As the violence surges in Turkey, perhaps deliberately provoked by beleaguered political Islamists who are struggling to stay in power ahead of a likely snap election, the country's embattled president seems to have given an extra nudge to stoking fears about a Lebanonization of Turkish politics, something he has been trying hard to accomplish since the 2013 anti-government protests related to Gezi Park in order to survive political and legal challenges.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dumped the settlement talks with Kurds in a snap by abandoning the peace process altogether when he realized it was not working in his favor. His dream of becoming an all-powerful executive president was dashed by the popularity of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) in the June general election. The commanders of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), seen as affiliated with the HDP and apparently concerned about their future in the face of consolidation in Kurdish politics, have seized the opportunity presented by Erdoğan to reclaim their weakened strength. The patting on the back of hard-core militants who were apparently encouraged to resort to violence by Erdoğan-directed undercover intelligence agents helped escalate the clashes a great deal.
If Kurds represent an ethnic dimension of Lebanonization in Turkish politics, the long-standing Alevi problems that remain unresolved despite open promises by Islamists echo the sectarian dimension of that terrible Lebanese specter. Just like in the Kurdish talks, initiatives taken by the government to patch wounds in the Alevi matter, to address their legitimate grievances and move on with democratic packages were purposefully sabotaged by Erdoğan himself. He just wanted to consolidate Sunni votes for his former party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in a predominantly Sunni nation at the expense of others. He even planned foreign policy moves that would benefit him on the home front regarding cross-border sectarian conflicts in countries like Syria and Iraq.
It has become crystal clear by now that Erdoğan has no intention of seeing a coalition government formed by Prime Minister-designate Ahmet Davutoğlu, who has been negotiating deals with opposition parties after the AKP lost the majority in Parliament for the first time in 13 years. Erdoğan made no secret of the fact that he wants to take the nation to an early election, hoping that increased patriotic fever regarding the Kurdish conflict and hyped religious feelings on the Alevi issue will help him regain his weakened power. That is why the president will likely test limits further on ethnic and sectarian matters in the coming weeks and months.
Fethullah Gülen, a popular Sunni Islamic scholar who has a great deal of appeal among millions in Turkey, including among Kurds and Alevis, stands in the way of Erdoğan dividing the nation into ethnic and religious camps. Gülen, who inspired the Hizmet movement, also known as the Gülen movement, has been staunchly advocating dialogue and reconciliation between Turks and Kurds, as well as Sunnis and Alevis. He led many to invest heavily in outreach activities in Kurdish and Alevi neighborhoods for national unity, brotherhood and cooperation. That peaceful civic movement represents a major obstacle for Erdoğan, who wants to rally Sunni Turks behind his obscured ambitions of becoming an ultimate political and religious protector of Sunnis, not only in Turkey but around the world. The ongoing crackdown on Hizmet-affiliated institutions by Erdoğan and his associates in the government aims to remove that crucial resistance at the grassroots by inciting Lebanonization in Turkey.
Erdoğan, whose reputation took a significant blow in the aftermath of corruption scandals that implicated him and his family members in multi-million dollar schemes, has pinned his hopes on separating Turkey into several camps so that he can survive. He is using his talent and craftsmanship in politics to spread and deepen divisions and hopes that they put down roots in politics for good. His strategy to cling to power is based on a five-pronged approach: Dump the reconciliation efforts with disenfranchised groups, eliminate those who advocate dialogue and remain opposed to his divisive politics, maintain a patronage system through lucrative contracts to garner support from businesspeople, politicize the civil service and let the nation's fundamental problems linger on without addressing the underlying problems so that he can play on favoritism and use patronage.
Erdoğan stumbled when the June 7 elections stripped the AKP of its majority in Parliament and reinforced the perception that Turks and Kurds, as well as Sunnis and Alevis, can mount a better defense against his authoritarian rule. Taken aback by this blow for a while, the president is perhaps now flexing his muscles in the face of growing resistance to his authority and wants to send a stern message that he is still the man who is calling the shots. I believe this high-stakes game is the last act Erdoğan will play before the nation fully realizes that the most serious threat to the existence of Turkey, as we know it, is Erdoğan himself. The president's uncontrollable need to remain the chief political protagonist in Turkish politics is the strongest driving force propelling Turkey toward ethnic and sectarian crises, something the nation cannot endure.
While Erdoğan is desperately pushing for Lebanonization, his popularity has plunged and the negative perception of him has increased amid open interference in politics and lavish spending on his costly new palace. He is disliked by the majority of Turks, despised by the opposition and even distrusted by political figures within his former party. The business community, civil society groups and the middle class do not trust what they perceive as a double-dealing president who is always hungry for more power. The opposition media, though under immense pressure, is still vibrant and vocal against his authoritarian rule.
The president still has some leverage in the judiciary through members he appointed to the judicial council, although there are signs that the rule of law has slowly started to come back. Finally, Erdoğan's attempts to manipulate the military into doing his political bidding seem to have backfired, as the army has, by and large, stayed above the political fray. Much of the officer corps is alienated by Erdoğan, who wanted to extend the witch hunt for non-partisans and opponents in the civil service to the military's rank and file. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) has been navigating carefully amid a push and pull by Islamists who wanted to tap into hard power to realize their ideological objectives.
Unlike many political pundits who predict a victory for Erdoğan in an early election, my sense is that he will lose big time. For one, his AKP has been losing public support in the last three election cycles in two years' time. The party has lost its progressive stance and, in fact, is continuously backsliding on rights and democratic reforms. Economic woes have complicated the lives of low and middle-income families as they accumulate larger household debts to make ends meet. Business groups are on edge, as they lose more market opportunities abroad thanks to ideological choices made by Islamists in the government. The security situation has rapidly deteriorated. Neither a nationalist fever, rising amid clashes, nor Erdoğan's scaremongering regarding bad experiences during coalition governments of the past will be enough for the AKP to stage a comeback.
Erdoğan's efforts to regain his popularity by making erratic actions and contradictory statements that have polarized Turkey and have threatened to divide the nation along ethnic, ideological and sectarian lines are the fundamental threat to the survival of the AKP. Despite these intense efforts by Erdoğan and his ilk, Turkey will never be a Lebanon. His efforts will be in vain, no matter how much Erdoğan, a highly skilled political animal, wants it to be otherwise. Rather, Turkish democracy will come out stronger and healthier after the terrible experience under the presidency of the divider-in-chief, Erdoğan.
Published on Today's Zaman, 03 August 2015, Monday