Erdogan is on the brink of ultimate power, but Turkey is falling apart

The biggest losers are the Turkish people, as critics and political opponents of the President's regime are labelled ‘traitors’ and ‘terrorists’

Until 2002, when the AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power, Turkey was doing pretty well in following Kemal Atatürk’s dictum: “peace at home, peace abroad”. Admittedly, there were three military coups between 1960 and 1980 to keep Turkey on track, together with ‘a soft coup’ in 1997. But the country was still a respected member of NATO with prospects - however distant - of EU membership.

With the advent of the AKP under the leadership of a former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, things started to unravel. The AKP presented itself as a Western, reformist, neo-liberal and secular party, and, as late as 2012, 16 EU foreign ministers drooled that Turkey was “an inspirational example of a secular and democratic country”. But as the deputy chair of the opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party), Faruk Logoglu, pointed out, their perception of the state of affairs in Turkey was “sadly out of focus”, and ignored the fact that the AKP government pursued an authoritarian policy of gradual Islamisation, leading to the erosion of Turkish democracy and secularism.

Turkey’s foreign minister and now Prime Minister, Professor Ahmet Davutoglu, replaced Atatürk’s dictum with “zero problems with neighbours” and a grandiose vision of Turkey’s role in the world. It was also Davutoglu who inspired Erdogan with neo-Ottoman fantasies. 

Consequently, Turkey is now at loggerheads with all its neighbours, in particular Syria, and has even managed to alienate Russia after the shooting down of the Su-24 in November. At home, in his pursuit of untrammeled power, Erdogan has provoked a civil war which threatens to dismantle the Turkey Atatürk and his fellow nationalists created.

In 2005, Erdogan was hailed as the first Turkish leader to acknowledge there was a Kurdish question, and in 2013, after secret talks with the PKK, their imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan called for a ceasefire. In February last year the AKP government and the Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) agreed on a 10-point plan to end the conflict, but after the HDP gained 13 percent of the vote in June’s election and threatened to block his plans for an executive presidency, Erdogan disowned the agreement.

Prior to the election, there were more than 130 attacks on the HDP’s offices, vehicles and supporters, culminating in two bombs at a rally in Diyarbakir, the capital of the Kurdish southeast. A similar attack in the Kurdish border town of Suruc on 20 July, killing 33 activists, reignited the conflict with the PKK, as the government was suspected of having a hand in the attack.

The twin bombs at the HDP’s rally in Ankara on 10 October, which killed 102 people, reinforced these suspicions, as there were links to the two previous attacks, but President Erdogan claimed this was a collective act, involving ISIS, the PKK, the Syrian intelligence agency, Mukhabarat, and the Syrian counterpart to the PKK, the PYD (Democratic Union Party).         

However, the PKK’s youth wing, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), declared autonomy in a number of towns in the southeast and dug ditches and built barricades to repel government forces. Many civilian casualties have been caused by what Human Rights Watch has termed “the abusive and disproportionate use of force”, where the populations of towns under siege have been left without food, water, electricity and medical help and 200,000 people have been forced to leave their homes.

For President Erdogan this is a zero sum game until - in his words - the Kurdish militants are finally annihilated. In the November re-election, Erdogan called for Turkey’s support in a war on terror, which resulted in the AKP government once again being able to form a single-party government with the support of half the electorate. According to veteran Turkish journalist Kadri Gürsel, the credit should go to Erdogan as “the architect of an exceptional tactical victory achieved with Machiavellian cunning”.

The losers are the Turkish people, as Erdogan has cracked down on every form of dissent, calling critics and political opponents ‘traitors’ and ‘terrorists’. The AKP now has 317 out of the Turkish parliament’s 550 seats, and a new election could be held to gain the 330 seats needed to hold a referendum on a change to the constitution, giving Erdogan the ultimate power he has so long hankered after.

Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press