Turkish Politics and Society
Certain things about Turkey are very difficult to communicate to the wider world. Chiefly among them is how it is desired and fought for at all costs by its political actors, military officers and shadowy and secretive networks.
While words like Islamism, Ottomans, Secularism, Sultans dominate op-eds on Turkey, the naked truth of its fierce public and elusive tensions is prebendalism, in which the grabbing of state power and revenues is only possible through a complex network of clientele relationships and can only be maintained when a term in office predominantly serves the interests of that network and its wider constituency. It is executed within a modernist story of strong state, effective bureaucratisation, top to bottom grandeur nation designs, brutal maintenance of differences and elimination of threats.
This is the sad summary of all political phases in the country from 1923 to now.
The dreadful coup attempt on 15 July has revealed these bitter truths about the Turkish state once again. Turkey is no stranger to men in uniform seeing themselves as the guardians and owners of the nation, even if the nation itself does not see them so.
The last coup in 1980 had horrendous outcomes for all and has taken decades to undo. Since then, the military has continued to interfere in politics. In 1997, a carefully orchestrated 'post-modern coup' by the Armed Forces led to the collapse of the then coalition government that had an Islamist prime minister, namely former Turkey Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. That coup unleashed a crackdown on religious Turks, creating both a strong grievance and a political momentum for Islamists to reform to be able to assume power again. All of that was done without physically taking control of the state.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was founded in 2001. It rapidly saw electoral victories shortly after that and faced fierce pressure from the previous owners of the state power.
Yet, neither well organised protests in defence of 'secularism' (which means the ‘old order’), nor desires for a new post-modern coup by soldiers to force the Government’s impeachment, nor a court attempt to shut it down, worked. It made the AKP only stronger and able to win even more votes. The majority of the public did not have an appetite to return to the past, and opposition parties failed dramatically to offer an alternative future.
From 2008 onwards, a series of court cases against soldiers and civilians accused of planning coups saw a large number of high-ranking officers lose their posts. Most of the cases did not result in convictions. Eventually it became clear that the arrests had expanded beyond legitimate questions onto weaker and weaker grounds all with a clear political agenda.
It was within such a context that both AKP supporters as well as secularist AKP critiques began voicing their beliefs that these court cases were attempts by the Gulen movement to expand its networks within the state structures, particularly military and judiciary.
Former Chief of Defence Staff General İlker Başbuğ, who was convicted of heading a 'terror organisation' and coup attempt in August 2013 then cleared in March 2014, recently said that he had warned Erdogan that the Gulen movement networks were taking control of the military and ousting non-Gulenists, and that they will next seek to oust President Erdogan,which Erdogan shrugged off.
Subsequent legislative changes and wide public support made both the closure of parties more difficult, but also curbed the military's political reach. With an unprecedented levels of votes, seeming defeat of the old Kemalist state elite and rapid economic growth, the AKP's power seemed unstoppable. Initially a party pursuing positive reform projects while facing continual challenges, it went on to assume the role of the party that governs the state comfortably and enjoys powerful state structures.
But with great power came great failures, most of which could have easily prevented. The AKP soon began to draw criticism both domestically and internationally for its own prebendal tendencies both culturally and economically, and ambitious foreign policy moves that dangerously punched above Turkey's weight. The AKP success story had lost its lustre, and now was reminiscent of a system it was once a victim of.
We might have not foreseen a new coup on the horizon back then. Retrospectively, it is clear that a new competition over control of the state was unfolding with increasing intensity. The first visible signs of a clash between a new secretive network and the elected AKP government were in February 2012.
At that time a prosecutor went beyond his remit and requested to question the head of Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT) Hakan Fidan on a peace process he had led in direct talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (the PKK).
When Fidan refused to give a statement, a large group of police officers attempted to arrest him and a few others. Arresting him would have been a major blow both to Erdogan and the Government's entire attempt to address Kurdish issues.
Then in December 2013, mysterious (well, anonymous) social media accounts started leaking phone conversations and recordings not only between President Erdogan and his son, but also ministers, and even security meetings over Syria that included ministers, the head of MIT and military officers. While the carefully selected and narrated leaks made a case for corruption among cabinet ministers in the AKP government, other leaks and spin continued to fuel narratives around the Government policies on Syria and this time even included claims of weapons being sent to Nigeria with a hint of wild claim that AKP was supporting Boko Haram.
