Erdogan: The ambitious sultan

By Hasan Hasan*

On Sunday, 16 April a referendum will be held in Turkey to codify Erdogan’s dictatorial ambitions and his plenipotentiary powers as an absolute executive whose power and authority cannot be challenged or checked. Think of an Anatolian version of Adolf Hitler and you’ll begin to get the idea.

Erdogan’s ambition is nothing less than to be a modern-day Sultan or a new Caliph of the faithful. An aspiring despot seems more than ready to do whatever it takes in his desperate bid to maintain his grip on power even if it means ripping the country apart and putting Turkey’s future as a stable, unitary state at risk.

Erdogan’s insatiable lust for power knows no bounds. He has used an iron fist to take whatever measures, however corrupt, to manipulate the rules and undermine the basic tenets of Turkey’s democracy—freedom and human rights.

Today, Turkey, a vital NATO member state, is teetering on the brink of civil war as the state’s four-decade-old conflict with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) is now raging. The peace process that once generated such high hopes lies in tatters. Since July2015, close to several thousand people have been killed. The person most responsible for the violence is Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This is a political war if ever there was one, ginned up by Erdogan to salvage his political fortunes and advance his despotic agenda.

Erdogan has cited domestic threats from Kurdish militants, Isis and a July coup bid as cause to vote “yes” to his new powers.

Whether the Turkish people will fall for Erdogan’s machinations is far from clear. Many recent polls suggest that they might not. By large majorities, they remain opposed to his demand despite heightened crackdown as vote nears.

The controversial vote comes as Turkey is beset by political instability and at diplomatic odds with the United States and European nations since Turkey’s military led the ‘Euphrates Shield’ invading Syria last August ostensibly to combat ISIS, but it’s no secret that the real target has been Kurdish SDF’s growing influence in Syria’s north via their strategic alliance with the American Army driving Erdogan mad and monstrous.

Mired in deep diplomatic row, tensions between Turkey and Europe have boiled over in recent weeks and as a result relations between them have been severely strained since Turkish ministers were thwarted from campaigning on the continent for a ‘yes’ vote in this referendum on expanding Erdogan’s powers which will allow him to serve two more terms ending in 2029.

He has been serving first as prime minister and now president for 15 years. Nevertheless, his hunger for absolute power seems to have no limits, prompting him to take extraordinary and systematic measures to neutralize any source that challenges him, including the judiciary, press, opposition parties, military, and academia. He uses scare tactics to silence his detractors, and provides economic assistance and other incentives to his cronies.

Erdogan is ferociously pursuing his imperial ambitions by amending the constitution to codify his dictatorial powers in the referendum.

Voters will vote on a set of 18 proposed amendments to the Constitution of Turkey. The amendments include the introduction of an executive presidency that would replace the existing parliamentary system of government, the abolition of the Office of the Prime Minister, the raising of the number of Parliamentary seats from 550 to 600 and changes in the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK).

On 20 January 2017, Parliament voted to put forward the proposed amendments to a referendum with 339 votes in favour, surpassing the required three-fifths majority of 330 votes.

Of the total 550 Members of Parliament, 537 were entitled to vote. 11 MPs from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) were under arrest for alleged terrorism charges and were unable to partake in the vote, with the remaining 48 HDP MPs boycotting the vote after their motion calling for the arrested MPs to be brought to parliament to vote was rejected. Erdogan and his AKP party are championing a “Yes” vote. They are supported by the leadership of MHP, a fascist ultra-nationalist party.

The” No “campaign is being led by the secular Republican People’s Party, which is the official opposition and was once Turkey’s dominant political party.

The Kurdish-rooted HDP party is strongly backing a “No” vote along with a splinter group of ultra-nationalists from the MHP and a broad range of Leftist groups.

The alleged coup came as a gift from God

For Erdogan, the last coup attempt was a “gift from God” that gave him the license to purge any individual or organisation perceived to be his foe, particularly when his popularity was waning.

Tens of thousands of public servants and soldiers were purged in the first week following the alleged coup. For example, on 16 July 2016, just one day after the coup was foiled, 2,745 judges were dismissed and detained. This was followed by the dismissal, detention or suspension of over 100,000 officials a figure that had increased to over 110,000 by early November 2016, over 125,000 after the Nov 22nd decree, and reaching at least 135,000 with the Jan. 7th’s decrees.

