A Pleasant Surprise for Turkey’s Islamists

The unexpected electoral success of the Justice and Development Party (AKP or Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi) in Turkey has left wonderment in its wake. The whistleblower Fuat Avni had predicted widespread vote-rigging but so far there has been no evidence of it. Not even the most favorable pre-election poll predicted anything like a 50 per cent win. So how did they do it?

Since the last elections in June Turkey has suffered two suicide bombings and a revival of the war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The past 12 months has seen economic decline and a 30 per cent collapse in the value of the lira. Syrian refugees drowning in the Aegean have focused world attention on the presence in Turkey of two million refugees, 300,000 in the camps in the southeast and the rest scattered across the country, begging or making a living as best as they can. They are the byproduct of the war on the Syrian government in which Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have played a pivotal role.

Further back is 2013, the Gezi park protests in spring and prosecutions later in the year that moved upwards through the inner circle in the direction of large-scale corruption within the ruling family. These never came to court because prosecutors and thousands of police were transferred to other duties. All charges were eventually dropped. This novel approach to justice was repeated when prosecutors who ordered jandarma to unmakingmiddleeastsearch trucks carrying arms into Syria for the national intelligence organization (MIT) were themselves prosecuted. The newspaper editor who published still photos from the video showing ammunition hidden beneath packets of medicine was also prosecuted. In the tape of a leaked conversation the MIT head can be heard offering to launch a false flag operation against a supposedly sacrosanct Ottoman site just across the Syrian border. Taking all of this and much more into account, how could anyone believing that politicians should be held to account vote for the AKP government, and how could the party’s vote actually increase from 40 per cent in June to nearly 50 per cent in November? The AKP even won Hatay, with 37.72 per cent of the vote against the Republican People’s Party (CHP) 36.39 per cent. Hatay is more than 50 per cent Alevi and Alevis generally do not like Erdogan and in particular are strongly opposed to his Syria policy. So how was this result possible?

The provisional judgment must be that the ruling party’s strategy of sowing division and fear worked. The launching pad was the suicide bombing in the border town of Suruc in late July in which 32 young people on their way to Kobane were killed. The mass murderer was a Turk from the southeastern city of Adiyaman, long known as a recruiting centre for the Islamic State.   Two days later two policemen were murdered in retaliation, the PKK accusing them of collaborating with the Islamic State. Immediately following these events the Turkish government signed an agreement with the US allowing it to use the Incirlik air base for joint attacks on the Islamic State. In the weeks that followed Turkey launched few attacks on Islamic State positions but numerous air attacks on PKK bases in northeastern Iraq.   The PKK struck back with roadside bombings which killed dozens of soldiers and police. Two weeks before the election it declared a ceasefire but this was dismissed as a ploy by the government.

After the Suruc bombing fury spread across the country, with mobs attacking more than 120 offices of the largely Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP). The Istanbul headquarters of Hurriyet newspaper were attacked. Journalists were beaten or threatened by people connected or close to the governing party. Just before the elections, suicide bombers struck again in Ankara, killing more than 100 people at a peace demonstration near the central railway station and injuring more than 400. Police arrived to tear gas demonstrators trying to help the survivors. One of the killers was the brother of the Suruc suicide bomber, on a police watch list but not picked up, Ahmet Davutoglu saying that people could not be arrested before they had committed a crime. At a football match in Konya the crowd jeered and hissed during the minute’s silence called for the victims. It is in Konya that visitors can visit the tomb of Jalal al Din al Rumi, the poet-mystic whose reflections on life are dominated by the themes of peace and love.

In June an HDP rally was bombed just before the elections, killing four people. Taking no chances after the Ankara bombing in October, the HDP called off all public rallies and demonstrations, leading a joint mission from the Council of Europe/Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to conclude that intimidation and violence suppression of press freedoms had hindered opposition parties from campaigning freely, creating an unfair climate ahead of the elections.   The government had smeared the HDP by association with the PKK but while its vote fell from the 13 per cent it received in June, it still just managed to pass the 10 per cent threshhold needed for parliamentary representation.