Then on 19 January 2014, a group of Gendarme soldiers stopped trucks heading to Syria accompanied by MIT agents following the request of a prosecutor who again went beyond his remit. The entire operation and attempted case against the Government were clearly political and reflected a serious clash within state structures.
All these incidents since 2012 were clear attempts to lead to an impeachment of the AKP Government. Yet, the March 2014 local election saw a surprising outcome for the AKP with the party winning more than 40 per cent of the vote, demonstrating that voters stood by the party even though corruption claims, Turkish policies on Syria as well as the handling of peace talks with PKK were critically discussed by party's supporters.
That electoral success gave President Erdogan a strong hand in his clampdown of the Gulen Movement, which he and many others saw to be the main actor behind all these incidents. The state began seizing newspapers, schools and charities affiliated with the Gulen movement. Thousands of police and judicial officers were removed from their posts and scattered across the country on suspicion of having Gulen links, and some lost their jobs.
The years 2015 and 2016 were truly precarious for Turkey. Not only did AKP-Gulen tensions continue, but Turkey also faced terror attacks from ISIS and the PKK. Hopes for a breakthrough had given way to a total collapse of peace talks with the PKK as both the state and the PKK willingly entered a full on clash in urban spaces with high risk and damage to civilians. It was clear that the Turkish state was now using an assertive military security strategy to contain the PKK, which was now seeking to maximise the goodwill it had gained internationally due to PKK-related groups fighting ISIS in Syria and expanding its territorial gains in Turkey's southern borders.
Within the context of this renewed and high casualty war against the PKK, the Turkish military and the AKP government were seem to be moving on from former animosities and the military was once again showing its influence, particularly in policies on Kurdish issues. Tensions between the AKP and the Gulen Movement had also meant a sense of shared concern, thus increased partnerships between at least the nationalist wing of the military and the AKP.
A new series of U-turns were appearing with the appointment of a new Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, in May 2016, including Turkey wanting to ease tensions with neighbouring countries from Israel to Russia. In fact, it was the positive signs in 2016 that the AKP might be postponing its aim to change the constitution to give more powers to President Erdogan, and that it needed to focus on a normalisation of tensions within and outside of the country as economic and security risks were truly high, that made the coup attempt in July 2016 utterly out of sync with developments.
Initially, the first question was why now. If it was prior to 2008, even prior 2010, it would have been clear why some soldiers would have attempted a military coup. Yet, July 2016 did not make sense and did not follow the pattern of previous coups and interventions.
Some see an answer to this in the news that a legal process that had just began which meant that in a few days time a numbers of officers were going to be arrested, and in early August, the Supreme Military Council was set to decommission and retire a large number of officers for suspected Gulen ties. Therefore, some officers would have seen a last chance in this coup attempt.
The hurried nature of the attempted coup eventually made sense when it transpired that the plotters brought it forward after discovering that their plan was known by the MIT.
The crumbling plans and chaotic attempts led to truly harrowing scenes of use of force against civilians and landmark sites such as the Turkish Parliament. They had completely underestimated how the public and rest of the military would react. The Government was saved and a bloody civil war and utter chaos were prevented both by the brave public and vast majority of the military and police that stood against the coup plotters.
Now, the question that is still difficult to fully and firmly answer is who was behind all this? The military culprits have been caught red-handed, yet clearly they have partners across state structures from the judiciary to ministries.
The government seems set to pin it all down on Gulenists. There are plenty of confessions by the coup plotters and former Gulen followers in the news in Turkey, though they too pose a complex challenge. Some are unreliable, some clearly have carefully crafted statements, while others include plausible claims. Some are inadmissible due to allegations of physical abuse suffered by some of the soldiers involved in the coup attempt.
The challenge to tease the truth out from these, however, does not diminish some legitimate and real questions over the Gulen Movement. It is difficult to deny involvement of Gulenist officers in the coup. Given the nature of Gulen movement, it is implausible to think that such high ranking officers would have acted on their own without at least informing or seeking at least tacit approval from their higher up leaders within the movement.
