Letter from Turkey

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Erdogan

Erdogan addressing his supporters

The rise and rise of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues. From mayor of Istanbul, then prime minister for 12 years, and now president. Over this period he has won three general elections, numerous local elections and, finally, the first presidential election in Turkey to be held by a popular rather than a parliamentary vote.

There were three candidates for the presidency. One was put up jointly by the fascist party in alliance with the main opposition, the Republican Party (CHP) — which laughably calls itself social democratic. The second represented the Kurdish movement and did extremely well by getting 10 percent. Erdogan polled 52 percent, his highest to date.

This is a man who, when the party he led first came to power in 2002, was in jail for reciting some poetry at a public rally. The stanza he had quoted was from a poem called “Soldier’s Prayer”, by the poet who had written the words of the national anthem!

However, it included the lines, “The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, / The mosques are our barracks / the believers our troops”. This was too much for the guardians of the secular Turkish state. What put Erdogan in prison then, also explains the reasons for his success and popularity since. Erdogan led a split from the Islamic Welfare Party some time after a coalition government it led had been overthrown by the military in 1997.

In power for slightly more than a year, the Welfare Party had done little that was “Islamic”, even signing agreements with Israel, but the very fact that it tended to use Islamic language was like a red rag to a bull for the country’s military and the secular ruling class.

The split led to the creation of the Justice and Development party (AKP), with an even more moderate brand of Islam. Within months of its foundation, it won the general election, reducing the three parties of the outgoing government to single figure percentages, much to everyone’s surprise.

There should have been no surprise. Turkey’s electorate has always voted for whichever party the military has not favoured.

Similarly, attempts since 2002 by the military, the judiciary, and the Westernised, well-off section of the population to overthrow the AKP government has only made it and Erdogan increasingly popular. He has seemingly become untouchable.He has done a great deal which, normally, would be expected to cause him serious problems. The past year saw the Gezi Park protests to which the government reacted with extreme violence, leaving eight young people dead and many blinded by teargas canisters.

Then came allegations of serious corruption by four government ministers. Opinion polls showed a huge majority, including AKP voters, believed the allegations. Finally, the Soma mining disaster in May cost the lives of 301 miners, followed by revelations that the mining company was close to the government and had been allowed to get away with blue murder.

Also in the past year Turkey’s foreign policy aim of becoming the main power in the Middle East has been a disaster. