The Sultan of Turkey

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the Yıldız Palace, Istanbul, October 2015
Tolga Bozoglu/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the Yıldız Palace, Istanbul, October 2015

Ever since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Turkish citizens have been living with the bitter consequences of their government’s involvement in the conflict. Along with the US, Turkey’s policy has been to get rid of the Assad regime, but this has not worked. Bashar al-Assad has been strongly defended by his Iranian and Russian backers, and he has cannily given up territory abutting Turkey to Syrian Kurds from the Democratic Union Party, called the PYD. As described by Jonathan Steele in a recent article in these pages, the Syrian Kurds have successfully resisted ISIS in the area on the Turkish border known as Rojava and inspired fellow Kurds on the other side of the border to assert their claims to self-determination.* Kurds are estimated to make up between 15 and 20 percent of Turkey’s population of 78 million, and anti-Kurdish sentiment is running very high.

Turkey has received, housed, and passed on many millions of Syrian refugees at great cost to itself, and its provisions for refugees have been more humane than those of other governments. But many in Turkey see the success of the Kurds in Rojava as a threat.

The policies of Turkey’s Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are the cause of many of his country’s failures in Syria. (Having first become prime minister in 2003, he was elected president in August 2014.) Still, when Turks went to the polls to elect a new government on November 1 of this year, they did not turn against Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Instead their vote suggested that they blamed themselves for having denied the AKP an overall parliamentary majority in an earlier election held on June 7.

That June election established a minority government, led by the AKP, which presided over a period of great violence and instability beginning on July 20 when a Kurdish suicide bomber killed thirty-three people, most of them Kurds, in the border town of Suruç. The violence reached a climax on October 10, when two other bombers (one of them the brother of the Suruç bomber) blew themselves up in the middle of a peace march in Ankara, killing 102 people. In both cases the carnage, generally believed to have been plotted by ISIS, was facilitated by official negligence in providing security. That did not stop the AKP from presenting the blasts as yet more evidence that the party should be given a mandate to rule on its own. On November 1 voters returned the AKP to power with a strong working majority. (Following the ISIS attacks against France on November 13, Erdoğan called for a “consensus of the international community against terrorism.”)

Rarely can an electorate have changed its mind so decisively over such a short period. On June 7 the AKP won 41 percent of the vote, giving it 258 deputies in Ankara’s 550-seat parliament, with the remainder going to three opposition parties that managed to clear the 10 percent threshold necessary for parliamentary representation. They were the center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP (which won 25 percent of the vote), the far-right Nationalist Action Party, or MHP (16 percent), and the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, which became the first Kurdish nationalist party to clear the threshold, with 13 percent.

Five months later, in the November 1 election, the AKP increased its share of the vote by 8.5 percent, or more than 4.5 million votes, capturing 317 seats. It had notable success in cutting down the MHP vote to only 11.9 percent. The Kurdish nationalist HDP cleared the 10 percent threshold by a mere 0.8 percent; had it failed to do so, most of the party’s fifty-nine seats would have gone to the AKP. As it is, the AKP’s strong comeback has virtually guaranteed that the party will stay in power until 2019. Erdoğan has pulled off the classic politician’s trick of successfully selling the panacea for an ailment largely of his own making.

One lesson of the election seems clear. Given the chance, people who live in a region that has been torn apart by political instability will often prefer continuity to a potentially dangerous leap into the unknown. In the Middle East, the citizens of Iran have never seriously tried to bring down the Islamic Republic, notwithstanding the resentment they feel. In 2011 Saudi citizens did not take part in the Arab Spring, despite confident predictions that they would be “next.” In both countries, the spectacle of neighboring countries in flames reinforced a fear of upheaval. Then there is the economic prosperity that a long period of AKP power has brought to Turkey, creating the new middle class that strongly supports Erdoğan. For these reasons, on November 1, Turkey became a third example of such expedient caution.

Erdoğan’s dominance of Turkish politics is both a consequence and a cause of the weakness of the country’s institutions. As an ambitious prime minister in the 2000s, he cut back the power of the country’s secular military and civilian bureaucracies, which had used strong-arm tactics with many human rights abuses including torture, aimed at preventing Islamists such as Erdoğan from assuming power in the past. This campaign culminated in August 2013 with the jailing of dozens of high army officers, including a former chief of the general staff, for plotting against the government. Senior officers nowadays shy away from making any decision of consequence. As a European diplomat in Turkey put it, “You won’t find four Turkish generals in a room these days, for fear of being accused of plotting.” Every army promotion above the rank of major has to be approved by the president.

