Taking to the streets against harassment, beatings and murder

Erdoğan tries to cheat unpopularity

Withdrawing from the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence is part of a desperate attempt to stitch together a winning election bloc. Esen Uslu reports

It is now crystal-clear that president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), could not win a general election in the foreseeable future. This is well understood by Erdoğan and his clique. According to several successive opinion polls, AKP’s share of votes is about 30%, while MHP would be very lucky to pick up 7%.

This leaves Erdoğan two options: either get rid of the constraints of playing the democracy game or continue it with a new set of rules. But to abolish any pretence of democracy and retain power he would need a substantial change in external politics. For example, if tensions within the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean continue to rise, causing a regional crisis or even a shooting war, he might be able to take advantage and rule by decree without any elections. This, of course, would require careful diplomacy in relation to the US and Russia, and would also have to take into account other players, such as Israel, Iran and the Gulf sheikdoms.

To make such a situation manageable, Erdoğan needs to portray the Kurdish freedom movement as ‘terrorists’ - the arch-enemy. Dealing with the Kurdish ‘terrorists’ is a pretext for invading and occupying wide swathes of territory along the borders with Iraq and Syria. But if such a crisis does not materialise (as happened in Turkey’s intervention in Libya’s civil war, or its dispute with Egypt over undersea hydrocarbon exploration, or the maritime exclusive zones dispute with Greece), Erdoğan is flexible enough to adapt without losing face, while maintaining the embers, to be fanned up into fire whenever necessary.

In order to retain power by playing the democracy game, Erdoğan needs to undermine any hint of common purpose with the opposition. He needs to garner support for his existing coalition - or else form an alternative coalition with previously discarded allies. In recent months, for instance, we have seen carefully planned steps taken to woo the remnants of the old Islamist movement, Millî Görüş (National Outlook), which is today represented by Saadet Partisi (The Felicity Party). Saadet is not represented in parliament today, but it provides an outlet for the disgruntled within the AKP and Islamist conservatism at large.

The Hagia Sophia, a famous cathedral of the eastern Roman empire, which was converted into a mosque in the 15th century and converted again into a museum in the early republican era, has been a potent cause for Islamist revanchism - and last year Erdoğan converted it back into a mosque. His head of religious affairs gave the first Friday sermon while holding a sword representing the holy conquest. The government appointed a well-known religious zealot, who was a professor of religious affairs, as the chief imam. He has taken advantage of this bridgehead given by the establishment to comment on just about every political issue.

Erdoğan has visited National Outlook’s venerable old man - former minister Oğuzhan Asiltürk - at his home in order to pay homage! This was his first visit to one of his mentors since he formed the AKP. It was declared a private visit and nothing was revealed about what was discussed. However, it was clear that Erdoğan was exploring the possibility of a new modus vivendi with Saadet.

One of the important objections raised by Saadet to the Erdoğan government was its signing of the Istanbul Convention - drawn up by the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence - on the grounds that it undermined traditional Islamic family values and gender roles. Turkey’s abrupt withdrawal from the convention a few days ago was a sop to Saadet as well as to Islamist conservatism as a whole.

Erdoğan is also trying to make overtures to İyi (the Good Party), formed after a spilt from Erdoğan’s current coalition partner, the MHP, and the coming together with former members of the CMP, the traditional Kemalist opposition party. İyi has formed an electoral alliance with the social democratic CHP, and is now the fourth largest party in parliament.

In that respect Erdoğan is playing the Kurdish card. Like most of CHP, İyi seems happy to go along with the regime’s attacks on the Kurdish freedom movement, remaining silent in the face of gross atrocities committed by the armed forces.

Erdoğan is trying to prise apart the CHP-İyi electoral bloc using the prominent difference between them over the war in Kurdistan. For example, he used the failure of the rescue operation to free Turkish soldiers captured and held by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The four-day operation in mid-February ended in a bloodbath. All the captives, as well as many army personnel and PKK fighters, died in Gâre, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Erdoğan was confident in a good result. He declared in one of his addresses to the nation that he would come back with good tidings. But when the day came and it became clear that the operation had flopped, he decided to leave it to his defence minister to clean up the mess - the latter presented the whole thing as a success.

HDP and elections

On the electoral landscape, the leftwing pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) has at least been maintaining its share of the vote and is perhaps gathering some support from amongst the disgruntled urban middle classes.

But now Erdoğan has taken legal steps to get the HDP banned. He knows very well that closing down the HDP would not mean much, since an embryonic replacement party has already been set up to take over. The public prosecutor has taken legal action in the supreme court, but a mass demonstration to mark Newroz, the Kurdish new year celebration, helped reinforce the point. The Kurds are not to be cowed by state oppression.

It will need careful preparation to take out the HDP, disrupt Kurdish parliamentary politics and secure a win for Erdoğan in the elections due in 2023. He will have to decapitate the party by jailing its prominent leaders. In the meantime Selahattin Demirtaş, former HDP co-president, is still in jail despite a ruling by the constitutional court, not to mention the International Court of Human Rights. Demirtaş was given an additional three-year sentence for defaming the president!

Almost all the elected mayors of Kurdish cities are now in jail, having been replaced by administrators appointed by Erdoğan. Most of the HDP MPs who conducted ‘peace’ negotiations with the government have also been jailed. Even the renowned Islamist human rights defender, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, former leader of Mazlum-Der (the Association for Human Rights and Solidarity with the Oppressed) and an HDP MP, has been convicted on a trumped-up charge and stripped of parliamentary immunity. He attempted to stage a stay-in protest at the parliamentary offices of the HDP. But he was ambushed early in the morning and detained by the police when he was making his ritual ablution in preparation for morning prayers.

Further preparations for rigging the next election were quick to follow. The provincial boundaries of Diyarbakır have been changed by a presidential decree, with a sizeable proportion of the population transferred into Muş province for electoral purposes - enough to change the balance in Erdoğan’s favour. Many other gerrymandering moves are expected to follow, including the election law itself. The infamous electoral threshold - whereby 10% of the overall vote is needed for any party to be represented in parliament - is now seen as a handicap for Erdoğan’s MHP allies. Reducing it to seven or even to five percent is being contemplated. Also a new system of single-member constituencies is a possibility.

While the manoeuvres of Erdoğan and co are quite plain, the response of the opposition is not clear at all. The lack of a left party with a clear, democratic programme is painfully obvious. Expecting the HDP to fulfil that role has proved untenable in an atmosphere where any support for the Kurdish freedom movement is labelled as an infringement of the Turkish national interest, acting as a straitjacket against the patriotic left. We have a long way to go to get our act together.