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Home » Elections and Governance, Turkey

Plague vs Cholera and Other Diseases

Submitted by on 16 Apr 2014 – 11:58

By Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere, Analyst at European Stability Initiative, Istanbul, Turkey

Ekrem Eddy GüzeldereTurkey in early 2014 should be a paradise for opposition parties. The governing AK Party has been struggling with a graft probe, is criticized for interfering into the independence of the judiciary and since the summer 2013 has the image of an authoritarian party. However, Turkey does not seem to be this paradise, because as long as the economy does not deteriorate, Turkey’s electorate doesn’t see the opposition as an alternative and will therefore stick to the least worst option, the governing AKP.In mid December 2013, the Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto visited Turkey to celebrate 85 years of bilateral diplomatic relations. It was also the first visit of a Mexican president since 1928, when diplomatic relations were established. The satirical webzine Zaytung made Nieto comment on 17 December during a press conference in Ankara: “If we had known how it is here, we would have come more often. In one day some 30 bomb-like arrests, two crashed helicopters, one kidnapped journalists. A country like a cocktail.”

And this was not an exaggeration. On 17 December, police arrested in three different investigations concerning graft and corruption more than 50 persons, among them three sons of ministers, an AKP district mayor and the director of a state bank. The arrested are charged with illegal gold-for oil trade with Iran, bribery concerning state tenders and real estate deals. Prime Minister Erdoğan called these arrests a “judicial coup attempt” by the Islamic movement of Fethullah Gülen, a former state employed Imam who has been living in Pennsylvania since 1999. Erdoğan reacted to the investigations by replacing the prosecutors and police officers in charge and later by moving thousands of police officers from their posts to less important ones who are supposed to be Gülen supporters. By the end of January 2014 more than 5,000 police officers were relocated.

This was nothing less than a political earthquake. The ruling AKP and the Gülen movement collaborated from 2002 when the AKP was elected for the first time until about 2011 to break the dominance of the Armed Forces and increase their share of the growing economic cake. However, since the AKP won the upper hand against the Armed Forces, it has tried to drive out former allies from strategic positions in the state and economy. The Gülen sympathizers are in many of these strategic positions also because the AKP supported and helped them to get there.

The Gülen movement is especially active in the field of education with numerous private schools, prep schools, dormitories and universities in Turkey and abroad. Their graduates were also employed by the AKP as advisors and were successful in entrance exams to ministries, the police and other state institutions. Journalists who accused them of infiltrating the police and judiciary, like Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener, were arrested under (falsified) charges of belonging to a terrorist organization. Now the AKP adopted exactly this argumentation and accused the Gülen followers of forming a parallel state, as one AKP MP called it, something “as dangerous as a terrorist organization.”

In such a situation one would expect that the governing party would be in deep trouble concerning the regional elections held nation-wide on 30 March 2014. In a “normal” democratic country, the electorate would punish the governing party, not only because of the recent corruption charges and the criticism of interfering into the independence of the judiciary. The AKP recently had to face numerous criticism and protests, the heaviest ones in summer 2013 when protests spread from the central GeziPark in Istanbul to 80 of the 81 provinces. Whereas the protests started because of construction plans of a park, the criticism quickly became more general against the growing authoritarianism of the ruling party, the destruction of the environment for shopping centres, airports and luxury real estate projects and the curtailing of freedoms. During the protests the government was criticized for the disproportional use of violence against peaceful protesters not only in Turkey, but by the EU and the international community.

However, both after the summer protests and now with the corruption charges, the AKP does not seem to be losing much of their support, which in 2011 was almost 50 percent at national elections. One reason for this phenomenon is the professional AK party organization and its control of large parts of the media, which allows it to strike back by accusing both the Gezi protestors and the Gülen movement of collaborating with foreign powers, which are uncomfortable with a strong Turkey and therefore initiate plots to weaken it. The AKP-affiliated media repeats this view anyway, but even the non-affiliated media, whose owners are also active in other fields, which is the majority and therefore are dependent on good relations with the government, prefer to show penguin documentaries instead of anti-government protests. This leaves only little room for criticism.

