BACKGROUND: When the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul erupted a year ago, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seemed vulnerable for a while. Indeed, Erdoğan responded to the protests in a way that made it appear as if he himself thought that they posed a threat to his rule; he was defiant and determined not to do anything – such as listening to the protesters or engaging in a dialogue with them – that could be interpreted as weakness. Two weeks after the first police assault against the protesters who had set up tents in the park – which had triggered the subsequent mass protests – Erdoğan ordered the police to clear the park. Erdoğan had taken the protests as a personal insult, and he recently showed that he still feels that way.
Speaking at the opening of a new automotive factory owned by Ford and its Turkish partners the Koç Group, Erdoğan explained that he had decided to attend the ceremony as it represents a huge investment; for that sake, he had set aside his personal feelings of hurt toward the Koç Group. The group, which is Turkey’s leading industrial group, became the target of Erdoğan’s ire when Divan Hotel, which is owned by the Koç Group, opened its doors for those who sought refuge from the police assault against the Gezi Park. (See 9 October 2013 Turkey Analyst) Many were hurt in the commotion when police fired gas canisters into the lobby of the hotel. At the opening of the Ford/Otosan factory, Erdoğan alluded to the event, stating that “They (the Koç Group) made us sorry,” but he intimated that he was now ready to move on with the relationship.
Erdoğan can afford to show magnanimity; the year after the Gezi Park protests has been the most difficult since he became prime minister, but he has prevailed over his foes and challengers and he can confidently look forward to becoming Turkey’s first popularly elected president in the election in August.
The protesters in Istanbul and other cities a year ago were never a threat to Erdoğan’s power; they represented a minority of the population – upper-middle class youth, which was joined by working class Alevis, another minority. On the contrary, they were an ideal enemy for Erdoğan. He could conjure the image of an ungrateful, urban well-to-do youth that had gone berserk, threatening Turkey’s stability and prosperity; by doing that, Erdoğan successfully played on the class prejudices of the conservative base of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Few AKP voters felt that it was wrong to violently disperse these “anarchists.”
By going on the offensive with a highly polarizing rhetoric, Erdoğan also made sure that the voices within the AKP that had been calling for moderation were silenced. Both President Abdullah Gül and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç initially called for a moderated response, admitting that the protesters had legitimate concerns and the right to express them. Erdoğan did not heed these calls, and that was probably because he – correctly – calculated that the result would have been the strengthening of the positions of Gül and Arınç.
The power challenge posed by Erdoğan’s erstwhile allies, the followers of the cleric Fethullah Gülen, was of an altogether different nature. The Gülenists were entrenched within the state, they had apparently accumulated piles of incriminating information on Erdoğan and his collaborators, and they are Turkey’s most powerful religious network. When prosecutors generally believed to be Gülenists launched a corruption probe against ministers in Erdoğan’s government, their sons and business people in AKP circles, Erdoğan appeared particularly vulnerable. (See 15 January 2014 Turkey Analyst)
However, Erdoğan succeeded in quickly fending off the Gülenist threat; the ensuing purges in the judiciary and police coupled with the government’s assertion of direct control over the judiciary effectively neutralized the Gülenists. They now face further purges. A legal case is being prepared against Fethullah Gülen, who is expected to be charged with having attempted to overthrow the constitutional order; the prosecutor of the case is reported to re-open the cases against Gülen from the 1990s, when the cleric was charged with undermining the secular character of the Turkish state with a view to institute a Sharia state.
The results of the March 30 municipal elections demonstrated that the Gülenists were unable to undermine Erdoğan’s electoral base. The AKP did lose voters, which in all probability was due to the accusations of corruption, but overall, the conservative base remained solidly loyal to Erdoğan. After having been neutralized as a force within the state, the Gülenists were effectively cut down to size electorally as well.
IMPLICATIONS: After a year during which first the urban, middle and upper class discontent was violently dealt with and then the Gülenists were disposed of as rivals, and which also saw President Gül demonstrating that he is not going to challenge Erdoğan, the question is if there is any societal force or anyone that could hinder Erdoğan from ruling Turkey for at least another five years, the term of the presidency, and then being reelected for a second term. That is what Erdoğan is assumed to have in mind; he would then preside over the republic as it celebrates its centennial in 2023. For the moment, the answer is no. No one can contest Erdoğan. However, that does not necessarily mean that Turkey is always going to bend to his will or that the country is going to be easy to govern even for an all-powerful President Erdoğan.
Erdoğan may have prevailed over the troubles and challenges of the last year, but the way he has handled these has left a troubled legacy. Leading pro-AKP commentators such as Ali Bayramoğlu in Yeni Şafak and Oral Çalışlar in Radikal, are among those who are concerned that Turkey has become too polarized; they fear that the country could be drifting toward chaos.
What is especially alarming is the growing unrest among the Alevi minority. The Alevis increasingly feel that the ruling Sunni conservatives not only despise them and discriminate against them, but also that they are being singled out as targets, as the killing of an Alevi man at the premises of an Alevi house of worship by police in Istanbul last week attest. Moreover, all of those who have been killed in protests since the Gezi Park protests have been Alevis. Leading representatives of the Alevi community warn that the anger among the Alevi youth has reached dangerous proportions.
For his part, Erdoğan is clearly expecting more troubles ahead and he is preparing to meet them in the same way that he has been doing during the past year. The parliament has enacted a law that increases the powers of the National Intelligence Agency (MİT), and the materiel of the police is being reinforced; more powerful armored vehicles (an advanced version of the “Toma” that are used to disperse demonstrators) have recently been commissioned. The deployment of the armored police vehicles have become the standard answer of the Erdoğan regime to any kind of public expression of discontent; most recently, this was the case in the town of Soma, where the public had taken to the streets in anger after the mining disaster.
It remains to be seen whether armored police vehicles, tear gas and water cannons, and restricting citizens’ access to information, will prove sufficient to keep an increasingly restless country in check. In any case, that is how Erdoğan can be expected to respond to another Gezi Park-like protest or to continued Alevi and worker protests.
But there is one constituency that Erdoğan is not likely going to treat in the same way. The Kurdish opening of the AKP may have stalled, but neither are there any indications that there is going to be a return to the previous policies of the Turkish state. By starting peace talks with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Erdoğan has set the country on what in all likelihood is an irreversible course toward a fundamental rearrangement of the relation between the Kurdish citizens of Turkey and the state.
When confronted with the Gezi Park protesters and the Gülenists, Erdoğan judged that he needed to be ruthless lest his power could be endangered; with the Kurds, the same power rationale dictates the opposite reaction. The Kurds’ aspirations – some form of local autonomy in the mainly Kurdish southeast of the country, Kurdish language education in the public schools of the region, and eventually the release of Öcalan to house arrest – will simply have to be accommodated. And the Kurds hold the key to Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions: their support is going to be crucial, and the polls indeed indicate that the Kurds lean toward Erdoğan.
CONCLUSIONS: The prospect of a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish conflict, as the search for this converges with Erdoğan’s power ambitions, points toward a paradox: while Erdoğan increasingly acts like an autocrat in the western parts of Turkey, he embodies the hope of democratization east of the Euphrates, in the Kurdish east. The question is if democratization in the east is possible while the west develops in the opposite direction.
Ultimately, the democratization that Erdoğan is going to have to preside over in the Kurdish east may set in motion a development that leads to a relaxation of the grip of the one party state in the rest of the country as well. The Kurds may very well prove to represent the hope for a more democratic Turkey.
Halil Karaveli is Head of the Turkey Initiative and Editor of the Turkey Analyst at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.