What is the current political situation in Turkey, after the failed military coup of July 15th 2016?
Turkey, headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been running since 2002, has been experiencing turbulent times in domestic and regional policy.
Development of authoritarian policies has increased since the suppression of the pro-democratic Gezi protests in the summer of 2013. It is characterized by erosion of democracy, escalation of violence and a nationalist-religious rhetoric built patterns that were already used by kemalist elites when the unity of the nation and security were threatened by internal and external forces.
The failed military putsch has reinforced the authoritarian course of government. The waves of arrests, detentions and dismissals comprise all areas: the military, the judiciary, the police, the intelligence service, the ministries, the public service, the business, the enterprise, the universities, the schools, the media, the press. The accusation of terrorism (PKK and the Fethullah-Gülen movement), as well as the threat to national security and the indivisible national and territorial unity, serve as an essential justification for the arrest and prohibition cases.
Measures such as the closure of newspapers, TV stations, Internet sites, arrest of critical journalists, scientists are the expression of this authoritarian government action. Even before the attempted coup, the government was largely in control of the press and the media, so that critical reporting was hardly possible and the information flow was in line with the government’s strategies. This also includes the war strategy launched since July 2015 against the Kurds. In most core areas of democracy (division of powers and basic freedoms) control is largely achieved: the control of the state institutions (including the security agencies MIT and the police), the military as well as the judiciary and the abolition of the division of powers. In all of these areas, the current progress report of the EU (November 2016) on the situation of Turkey has also seen serious steps in the area of basic freedoms, selective and arbitrary use of legal provisions, collective punishment with the terrorism charge and threat to national security.
The failed military putsch has re-launched the constitutional reform process. AKP and government, together with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), have drafted a constitutional reform introducing a presidential system, in which the legislative, executive and judicial no longer control one another, but are subject to a powerful president of the state, who could rule largely by decree, and continue to influence the judiciary. The reform has been approved by Parliament, despite the opposition of the kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the boycott of the kurdish the Peoples’ Democratic Party (CHP), and will be put to referendum on April 16, 2017.
At least half of the Turkish population supports the AKP and President Erdogan. Further support comes also from the MHP. The CHP appears to be in a weak position, sometimes against, sometimes for (for example, lifting parliamentary immunity in May 2016). The HDP is a important democratic force in Turkey because it fundamentally rejecting the omnipotence of a rigid state and its structure and calling for more democracy and freedoms. But due to the state repressions against the HDP the party is no longer able to act.
However, from an historical point of view, authoritarian governance is not new and is rather a reproduction of traditional authoritarian governance. The Kemalist elites have acted for decades to shape a society according to Kemalist ideological values and to attain strong power. The AKP takes these structures but fills them with its values to build a society according to its own standards and also with the aim of attaining a strong power.
The causes of the inclination to authoritarianism also lie, ideologically, on the founding period of the modern republic and are based on a strict Turkish nationalism, which at heart regarded the state as unassailable and omnipotent and the individual in the service of the state. These values permeated all state institutions and structures and formed a political culture, which in its basic features might appear more authoritarian than democratic.
President Erdogan and his government perpetuate the authoritarian state tradition. The primacy of a rigid Turkish nationalism plays a decisive role. It is an ideological core element of the AKP and at the same time the common ideological denominator of the AKP with the Kemalists and nationalists. This is precisely the continuity of a key element of the political system of the Kemalist Republic, which is also indispensable for Erdogan’s "New Turkey": the establishment of a strong, omnipotent state and its domination over society.
Two other ideological core elements of the AKP are also added to nationalism - Sunni Islam and Neo-Ottomanism. The return to the imperial Ottoman-Islamic past forces the pursuit of hegemonic power both internally and externally. The ideological embedding of the "New Turkey" and the government’s actions extend power of the state, which is shaped in Turkish-nationalist/Sunni-Islamic/neo-Ottoman, forms and assures the central power position of Erdogan as President.
What about recent developments of the Kurdish question?
The peace negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK, which were ongoing since autumn 2012, broke in July 2015.
Three factors accelerated the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Firstly, the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Defense Unit (YPG) fight for Kobane, supported by American air strikes, against the Islamic State (IS), increased international support for the Kurds and the growing reputation of the PKK and its Syrian detachment Democratic Union Party (PYD). Secondly, the HDP exceeded the 10% hurdle at general election of June 2015, and for the first time entered into parliament. Thus the AKP missed the absolute parliamentary majority. Thirdly, the PYD gained mid-June 2015, with the help of US air raids, the border town of Tal Abyad from the IS and achieved through this victory a geographical consolidation of its previously separate Kurdish self-administration cantons, Kobane and Cezire, in Northern Syria.
From the Turkish point of view, the warning signals finally sounded. The Turkish government considers the three Kurdish self-government areas Cezire, Kobane, Afrin in Northern Syria, which are called "Rojava" in Kurdish and under the control and administration of PYD, as parallel structures of the PKK and thus as a threat to territorial and national unity. Ankara also fears that a Kurdish state with access to the Mediterranean will emerge from Rojava in Northern Syria. President Erdogan repeatedly threatened that Turkey would never accept Kurdish autonomy in Syria or in Northern Iraq. The rivalry between the government and the PKK grew parallel to the successes of the PYD and PKK in Syria and Iraq, which had repercussions on the already faltering peace process.
