Questions about Erdogan’s future path at home and abroad

Beyond its borders, today’s divided Turkey is a challenge to both the West and the region.

One-man show. A Turkish citizen living in Hungary casts his vote at the Turkish Embassy in Budapest, on April 9. (AP)

2017/04/23 Issue: 103 Page: 3

The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr

Istanbul - That Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government won a constitutional ref­erendum by such a fine margin means Turkey will remain a country at odds with itself and divisions are going to deepen.

The divisions on show have roots that long precede the months of campaign mud-slinging, during which Erdogan referred to those in the “no” camp as “opponents of Is­lam” and liars.

Those on the “no” side vowed vengeance. The co-chairman of the Kurdish-rooted Peoples’ Demo­cratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demir­tas pledged from his prison cell to “hold them to account in front of a fair judiciary”.

What’s left are 78 million Turks polarised by the rhetoric of their po­litical leaders.

Injustice is a theme of life in modern-day Turkey. The govern­ment and its supporters have railed against Europe, the United States, cleric Fethullah Gulen and others. Leftists and those who oppose the AKP claim a fascist entity has taken over their beloved republic and is changing, for the worse, their coun­try crafted by Mustafa Kemal Atat­urk from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

The rise of Erdogan’s brand of po­litical Islam has left many secular Turks, who for decades held politi­cal control, with soul-searching to do. Its bases, including the military and high-level business circles, have been decimated by the AKP. For republican politics to stay rel­evant, it has drifted towards religi­osity.

Many secular elites have had the luxury of being able to disengage from politics in their daily lives (tarnished by the entry of religion, as they see it), unlike during the dictatorships of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. That is because Erdogan’s gov­ernments have done an outstand­ing job of delivering a functioning economy and money to their pock­ets. The holiday resorts and bars across western Turkey and in liberal districts of the major cities have, despite terrorist threats, coped very well indeed.

Beyond its borders, today’s di­vided Turkey is a challenge to both the West and the region. As long as Ankara goes after the main Kurd­ish armed group in northern Syria, Washington will continue to have headaches in its search to eradicate the Islamic State (ISIS) and bring peace to the war-torn country. And as long as Turkey stays depend­ent on Russian and Iranian energy sources, tensions among those re­gional powers will continue to sim­mer.

There is also Ankara’s spat with Europe, which observers are split over whether it serves Turkey’s in­terest to maintain.

“As long as the rules of the European club are per­ceived as impositions on Turkey, no progress can be expected and negotiations will remain in limbo. That may suit Ankara for the time being,” wrote Marc Pierini, a visit­ing scholar at Carnegie Europe. The broader point is that Turkey’s politi­cal leadership remains anything but predictable today.

Perhaps there is an argument to be made that a divided electorate is the price for living in a function­ing democracy. After all, Americans elected Donald Trump and Britain voted to leave the European Union.

Turks can vote in relatively clean elections and referendums, yet when one side finds many of its po­litical leaders imprisoned and the media landscape heavily weighed against it, the notion that a free poll represents the true will of the Turk­ish nation is a fallacy, pure and sim­ple.

The question is how the president will set about shaping the country before the next presidential election in 2019. Will the government ease up on attacks against separatist Kurds and restart talks so that a peace set­tlement may finally be agreed?

Will Ankara tone down the frac­tious rhetoric directed towards its only essential partner — Europe — or continue its accusations, just to ap­peal to its base?

Where might Erdogan find his next target, having rooted out every apparent possible enemy, real and imagined? Can the foundation on which the republic was established nearly a century ago be maintained by those who disagree with Erdog­an’s vision for the country? Will there be anyone left with a voice to defend it?

The coming weeks and months will be intriguing in Turkey, though there is little doubt one man will be at the centre of it all.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

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