Faced with the prospect of losing power, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not hesitate to resort to dangerous tricks, gambling with high stakes both within Turkey and beyond. In the past, his tactics have generally paid off, and he has succeeded in dominating Turkey for eighteen years. He believes that the same tricks will allow him to stay in power for much longer, but conditions have changed in Turkey and in the wider world as well. His games have become much more transparent and obvious and produce the opposite effect from that he intended, so that every step he takes is losing him more support. Of course, this makes him much more dangerous, at home and abroad.
Erdoğan started his political life in the Milli Selamet Partisi, or National View, under the leadership of Necmettin Erbakan, and continued in its successor party, the Refah Partisi. In 1994 he was elected mayor of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. Three years later, he was imprisoned for four months for reciting a poem that included potentially militant religious imagery. When he was released, he left his former party and, together with close friends, founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
In his public statements, he claimed to have moved away from Erbakan’s Islamism, and towards a centre-right politics that preserved some Islamic arguments – a sort of Islamic version of Christian democracy. For Europe and the United States, this raised hopes that such politics would spread out from Turkey to become an example for the whole Islamic world and a bulwark against radical Islamist groups. They gave Erdoğan huge support, and thanks to this the AKP won 34% of the votes in the 2002 general election. The 10% election threshold meant that only the AKP and the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) got representatives in parliament, and the AKP’s share of a third of the votes translated to almost two thirds of the parliamentary seats.
This rise to power happened more quickly than even Erdoğan had expected, but the extent of his power was limited by a strong state bureaucracy. To counter this, he cooperated with the Fethullah Gülen movement, which was already organised within the bureaucracy, and they began to dominate all the state institutions. For the first time in the history of the Republic, they managed to break the army’s influence on Turkish politics.
The AKP government was also carrying out largely cosmetic reforms in line with the European Union accession process. Thanks to these reforms, they received serious support from Europe. In 2005, Erdoğan went to Diyarbakir and spoke about finding a solution to the Kurdish issue. This won him big support from the Kurds, who have been persecuted throughout the history of the Republic. His strong criticism of Israel at the 2009 Davos summit, where he stormed out when his speech was brought to an end by the chair, was rewarded by support from the Islamic world, which then started many economic investments in Turkey.
By 2009, together with the Gülen movement, the AKP had taken over all the institutions of the state, but, despite widespread oppression and military action, they could not prevent the Kurdish opposition from getting stronger. They therefore decided to focus on defeating the Kurdish movement through the secret negotiation process known as the Oslo talks, begun in 2006.
Meanwhile, contradictions were growing between Erdoğan and the Gülenists. In 2011, just before the general election, the Gülenists exposed the Oslo talks, and Erdoğan responded by declaring “I will meet with everyone to stop the tears of the mothers”. In these elections, the AKP reached 49.8% of the vote, the highest rate in its history. This gave Erdoğan the sense that he had the power to do whatever he wanted. He started to liquidate the Gülen movement step by step, and to take over control of the state institutions.
In late 2012, knowing that he could not fight on all fronts at the same time, Erdoğan started a dialogue process with PKK leader, Abdulllah Öcalan, who had been in prison on the island of İmralı since 1999.
With the aid of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) politicians, discussions were carried out over more than two years between Öcalan, the leading cadres of the PKK, and state officials. During this time, Mr Öcalan sincerely believed that he could achieve lasting peace, while Erdoğan was preparing to liquidate the Kurdish movement. Meanwhile, the contradictions with the Gülen movement deepened.
During this dialogue process, the democratic Kurdish political movement, represented by the HDP, was able to gain in strength due to the relatively peaceful environment. And at the same time, across the border in Syria, Kurds were building serious political and military organisations to defend their areas and organise an autonomous society. They succeeded in stopping and then pushing back ISIS, making a historic resistance against its attacks, first in Sinjar and then in Kobanê.
For Erdoğan, who supported ISIS, this resistance was hard to bear. He started preparations to end the dialogue process, and, in the June 2015 elections, he did whatever he could to keep the HDP below the 10% election threshold. At a mass HDP rally in Diyarbakır, a bomb attack led to many casualties. It is believed that this was carried out by ISIS members under the control of the Turkish Intelligence Service (MIT). Other attacks occurred in many places during the campaign.
Despite this, the HDP managed to get 13.2% of the votes and see 80 deputies elected to parliament. For the first time since its establishment, the AKP lost its majority and could not form a government. A maddened Erdoğan decided to change political tack. Arguing that dialogue with the Kurds had led to his political loss and to gains for the Kurdish movement, he decided to end the process completely.
Erdoğan held talks with other political parties, apart from the HDP, but was unable to agree any form of coalition. Finally, he decided to hold another election on 1 November. During this period, on 20 July, a bomb was detonated amid members of the Socialist Youth Group, who were gathered in Suruç in preparation for helping with reconstruction in Kobanê. Thirty-three young people were killed, and again it is believed that the attack was carried out by ISIS members under the control of the MIT. Two days later, two police officers were mysteriously killed in Ceylanpınar, and blame was pinned on the PKK. The dialogue process was officially ended.
