Not too long ago Turkey was regarded as an island of stability, a reliable barrier between the unstable Middle East and Europe, a respectable model of ‘moderate’ Islam, a promising democracy in a region where democracy is in short supply.
Now, all of those clichés look completely outdated as the country lurches from one crisis to another. Far from having a moderating influence on the region Turkey seems to be sliding ever further into the unrest that plagues its neighbours.
“(President Tayyip) Erdoğan always wanted Turkey to be more a part of the Middle East. Well, he certainly has achieved that – only not quite in the way he imagined,” quipped one mordant businessman.
Deadly bomb attacks in Ankara and Istanbul attributed to ISIS show just how much the Syrian chaos has spread to Turkey and is drawing the country reluctantly into that fight. Renewed military confrontations with the Kurdish guerrilla group PKK have virtually shut down several provinces in the south east with almost daily clashes resulting in mounting civilian and military casualties.
|Deadly Istanbul blast killed several German tourists|
The latest incident came with the arrest of several academics who signed a petition protesting the government’s actions in the strife-torn Kurdish region of the country. They were charged with ‘supporting terrorism’. Erdoğan could have brushed off this criticism as ‘naïve’ in its failure to criticize the brutality of the PKK, and be done with it. Instead, he overreacts with insults and legal action that may impress his devout followers but only yet again demonstrates his rigid intolerance to any other opinion.
Foreign policy problems with countries like Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Russia have highlighted the country’s almost total isolation and forced the Turkish government into embarrassing U-turns. Once scorned as the source of unrest in the region, Israel is now embraced. The European Union, once mocked for interfering in Turkish affairs with constant calls for more democracy, is now back in favour. The government has always had a love/hate relationship with the United States. But the needle is now pointing more toward the ‘love’ side as Turkey has nowhere else to turn since Russia, infuriated by the shooting down of one its fighter planes, slapped stiff economic sanctions on Turkey.
Perhaps the biggest puzzle in this mounting list of problems is the deadly struggle with its own Kurdish population. After the highly touted ‘peace process’ with the PKK broke down last summer the savage fighting renewed with devastating consequences for anyone caught in the middle. Whole regions of the south east are now under martial law and the government has imposed curfews on several towns.
But why all this trouble now? What caused this so-called process and dialogue with the Kurds to break down? One reason may be Turkey’s fear of Kurdish gains in Iraq and Syria. Over strong Turkish objections America has supported Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria who have recaptured a great deal of territory from ISIS. The last thing Turkey wants is a viable, autonomous Kurdish region on its southern border. The Turks fear that such an autonomous region could link up with Kurds in Turkey and claim an even larger area at the expense of Turkey. This is Turkey’s Red Line, and may explain in part why they are trying to pre-empt such a move.
Turkey’s conspiracy theorists have a simpler reason – one linked to Erdoğan’s overweening presidential ambitions, ambitions that require a new constitution. According to this theory the Kurdish political party HDP is responsible for the ruling party’s failure to get enough votes to change the constitution unilaterally and allow Erdoğan to become a powerful president unfettered by the checks and balances that define mature democracies. In the June election the HDP easily passed the 10% barrier for parliamentary representation and won 80 MPs. This drove AKP below an absolute majority for the first time since 2002.
This did not please Erdoğan. He made sure that no coalition government could be formed, thereby forcing a second election. The conspiracy theory is that the real troubles with the PKK began after the June election and escalated to the point where voters would desert the HDP and return to the ruling party for the sake of stability. To some degree this worked, but the HDP still won enough votes and MPs in the November elections to deny AKP the ability to change the constitution by itself.
The question now is what Erdoğan will do if this parliament fails to give him the constitution he so desperately wants. Will he force yet a third election hoping that the increased action against the PKK weakens the HDP enough so that it doesn’t even qualify for parliament? In that eventuality the ruling AKP party would pick up all the MPs that HDP had previously won. And then Erdoğan should finally have enough MPs to force through the constitutional changes he wants.
In normal times one would laugh off such speculation as being completely absurd. But these are far from normal times in Turkey, and such conspiracy theories are no longer considered totally absurd.