Old guard’s disruptive tactics prior to elections in Turkey

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmet Aslan

Jumada' al-Ula' 27, 1432 2011-05-01

News & Analysis

by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 3, Jumada' al-Ula', 1432)

Preparations for the forthcoming elections have brought an early spring to Turkish politics. In April, Turkish political parties launched their campaigns for general elections scheduled for June 12. Early poll results predict a landslide victory for the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP).

Preparations for the forthcoming elections have brought an early spring to Turkish politics. In April, Turkish political parties launched their campaigns for general elections scheduled for June 12. Early poll results predict a landslide victory for the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP). Several independent organizations predict an increase in AKP’s popularity and put its vote between 45 to 50% (if not 55%). If these predictions hold up till Election Day, the AKP will have its third consecutive electoral victory and a further tenure in power. However, some disturbing developments in April indicate this will not be an easy win for the AKP.

On April 22, in Adana, one of the largest cities in Turkey, two people armed with knives raided a church and damaged icons and other property while chanting “Allahu Akbar”, “we are Muslims” and “this is Turkey”. They alleged church officials offered money and jobs if people converted to Christianity. The security staff at the church quickly locked the doors and called the police. The attackers were apprehended and the police launched an investigation. At first glance it might be considered a disproportionate reaction to an incident that was motivated by religious fanaticism, but deeper analyses would yield greater insights. The Turkish public is quite familiar with incidents that aim to create chaos and instability in the country especially prior to important political events. For example, in 2006, a Roman Catholic priest was killed in Trabzon in the Black Sea region. A juvenile assailant shot the priest from the back while chanting “Allahu Akbar”.

The assassination took place at the peak of the struggle between the AKP and the Turkish oligarchy. After the killing, national and international media launched a vicious propaganda campaign against Muslims. Without waiting for the results of the police investigation the media held Muslims responsible for the attack and blamed the AKP for allowing such incidents. The police, however, reacted with alacrity and soon caught the assailant and disclosed his links to the “Ergenakon” case, an on-going court case that has involved a number of military officers involved in attempted coups to overthrow the government and assassinate Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In another provocative incident prior to the 2007 presidential elections a massive campaign was launched to prevent incumbent Abdullah Gul from assuming the office of president. At the peak of the campaign, five young Turkish men stormed into Zirve Publication that was set up by Christian missionaries to publish proselytizing books. The attackers overwhelmed three people — one German and two Turkish citizens — inside the printing office and killed them. Similar to the previous incident, the media immediately accused the Muslims despite the fact that the assailants had no religious background. The aim of the media was to show to the world the consequence of the rise of “political Islam” in Turkey. Choosing Christian targets was a carefully calculated plan since the perpetrators must have anticipated that such an attack would appeal to the prejudices of people in the West and damage the reputation of Turkish Muslims. Again a police investigation revealed how the young attackers were used in an Ergenekon plot to demonize Muslims in order to prevent the highest office in the country from slipping away.

Killing of a well know Armenian journalist, Hirant Dink and some other provocative attacks have also been used by the Turkish oligarchy to fight against the rise of the AKP and to demonize Muslims.

In this regard the recent attack that took place in Adana had the hallmarks of the once powerful Turkish secular elite to sabotage the forthcoming elections. Soon after the attack the police found that despite their Islamic slogans the two detained suspects were drunk during the raid and they had previous criminal records. This indicates that although they have suffered serious blows and lost their power significantly in recent years, the Turkish elite still have the potential to rise from the ashes if the opportunity is provided, thanks to their 100-year long domination of the Turkish political system.

The secular elite have also used the Kurdish question as a handy tool to exploit. The nationalist/racist policies of the past have been a source of tension between the AKP and political representatives of the Kurdish minority that number around 14 million. Since the AKP came to power, it has introduced reforms to ease some of the problems facing the Kurds. Like Muslim activists, the Kurds too, have historically been perceived as a threat by the secular elite and mercilessly persecuted. The AKP’s achievements in dealing with the Kurds were constrained and the issue continued to be a source of tension, especially due to the disruptive activities of the armed Kurdish leftist group, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

The Peace and Democracy Party, known to be the political wing of the PKK, has been participating in elections putting forward independent candidates. It got around 10% of the vote and overcame the vote barrier for political parties to enter the National Assembly (NA). However, on April 19, the outdated Supreme Election Board vetoed seven candidates from participating in the elections. This was a major blow to the AKP’s effort to give voice to the Kurds in the assembly in order to keep them within the legal framework and to continue the negotiations. As soon as news of the ban was annouced, violence erupted in Kurdish populated areas of Istanbul and South Eastern Turkey.

Kurdish demonstrations were not dissimilar from the images of protesters in Bahrain, Yemen or Syria. During the violent demonstrations many protesters were arrested; some were wounded and one protester was killed.

The Supreme Election Board is one of the few remaining organizations that was set up to safeguard the interests of the Turkish oligarchy. However, due to the overwhelming reaction of the Turkish public, a few days later it had to revoke its decision for six of the seven candidates but the mayhem that was experienced during the short period continues to cast its dark shadow.

The forthcoming elections are crucial for the AKP to cement its 8.5-year rule and deliver on promises of freedom and change. Erdogan is well aware of these expectations. On April 24, he announced his party’s election program. It promises to shape the vision of Turkey by the year 2023 and concentrates on five main issues: democratic reforms, strong economy, engaged and empowered public, advanced technology and Turkey as a leading country. As part of democratic reforms the program promises a new constitution to replace the old one that was the product of the 1980 military coup. According to the program, the new constitution will enhance rights and freedoms and be inclusive. This would give more rights to minorities and create cohesion in society. It is expected that the new constitution will curtail the powers of the secular oligarchy and will pave the way for a genuine democratic Muslim state. This explains why the old guard are using all means to destabilise the country and overshadow the elections in a last bid to survive. Thus, more provocative incidents are likely to be staged before the elections.

This means that the Turkish government will be turning all its attention to internal politics in this volatile election period. This will naturally result in Turkey not being fully engaged in regional developments currently taking place in the Muslim East and North Africa. However, if the AKP manages clinch another victory at the polls, there is little doubt that Turkey will emerge as a more powerful international player.

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