All or nothing

Erdoğan is going for bust in an attempt to cling onto power, writes Esen Uslu

The winds of change sweeping the turbulent waters of Turkish politics have been pounding president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rocking and rolling caïque and driving it towards a shipwreck on the Kurdish mountains. Erdogan, the hapless coxswain, has been abandoned by many a supporter and is fully aware that his time is up, but is trying desperately to cling on, doing almost anything to avoid losing power.

Erdogan and his clique within AKP (Justice and Development Party) have enlisted every ally in the wider Islamist political circles in an attempt to curb the powers of the military and civilian bureaucracy over Turkey’s political life. Some liberals have been called upon to support the AKP in its quest to end military tutelage, and even a considerable section of the left has been accommodating to Erdogan’s undemocratic use of the security forces and judiciary.

Erdogan has managed to give the Islamist Gülen movement a new lease of life after years in the wilderness - the militants following founder Fethullah Gülen had suffered regular repression since the formation of the republic. But when the Gülenists were unleashed out of military and bureaucratic tutelage by the AKP, they quickly became the most important group within Islamist politics. This led to a rapid flourishing of their influence within the state security bureaucracy and judiciary, as well as in academia, the media and various municipalities, often through blatant nepotism. For a while they were presented as the role model for moderate Muslims to follow, in an age where ‘Islamist terrorism’ has become the number one enemy for many in the west.

Erdogan has been keenly aware of the allure of a ‘charismatic leader’ - he himself has been described in that way when it comes to the AKP. However, his ‘charisma’ is pale in comparison to that of Fethullah Gülen. Gülen, the Hodja Effendi (respected scholar), has taken over the experienced and well organised Nur (Divine Light) movement of the cold war era, attempting to transform it into a model suitable for the 21st century.

However, the movement’s tightly knit underground organisation was not well suited to open political work. It has no chance of winning over the mass of conservative and centrist Islamists to form an independent political party in a short space of time. Working under the cover provided by an established Islamist party, such as the AKP, seemed to be serving it better.

Erdogan was quick to realise that an eventual showdown with the Gülenists had to come and if he waited too long they would have a better chance of organising as an independent political party. In doing so they would take over at least a sizeable chunk of the AKP organisation, including some MPs. Such a split would be a disaster for Erdogan’s clique, and would surely deprive it of any viable opportunity to hold on to power.

The first veiled contest came in the shape of the famous corruption enquiries. Erdogan was obliged to sacrifice four of his ministers, who resigned after receiving guarantees of immunity from prosecution. Through that sacrifice he prevented the inquiry delving into the murky dealings of members of his own family.

The next episode in the power contest came when members of MIT national intelligence organisation were arrested on charges of aiding and abetting Islamist terrorists in Syria - they were caught red-handed with vehicles leased by the MIT and laden with illegal armaments. The Gülen movement wanted charges brought against the MIT director, but Erdogan resisted. This contest, while sufficient to tarnish Erdogan’s invincible image, failed to dislodge him. However, the writing was on the wall.


The only option for Erdogan was to change course rapidly. A new set of allies were desperately needed, yet the only powerful ones available were those arch-enemies of yesterday: the military bureaucracy. It is undoubtedly bruised and weakened, but still represents a considerable force. And its members were keen to act against the Gülen movement following the latter’s role leading up to and during the show trial of officers.

The price to pay by Erdogan was the abandonment of the peace process with the Kurds that he had championed. He abruptly kicked away the peace table, despite negotiations having progressed to an advanced stage. Open warfare against the Kurds followed, starting from their power bases in the cities developed during the period of the truce. No mercy was to be shown - the hands of the military and paramilitary police forces would not be tied by legal niceties. The brutal war utilised devastating firepower on those urban districts known to be hot spots of the Kurdish resistance.

The war helped develop a compact with the MHP, the nationalist-fascist parliamentary political party. Erdogan’s gambit also drew in the so-called social democrat Republican People’s Party (CHP), a member of the Socialist International. Both parties’ statist instincts and well-entrenched anti-Kurdish politics shackled them to the Erdogan camp.

The president was now almost ready to pounce on the Gülen movement. He had secured a workable majority and brought the military and bureaucracy onside, appointing officers to important posts in the cabinet. The Gülen movement was now between a rock and hard place. It had to act, but its actions had to be in line with its ‘moderate Islamist’ façade and acceptable to the US and other western allies.

Erdogan’s involvement with Islamist terrorists in Syria was the Gülenists’ trump card, while the widely accepted corruption of his clique was also as asset. They hoped to take over power through an ‘orderly coup’, presented as the actions of a united military command. They calculated - or were led to believe - that such a united and orderly coup would be seen as a temporary nuisance, but something of a relief, by the international powers. The Gülenist leaders seemed to believe in their persuasive powers over the top brass.

They were mistaken in their calculations. Erdogan was well set to foil the July 15 attempted coup after it was set in motion. It failed despite the actions of some junta units that had been prepared to shed innocent blood, and bomb and strafe city centres.

After its defeat Erdogan unleashed a wave of terror against the Gülenist movement, using the powers given to him under the emergency rule legislation to issue edicts without parliamentary scrutiny. And the terror against the Kurds was upped through a large-scale foray into northern Syria across the Turkish border under the pretext of fighting Islamist terrorism.

The edicts were used to suppress the liberal opposition, including some members of his own party. Thousands of intellectuals, academics and journalists, as well as trade unionists and well known leftwingers were targeted, some having to face sham trials. Thousands of state employees were sacked overnight. Their travel documents were confiscated; their professional certificates and licences annulled. Many faced destitution and thousands were jailed. The judiciary was cleansed to such an extent that even the judge nominated by Turkey to the International Criminal Court was jailed.