Also in 2013 Erdoğan was challenged by a powerful religious movement inspired by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish preacher living in eastern Pennsylvania who enjoys strong support from Turkey’s judiciary and police. The movement has been called a “moderate blend of Islam”; although its workings are often obscure, its publications emphasize science, technology, and multiparty democracy. Erdoğan had previously been able to intimidate military officers, but judges and prosecutors, some connected with Gülen, have been able to preserve independent power. In December 2013 more than fifty prominent pro-government figures were questioned about corruption by prosecutors, some of them thought to be sympathetic to Gülen. Later the same investigation was said to raise questions about the corrupt behavior of Erdoğan’s son Bilal. Since then Erdoğan has said he is trying to eradicate the “parallel structure” within the bureaucracy that allegedly has ties to Gülen. Thousands of prosecutors and police officers have been sacked or transferred. Several judicial officials have been jailed (including a judge who had awarded bail to arrested followers of Gülen).

Just after the recent election, in the early hours of November 2, forty-four officials in the İzmir region, including senior bureaucrats and policemen, were arrested by police officers loyal to Erdoğan. An Istanbul court has banned travel by a further fifty-four prosecutors and judges on suspicion of terrorism or attempting to overthrow the government. Rightly or wrongly, some have been said to have connections with Gülen.

Erdoğan is also crushing his enemies in the press. Several journalists are in jail, most of them on national security charges such as abetting terrorism; others have been silenced through intimidation or defamation suits brought by the president or his supporters. In February the long-established commentator Kadri Gürsel used his column in the newspaper Milliyet to denounce the “murder” of Turkish journalism at the hands of the government’s “totalitarian worldview.” Milliyet fired him five months later, after he tweeted about the irony of world leaders sending their condolences to Erdoğan—whom Gürsel called “the number one reason for terrorism”—following the Suruç bomb blast.

A few days before November’s general election, the police raided and shut down two pro-Gülen TV stations that had been critical of the government. On November 2 the editor of the current affairs magazine Nokta and a colleague were arrested on suspicion of “fomenting armed rebellion” when they published a cartoon of Erdoğan dressed as a commando with the caption, “The Beginning of Turkey’s Civil War.”

Shortly before the election, I visited Can Dündar, the editor of the opposition daily Cumhuriyet—and the defendant in a lawsuit charging him with espionage that could put him in prison. Earlier in Erdoğan’s period of political dominance, Dündar told me, Turkish politics at least had “braking” mechanisms—the “army, the press,…Gülen, the prosecutors. But Erdoğan has eliminated all of these. There is no brake and we are heading for the wall.”

On the day after the election, Dündar began his published analysis of the results with a description of the view from his window:

I write these columns in a building that has been completely surrounded by police. An armored car waits in front of the building. The entrances to the streets have been barricaded shut. A few streets away are the offices of two newspapers and two TV stations that last week underwent a change in management and editorial line as a result of government pressure…. Fear took the electorate prisoner.

Such fear affected voters, and persuaded them to reverse the verdict they had delivered in June. The pious Sunni Turks who are Erdoğan’s main constituency became more drawn to him than ever. The fear Dündar describes reveals much about the Kurds and other minorities that have emerged as Erdoğan’s most significant adversaries.

What now seems central is Erdoğan’s move from prime minister to president in August 2014, when he won 52 percent of the vote in the first direct presidential election in Turkey. He made no secret of his desire to change the constitution to create what is being called an “executive presidential system,” under which it is expected that the president would appoint the cabinet and have the power to dissolve parliament, as well as control defense and foreign policy. While he continues to exercise his considerable existing powers over the army, Erdoğan claims that a new simplified system would free Turkey to develop faster economically. “We have to move fast without getting bogged down,” he said.

At the time it seemed that Erdoğan would need the support of a number of Kurdish nationalist deputies in order to make the constitutional changes he seeks. Ever since 1984 the PKK has been fighting the central government in the southeast where the Kurds are a majority, a war that has cost some 45,000 lives and devastated much of the region. Since 1999 the former PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has been a prisoner of the Turkish state, but he is permitted to make public statements that have had a generally restraining influence over the rest of the Kurdish movement. In March 2013 he announced a cease-fire and the withdrawal of PKK units from Turkey to bases in northern Iraq, which is controlled by Iraqi Kurds.

Beginning before the withdrawal, negotiations were going on as part of a peace process between the government, Öcalan, and Kurdish nationalist politicians in Turkey. Then last summer the Syrian Kurds started to consolidate their power in Rojava; their success was seen as threatening by Erdoğan. The Turkish government and its Kurdish interlocutors had been discussing a deal by which the Kurds would support Erdoğan’s presidency in return for constitutional changes, among them a widened definition of citizenship that would officially include the ethnic Kurds within Turkey. The deal would also involve compulsory education in Kurdish in Kurd-majority areas and administrative decentralization. But any such understanding between the president and the Kurds became moot after the Syrian Kurds began to consolidate their power in Rojava in the summer of 2014.

