The March Madness of Turkish Politics

by Robert Olson

Turkey’s politics in March 2016 continues to be tumultuous. The most important developments center on three pivotal issues.

The first is relations between the government led by the Justice and Development party (AKP) and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its political and societal affiliate, the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK). A war between these two sides has been going on since Turkey’s June 7, 2015 parliamentary election. The war accelerated when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP were unhappy with the election results, in which they did not receive enough votes to seek a referendum to move Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary to a presidential system. One of the strategies of Erdogan and the AKP was to appeal even more strongly to ultra-Turkish nationalists to achieve this goal. Full-scale war commenced in July and has been ongoing since.

The war has had devastating effects on the 15 heavily Kurdish provinces of southeast Turkey where 9.5 million Kurds live. As of March 8, an estimated 219 security forces and 1,250 alleged PKK militants have been killed along with scores, possibly hundreds of civilians. An estimated 200,000 people fled their homes. Hundreds of houses and businesses were destroyed or partially destroyed, largely by security forces. As many as 20,000 commandos, “special forces,” and national police are participating in the fighting, including some anti-PKK Kurdish fighters.

The PKK leadership promised on February 24 that a “widening of the war was coming in March.” It would develop into a “Kurdish Spring” that would “radicalize” Kurdish youth. As of March 8, there were no signs of a wider Kurdish rebellion encompassing much of the 15 provinces of the southeast or in western cities.

The AKP government has sent scores of delegations to various cities in the southeast, where destruction has been the greatest, promising generous funds for reconstruction efforts. So far, little aid has been received.

Battling the Gülen Movement

A second major development in Turkey’s politics has been an intensified battle between the government and the Fethullah Gülen-led Hizmet movement, popularly known as the Gülen Movement. The tensions between the AKP and the Gülen Movement have risen since February 2012 when news of talks between Turkey’s Intelligence Agency (MIT) and the PKK leaked to the press. The leak, according to reliable sources, came from Gülen operatives hoping to discredit the AKP and Erdogan. The hostility between the two parties escalated from that point on. Finally, on December 2013 the government began operations against the movement after Gülen-affiliated prosecutors and judges charged the AKP and Erdogan with corrupt practices, involving Erdogan’s son and other members of this family. The contest between the AKP and the Gülen Movement then began in earnest.

The developments of December 17-25, 2013 led to government attacks against scores of organizations and businesses, including banks, affiliated with the Gülen Movement. The hostility escalated when the judiciary, now largely controlled by AKP operatives, denounced the Gülen Movement as a “parallel state.”

Government’s attacks on newspapers and media outlets were not just against the Gülen Movement but also other non-Gülen affiliated newspapers such as Cumhuriyet, a right-of-center newspaper edited by two well-known journalists, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, who were jailed and only released on February 16 after 92 days in prison. Scores of journalists, both Turkish and Kurdish, have been incarcerated since the AKP has come to power.

With the judiciary now almost totally in control of the AKP and security forces, including the MIT, it was not surprising that AKP-appointed “trustees” took over two more Gülen newspapers, Zaman and its sister English-language newspaper, Today’s Zaman, on March 4.

Although the war against Kurds in the southeast and the removal of the heads of Gülen-affiliated business enterprises are not directly connected to the attacks on Gülen-affiliated news outlets, Gülen-affiliated businesses, newspapers, and civil organizations have been increasingly critical of Turkey and the AKP’s war against Kurds in the Southeast. The Gülen Movement has been and still opposes the PKK and Kurdish nationalist movements, organizations, and political parties. But it does advocate that Kurdish, as well as other non-Turkish “mother tongue” languages, be taught in schools in Turkey and as primary languages in the southeast.

Political System Change

A third major issue in Turkey’s March politics is the degree to which Erdogan and the AKP will be successful in replacing Turkey’s current parliamentary system with a presidential system. The main issue here is whether to opt for yet another national election, which would be the third in two years, or to attempt to achieve the presidential system by attracting more MPs from other parties to attain the necessary votes to reach 330 MPs. The AKP currently has 316 seats in parliament. It needs only 14 more to go the route of referendum.

Many analysts believe is that it is well within the power of the AKP to attain 14, or even more seats, from other political parties. The AKP’s most likely strategy would be to seek the additional 14 votes from the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which currently has 40 MPs. The AKP could also probably persuade members of Republican Peoples Party (CHP) to join AKP ranks.

This would seem to be the quickest and least politically fraught method to achieve the 330 MPs necessary to go to referendum. The AKP and Erdogan could also opt for another election, perhaps sometime in November, hoping that neither the MHP nor the Kurdish-dominated Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), especially the later, would be able to achieve the 10 percent threshold necessary to seat members in parliament.

Eliminating the HDP would be a great victory for the AKP and facilitate implementation of a presidential system. But it might also prevent the MHP from reaching the 10 percent threshold, causing the AKP and Erdogan to lose a strong Turkish nationalist party in parliament. In this way, the AKP would lose a key partner in its war again the PKK/KCK and other Kurdish nationalist parties and organizations in Turkey as well as the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed forces, People’s Protective Units (YPG).

Photo: Anti-PKK demonstration in Istanbul


Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.


One Comment

  1. “Many analysts believe is that it is well within the power of the AKP to attain 14, or even more seats, from other political parties.”

    If this is true, what is the AKP waiting for?In my view Erdogan prefers a referendum, because he wants to prove the suspicious EU that Turkey is a democracy and that Turks wants him as their leader. Without a referendum, his personal victory won’t be complete.
    That is why Erdogan desperately wants the violence to stop so that referendum is done, even if violence would restart just after.
    He plans to simulate a compromise on Syria, to negotiate a deal with ISIS , make promises to the Kurds just to get that referendum out of the way.
    The Kurds, the opposition, Russia and Syria are no fools, they know Erdogan’s machiavelism, therefore they will continue to squeeze Turkey militarily and economically so as to prevent that referendum.
    Therefore violence will escalate in Turkey throughout summer, when the tourists will be scarce and Turkey’s economy on the decline.
    At one point though, Erdogan may decide to drop the referendum, buy out the missing voices and declare unilaterally a presidential system. That will probably trigger even more demonstrations and violence.
    Whatever he does, Erdogan has become a liability too Turkey, it is high time he goes.

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