Since early September, the post-coup emergency state allowed a turn against Kurdish groups, most notably with the dismissal of about 12,000 Kurdish teachers and all HDP elected mayors.

It appeared Turkey’s government had prepared arrest lists of political opponents before the coup attempt and had been waiting for the right time pounce on them.

On 22 November 2016 the European Parliament voted 497 to 37 in favour of a non -binding freeze on membership talks with Turkey in response to “disproportionate repressive measures taken in Turkey since the failed military coup attempt.”

Immediately following the military coup he enacted a state of emergency that allows the government to rule by decree to fire and arrest public employees at will.

Back in May 2016 ,he had pressed the Turkish parliament to approve a bill stripping MPs of immunity from prosecution so that he could stifle his political opponents .This was widely perceived as an assault against minority Kurdish MPs who could be linked by the government to ‘terror activities’ and subjected to prosecution.”

If we look back at parliamentary elections of June2015 when, Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party, the AKP, lost its governing majority for the first time since 200 we will better understand this man’s tactics . For Erdogan, the result was intolerable and could not be allowed to stand. In his eyes, maintaining the AKP’s uncontested control over Turkish politics was essential for at least two reasons.

First, without it, Erdogan stood almost no chance of achieving his monomaniacal goal of changing Turkey’s constitution from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. .
Erdogan’s second reason for requiring an AKP majority is more defensive in nature. In December 2013 at a point when Erdogan had been Turkey’s prime minister for more than a decade, a massive corruption scandal rocked his government. Senior AKP ministers were targeted, as were members of Erdogan’s immediate family and close business associates. In a series of taped telephone conversations, Erdogan himself could allegedly be heard ordering his son to dispose of large sums of cash that he and other relatives were apparently hiding in their homes.

Confronting this potentially existential threat to his rule, Erdogan went on the warpath. Relying on the AKP’s control of parliament and his own near-total disregard for the rule of law, separation of powers, and due process, he spent most of 2014 in a systematic campaign to quash the corruption investigations. Hundreds of senior prosecutors, police chiefs, and other law enforcement officials responsible for the inquiries were accused of running a parallel state linked to Gulen Movement, coup plotting, and serving as accomplices in a foreign-backed conspiracy to destroy Turkey. All were summarily purged.

Without AKP single-party rule, Erdogan is well aware of the risks that a future parliament or coalition government might insist on re-opening the corruption allegations and taking a fresh look at his breath-taking spree of lawlessness. If ever allowed to proceed to their logical conclusions, these investigations could end in impeachment or even prison. Needless to say, for the man who would be Sultan, a jail cell is most definitely not part of the plan.

Erdogan’s priorities are building an imperial presidency and keeping the corruption scandals buried for good. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the post-election negotiations led by Ahmad Davutoglu to forge a coalition government were a farce, manipulated by Erdogan for one purpose only: to run out the clock so that new elections could be called for Nov. 1, giving him a second chance to secure an AKP majority.

Alarmingly, the strategy that Erdogan appeared to have settled on was some version of the old Leninist adage, ‘the worse, the better.’ By allowing instability and conflict to spread in the elections aftermath, Erdogan seemed to be betting that he could force Turkish voters to realise the error of their ways and reconsider their decision to turn their backs on AKP hegemony. His message was clear: “See what happens when you foolishly abandon the relative stability and prosperity of 13 years of AKP rule?” Within a matter of weeks, all hell broke loose. No government could be formed. The value of Turkey’s currency plummeted to historic lows and the threat of economic collapse rose.

Letting Kurds’ blood to appease to ultranationalist Turks

But worst of all, inside Turkey blood has been flowing ever since Erdogan renewed his war on the Kurds to secure an absolute majority in last parliamentary elections putting at risk civil order, national security, and even Turkey’s territorial integrity. Dozen cities in the south east were destroyed and their nearly one million inhabitants left homeless. For example, Turkish army in the city of Sur district, which is home to several heritage sites, levelled parts of the Old City. In fact, most Kurds believe Erdogan is trying to wipe out their cultural identity.

