, Emre Kizilkaya was not surprised.

Kizilkaya, managing editor of Hurriyet’s English edition, says that press freedom in Turkey “has declined dramatically” since the long ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to win an overall majority in June elections and the country lurched toward civil war.

      After the vote, fighting resumed between the Turkish military and the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), breaking a two-year ceasefire. In the worst violence in the region since the 1990s, more than 100 soldiers and police have been killed since June in Turkey’s southeast, where many of the country’s estimated 15 million Kurds live.

Kurdish militias in Iraq and Syria have led the fight against the self-described Islamic State, earning admiration in the West but prompting concerns in Ankara that Kurdish gains elsewhere are emboldening Kurds in Turkey, where they make up around 18% of the population.

“In this climate of war, media has been affected, with many critical columnists forced out of newspapers and pro-government media accusing independent media, such as ours, of ‘terrorism’,” Kizilkaya told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Erdogan on Sept. 28 accused Hurriyet owner Aydin Dogan of “robbing the country,” an indication of the president’s animus toward his country’s media.

Vote again
Another election has been scheduled for Nov. 1, ostensibly because parties failed to agree a coalition government after the inconclusive June vote.

The AKP won 40.9%, making it comfortably the biggest party, but not enough for its preferred option of forming a majority government. A single-party government would enable the AKP to amend the constitution and allow Erdogan, who was prime minister from 2003 to 2014, to regain executive powers under a revamped presidency.

Part of the reason the AKP did not extend its 13 years of single-party government was a historical gain for the Kurdish-dominated People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which won 13% of the vote in the June election. That was the first time a Kurdish party exceeded the 10% vote threshold for parties to take their seats in Turkey’s parliament.

But after the June vote, as the army and the PKK targeted each other, Erdogan accused the HDP of close ties with the PKK, which is deemed a terrorist group by the U.S. and European Union

Turkish nationalist mobs attacked dozens of HDP offices across Turkey, and on Sept. 17, an estimated 100,000 people took to the streets of Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city, to denounce the PKK, which Erdogan claims has lost more than 2,000 fighters in army counter-attacks.

In a Sept. 28 televised speech, the president signalled that the army offensive, which includes airstrikes on PKK hideouts inside Iraq, would continue. “We will keep on fighting relentlessly until the very end and God willing, we will reach the peace we have been longing for,” Erdogan said.

But the HDP believes that the increase in violence and media repression since June is down to the AKP’s determination to win an overall majority — that Turkish voters will opt for a return to single party rule in the face of rising separatist violence and ongoing civil wars in neighboring Iraq and Syria.

“Erdogan escalated violence to create an unstable environment so he can manipulate the electorate into backing single party rule,” said Hisyar Ozsoy, a HDP MP, who accused the president of breaching the Turkish constitution by campaigning for the AKP.

“He is president and therefore should not be involved in the election,” Ozsoy told the NAR.

No change

Opinion polls conducted since the June election hint that a repeat result is likely in the upcoming election, in turn suggesting that unless parties can form a coalition government after Nov. 1, continued instability — and repression — is likely.

“I expect the AKP will drop a little below 40%, while the HDP will again pass the threshold,” said Behlul Ozkan, of the Department of International Relations at Marmara University.

“If they get the same result, it is difficult to see who will form a coalition government with the AKP,” Ozkan told the NAR.

The AKP has previously campaigned on its successes in reviving Turkey’s construction and tourism dependent economy, which grew at an average of 7%-8% per year 2003 to 2008. But with the lira this year dropping to record lows against the dollar and growth now half the pre-2008 average, the AKP is unlikely to have much success playing the economic card this time around.

Gezi Park in Istanbul, scene of massive protests in mid 2013 which prompted a harsh crackdown by the Erdoğan government (Photo: Simon Roughneen

Gezi Park in Istanbul, scene of massive protests in mid 2013 which prompted a harsh crackdown by the Erdoğan government (Photo: Simon Roughneen

European question

Turkey is in the Group of 20 with an economy roughly the same size as the Netherlands, and has long sought to join the European Union. Accession talks started a decade ago — three years after  the AKP won power — but have more recently stalled. The EU has been convulsed since 2008 by internal economic woes, most notably in Turkey’s neighbor — and sometime enemy — Greece. Rising anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment in several EU member states have also made the bloc less receptive to granting membership to a majority Muslim country of 80 million people.

And while the EU has granted membership to countries such as Bulgaria and Romania — where corruption remains widespread, according to a 2014 European Commission report — Erdogan’s heavy-handed reaction to corruption allegations against the AKP has further eroded prospects of Turkish accession to the EU.

Corruption allegations against the AKP surfaced in 2013, but were brushed off by Erdogan, who dismissed the claims as part of a coup plot fomented by U.S.-based Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally.

Erdogan has since purged an estimated 40,000 personnel, perceived as supporters of Gulen, from Turkey’s state bureaucracy, according to a report authored by British lawyers.

Part of the reason the June elections did not lead to a coalition government was due to the push by the three other parties with parliamentary seats to re-open stalled investigations into AKP corruption.

And foreshadowing this year’s post-election media crackdown, Turkey’s press was targeted in the aftermath of the 2013 corruption allegations, with dozens of journalists arrested and intermittent blackouts imposed on Twitter.

Official crackdowns, both pre and post election, are likely to feature in the EU’s upcoming progress report on Turkey’s membership application, scheduled to be published in Nov.

Flagging its concerns however, the European Commission on Sept. 18 described the government’s move to open criminal proceedings against the Dogan Media Group as “the latest in a series of disquieting infringements of media freedom within Turkey.”

Frenemies in need

Despite the accession stand-off, the EU needs to maintain good relations with Turkey, which hosts more than 2 million Syrian refugees and is a transit country for migrants trying to reach Europe from Asia. In recent months, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and other migrants have been using Turkey as a staging post to reach Europe – prompting recriminations between EU member states.

The bloc has offered increased financial assistance to Turkey, which has spent $7.6 billion since 2011 on supporting refugees from war-wracked Syria. Suggested trade-offs reported in European and Turkish media include the granting of visa free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens in return for Turkey’s help in stemming the flow of migrants to Europe. The Turkish government however wants the West to set up a safe zone for refugees in northern Syria, in territory currently held by Kurdish militias.

Increased assistance to Turkey and other refugee host countries should offset the flow of migrants to Europe. “Additional assistance in countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan can help foster the social and economic conditions where migrants are less likely to make the dangerous and costly journey to Europe,” said Abby Dwommoh, the spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration in Turkey.

But even if NATO member Turkey comes to terms with the EU over refugees, it may not be enough to revive EU accession prospects. As well as facing fire over growing restrictions on press freedom at home, Turkey has been criticized for turning a blind eye to militants passing through its territory en route to Syria, and for refusing to support Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq in their fight against the Islamic State group.

Those policies have put Ankara at odds with the U.S. and Europe., though Turkey and the U.S. on October 2 jointly expressed their “deep concern” at Russian air strikes on Syrian opposition fighters. Turkey and the U.S. want to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who is supported militarily by Russia and Iran.

“Turkey’s inability to present a coherent stance of its outlook and policies vis a vis its neighborhood is reinforcing its potential isolation and reducing its value as a relatively stable and prosperous country in the region,” said Sumru Altug, professor of economics at Koc University.

“Turkey’s value to the European Union as a democratic and stable lynchpin in the Middle East is also diminishing,” said Altug.

Recep Tayip Erdoğan Stadium, built in Kasimpaşa in Istanbul, where President Erdoğan grew up (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Stadium, built in Kasimpaşa in Istanbul, where President Erdoğan grew up (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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