A second reason why this all is not significantly harming the AKP, is the lack of political alternatives. The average voter does not believe that Turkey will be more democratic, less corrupt, freer and more tolerant with any of the two main opposition parties be it the Kemalist CHP or the right-wing MHP. The disturbing fact for Turkey’s democracy is that the voter is by and far right. While the AKP did actually democratize and Europeanize Turkey from 2002 until 2007, the CHP and MHP opposed most of the legal changes be it more rights for Christians, Kurds or reducing the influence of the Armed Forces. Maybe some aspects were opposition for the sake of opposition, but in many of the tricky questions like the definition of citizenship, language rights, decentralization or a more secular system in the Western sense, these opposition parties are far behind the ruling AKP. This explains why the Kurdish BDP, also represented in parliament, did refrain from harsh criticism both during the Gezi protests and the corruption and judiciary scandal. The majority of Kurds still believe that the best they can get from the Turkish side is the AKP under Erdoğan. In the same vein argued also Armenian journalist Hayko Bağdat who is in no way close to the AKP, but stated that any of the two big Turkish opposition parties (CHP, MHP) would be worse for non-Muslim minorities.

The third opposition party in the national parliament, the Kurdish BDP, is from its party organization more democratic than the other opposition parties and a better choice for minorities and decentralization, but it has never succeeded in becoming a Turkey-wide party and being seen as having competence in other topics than the Kurdish issue. What we therefore see is that the AKP currently loses some support to about 43 percent, but the opposition parties do not gain much, the camp that gets bigger are those who declare that they are undecided or won’t vote.

Additionally, most voters remember how Turkey was before 2002. A decade of short-lived coalition governments, a high level of political violence, state of emergencies and political instability that culminated in 2001 in a devastating economic and banking crisis. That is why those voters who are not core voters of the CHP or MHP, some 20 and 14 percent of the electorate, will stick to the AKP as long as the economy and their wallets are not getting into trouble. There are signs that the economy might be negatively affected by the graft probe and the legal insecurity, but so far only the Turkish currency suffered from the ongoing crisis losing some 20 percent in exchange to the Euro.

Even if the AKP is still in a rather comfortable situation, the race in the most important cities Istanbul and Ankara is closer than in 2009 or 2004, because even if national topics dominate the debate, there are also regional issues at stake and the current AKP mayors of Istanbul and Ankara have been criticized for their urban policies, traffic problems and lacking infrastructure and for their reactions to the summer protests. Especially in Ankara, mayor Gökcek’s verbal attacks against protesters and journalists, also shocked AKP voters.

However, since the difference between the AKP and the biggest opposition party CHP is at least 20 percent, it is not easy to breach this gap for any CHP candidate. Should the AKP lose any of the big cities, this would make them even more nervous and further encourage the Gülen movement, which would be seen as the real winner, not the opposition party which won the mayorship.

Turkish citizens by a majority don’t believe that this is a confrontation between good and evil, but between two evils. A recent survey by Metropoll from 31 January 2014 showed that a clear majority of those interviewed believe that the corruption charges are founded (60 percent) and 57.3 percent believe that the Gülen movement aims at a parallel structure. In the current confrontation more than 45 percent of the interviewed believed that both sides are wrong, 28.5 percent thought that the AKP was right and only 6.3 percent that the Gülen movement was right.

This is a rather uncomfortable result for an EU candidate, a wannabe regional power and until recently “the model” for the Arab world. But unfortunately also here, the citizens are right and just confirm the poor state of Turkish democracy. It doesn’t matter who wins this battle, neither outcome will make Turkey more democratic. Turkey will either be dominated by an ever more authoritarian, one-man party or by an un-transparent Islamic movement with ultra-conservative views, which acts clandestinely. Since there is little hope with the existing opposition parties to democratize Turkey, the only hope seems to be the breaking-up of the AKP into two or three parties. This still sounds utopian and so far there are only a few defectors from the party who were all outsiders within the AKP. However, there will come a post-Erdoğan period for the AKP, maybe already in the summer of 2014 when he runs for president. Erdoğan is the force who holds the different fractions of a party together, which is also characterized as a platform of several political traditions. If some at the edges break-up, then a kind of liberal AKP might emerge, joined by some liberal CHP affiliates and Gezi protest sympathizers. This new party won’t be able to win an absolute majority, but more than 10 percent to be represented in parliament and become a coalition partner, which then could be again a driving force for democratization. Or, the economy collapses. A functioning democracy is something else.