Indeed, Erdogan had more or less explicitly said that all of these dangers would have been avoided if only the Turkish public had chosen more wisely in the June2015 elections. If a political party had managed to secure 400 deputies or a number that could change the Constitution ‘ he had admonished, ‘the situation today would have been very different.’ In other words: If you wanted to have any hope of ending the surging political, economic, and security chaos, you needed to go back to the polls on Nov. 1,2015 to restore the AKP majority, and support an empowered presidency with Erdogan at the helm.

The cynicism behind Erdogan’s calculation to launch a full-scale war against the PKK was stunning. The biggest reason that the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in June was the fact that a pro-Kurdish party with ties to the PKK, the People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, had succeeded in crossing Turkey’s 10 percent electoral threshold for the first time, leaving it with 80 seats. And the key to the HDP’s success was its ability to win over large numbers of conservative and religious Kurds who had previously supported the AKP , whether out of attraction to the AKP’s Islamist agenda or, more likely, because they saw the AKP as the party most committed to addressing Turkey’s longstanding ‘Kurdish problem’.

Erdogan and the AKP lost those votes in June2015 for two key reasons: The first was mounting Kurdish frustration with the lack of real movement in the two-year old peace process. More and more Kurds had come to the realization that the effort was less about addressing core Kurdish demands for equal citizenship, including political decentralization in Kurdish-dominated areas of Turkey’s southeast, than it was about Erdogan’s desire to lock the Kurds in as a reliable voting bloc that would give him the majorities he needed to fulfill his increasingly despotic ambitions.

Second, Turkey’s Kurds were shocked in the fall of 2014 by Erdogan’s harsh antagonistic reaction to the plight of Kobani, a Syrian Kurdish town near the Turkish border that had come under assault by the Islamic State. Knowing full well that the town’s inhabitants faced possible extinction, Erdogan at first refused to allow international assistance to flow to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish force defending Kobani that has close links to the PKK. Despite his supposed peace process with the Kurds in Turkey, it quickly became apparent that Erdogan viewed the rising power of Kurds in Syria as a much bigger threat than the barbarian hordes of the Islamic State whose killing monstrous killing machine played havoc all over Syria and Iraq through Erdogan’s collaboration. While international pressure finally forced Erdogan to allow assistance to flow and Kobani was saved, the deep sense of betrayal felt by Turkey’s Kurds was profound. Erdogan’s fundamental animosity had been laid bare. His hopes of co-opting them into his Machiavellian schemes were dashed, probably irreparably.

When appearing to make peace with the Kurds had failed to serve his broader political goals, Erdogan banked on the hope that making war on the Kurds will do so. By whipping up anti-Kurdish hysteria, Erdogan was aiming to generate a rally around the flag effect whereby Turkish nationalists of all stripes were mobilized behind his leadership. At the same time, by attacking the HDP as a front for the PKK, he was clearly determined to do whatever he could to suppress its vote back below the 10 percent threshold in order to keep it out of parliament entirely. Aiding that effort were the Turkish army’s intensified offensive measures across Turkey’s southeast which drove down Kurdish turnout on election day.

In the wake of Erdogan’s incitement, hundreds of HDP offices were attacked and the number of assaults against ordinary Kurds also skyrocketed, some of them lethal in nature. Mobs led by AKP sympathizers and in one case even an AKP parliamentary deputy had attempted to intimidate major Turkish media outlets that had been critical of Erdogan in their coverage. Efforts by the state to prevent such politically-motivated lawlessness and thuggery, much less punish it, were noticeably absent. The whiff of fascism, Erdogan-style, clearly permeates the air as the referendum draws near.

Unfortunately, there was an American angle to Erdogan’s war on the PKK. After a year of rebuffing pleas from the United States to use Turkish air bases for attacks against the Islamic State, Turkey finally relented in late July2015 at precisely the moment that it decided to ramp up the PKK conflict. It’s difficult not to suspect that the timing had more to do with Erdogan’s desire to secure Washington’s acquiescence in his anti-Kurdish power play than with any sudden epiphany on his part to at long last became a full-fledged member of the fight against Islamic State.

