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Recent Developments a Grim Tableau of Politics in Turkey

By Nicholas Danforth

Friday, May 20, 2016

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Since Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced his resignation two weeks ago, three key political developments have occurred which only confirm President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s uncontested control of Turkey’s parliament.

First, and perhaps least surprisingly, on May 19 the Justice and Development Party (AKP) named transportation minister Binali Yildirim as Davutoğlu’s replacement. Yildirim, who will be officially made prime minister and nominal party leader at a May 22 congress, was on the short list of Erdoğan loyalists rumored to be in line for the position. Indeed, Davutoğlu’s departure made it clear that Erdoğan expects absolute loyalty from Turkey’s new prime minister, and Yildirim has already announced that he will work in “full harmony” with the president.

Yildirim will now be expected to make his new position irrelevant by helping Erdoğan enhance his powers as president. Writing about Yildirim’s relationship with Erdoğan before his selection, columnist Abdulkadir Selvi noted that “[t]he biggest controversy between them is football teams. One of them is a Fenerbahçe fan; the other is Galatasaray.”

The second major development concerns the ongoing struggle for leadership within Turkey’s Nationalist Action Party (MHP) between long-time leader Devlet Bahçeli and challenger Meral Aksener. The contest has recently turned into a legal battle over whether there will be a party congress at which Aksener could be elected to replace Bahçeli. In a show of judiciary incoherence, an appeals court granted permission for the congress to proceed, only to have two lower courts subsequently restate their opposition to it. As a result, police intervened to physically prevent Aksener and her supporters from entering a conference hall in which they planned to assemble for a congress last weekend.

Some observers optimistically predict that if Aksener won her challenge against Bahçeli, who has lead the MHP since 1997, she would bring a new energy and dynamism that could increase the party’s share of the vote to as high as 20 percent in a future election. This would enable the MHP, which only received 12 percent in November, to emerge as a major check on Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. In the meantime, however, the intra-party struggle has only enhanced Erdoğan’s power, and it is entirely possible he could make either outcome work to his advantage. Bahçeli has become dependent on the legal system to maintain his hold on the party, which has made him indirectly dependent on behind the scenes support from Erdoğan, who controls it.

Moreover, Bahceli has sought to discredit Akşener by suggesting she is acting on the behest of the Fetullah Gülen movement in a sinister plot to take over the MHP. In short, Bahçeli has also become dependent on the paranoid logic which the AKP has used to tarnish all its opponents as Gülenist conspirators. As a result, if Bahceli remains at the helm of the MHP, he will be increasingly under Erdoğan’s sway. If he is ousted, though, the split within the party could be a serious one, with many parliamentarians and voters available for the AKP to poach.

Finally, the third major development took place on May 20 when over two-thirds of the Turkish parliament voted to lift parliamentary immunity for MPs under indictment. While there are cases against members of all four of Turkey’s political parties, the current political climate, along the politicized state of the Turkish judiciary, mean that Kurdish members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) will be the principle target of this decision.

By allowing leading members of the HDP to be prosecuted on terror-related charges, this decision advances the AKP’s efforts to criminalize and discredit the HDP, ideally in order to push them under the 10 percent threshold for parliamentary representation in a future election. That it nonetheless passed with support of both the Republican People’s Party and the MHP shows the extent to which the AKP has been able to advance its agenda by capitalizing on the widespread popular anger generated by the state’s fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Prosecuting Kurdish parliamentarians will also have dangerous consequences well beyond parliament. Over the past several decades, the Turkish state has repeatedly sought to criminalize Kurdish political movements, repeatedly closing Kurdish parties and arresting their leaders on account of their relationship with the PKK. The relationship between Kurdish parties like the HDP and the PKK is real, but it has also been sustained by these crackdowns. By repeatedly denying Kurdish grievances a legitimate outlet within the Turkish political system, the state has systematically legitimized the PKK’s violence in the eyes of many Kurds and prevented Kurdish civilian leaders from building a political movement that can stand up to the PKK.

What makes today’s parliamentary vote particularly tragic is that over the past decade an increasing number of politicians have recognized that prosecuting Kurdish politicians will only make the country’s “Kurdish problem” more intractable and more violent. Even Davutoğlu and a number of other AKP parliamentarians were reportedly uncomfortable with this move. Yet in the end these concerns proved meaningless in the face of Erdoğan’s will and widespread popular anger.

Seen together, these three developments offer a grim tableau of the current state and likely future of politics in Turkey. The mechanics of the political process continue to function as they should, with parliamentary votes, party congresses and judicial decisions. At the same time, a divided opposition, politicized judiciary, and compliant media helps ensure Erdoğan’s power remains effectively unchallenged.

Turkey has vowed to fight both the Islamic State (or ISIS) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or PKK) “without distinction,” yet a BPC analysis of how Turkey has conducted these two conflicts shows stark differences. Explore our new interactive maps.