What is more tragic is Europe’s ambivalent response to Turkey’s ongoing crackdown on political freedoms, as Brussels struggles to find a solution to its own racist and Islamophobic constituencies amidst the refugee crisis. Brussels seems more willing than ever to shake hands with authoritarianism.
By Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp
Turkish democracy is sick. Journalists are imprisoned, pro-peace academics are forced to resign from their seats and are subjected to terrorism charges; opposition newspapers are confiscated by the government, the violence in the south east is at an all time high, with photos of destruction reminiscent of the siege of Sarajevo. How did a country once praised for its model democracy revert back to authoritarianism? There are two obvious culprits for this failure: Turkey’s failed policies in the Syrian Civil War and Erdogan’s political ambitions.
The long drawn-out Civil War in Syria is approaching its endgame as Russia’s direct support to the Assad Regime has changed the game plan for the opposition and its supporters in the West and in the Middle East. However, Turkey emerges as the biggest loser after four and a half years of unconditional political support to the losing Islamist fundamentalists, while rising prospects of defeat seriously upsets decision-makers in Ankara. The AKP government, President Erdogan and the Turkish Military look for ways to mitigate the negative consequences of the Syrian fallout through a method that’s been tried before: cracking down on Kurdish PKK militants. This is where Erdogan’s ambitions for authoritarian regime change coincides with the Turkish military establishment’s concerns for the territorial integrity of the country.
Turkish military has the second largest standing army in NATO; it has traditionally followed a non-interventionist strategy in the face of crises in its immediate neighborhood. The military’s main focus has been on internal security threats, mainly the Kurdish militants in the South East. Since the early eighties, the military has been waging an anti-guerilla warfare on the mountains and, more recently, in urban centers. The Kurdish peace process that lasted between December 2013 and July 2015 had raised hopes among many in the region that finally a durable peace plan may be at hand. During the negotiations the military was ordered to stand down and not carry out any pre-emptive actions against the PKK’s organization across the Kurdish-dominated cities as part of a possible peace deal. Erdogan, who was already campaigning for regime change in favor of a strong presidential system, thought that the Kurdish political movement would support his bid in return for autonomy on the ground in the South East. Nonetheless, the pro-Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party) launched an electoral campaign against Erdogan’s presidency and managed to garner 13% of the overall electorate in both east and west Turkey in the June 2015 general elections.
Erdogan interpreted this as an insult to his political persona and called the peace deal off. What infuriated Erdogan’s ego was not necessarily the electoral victory of the HDP, but rather its victory built on an anti-Erdogan platform. Call it coincidence, but in the immediate aftermath of the June elections, a period of uncertainty captivated Turkish domestic politics. The coalition negotiations fell apart, and amidst a series of terrorist attacks on peaceful rallies, the Turkish military intensified its crack down on PKK targets in Northern Iraq Turkey and Erdogan went for elections in November. These elections brought the AKP back in power with a stronger commitment to push for a presidential system. However the distribution of seats in the parliament does not allow for an automatic approval of the new constitution.
With seats lacking for a parliamentary initiative, Erdogan is now pushing for greater control over the media to spin public opinion in favor of his authoritarian presidential bid. The government seizes the assets of critical media groups, imprisons journalists; all in a coordinated attempt to convince the Turkish public opinion that only a strong Erdogan presidency will put an end to the period of uncertainty. There are occasional pushbacks from the judiciary, as the recent decision of the Constitutional Court that led to the release from prison of two prominent journalists, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, who exposed the arms trade from Turkey to jihadist groups in Syria. However, Erdogan never gives in to any adversary, including the Constitutional Court. It would be correct to predict that the political uncertainty and violence in Turkey will continue to escalate until at least the summer. What is more tragic is Europe’s ambivalent response to Turkey’s ongoing crackdown on political freedoms, as Brussels struggles to find a solution to its own racist and Islamophobic constituencies amidst the refugee crisis. Brussels seems more willing than ever to shake hands with authoritarianism.
Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp is a scholar and practitioner of international conflict, human rights, development and democratization. He has a PhD from the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University, and currently works as a Professorial Lecturer at the International Peace and Conflict Resolution Program of the School of International Service (SIS) at American University in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.