Erdogan’s persistent attacks on Rojava

The fact is that both the YPG and the PKK have been among the most effective groups fighting the Islamic State on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border. Indeed, in Syria, it’s almost certainly the case that no ground force has captured more territory from the Islamic State than the YPG, or served as a more reliable partner for the U.S. air force. Even if the Turkish military limits its attacks to the PKK, and leaves the YPG alone, the links between the groups are such that Turkey’s campaign will almost inevitably serve as a major distraction that threatens to undermine and weaken the overall Kurdish contribution to the U.S.-led war effort now being on the verge of delivering a lethal final blow at Isil in Raqqa.

Turkey is persistently hostile towards Rojava because it feels threatened by Rojava’s emergence encouraging activism for autonomy among Kurds in Turkey and the Kurdish–Turkish conflict, and in this context in particular Rojava’s leading Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) being members of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) network of organisations, which also includes both political and militant assertively Kurdish organizations in Turkey itself, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey’s policy towards Rojava is based on an economic blockade, persistent attempts of international isolation, opposition to the cooperation of the international Anti-ISIL-coalition with Rojava’s SDF and support of Islamist Syrian Civil War factions hostile towards Rojava,[ even including ISIL .Turkey has on several occasions also been militarily attacking Rojava territory and defence forces.The latter has resulted in some of the most clearcut instances of international solidarity with Rojava ;nevertheless, Erdogan more often than not vows to continue attacking Kurds in northern Syria .“We won’t allow a terror state, controlled by the PKK and YPG, to be established in northern Syria,” he said last week.

Erdogan abhors U.S. cooperation with the YPG, which he calls a terror group. Erdogan has insistently asked the U.S. to make a choice between Turkey and the YPG, but was repeatedly rebuffed.

In the perception of much of the Turkish public, the Rojava federal project as well as U.S. support against ISIL are elements of a wider conspiracy scheme by a “mastermind” with the aim to weaken or even dismember Turkey, in order to prevent its imminent rise as a global power. Opposition jailed Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas called on Turkey and other countries to recognize Rojava and work with it as a partner. However, Turkey fears and loathes Kurdish independence anywhere in the world more than it fears and loathes anything else.

Inside of Turkey, the impact of Erdogan’ s reckless drive for power could be even more ominous, at least in the long run. By re-igniting the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, he has lit a fire that he well may not be able to extinguish. All the key indicators are moving in the wrong direction. Political polarization and societal tensions are at explosive levels. An economic crisis looms. Press freedoms are under constant assault.

Enemy of free speech

The climate in Turkey is such that even an insolent reference to Erdogan is grounds for criminal charges; over 1000 have been indicted under such laws. Widespread phone tapping is no longer a secret, leading to fears of expressing oneself truthfully in phone conversations. To be sure, ordinary Turks do not discuss politics in public and refrain from criticizing government officials, fearing that a secret agent may be listening to the conversation. There is only one opposition television station left operating and one such newspaper (Cumhuriyet), but almost half of the newspaper’s reporters, columnists, and executives have nonetheless been jailed.

Press defenders say that Turkey is holding 149 journalists in jail and EU leaders have repeatedly expressed alarm over freedom of expression in the country.

But Erdogan denied there was a single bona fide reporter in jail in the country.
‘Everyone is there, from murderers to robbers, child abusers to fraudsters. In this list, only journalists are not present,’ he said.

Erdogan’s dirty rhetoric war against the European Union

Turkey has been mired in a diplomatic row with Germany and the Netherlands after they banned Turkish officials from campaigning in support of an April referendum on boosting the Turkish President’s powers.
Since then, Erdogan has hurled a string of insults at the European countries, accusing them of state terrorism, acting like “Nazi remnants,” and having a “rotten” character.
“Go live in better neighbourhoods. Drive the best cars. Live in the best houses. Make not three, but five children. Because you are the future of Europe. That will be the best response to the injustices against you,” Erdogan urged Turks in Europe.

Shortly before the attack at the Parliament building in London, Turkish Erdogan issued chilling warnings to Europeans worldwide that they would not be able to “walk safely on the streets in any part of the world if Europe continued this way’.