While direct links between Gulen and the coup attempt is yet to be proven, very public political lines Gulen, his followers and media outlets have taken since the start of fall out between Gulen and Erdogan seem to have lead vast majority of the Turkish public to mistrust statements by Gulen followers denying any involvement in the coup attempt whatsoever. There are peculiar links in events since the trials of soldiers to Hakan Fidan incident to corruption scandals that raise serious questions about Gulen movement involvement in attempts to shape the state and oust an elected government. That is why purges of Gulenists across state structures, closing of businesses giving substantial funds to Gulen and Gulen media outlets are still widely supported by the Turkish public even with not much public direct evidence of Gulen leading the coup attempt thus far.
Apart from Gulenists, the coup attempt also clearly included non-religious officers angry at the Government for the direction the country was heading in, opportunists who joined the coup attempt thinking it will succeed and thus could mean promotions, and the clueless who found themselves following orders without knowing what was going on. This was particularly so for the poor conscripts which make up the largest portion of Turkish military man power. Thus, clearly other factors came to play here, such as the weakened and chaotic state and legal structures that have continually seen political moves rather than rule of law and fair order. The coup emerged as a 'freak storm' with the coming together of many tensions since 2013 with the never ending undercurrent of soldiers and secretive cliques wanting to "save" (i.e. control) the state.
More than a month after the coup attempt, there are worries that the Government is now exploiting the coup and pushing its own agendas further while so many things are still not clear about what happened. Purges and arrests continue, while some legitimate, some looks out of proportion. There are worries that people who have nothing to do with any of these sinister projects are facing life-long damage from the fall out of the coup. Questions of who will now fill up all these empty state posts are being asked: AKP loyalists? Other religious networks that support AKP? If so, is Turkey set to repeat the same mistakes?
We, the public, who do not see the full picture but can only try to make sense of the tangible facts before us, will always be puzzled and uncertain about the exact details and truth of the claims we hear from all sides. Government pressure on media and self-censorship it leads to make it very difficult to sort out the truth from misinformation.
The full picture might still be blurred, but why the coup happened is simple. Many Turks have found a comfortable explanation in conspiracy theories involving foreign governments. Some are pushing their agendas against the US and NATO by claiming they were behind the coup. There are even some who think President Erdogan masterfully engineered it himself to bolster his popularity. Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the US and leads his global network from there, described the failed coup to be a staged scenario like “Hollywood movie” with “a few jets and soldiers” in an interview with CNN, thus hinting at Erdogan as the instigator behind it all.
But the truth is really boring, as usual. It is yet another episode in Turkey's history of competition for state control. While purges and reforms could patch some of the damage suffered in this latest attempt by secret networks, the main ill that has haunted Turkey for decades and continually resulted in assassinations, dirty secretive political games, aggressive state clampdowns and dangerous provocations that lead to street clashes and violence remains unchallenged. How can the Turkish state be made less appealing, open to less prebendalism, less all-consuming, but serving all citizens equally, recruiting and appointing on merit not on identity, acting within rule of law and under no clique's dominance?
Unless this question is answered and solved, the Turkish state will continue to see new networks, new dark games, new ambitions to power and control, poisoning the pious and secular alike with its seductive appeal.
Ziya Meral interviewed by BBC World and BBC News channels on the coup attempt in Turkey on 15 July 2016.
Some preliminary thoughts on today's EU-Turkey summit:
The chaos continues.. EU capitals are frustrated that they are still impacted by the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII.. Turkey is rightfully reluctant to serve as the quick fix for Europe without seeking compromises and guarantees.. EU heads of state cannot agree to disagree or agree with Turkey's requests, though they are in agreement over what they demand from Turkey.
As where things stay today, it is clear that Turkey has been able to secure promise of 3 billion euros more, doubling the initial promise. Yet, whether all EU states will follow up on their promises, how this money will be put together, when and how it will be transferred to Turkey, and what benchmarks EU will demand as a condition for their release and what control Turkey will have over its use is far from clear. Remarks by Turkish officials had signalled that a large portion of the funds would be used for schooling and health care expenses.
