Political tensions rise prior to elections in Turkey

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmet Aslan

Jumada' al-Akhirah 28, 1432 2011-06-01

News & Analysis

by Ahmet Aslan

Returning from the northwestern Black Sea city of Kastamonu, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s convoy was attacked on May 4. As part of his election campaign Erdogan had visited the city to address its residents urging them to vote for his Justice and Development Party (AKP). He then flew by helicopter to a nearby city to continue his campaign, while his election convoy, including his campaign bus from which he usually delivers speeches and greets the people, was returning to the AKP headquarters in Ankara. When Erdogan’s campaign bus was 25 km from the city centre, around the Ilgaz Mountains, a sudden burst of machinegun fire targeted the police car escorting the convoy. After the initial shots, the attackers came closer to the police car and threw a grenade which set the car on fire, injuring one police officer and killing another in the vehicle. After a brief exchange of gunfire with the prime minister’s bodyguards, the attackers fled the scene without suffering any casualties.

Despite the heightened political tension that has created what may be called low-intensity turmoil in Turkey, especially in the southeastern region of the country, no one was expecting such a brazen attack on the prime minister. The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), an internationally listed terrorist organization, immediately claimed responsibility and warned Erdogan that the next target will be the AKP. By all accounts this was one of the most sophisticated attacks the PKK has launched in its history. Targeting the prime minister’s election convoy was a symbolic move by the PKK, as was the location of the attack. It was unusual for the PKK to attack a Turkish prime minister and unlike previous PKK attacks that were launched from the southwest province of Turkey this one took place in western Turkey just a couple of dozen kilometres from the capital, Ankara.

During the past few months the PKK has intensified its own campaign to sabotage the elections scheduled for June 12. Indeed, the PKK has its own goal: establishment of an autonomous Kurdish state in the south-east region of Turkey, for which it has been staging a bloody terror campaign for three decades. However, it would be naïve to assume that the PKK is merely serving the “interests” of the Kurdish minority. Due to its militant communist-nationalist ideology, the religious and moderate Kurds that make up most of the Kurdish minority have distanced themselves from the group. Additionally, recent revelations from the Ergenekon case showed involvement of the Turkish “deep state” in the establishment of the PKK and its influence on the group. Evidence has emerged that the Turkish secret service (MIT) and the army supported Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK, currently held prisoner in Imrali Island, to set up the group in 1978 and since then they have had shady relations with the terrorist group.

Therefore, escalating PKK attacks on the eve of elections must be scrutinized in detail. A senior Turkish journalist Adem Yavuz Arslan concluded that the attack targeted Erdogan and attempted to destabilize the country before the elections: “The PKK meant to say, ‘I am strong before the elections, I can carry out attacks against anyone and in any part of the world.’ There is also an aim to create a feeling of insecurity among the public and lay the blame on the Justice and Development Party [AKP] for this. By stirring nationalist and conservative reactions against terrorism, there is an effort to change the political balance against the AKP. As much as Erdogan’s convoy, the ballot box was also the PKK’s target.”

Almost all opinion polls predict a landslide victory for the AKP in the June 12 general elections. The last opinion poll carried out by KONDA, the most reputable independent survey company, just a few weeks before the elections predicted AKP’s overall vote to reach 46 to 50%. This figure concurs with earlier surveys and if a dramatic change does not take place before the elections the AKP will form a third consecutive government. The same poll shows that the AKP significantly exceeds its closest rival the Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by Mustafa Kemal, whose vote is predicted at between 25 to 27%. Finally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) remains just above the 10% official barrier to enter the National Assembly (NA).

Confident of his party’s success, Erdogan has already declared that if his party does gain a majority to form the government he would resign from the leadership of the party, and urged his rivals to do the same. Political analysts believe that Erdogan’s AKP is already guaranteed a third term in office but Erdogan has larger goals in mind. AKP’s “biggest election project” as Erdogan promised, is to replace the existing constitution with a new one. Erdogan had already gained a major success in last year’s referendum to amend the constitution, which dramatically reduced the power of the army and enabled civil courts to try ex-army officers involved in military coups. However, Erdogan stated that amending the existing constitution was not enough and they need to prepare a new constitution that will deal with current issues such as minority rights, religious freedom, and women’s rights, and pave the way for eradicating influence of the army and civil bureaucracy in politics altogether.

If this new constitution goes into effect the implications will be far-reaching. It will be the last stage of wiping out the old guard of the Turkish Republic and establish a powerful democratic, civil Muslim country. In order to achieve this, the AKP needs between 330 to 367 seats in the National Assembly. These two numbers are significant since with 367 seats the AKP will not need the support of any other party to approve the new constitution. If it cannot achieve this figure, any number above 330 will enable it to place the issue before the public for a referendum as they did for amending the constitution last August. According to opinion polls the AKP seems to have a lock on 330 seats in the assembly and is now trying to reach the 367 target. This scenario may only be realized if the nationalist MHP falls short of the 10% barrier that is necessary to enter the National Assembly. The MHP’s votes traditionally ranges between 15 to 20%; however, a recent scandal triggered by some video tapes that show licentious images of six senior party members and their comments about their party seem to have caused a significant drop in its traditional voter support. If this trend continues, it will allow only two parties to enter the NA and MHP votes will be shared between the AKP and the CHP, which means the AKP might gain another 50 seats, achieving a comfortable majority of 367 seats in the National Assembly.

However, there are many difficulties awaiting Erdogan and his team. The old guard are working hard to frustrate the AKP’s plan: a sinister campaign has been launched to create turmoil in the country which is expected to increase votes for Turkish nationalism represented by the MHP, and Kurdish nationalism represented by the Peace and Democracy Party, known to be the political wing of the PKK, which has been participating in elections through independent candidates to overcome the 10% barrier. Additionally, there is a possible engineering of a coalition between the two traditional archenemies, the CHP and the MHP. This would be a difficult undertaking considering the potential backlash from the grass-root supporters of the two parties, but the influence of the old guard in the Turkish political establishment is still strong enough to materialize its plans — regardless of the consequences for the country — if they think this would lead to their victory.

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