Trump and Erdoğan: now in cahoots

Result may hinge on Kurds

How will Erdoğan respond, asks Esen Uslu, if he cannot get a majority?

The race to form the first government under the new regime of ‘presidential rule’ is now in the home stretch, as the June 24 polling day approaches.

However, the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has a decided advantage. The coalition of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) with the National Movement Party (MHP) is using all the levers at its command, while the popular opposition has to operate under the heavy hand of state oppression.

For example, the town of Suruç, which lies near the Syrian-Rojava border on the road to Kobanê, has once more been targeted. In July 2015 a suicide bomb exploded amongst activists preparing to visit Kobanê to take toys to the deprived children of war-torn Rojava. Thirty four were killed and more than 100 seriously injured. It was a part of the process of terror unleashed after the AKP’s defeat in the elections of June 6 2015.

Last week, the gun-toting gang of supporters of the current AKP MP turned up in Suruç market as a part of his election campaign. The market traders are, however, known for their sympathies for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and following an exchange of insults a brawl broke out, which ended in gunfire being exchanged. As a result the brother of the MP was killed on the spot and eight people were wounded, including two brothers who were stallholders - they were both in a critical condition.

But, while they were waiting to be treated in the local hospital, an AKP gang organised a vicious attack, killing not only the two brothers, but their father, who was with them. Not content with shooting them, the gang smashed oxygen bottles over their heads and slit their throats, while they were lying on stretchers. They destroyed all the hospital’s CCTV cameras and also confiscated the keys for the ambulances, whose windows were smashed and tyres slashed, to prevent them transporting patients to other hospitals. The police and private security guards did nothing.

That night both the minister of internal affairs and the president gave speeches which claimed Suruç had been the victim of a Kurdish terrorist attack. The public prosecutor ordered the arrest of 19 people, including the HDP candidate. The media were united in blaming the HDP and “Kurdish terrorists” for the killing of the MP’s brother, and a state ceremony was held for his funeral. There was no mention of the three murdered Kurds.

Violence was ratcheted up against those campaigning for the HDP. In almost every major town or city HDP offices were shot at or set alight. HDP posters, placards and buntings were removed by state forces. Sometimes the party’s stalls came under attack and several members have been beaten or even stabbed.

Selahattin Demirtaş, the HDP’s presidential candidate and former co-chair, has been held in jail on trumped-up charges since November. In May 2016, the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), supported a constitutional amendment introduced by the AKP, which had the effect of removing the parliamentary immunity of HDP MPs. The amendment took effect in November 2017 and 26 HDP MPs were arrested, with 12 of them - including both the party’s co-chairs - remanded in custody. Nine HDP MPs were convicted by criminal courts and as a result lost their seats in parliament.

Decree number 694, issued in August 2017, extended the powers granted by the constitutional amendment and now the government is free to determine the limits of legitimate political activity, removing elected MPs at will. Furthermore, 68 HDP mayors are being held in jail, as well as hundreds of local party leaders and activists.

The boundaries of many electoral districts have been redrawn in an apparent attempt at gerrymandering, and the population of villages with known sympathies for the Kurdish freedom movement have been forced to vote in villages supporting the regime. But many activists are continuing to campaign every day, despite the risk of being detained for an indeterminate period.

Police brutality and pro-Erdoğan gang violence are on the rise as well. Even the most tranquil district of Istanbul - the Princes Islands in the middle of the Marmara Sea - became the scene of a vicious stabbing, as a gang attacked HDP and CHP stalls in the ferryboat jetty square on the main island. Two people were taken to hospital with life-threatening injuries.

On top of all this, thousands of people have been sacked from their jobs without any due process, and arbitrary arrest and powers of detention have been used to detain people for long periods without charge. Others have had their passports confiscated and are forced to report to the police regularly. They are unable to work, often without any means of supporting themselves. Every day people are being detained while attempting to cross the border into Europe.

War in Kurdistan

When the AKP launched early elections, it hoped to build on the nationalist fervour resulting from Turkey’s interventions across the border in Syria. It believed that Turkish forces would soon gain the ascendency in Iraqi Kurdistan too, following two campaigns in Syrian Kurdistan.

However, international attention was focused on Manbij in Syrian Kurdistan. The close cooperation of the United States with both the People’s Protection Units (Kurdish YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against Islamic State allowed a local self-administrating council to be established with the participation of various nationalities and religious denominations. Of course, this was an anathema for Turkey. Erdoğan called for an end to the alliance with the YPG and SDF and the formation of a joint administration with the US. In the end Trump relented and joint patrols in the region are now being initiated. Whether it will end as Istanbul hopes is another matter, however, but at present Erdoğan is trying to milk the situation as best as he can.