While he was in the political ascendency, Erdogan opted to go for a constitutional amendment. Under the new presidential system he would be immune from prosecution with all powers of governance centred on himself.

Members of his clique were ready and willing to allow him to become the hegemon of Turkish politics despite the fact that they would be losing their minimal control over political events. The bulk of the parliamentary MHP followed the leadership line of backing Erdogan. Very soon parliament had passed a constitutional amendment of 16 points. However, what was lacking was the required two-thirds majority to put the amendment into effect. Which means that the amendment approved by parliament will now have to be agreed by a referendum to be held on April 16.

At first the draconian measures adopted seemed to sway popular opinion in Erdogan’s favour. However, gradually it became apparent that, while a sizable section of the population remains undecided, proportionally the ‘no’ camp is larger than the ‘yes’ camp. The electoral history of Turkey strongly suggests a defeat for the president.

So once more desperation has set in with Erdogan and his clique. They are aware that a negative outcome would mean the end of the current regime. He would not be able to control his own party or maintain its unity. And now the actions of Erdogan and his party have become more and more desperate. The recent row with Germany is an example. There is an attempt to create the aura of ‘victimisation by the imperialist west’ - a ploy employed many times to galvanise support within the regime’s power base.

Recent speeches have reflected this desperation. They attempted to paint a picture of “terrorist organisations”, such as the Gülen movement, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), together with smaller and larger leftwing groups, acting in unison to bring about a negative outcome in the referendum. So a ‘no’ vote is a vote for terrorism!

But soon the clique realised that such statements were counterproductive, alienating even the moderate Muslims, who say, ‘I would not grant such draconian powers to my own dad!’ More drastic moves are needed to sway the votes. And the opposition in Turkey believes that such drastic action is more than possible - Erdogan is quite capable of pulling a rabbit from his hat when needed.

But global political uncertainties are not helping him - unlike in 2008, when the quantitative easing policies of the imperialist centres allowed Erdogan to cruise through the crisis with little damage. This time, however, he does not have such luck.

Since the US elections in November, the Donald Trump ‘tidal wave’ caused the currencies of the ‘emerging market economies’ to lose value, and then only partially regain some of their losses. But the Turkish lira has performed worst of the lot, losing 18.5% of its value since November 2016.

To combat the decreasing exchange rate and inflationary pressures, while maintaining a semblance of control, the Erdogan government has done away with the independence of the central bank. That much cherished independence was one of the cornerstones of banking reform and budgetary control imposed with the assistance of the International Monetary Fund after the 2001 crisis. But the new measures will inevitably lead to turmoil in the real economy, resulting in plant closures, bankruptcies and unemployment, and eventually negative growth.

There is now a new expansionist monetary policy, which it is claimed will assist the small traders and manufacturers who form the power base of the AKP, and prevent a sharp downturn before the referendum. However, the economic crisis has begun to bite. Considering the loss of revenue from tourism and declining export markets due to Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war, there is now an economic tidal current tossing Erdogan’s caïque in every direction.


But it is not the only one. The Erdogan government’s grandiose foreign policy aimed at assuming the leadership of the Islamist world has failed miserably. The desperate foray into Syria - dropping Islamist targets and putting the Syrian Kurds firmly in the military’s sights - seemed to be progressing well in the early stages: there was only a sham war, because by tacit or real agreement Islamic State withdrew its forces to the city of Al-Bab.

It took five months for anti-IS forces to reach the outlying areas of Al-Bab, as the so-called Free Syrian Army, the Sunni Islamist militia, has proved to be unreliable. Increasingly the Turkish army was required to do the job itself - new troops were committed and consequently the number of casualties has increased.

However, the situation reached an impasse: Al-Bab is controlled by Turkey and its Sunni Muslim allies, while the road passing through the outskirts of the city is in the hands of the Syrian army and the Shia militia. So Turkey’s desire to use its army to help relieve Raqqa seems a long way off. One of Erdogan’s proverbial rabbits refuses to be pulled from his magic hat.

And then, the night before International Women’s Day, a strange and unheard of meeting took place in the Turkish city of Antalya, where military personnel from the US, Russia and Turkey met. According to the official communiqués, they discussed how to demarcate their positions to prevent an unintended clash between their forces, which were located in close proximity.

All observers, on the other hand, believe that the US and Russia were trying to curb the unwanted intervention of Turkey. The US has attempted to butter up Erdogan by letting his forces stay in the territory occupied for the time being, while at the same time maintaining its own bases in Turkey, which are quite important for its effort in the field. For its part, Russia is defending its own interests in the region, while representing the Syrian government, and consequently Iranian interests.

Meanwhile, Turkish armed forces have been staging operation after operation against Kurds within Turkey, as well as inside Iraqi territory. They are also attempting to bring Masoud Barzani and his Peshmerga into an openly anti-PKK stance that may lead to bloodshed.

In response Barzani-backed Kurdish political organisations in Turkey have declared that they will not vote in the referendum, since the constitutional amendment does not deal with Kurdish autonomy. This has been interpreted as a ploy by Erdogan intended to divide the strong ‘no’ forces in Turkey’s Kurdish provinces.

Barzani’s involvement could provide an opportunity for Erdogan to launch a desperate attack in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), which is controlled by the Kurds following the heroic defence of Kobanê, in order to open a corridor towards the Iraqi town of Sinjar through a fait accompli, without obtaining agreement from other forces in the region.

That would mean an unpredictable escalation of the war. However, Erdogan’s regime is in such desperate straits that this cannot be completely dismissed. He would not win such a war, but it might give him enough kudos. He might secretly be hoping that an international intervention will stop such a foray, but in the meantime his claimed position of making a stand against the imperialist-Christian west may gain more credibility. At the same time as fighting IS, he would assume the mantle of a defender of Islam, which he hopes may be sufficient to win the referendum