Erdoğan started his new election campaign with heavy military bombardments of the mountains under the control of the PKK in South (Iraqi) Kurdistan. These attacks lasted for weeks and many civilians lost their lives. The HDP was rendered virtually incapable of conducting election activities due to intense pressure, including bomb attacks and detentions. On 10 October, there was an even bigger bomb attack than those carried out before, again believed to be the work of ISIS members under the control of MIT. The target was a peace rally in Ankara, led by NGOs and political parties. 107 people lost their lives in this attack, and more than 500 people were injured.
As a result of this brutal election campaign, Erdoğan managed to form a majority government – but he had still failed to push the HDP below the election threshold.
In late 2015 and early 2016, Kurdish provinces and districts were making demands for self-government and people’s councils. Instead of meeting these demands through dialogue, Erdoğan turned to the police and army, bombarding the Kurdish areas for months. Hundreds of civilians were massacred, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to migrate, and tens of thousands of homes were destroyed.
We understand that, in mid-2016, Erdoğan received intelligence that some generals in the army, who were close to Fethullah Gülen, were preparing a military coup. Rather than prevent this, he worked with MIT to let them go ahead but make fatal mistakes. Erdoğan declared the resultant failed coup, in which more than 300 people died, a ‘GIFT FROM GOD’!
The failed coup provided Erdoğan with the excuse to silence all opponents by declaring a state of emergency. Nearly 130,000 people were fired from their jobs, and tens of thousands of people, including the HDP’s co-chairs, and many of the party’s MPs and administrators, were imprisoned. Opposition newspapers and television stations were shut down or confiscated and brought into line with government views.
In 2018, Erdoğan changed the constitution to a presidential system, allowing him to take direct control of many more areas, and effectively eliminate the separation of powers. At the same time, he purged almost all his former friends with whom he had founded the AKP.
Meanwhile in northern Syria, Erdoğan’s determination to deny the Kurds any autonomy has led him to invade large areas, where he has carried out crimes against humanity; and his engagement with Russia and Iran in the Astana Process, has served to boost Russian interests.
At home in Turkey, Erdoğan’s world was starting to unravel. The economy was in crisis, and two leading AKP members left to establish new parties. Polls now show that, even with their allies in the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the AKP can no longer maintain a majority.
To divert attention from problems at home, Erdoğan escalated the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean. He got involved in the civil war in Libya, using Islamist fighters transported from Syria. And in Nagorno- Karabakh, he encouraged Azerbaijan to attack by providing military support, causing thousands of deaths.
All this external aggression could not prevent Erdoğan from losing further support. In fact, it’s declining even more rapidly. For Erdoğan, losing power is tantamount to death, and he needed to escape this losing spiral. He planned to carry out a popular and successful military operation, and on the back of this, hold an early election that would enable him to stay in power a further five years. In this, he hoped to echo the electoral bounce gained by Bülent Ecevit after the capture of Ocalan in 1999.
His chosen operation was an attack on the Garê mountains in South Kurdistan. This has been portrayed in government propaganda as a rescue mission for Turkish soldiers and police officers held prisoner by the PKK since 2015-16. However, there is no evidence of any serious attempt to rescue the men. The government did not even respond to any requests from the men’s families, political parties, and non- governmental organisations to allow them to negotiate their release. They claimed that they never make deals or negotiate with ‘terrorist’ organisations, but, in the past, around 300 prisoners held by the PKK have been released unharmed after negotiations and reunited with their families.
In addition, the government talked with the PKK secretly in Oslo and then openly in Imrali, conducting negotiations over many years. And Erdoğan’s government negotiated with ISIS when Turkey’s consular officers were taken hostage after the occupation of Mosul in 2014, successfully securing the diplomats’ release.
The operation in Garê was definitely not an operation designed to rescue the prisoners alive. The main purpose was to take control of the area, and, if possible, cause some casualties to high-level PKK fighters. Erdoğan was not worried about killing the Turkish prisoners because responsibility could be put on the PKK. In his calculation, this could be used to raise nationalist feelings and boost electoral support.
For past acts of international aggression, Erdoğan was generally able to get the support of the parliamentary opposition, apart from the HDP. This time was not like that. The Turkish military faced an unexpected resistance in Garê. In a very short period of time, they had to withdraw and escape, with significant losses, taking with them the corpses of the prisoners killed by their own bombardment. They tried to portray this as a success, but neither the public nor the opposition parties gave the support they were looking for. On the contrary, they began to seriously question this governmental failure.
The longer this questioning goes on, the more Erdoğan will lose support. Efforts continue to spin a success story and extend his political life, and it is unclear where these will lead and what kind of damage they will create. But, with nothing off limits when it comes to protecting his power, Erdoğan remains extremely dangerous indeed.
Fayik Yağızay is the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Representative of the Council of Europe