Turkey has attempted to increase its stranglehold over Syrian Kurdistan by appointing a new mufti to oversee all religious activity, by opening Turkish post office branches, and by forming three campuses attached to Turkish universities. There are more than a dozen Turkish observation posts in Idlib province - previously a safe haven for the Islamists.

Meanwhile Turkish forces have crossed the border into Iraqi Kurdistan, in an attempt to secure control over the Qandil mountains - a bastion of the Kurdish freedom movement for many years. Turkey has started to open up new military roads and establish bases deep inside the region.

These projects, which include the displacement of the civilian population, are part of Turkey’s preparations for a long-term presence. There have been massive air raids against Kurdish strongholds in the Qandil mountains and against Kurdish training camps and bases along the Turkish border. Every other day, the tame press informs its readers that the leadership of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been eradicated.

Despite all such nationalistic propaganda and the military action across the border, the airforce and its drones are being used more and more within Turkey - and with unprecedented brutality. The election campaign is coming to an end in blood.

Pooled media

AKP henchmen in the media have been working in a way that would have left even Goebbels envious. Almost all the daily newspapers carry the same stories, often under the same headline. The last remnants of the so-called liberal press have been bought out by AKP supporters using funds provided by the state bank. Independent-minded journalists have been sacked and replaced by Erdoğan’s obedient (and ambitious) servants.

Every day national TV channels broadcast his election speeches for hours at a time, and after that the final prime minister of the era of ‘parliamentary rule’ takes the president’s place on the screen. Not even a few seconds are given to the opposition in ‘news’ and current affairs programmes.

The Digital News Report prepared by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University talks about the “exposure to completely made-up news stories” and sums up the situation in this way:

A safe place for free expression has been one factor driving the rapid growth of messaging apps in markets like Turkey … In our data we find a strong correlation between use of networks like WhatsApp and self-expressed concern about the safety of posting political messages. The highest levels of concern (65%) are in Turkey, where a failed coup two years ago led to opponents of president Erdoğan being jailed and the media muzzled. In a country that the US NGO Freedom House recently labelled “not free” for the first time, encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp have proved a relatively safe way to express political views.1

So the pooled press is losing its grip on public opinion, and more and more independent - albeit short-lived - social media channels are grabbing the imagination and attention of people.

For example, Erdoğan made a triumphant speech saying that the AKP would continue to rule for the foreseeable future, ‘unless and until’ the people say they have had enough. Suddenly social media channels saw a spontaneous campaign, demanding “Enough!” A counter-campaign, mounted by AKP trolls, using the slogan “Continue!”, proved to be a dismal failure.

By contrast, when Demirtaş recorded a 10-minute speech from his cell, it was a major hit. It went viral on every social media channel and was played before a large audience at a public meeting in Istanbul. His twitter messages - smuggled out of his cell, since he has no access to the internet - were also shared and heard everywhere, together with poems and composed melodies. Seasoned commentators are claiming that Erdoğan now regrets keeping Demirtaş in jail, because he has been almost as visible and effective as he would have been if he was released.

As I have said, the main parliamentary opposition to the AKP is represented by the CHP. However, the CHP is almost acting in unison with the AKP in regard to any decision involving the Kurds. It is almost as bad as Erdoğan when it goes on about ‘terrorism’, blindly following the interests of the Turkish state and providing a fig leaf for the government.

At the end of the day, the AKP could already have lost the elections. Erdoğan has been forced to try to cling to power with the support of MHP, but recent polls suggest that this has not done much for his fortunes. Most are showing Erdoğan on around 45% for the presidential vote and, despite the biased polls and the claims of commentators that he will easily get the 51% he needs for outright victory, he is very worried. It seems that, unless something drastic happens during the last week of the campaign, he will fail to win in the first round. Such a failure would be likely to create havoc within AKP ranks before the second round - many MHP supporters have openly declared they would not extend their support for him beyond the first round.

However, when it comes to the parliamentary vote, the AKP is in a worse situation. It has less than 40% support and even in coalition it is expected to pick up no more than 43%. But the opposition coalition of the CHP and nationalist IP (‘Good Party’) is not faring any better on 40%.

In this context the HDP vote will be critical, since the polls suggest it will get around 13% again. However, if it fails to reach the 10% needed to pass the electoral threshold, its votes would effectively be void, and the AKP-MHP coalition would get at least an extra 60 members in parliament, giving it an overall majority.

If, however, the HDP passes the threshold, that would pose new problems for Erdoğan. How would the Turkish state respond if there is no majority for even an AKP-led coalition?


1. www.digitalnewsreport.org/survey/2018/overview-key-findings-2018.