Erdogan warned also Europe that Turkey was ‘not a country to push, to prod, to play with its honour, to shove its ministers out of the door, drag its citizens on the floor.’

He added: “We, as Turkey, call on Europe to respect human rights and democracy.”

Erdogan threatened to throw open his country’s gates for migrants and refugees after the European Parliament voted to suspend EU membership negotiations with Ankara.
Erdogan has been using those Syrian and other refugees fleeing violence as “a bargaining chip” in his domestic and international agenda.

Erdogan had previously branded the Netherlands “Nazi remnants” and accused Germany of “fascist actions”.

Moreover, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu addressed EU leaders saying: “Where will you go? Where are you taking Europe? You have begun to collapse Europe. You are dragging Europe into the abyss. Holy wars will soon begin in Europe.”

In return, European leaders have made repeated calls for Turkish officials to avoid Nazi comparisons and the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany accused Erdogan of disrespecting the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

Germany’s new President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, used his first speech in the role to accuse Mr Erdogan of jeopardising everything Turkey has achieved in recent years.

The European parliament’s outgoing president, Martin Schulz, suggested EU leaders could opt for imposing economic sanctions on Turkey.

Besides, Germany’s biggest-selling newspaper Bild attacked Mr Erdogan for threatening the stability of Europe through his “lust for power”.

“Bild tells the truth to Erdogan’s face – you are not a democrat! You are hurting your country! You are not welcome here!” the German newspaper said.

Dutch populist Geert Wilders described Turks in the Netherlands as a “fifth column” and said: “If your loyalty lies elsewhere then get out. No dual citizenship anymore. And shut the borders.”

Erdogan’s real ambitions

Turkey under Erdogan is one of three “radical” elements seeking to expand their influence in the Middle East, along with Iran and jihadists such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda all struggling for hegemony in the region, “Former Israeli defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, said on March 15 in a meeting with foreign journalists.

Erdogan is pursuing “hegemony by establishing (a) neo-Ottoman empire using the Muslim Brotherhood ideology which goes beyond Turkey,” Ya’alon said.

Most importantly, as a devout Muslim he skilfully uses Islam as a tool to further promote his political ambition without the need to produce any evidence for the correctness of his political agenda. When Erdogan became mayor of Istanbul in 1994, he stood as a candidate for the pro-Islamist Welfare Party. He went to jail for 4 months in 1999 for religious incitement after he publicly read a nationalist poem including the lines: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”

What if the referendum fails him?

How far Erdogan will go, especially if he senses that the April 16 referendum will not deliver the result he demands, is anyone’s guess. An even more systematic crackdown on opposition media? Outlawing the HDP entirely as a terrorist organisation? Allowing even worse to happen to HDP’s arrested leaders or even reintroducing the death penalty to carry out mass hangings? Using his war against the PKK to invade further territories in neighbouring Syria and Iraq? Given what he’s done already, nothing, no matter how outrageous, seems out of the question.

That’s a scary thought, indeed. But that is the unfortunate place that Erdogan has now brought Turkey. For its part, the west should be on guard against all possible downside scenarios. It certainly should not allow itself to be seen as complicit in any of them. It needs to be sending clear messages now in an effort to deter Erdogan’s worst excesses, and to bring pressure on him to de-escalate his war with the Kurds before it is too late. Should Erdogan proceed nevertheless in his assault on Turkey’s wellbeing, Washington ultimately needs to be prepared to speak out forcefully and publicly against him, even at the risk of losing access to Turkish bases.

The Venice Commission, a body of constitutional law scholars advising the Council of Europe, added credence to this view in a report published on March 13. They found that the current political environment in Turkey “does not provide for the due democratic setting for a constitutional referendum” by international standards. The entire country remains under a state of emergency that had been declared after the attempted coup and prolonged by a series of deadly attacks allegedly perpetrated by ISIS. Therefore, many experts believe there will be widespread rigging.

It’s going to be a referendum where votes are cast under war conditions as Several Kurdish cities remain under strict curfew.

Ultimately, no matter the outcome, difficult times lay ahead for the highly polarised country.

*Hasan Hasan is a freelance journalist from Rojava, Syria.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kom News.