Then comes the promises given to Turkey on possibility of looking into visa liberalisation and further negotiation chapters being opened. While the latter seems to be a plausible possibility, particularly given the good will that is in the air over the Cyprus issue, the former is a promise EU can not deliver within the timelines requested by Turkey. In fact, even if Turkey was allowed to enter into union, it would possibly wait a further period for possibility of full freedom of movement. The Turkish government desperately needs a positive spin to sell this expensive agreement with the EU to a public that has honourably welcomed almost 3 million Syrians thus far, but is showing serious shifts in attitudes lately. EU is misleading the Turkish public with promises it cannot deliver, and a sudden public shift will cause Turkish gov to suspend all cooperation on the subject.
Neither NATO's involvement in patrolling the Aegean Sea, nor Turkey's agreement to accept deportees from Europe and host Syrians while they are being processed are ultimately going to bring down irregular migration to a level that can make populist sentiments in Europe happy. The situation in North, East and West Africa, as well as the Middle East and Afghanistan means that thousands will continue to risk their lives, seek alternative routes and attempt to make it to Europe.
EU has to look beyond this immediate influx while it is trying to secure a quick fix with Turkey. It needs to develop a genuine and unison neighbourhood policy, it needs to proactively seek to strengthen key refugee host countries in MENA, and regain moral credibility by relocating adequate number of refugees. This crisis cannot be defined as a refugee crisis. It is ultimately an EU political crisis, and it risks untangling the entire union, deconstructing its global standing and stripping off whatever self image it enjoyed as a beacon of human rights standards.
As for Turkey, its polarised domestic politics have seemed to largely framed the EU-Turkey talks vis a vis the narrative of 'EU selling out to Erdogan'. EU has been a vocal critic of AKP government, and remains so. It uses multiple forums to raise serious human rights deterioration in the country. It enjoys no renewed love towards AKP, or to Turkish EU membership, to that matter. Meanwhile, EU's desire to secure a costly agreement with a strong government that can do it on its own without the constituency pressure facing most EU governments seem to be lost to Turkish opposition figures. Turkey will pay a heavy price for the next few decades with this agreement. Neither EU's few billion euros, nor promises of an eschatological membership can take that away. Turkish opposition had to be much more vocal in demanding full transparency and public debate on what it is that Turkey is signing into.
A clear agreement might take time to finalise, which, for the weary EU observer, means bad news for a robust agreement as it will inevitably mean a watered-down final text that can get everyone's support.. For the optimist, it might be a chance to imagine a new approach to EU-Turkey relations and handling of this crisis. For the time being, however, pessimists might be right.
Ziya Meral interviewed on BBC World about the terror attack in Ankara
Published by Conservative Home, 14 October 2015
Last weekend’s terror attack in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, have sent shock waves across the world. The number of fatalities has past a hundred, with many still in critical condition. This is the single most fatal terror attack in Turkey’s history. While most commentary focuses on the domestic context and developments, few are drawing attention to the implications of this event for Turkey’s partners and wider international community.
It will indeed take a while for the entire picture to be clear, but the initial clues from the attack point to a certain direction. The type of bombs used, as well as their deployment and target choice show striking similarities with at least two prior attacks in Diyarbakir and Suruc. The gathering in Ankara was organised by a wide coalition of left-leaning trade unions, civil society groups, political activists with a large presence from the Kurdish party HDP. The rally was held to ask for a political solution to the lapse in Turkey-PKK ceasefire which saw more than 600 people – including Turkish soldiers, PKK militants and civilians, killed since the elections in June
In Diyarbakir, the attack was directly on a rally of HDP, and in Suruc it was on a wider group of left-leaning activists with a dominance of Kurds heading to bring aid and practical help to the town of Kobane in Syria, which ISIS tried to overtake from Kurds last year. Thus, these attacks clearly aimed at not only Kurds, but also at fuelling the on-going clashes in Turkey, as large number of Kurds accuse the Government of not taking necessary caution and some even accuse it to be directly involved with ISIS. It is telling that the Ankara attack occurred on the day that the PKK declared a temporary ceasefire until the next set of elections in November.
