Turkey’s Wag-the-Dog Election #TurkishElections2018
On June 24, Turkey will hold dual elections for both the presidency and the parliament.
While still the favorite, current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing the greatest groundswell of opposition since his first election victory in 2002. Now, with less than a week to go before election day, Erdogan has discovered a newfound interest in draining “the terror swamp” in northern Iraq. It comes at a strange time and a decade too late. Erdogan, who for years turned a blind eye to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) camps at the Qandil Mountains, is now making a show of attacking them. The problem is that the PKK is not there anymore. There is little for Turkey to gain militarily by bombing barren mountains but a lot for Erdogan to gain politically by waging a war of distraction.
There is little for Turkey to gain militarily by bombing barren mountains but a lot for Erdogan to gain politically by waging a war of distraction.
On the night of June 11, the Turkish military conducted airstrikes against at least 11 targets in PKK bases in the Qandil Mountains. The news of the strikes came just in time for Erdogan’s campaign rallies that evening in Nigde, a nationalist stronghold in Central Anatolia, and Bursa, a populous industrial powerhouse 60 miles away from Istanbul. Erdogan’s sway in these areas, which were once his strongholds, is now looking increasingly precarious. In the November 2015 elections, for example, he won Bursa with over twice the vote of his closest rival, yet this time around, his campaign rally in the city was half-empty.
Lately, such scenes have become commonplace for Erdogan. The alliance of secular front-runner Muharrem Ince, renegade nationalist Meral Aksener, and dissident Islamist Temel Karamollaoglu is chipping away at his political fortunes, as is the country’s economic downturn. In a recent survey by one of Turkey’s leading polling firms, 51 percent of the respondents named the economy as their primary concern; security was a distant second, with only 13.4 percent.
If Erdogan is going to win, he knows he needs to change the public’s calculus. If he can bring security to the front of voters’ minds, he can both win back the economic-minded voters he is losing to the opposition and thwart the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party from a strong showing, which would almost certainly cost his party the parliament and might even oust him from the presidency. This is what he stands to gain from a diversionary war: fending off the opposition, winning back the voters he is losing, and thus holding on to the imperial presidency he so passionately coveted.
The Qandil operation is also a dramatic display of how Erdogan has turned NATO’s second-largest army into a tool of his political ambitions.
In June 2015, after a surprise electoral upset, Erdogan’s truce with the PKK collapsed, and the renewal of hostilities helped him to an easy victory in rerun elections held five months later. In July 2016, after the failed coup believed to have been staged at the behest of his ally-turned-enemy, Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan pulled himself out of one of the worst crises of his political career with a military excursion into Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield.
In January 2017, three months before a presidential referendum, Erdogan pulled the same trick with the capture of Bab in Syria. Now, he is doing it again. This is not to say that none of these operations had any merits for Turkey’s national security — they did. Their timing and execution, however, seem to have been determined more by Erdogan’s political calculations than military necessity.
Considering Erdogan’s longtime efforts to control the military, none of this should come as a surprise. Starting in the late 2000s, Turkey launched a mass purge with the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, in which an alliance of top military officers and secular power brokers stood accused of plotting to overthrow the country’s elected government. From early on, critics pointed out the travesties of justice in these Soviet-style show trials. Legal and forensic experts assailed them as tainted by dubious evidence. Yet hundreds of Turkey’s prominent secular citizens, including officers such as the outgoing chief of general staff, Ilker Basbug, were sentenced to years in prison in over a dozen different indictments. The generals next in lineto take over the army, navy, and the air force were either jailed or forced out.
As many critics, including the authors of this article, pointed out at the time, Gulen and Erdogan were in it together. Erdogan’s campaign against the secular military establishment never could have succeeded without Gulen. Detectives loyal to Gulen ran the investigations. Gulenist prosecutors and judges wrote the indictments and decided the cases, and media loyal to Gulen cheerfully reported the verdicts. Erdogan, who has recently made a habit of calling his every critic a Gulenist, was in those days Turkey’s Gulenist-in-chief.
It was only in late 2013, after prosecutors — the same ones who presided over the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials — issued arrest warrants for dozens of suspects in multiple corruption cases, indicting a who’s who of Erdogan’s inner circle including his children, four of his Cabinet ministers, pro-government billionaires, and the executives of a state-owned bank, that he changed his tune. best friend. When they came for him, he became their worst enemy.” style=”box-sizing: inherit;”>When they were going after his secular allies, Erdogan was the Gulenists’ best friend. When they came for him, he became their worst enemy.
When they were going after his secular allies, Erdogan was the Gulenists’ best friend. When they came for him, he became their worst enemy.
Erdogan now speaks of his past alliance with Turkey’s public enemy No. 1, Fethullah Gulen, with feigned naiveté. He offers mea culpas, apologizing for being duped. In reality, Erdogan could not have benefited more from it.
None of this happened in secret. There were many who tried to warn against it. In 2011, the entire Turkish high command — Gen. Isik Kosaner, chief of the general staff, plus the commanders of the army, navy, and the air force — quit their posts over the trials. Two years later, Adm. Nusret Guner dramatically resigned in protest only weeks before his promotion to the top post in the navy, as did many other naval officers, including one of us.
Outside the barracks, the likes of former police intelligence chief Hanefi Avci and the journalist Ahmet Sikpublished exposés on how Gulen and Erdogan were colluding to eliminate their secular rivals, only to find themselves behind bars. All these warnings fell on deaf ears. Foreign publications, including this one, published odes to the duo taming Turkey’s military. Both at home and abroad, many observers kept cheering for Gulen and Erdogan in the false belief that they were merely pushing the military out of politics. In fact, their goal was to make the military an instrument of their political preferences.