In the last week of the campaign government ‘trustees’ took over the Koza Ipek holding company, regarded as sympathetic to Erdogan’s arch-enemy, the Philadelphia-based Muslim guru Fethullah Gulen.    Police protected them as they broke into the company’s media headquarters in Istanbul. They closed down its two television channels and republished its two newspapers the next day as AKP propaganda sheets. In the southeast two boys of 12 and 13 were arrested for insulting the president by pulling down a poster of his face. There have been many such prosecutions in the past year for statements made in print by journalists, on the social media or at demonstrations.

The form of government Turkey now has can be minimally defined as consensual authoritarianism. The elections did not give Erdogan the two-thirds parliamentary majority he would need to create a presidency with sweeping powers but the results were hardly in before Ahmet Davutoglu was calling for constitutional ‘reform’ intended to give Erdogan what he wants. De facto, Erdogan is exercising authority above and beyond his constitutional responsibilities as president anyway. When Professor Umut Ozkirimli, of Lund University, wrote recently that the Turkish republic ‘as we know it’ was finished he was only stating what the government is proudly proclaiming. It might be possible to quibble over the tense and say that the republic ‘is being finished’ but certainly the republic that Ataturk founded is being systematically dismantled and destroyed.  On its ruins is being built Erdogan’s ‘new Turkey’, as radically different in its stated values from the old as Erdogan is from Mustafa Kemal.

Great strides have already been made in re-Islamicising society, largely through the education system and through the operations of the Diyanet, the abundantly funded Directorate of Religious Affairs. As the state should be in harmony with society, so the argument is likely to run at some point, it should reflect the religious values of the people in its structure and laws. If the people vote for such changes in a referendum, democracy will be presented as having triumphed. What can be perceived eventually taking shape is some form of Islamicised republic, perhaps a caliphal-presidency, as has been foreshadowed by one of Erdogan’s Islamist supporters, Abdurrahman Dilipak.

Time will tell what lies beneath Erdogan’s decision to build a massive presidential palace for himself close to the heart of Ankara, on private land given to the people by Ataturk. The choice was highly symbolic and part of the steady process of shrinking Ataturk to the margins but there is likely to be much more to it than symbolism. The palace and outlying buildings could serve as an alternative centre of government, in the same way that the late 19th century sultan Abdulhamit ran the Ottoman Empire from Yildiz Palace, bypassing his own ministers and bureaucrats, and taking advice only from the scholars, mystics and toadies who formed the inner circle, telling him what he wanted to hear. The palace would also be developed as a centre for the Islamic world, much as Yildiz Palace was in the 19th century.

Now the election is over Erdogan may go back to his ‘Kurdish peace’ even while continuing to threaten an attack the Syrian Kurds if they dare to transform their enclave into an autonomous zone. The Syria policy in general remains unchanged. The war on the government in Damascus has failed to reach its objective – the overthrow of that government – but in the meantime more than 200,000 people have died and the country has half been destroyed. The entry of Russia into the war raises the stakes immeasurably higher should Erdogan and Davutoglu attempt to create their ‘safe zone’ inside Syria. The obvious solution to the refugee problem in Turkey is for the refugees to go home but that process cannot even begin until Turkey and the gulf states, in particular, call off their war. They remain far from willing to do this.

Belatedly the government has started cracking down on the Islamic State support network operating from the southeast to Istanbul. This slow response to a known threat and the way in which thousands of takfiri jihadis travelling to Syria were able to use Turkey as their highway in the past four years are issues that appear to have had no impact at all on the people who gave the government its 50 per cent majority.

Erdogan is hero-worshipped by millions of Turks but deeply disliked by millions of others. They will continue to resist the destruction of the old Turkey as the country moves further in the direction of a dictatorial regime maintained by standard fascistic practices, whatever Abdurrahman Dilipak or anyone else wants to call it. As the elections have just shown, it moves in this direction with the support of the people, and it is that raises the obvious question: was this election a triumph for democracy or yet another lesson in how the processes of democratic government can be subverted by one man with a ruthless will? The bigger question posed by the election is how well and widely ‘democracy’ is understood in Turkey despite the seventy years that have passed since the introduction of a multi-party political system.