In both the Diyarbakir and Suruc incidences, the suicide bombers were established to have been related to ISIS and travelled to Syria. Indeed, one of the bombers was reported to the police by his own parents following his affiliation with ISIS. There are still suspects at large from both incidents and, because of an injunction brought by the Turkish Government, the media has been limited in what it can pursue on the follow up to these attacks. Now the same patterns show themselves in yet another attack, raising questions on whether Turkish state security structures provided enough security to protesters and whether the intelligence services failed to prevent the attack. The fact that the attacks were successful is perhaps the answer to that question. Ahmet Davutoglu, the Prime Minister, jas stated that two suicide bombers were stopped last two weeks in Turkey, which suggests that the state may be keeping certain developments away from the public eye.
No group has publicly claimed the attacks, causing some to speculate that this is unlikely to be an ISIS attack, since ISIS often enjoys broadcasting its murderous campaigns. However, this does not necessarily follow. We have seen how in Iraq and elsewhere similar groups have at times not claimed responsibility, which creates the maximum social and political effect in causing confusion, fear and chaos. It also serves as a veil to protect new networks being formed by the terror group. In the case of Diyarbakir, Suruc and now Ankara, signs suggest a Turkish cell founded or operating from the city of Adiyaman, by Turks who have direct relationship with ISIS, though they may be acting on their own.
Clearly, the fight between ISIS and Kurdish groups in Syria is now manifesting itself in attacks by ISIS or other Islamist extremists on Kurds in Turkey. While Turkey is part of the anti-ISIS coalition that includes the UK, it has chosen to play a cautious role. However, by attacking the precarious Turkish-Kurdish fault lines, but not the Turkish soldiers or state amidst such political instability in the country, and by choosing to remain unknown, the terrorists are punching above their weight as their network in the country is relatively new and has limited social appeal and logistic support.
This creates larger worries for Turkey, for Europe and the UK. It is plausible to suggest that we will see more terror attacks in Turkey. While the Turkish security apparatus has once again pulled all of its resources to combat PKK, there are legitimate questions to ask on its capacity to handle an increasing domestic ISIS threat. ISIS expanding its activities into a NATO state and an EU candidate country brings the risk directly to us in wider Europe. It also creates substantial questions on foreign direct investment in the country as well as the tourism sector. Some 35 million tourists visit Turkey each year, with more than four million of them being Brits.
Yet every tragedy is also an opportunity. Following unprecedentedly strong single party rule by the AKP for 13 years, Turkey is now set for weak coalition governments when it desperately needs political unity and bold decisions on a wide range of issues ranging from solving the Kurdish issues to undertaking a serious foreign policy reconstruction project. Turkey needs its partners more than ever, and at such a moment no outreach goes missed by the public and by the state officials.
The UK remains one of Turkey’s closest and strongest allies in Europe. British diplomats in Turkey are doing exemplary work reaching out to the public, building relationships with officials and advancing British trade in the country. The British Government’s signing of a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Turkey has been a benchmark, bringing the two countries closer on a wide range of issues from trade to security and defence cooperation to joint research and investments. There is now much closer work between security agencies in both countries on handling British suspects travelling to Turkey to join ISIS in Syria. In Ankara, there is a deep awareness that its bid for EU will not be possible in the short-run, if ever. Thus bilateral relations gain much more importance. The UK’s steady stand on Turkey’s EU bid as well as cautious diplomacy places it at an advantageous place.
This is the time for the UK to seek much closer and pro-active relations with Turkey, both for UK’s interests but also for supporting a country that is pivotal to the protection of Europe’s borders, handling of Syrian refugees, and countering the increasing Russian ambitions. While such a call would get a hearty welcome from both the Foreign Office and the Government more widely, British NGOs, think-tanks, and universities have, sadly, a long way in discovering the importance of bilateral relations as well as the complexities of Turkey, including its desperate need for constructive support in its moment of need. To that extent, British Parliamentarians and political parties can play a key role in not only building bridges between the Turkish communities in the UK but also actively supporting closer relations between both countries. They must do so now.
Ziya Meral on BBC World discussing how US and Turkey differs in perceptions of threat and policy aims on Syria
As Turkey sees a violent lapse in ceasefire with the outlawed PKK, the most common argument read in the press as an explanation is that this is an Erdogan plot to create chaos, thus earn votes in a snap election and usher his much desired enhanced presidency. It is a comforting clear cut explanation amplified both by domestic Turkish politics and international trends, yet, it is horribly misleading and far from helpful in understanding and responding to latest developments.