Bellaigue-Turkey-MAP-121715
Mike King

In September 2014 ISIS made a determined effort to take over the PYD-controlled border town of Kobanî in Syria. As the fighting intensified and the number of Kurdish casualties grew, Erdoğan resisted pressure to allow Kurdish fighters from Turkey to go into Syria. It’s widely accepted in Turkey that the president was hoping ISIS would crush Kobanî and the other self-governing Kurdish cantons; but this would have brought him into disagreement with the US, which saw the Syrian PYD—despite its links to the Turkish PKK—as a potentially useful ally against the jihadis.

In late October 2014, under intense US and domestic pressure (there was much rioting by Kurds inside Turkey), Erdoğan allowed arms and men into Kobanî, and this, along with American air strikes, helped to turn the battle in the defenders’ favor. The entire canton of Kobanî has since been liberated from ISIS by the Syrian Kurdish forces, and the alliance between the US and the Syrian Kurds has blossomed—to Turkey’s irritation.

Erdoğan’s reluctance to come to the defense of Kobanî cost him his image as a trustworthy interlocutor with Kurds and, in the short term at least, his dream of an all-powerful “executive presidency” that could dominate the government. In March 2015 Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the Kurdish nationalist Peoples’ Democratic Party, declared that he would engage in no “dirty bargaining” with the AKP: “We will not allow you to become executive president.”

At that time Demirtaş enjoyed much prestige as the civilian representative of a movement that seemed on the verge of committing itself to achieving its goals by constitutional means, and that also seemed to be gaining ascendency over the PKK commanders who had taken refuge in their mountain bases in northern Iraq. Öcalan, from his prison island, has not come down decisively on either side; he tries to balance hawks and doves in the movement.

Apart from defending the Kurds and their rights, Demirtaş also promises dignity and equal rights for other minorities in Turkey, such as the Alevis, a quasi-Shia group estimated to have a population of 13 million, and the country’s small Christian communities, which Erdoğan has insulted and neglected. The 13 percent of the vote that the HDP won in June was by far the best result by any Kurdish nationalist party in Turkish history—and it was achieved partly by the estimated 1.7 million non-Kurdish votes. With his eighty MPs Demirtaş represented a big threat to Erdoğan’s ambitions.

Whoever was responsible for the dreadful events of this summer, Erdoğan has taken advantage of them. As the violence has polarized Turkish society, the government calculated that it could win back its majority and push the Kurdish vote below the 10 percent threshold. The Suruç and Ankara bombings marked the low point in relations between the state and the Kurds. Although the suicide bombers were Kurds, Demirtaş, without specific evidence, accused Erdoğan of direct involvement in the bombings. For the most part, foreign security experts do not support such conspiracy theories; but one I spoke to said that the Turkish government had been guilty of “appeasing” ISIS, some of whose members have old links to members of the AKP.

There have been many reports in the Turkish media suggesting that the authorities loyal to Erdoğan have failed to break up ISIS cells even after tip-offs from the families of recruits, and there were noticeably few security measures on the day of the Ankara blasts. The two bombers who were suspected of terrorism and were on wanted lists were able to make their way into a large crowd after traveling hundreds of miles from the Syrian border.

The bombing of Kurds in the border town of Suruç in July provoked PKK militants who had in any case been stockpiling arms in anticipation of fresh hostilities. On July 22 two Turkish policemen were shot dead—the PKK claimed responsibility for the killings—and since then the country has been consumed by violence that recalls the peak of the civil war in the 1990s. Hundreds of people have been killed by the police and army and thousands arrested. The PKK has accused the Turkish air force of destroying the graves of militants during its frequent bombing raids on PKK camps in northern Iraq. According to Human Rights Watch, Erdoğan’s security forces have “engaged in severe ill-treatment and abuse of detainees,” beating them and threatening them with execution.

In August the PKK declared that a string of towns across the southeast would henceforth be “autonomous regions,” which lightly armed Kurdish militias would be prepared to defend. The army reacted with large-scale operations. In Diyarbakır, the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan, the Kurds’ rudimentary defenses were quickly overwhelmed, leading to several deaths, damage to buildings and infrastructure, and the imprisonment of scores of young men.

When I visited Diyarbakır in October, the streets of the old city bore the scars of fighting and were virtually deserted except for Turkish army units conducting house-to-house searches. My Kurdish guide grimly predicted more violence. It is hard to see what the PKK’s declaration of autonomous zones has achieved aside from more bitterness and the curtailment of any kind of economic activity.