The situation finally culminated with Turkey first airstrikes on July 24, 2015 against the IS and the PKK in Iraq and Syria. Calculation by President Erdogan and his AKP was to regain the lost parliamentary majority by means of a renewed war strategy and a nationalist-aggressive rhetoric in the earlier parliamentary elections on 1, November 2015. Ultimately, this strategic approach was abandoned, and the AKP gained the absolute parliamentary majority, while the HDP, despite the loss of votes, was able to enter the parliament and became the third strongest in terms of seat allocation.
The PKK, with the help of its urban youth organization YDG-H, put the war in cities and provinces in the southeast of Turkey, where support for the PKK and Kurdish HDP is great, and among other Sirnak, Cizre, Yüksekova, Mardin, Hakkari, Diyarbakir. With this strategy, the PKK tried to arouse a revolt of the Kurdish population in Turkey and pressurize the government to finally accept the self-administration, which had been trained in several areas in the southeast. But this strategic calculation of the PKK did not come true. The state struck back by bombarding affected provinces and cities, declaring many “special security regions”, and also completely crippling media access. Numerous civilians were killed, more than 400,000 Kurds fled, and livelihoods and numerous districts, including historic districts, such as in Diyarbakir, were completely destroyed. The support from the population that was expected by the PKK did not materialize. The "urban war" ended in spring of 2016, when the government regained control of the southeast.
With the escalation of violence, the HDP position became more and more delicate. In May 2016, the immunities of the HDP deputies were lifted, thus clearing the way for legal prosecution. The state of emergency imposed after the failed military coup of 15 June 2016 ultimately resulted in comprehensive "cleansing" throughout the political and civil society spectrum of the Kurds. By the end of summer 2016, numerous critical media and newspapers were decommissioned, and in November 2016 civil society facilities were banned, including numerous Kurdish media, newspapers and institutions. Up to 14,000 Kurdish teachers in the South East are affected by suspension. In the case of night raids and blocking of access to social media, on 4 November 2016 the chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag and ten other members of the HDP were arrested for "support for terrorism".
The dismantling of the HDP is currently not only the leadership and activists of the party, but also their local offshoot, the Democratic Party of Regions (DBP), as well as their successful and democratically legitimate mayors elected with an overwhelming majority of 65-95% of the electorate votes of the Kurdish population. In September 2016, more than 70 mayors, thousands of local leaders and members of the HDP and BDP were imprisoned in more than two dozen Kurdish cities or municipalities. In the meantime, numerous municipal administrations have been placed under state administration with mayors being replaced by state trustees. The PKK responded with further violence escalation and expanded its attacks on the state administrators and representatives of the AKP in the region.
Through this repression, the government succeeds in silencing the HDP and destroying the democratic-political achievements of Kurdish policy in local democracy, bringing Kurds back politically for years and feeding escalation.
So far, there is no end to violence. It is to be expected that the outcome of the increased rivalry between Turkey and the PKK in Syria and Iraq will decide whether there will be a return to the peace process in Turkey.
However, a peace process with the exclusion of the PKK and the HDP, as the government wants to make credible, cannot be achieved. A renewed peace process requires effective monitoring mechanisms to accompany the process in a constructive manner and to counter the threat of dangers in a timely manner. At the same time, granting of individual cultural freedoms is not a solution sustainable on its own. The conflict about the political future of the Kurds is essentially a historical legacy of the peace regulations after the end of the First World War and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Because the Kurds as losers did not receive either autonomy or statehood, the aftershocks of this historical legacy can also be felt particularly clearly. The aspirations of the Kurds for autonomy and self-determination have grown historically and cannot be ignored. This requires not only a political will, but also new ways of power distribution to achieve a solution through more autonomy. At present, however, the government is far from such an approach.
Negotiations have been recently held in Astana. What is the Turkish position on the Syrian situation?
With a pro-Islamic-Sunni-ideological policy in the region, the AKP government is trying to push through its hegemonic interests. Since the War in Syria and the advance of the IS, the AKP government has pursued clear objectives: the military fall of the Assad regime, the containment of the PKK and PYD and its self-governing cantons, the setting up of bans and security zones across the border with Syria and the containment of the increased influence of Iran. The support for islamic and jihadist forces is one of the main pillars.
Ankara long demanded the military fall of the Assad regime, but since the close cooperation with Russia, however, seems to be taking a transitional phase with Assad.
The PKK and the PYD as well as the three autonomous Kurdish cantons in the north and northeast of Syria, which were set up by the PKK/PYD, have also been a priority. Ankara is strictly against the self-administration cantons of PYD and the emergence of a second Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria. President Erdogan and the government have always stressed unequivocally that Turkey will not accept a second "Northern Syria" as in Northern Iraq. They designated an advance of the YPG west of the Euphrates as their "red line" and threatened to prevent this by all mean and, on August 24, 2016, the Turkish military together with the Islamic and Jihadist forces of the Free Syrian Army launched an offensive in the Jarablus region of Northern Syria under the code "Operation Euphrat Shield”. Turkey’s military offensive was a reaction to the liberation by the PYD after the Syrian Democratic Party (DFS) under the leadership of the YPG, and with the help of US air raids, of the strategically important city of Manbij on the IS border. With this, the PYD cut a further IS link to Turkey and at the same time gained the opportunity to advance into the strategically important Jarablus region and to achieve a territorial consolidation of its cantons. With Operation Euphrat Shield, Turkey wants to fight the IS, and, at the same time, to stop the YPG’s advance, prevent the territorial consolidation of the canton of Afrin with other Kurdish cantons, and create a de facto security and flight ban zone. From a Turkish perspective, this would have the advantage of being able to accommodate the Syrian refugees in Turkey on Syrian soil, while at the same time undermining the Kurdish cantons and curbing the PKK or PYD as well as the influence of Iran.