Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during his meeting with mukhtars at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey. Photo: Yasin Bulbul/Presidential Palace/ handout via Reuters
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during his meeting with mukhtars at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey. Photo: Yasin Bulbul/Presidential Palace/ handout via Reuters

In Turkey, the most recent wave of arrests of opposition leaders and journalists alike, notable particularly for holding opposing views to Erdogan’s program of transforming Turkey’s political system from parliamentary to presidential, has drawn a lot of criticism from within and outside Turkey.

With Erdogan’s plans likely to trigger widespread unrest and ethnic clashes in Turkey due to the alliance he is currently constructing with ultra-nationalist forces, and with wars going on in its backyard (i.e. Syria and Iraq), Turkey is seemingly heading towards a political collapse and risking the emergence of an organized movement—a situation that it can only ill-afford at this particular juncture of time.

However, the immediate reason why Erdogan has upped his ‘power drive’ today is the use to which he has put the regional situation. Erdogan’s propaganda for a presidential system fundamentally thrives on enhancing Turkey’s political stability to counter regional challenges.
According to this thinking, stability can only be achieved when Turkey has a “strong and centralized polity.” Hence, there is a need to seduce the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party and the related need to clear the decks of all opposing forces, especially the pro-Kurdish HDP.

Apart from HDP’s leadership, 170 newspapers, magazines, television stations and news agencies have been shut down, leaving 2,500 journalists unemployed, Turkey`s journalists’ association said in a statement protesting against the last Monday’s detentions.

More than 110,000 officials, including judges, teachers, police and civil servants, have been detained or suspended following a failed coup in July.

It is interesting to note the lengths to which Erdogan is likely to go to achieve his objectives. In October, it was reported that Turkey decided to grant some 38,000 proven criminals early parole to create space in its prisons for tens of thousands of people accused of plotting a failed coup.

This is happening in Turkey at a time when a state of emergency has been imposed, and now extended, and the European convention of human rights temporarily suspended. The AKP now has ‘legal authority’ at its disposal to bypass parliament and rule by decree, allowing Erdogan to arrest anyone who does not support his political program.

While Turkish officials defended their actions on Friday, saying the Kurdish officials had violated Turkish law by refusing to testify in a terrorism investigation, HDP officials rejected that explanation, saying the crackdown was politically motivated and had no legal basis. “The detentions are aimed at achieving what the ruling party failed to do at the ballot box in two general elections last year, when the HDP won more than five million votes,” Ayhan Bilgen, a spokesman for the party, said in a statement.

On the other hand, the government’s claim that it is the courts making the arrests, which are not politically motivated, is insufficient, as the head of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) is AKP’s Justice Minister Bozdağ himself and the HSYK’s deputy is the minister’s undersecretary.

The arrest of HDP’s leadership, politically motivated as it is, is part of Erdogan’s path to a presidential system of government. It is no coincidence that these arrests took place just a day after Erdogan met the head of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a party that has long advocated both the arrest of HDP deputies, accusing them of being legal extensions of the PKK, and the reintroduction of capital punishment to Turkey.

MHP is also a party that is essentially important for Erdogan. It has enough MPs to help the AKP pass a draft constitution through parliament. On the other hand, HDP is perhaps the only force in the parliament that has been and continues to oppose the bid to implement presidential system in Turkey.

Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, co-chairs of HDP, were two of 11 members of parliament to be detained in overnight raids on last Friday. Erdogan accuses the party of close links to PKK rebels and in May, at the president’s request, parliament did in fact pass a law stripping HDP lawmakers of their immunity from prosecution, enabling them to be charged with terrorism-related offenses.

Now that the leadership of the most important opposition party, a party that stood with Erdogan during the July-15 coup plot, is in jail, little remains in Erdogan’s way to push forward with his agenda.

While this situation is most likely to create further tension within Turkey and between Turkey and PKK (read: PKK leader has vowed to intensify the fight against Turkey in the wake of these arrests), Erdogan has perhaps anticipated this escalation. Many analysts believe it would further allow him to propagate the specter of the ‘Kurdish threat’ and invoke the system-survival theory to justify the need for a strong center, i.e. presidential system, to protect Turkey from internal (HDP) and external (PKK) threats.

Therefore, the whole scenario is being constructed for the introduction of a new constitution, which will probably be drafted by January 2017 and is likely to give the president powers to chair cabinet meetings and introduce legislation. If parliament passes it, a nationwide referendum would be held to approve the charter.

While Erdogan continues to implement his agenda in Turkey, he has paid little to no heed to the criticism he has faced from EU and NATO members. As a matter of fact, his rejection of the EU’s criticism is due to the gradually widening gap between Turkey and its western allies.

As the US has rejected his pleas for a greater role in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, a fight that would help Ankara quell Kurdish advances in those countries, Erdogan has slightly pivoted to Russia, which in turn has not ‘objected’ to Turkey’s military presence in Syria and the ‘safe zone’ it has established.

Erdogan’s strained relations with the US and EU, thanks to their alleged movement in the coup, has not only allowed him to revamp relations with Russia but also side-line his western ‘allies’ to re-construct Turkey’s internal political system and position himself as a much more powerful leader than even what Kamal Pasha was.

The critical question is: Will Erdogan be able to fulfill his dream by jailing Kurds and by creating war-hype or will this tactic lead to his ultimate fall from grace and rule?  Perhaps, the car bombing, that reportedly killed at least eight people in the city of Diyarbakir, the largest city in the Kurdish-majority southeast of Turkey, and took place just hours after Friday’s arrests on Friday, points to the direction Turkey is headed to in the near future.

Salman Rafi

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan based independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His areas of interest include South and West Asian Geo-politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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