Turkey’s use of military force and the vigor of the PKK’s response have left advocates of peace without any plausible position—surely part of Erdoğan’s design. When Demirtaş criticized the PKK’s armed defense of the autonomous regions, he was accused of naiveté by Mustafa Karasu, one of the PKK’s top commanders in the field.

The PKK’s return to fighting clearly lost Demirtaş votes among both moderate Kurdish nationalists and non-Kurds who could not bring themselves to vote for a party associated with attacks on soldiers and policemen. (Their funerals are shown nightly on the evening news, stoking further anger.) But Karasu and other PKK leaders had long expressed doubts over Demirtaş’s pursuit of non-Kurdish votes and his relations with the Turkish authorities.

After the vicious bombing in Ankara, Demirtaş called off all election rallies and spent much time attending the funerals of the thirty-four party colleagues who were among the dead. HDP offices around the country were attacked by Turkish nationalists, and the pro-government media imposed a de facto ban on news about the party. Demirtaş went briefly to London, reportedly after receiving death threats. All the while, Erdoğan campaigned hard for the AKP, although according to the constitution, he should, as president, be impartial.

On October 20 the AKP prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, told a crowd in the largely Kurdish town of Van that if his party was not elected it would spell the return of the “white Toros”—the Turkish name for the Renault 12, a car associated with the gendarmerie’s fearsome intelligence agents, who carried out thousands of extrajudicial executions of Kurdish nationalists during the 1990s. This was a remarkably overt threat for a head of government to make to his own people, and a sign of the perversion of democratic norms that has become common in Turkey.

In October, Angela Merkel came to Istanbul to ask Erdoğan to ease Europe’s refugee crisis by looking after more Syrians, Turkey having already devoted more shelter and services to refugees than any other country. She held out the promise of aid, the lifting of visa requirements for Turks wishing to enter the EU, and German support for advancing Turkey’s long-standing (and long-dormant) application to join the EU.

Merkel’s visit came at a time when Turkey was subsiding into chaos as a result of a deliberate government strategy, although she made no public mention of this. In Turkey the pro-government media showed pictures of the two leaders on thrones in an Ottoman palace dating from the empire’s late, degenerate phase. All the while, a short distance away, along the shores of the Bosporus, businessmen continued to do a brisk trade in dinghies and outboard motors intended to convey Syrian refugees to Greece, while many would try to reach Germany.

In the aftermath of Erdoğan’s election triumph, with the EU in need of his help and US criticism muted because American warplanes are using Turkey’s Incirlik air base to bomb ISIS, Erdoğan may well feel his moment of vulnerability has passed. On November 4 he urged parliament to change the constitution to provide for an “executive president” with increased powers. This would require thirteen opposition MPs to vote with the AKP to hold a referendum approving the introduction of a regime conferring greater authority on Erdoğan. Why does he insist on having his dominance of Turkish politics confirmed in a new constitution? When the details of the constitutional changes he proposes are revealed it will not be a surprise if he demands more involvement in appointments to senior judicial positions, which would, if events turn against him, protect him and his family from prosecution.

Also on November 4 Erdoğan promised to continue the fight against the PKK “until all its members surrender or are eliminated…. The period ahead of us is not one of talks and discussions.” His words came amid reports of clashes between the Turkish military and PKK forces that had taken refuge in Iraq. The PKK has long demonstrated its ability to evade defeat on the battlefield. I was told in Diyarbakır that there is a steady stream of recruits to the PKK’s fighting forces. Turkey’s Kurdish politicians who are committed to an electoral process stand to lose most from the resumption of fighting, particularly Demirtaş, whose HDP is barely hanging on to its status as a parliamentary party.

Threats from the Kurds, an economy that is now faltering, and the wider repercussions of events in Syria will soon challenge Erdoğan’s apparent confidence. In the long term, ISIS may be another threat. The jihadis dislike his regime, which is not nearly pious enough for their taste. Although ISIS is believed to have been behind the Suruç and Ankara blasts, so far it has refrained from directly attacking the Turkish state itself, whether its army or its civil administration. But should Turkey and ISIS engage in combat, the movement’s cells within the country may prove too widespread, and too well-entrenched, to be quickly defeated.

Erdoğan’s reading of the electorate has been masterful, but he lacks the magnanimity that is essential for effective leadership. His pugnacity and lack of judgment suggest a paranoid character who is all too willing to behave like the wrathful “sultan” depicted by his critics. The president’s version of democracy is a numbers game, in which the majority wins the right to crush the minority. Turkey seems bound to suffer for it.

—November 18, 2015. Research for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

  1. *

    See “The Syrian Kurds Are Winning!,” The New York Review, December 3, 2015.