Even if there were to be new elections this year, there is no grounds to think that the outcome will be any different than June elections. Far from it, after a decade of pursuing half-baked policies and outreaches on Kurdish concerns and historic direct talks with the PKK, AKP has lost majority of its Kurdish voters due to a series of incidences from the Uludere bombing to Kobane to nationalist discourses deployed during the last minute attempts to stop vote loss in June.
It is the shifting Kurdish vote, both from the AKP, but also from a younger Kurdish generation that voted for the first time, and unprecedented level of turnout that gave the main surge for HDP to achieve passing of the 10% threshold. The much hyped Turkish 'left' and 'liberal' votes to HDP for sure contributed some, but in no way as decisively as it has been assumed. With the current developments, the Kurdish votes are not coming back to the AKP in the near future. Thus, HDP's 10% success is set to remain as it is.
The nationalist votes AKP lost to MHP are also not coming back. MHP has played its cards effectively in this process, and while commending AKP to finally respond to the threat of PKK, it has also condemned AKP for allowing such a wide space for PKK and letting these risks reach this level. MHP meets the strong nationalist vote amidst such a charged political setting and attacks by PKK more than the AKP, as the luxury of being in the opposition gives it the chance to declare a much harsher and uncompromising stand. In other words, the nationalist votes too are not coming back to the AKP in the near future.
Therefore, snap elections before the end of 2015 as assumed to be happening by many is a serious risk for AKP. There is no added vote value of such a violent lapse with PKK for the AKP. If it was merely about AKP's vote games, other parties could have responded effectively, and most importantly the PKK and Kurdish politicians would have refused to play the game Erdogan wants, which they effectively did in lead up to the June 2015 elections and caused the first actual loss to AKP since 2002. It is a bitter fact after all that we still do not have a coalition government formed.
It is indeed a universal rule; politicians will seek to expand interests and minimise risks in moments of conflicts. That applies to Erdogan, as well as to all other political actors in Turkey from Demirtas to Bahceli. For the most seasoned Turkey analysts, however, a few facts matter more than this problematic and superficial election talk: the legacy of a 30 years long armed conflict; deeply internalised patterns of escalation- violence- response between the PKK and Turkish Armed Forces; developments in Syria and Iraq and their spill over impacts on Turkey; Turkish state's short-term and long-term security threat perceptions of PKK and future of Syria and Iraq; macro geo-political shifts occurring across the region with serious implications for Turkey; a disturbed equilibrium of peace incentives for both the AKP government, HDP and PKK; polarised political and social atmosphere in Turkey that have fatally tied the peace talks to Erdogan's future by his supporters and opposers thus to temporary politics; attempts to manipulation of Kurdish issue for Turkey by Assad, ISIS and even Iran.
Only after talking about these complex issues could one ask what this might or might not mean for Erdogan. As I have often said; Erdogan is not a Jedi Knight. He does not hold a magical power that controls all of these factors and actors. That is why AKP lost in June, even when the hype in media suggested that the elections were set to be fixed in a Russia like authoritarian state that Turkey became. He is at his political weakest. His plans for presidency are no longer possible. AKP's maintaining of the government is the only chance for him and AKP's leaders to stop what might be a process that might very well be the end of their political futures, which will open the door for serious personal vulnerabilities.
Parroting Erdoganology to explain everything in Turkey through him is not analysis. The suffering of Kurds in Turkey have a century long history. PKK's crimes in Turkey and militancy have decades long bitter traces in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran among Turks, Kurds, Arabs and Persians. Almost auto-pilot out of proportion responses by the Turkish army/police and waves of Turkish and Kurdish nationalism they create have played themselves out again and again for decades to such a level that one feels a constant deja vu.
These realities existed before and will exist after Erdogan. What Erdoganolgy is only good for is retweets in social media, and for people who are deeply engrossed in Turkey's culture wars and zero-sum mental and political spaces to tease whether you are with 'them' or the 'other'. Yet, they leave us high and dry, none the wiser about how to take peace forward in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, and how to minimise the spill overs of a brutal civil war continuing, and how to ensure that short-term and short-sighted Turkish politics and suffocating culture wars do not cause more damage.
Ziya Meral comments on the implications on historic election results on the BBC World News.
8 June 2015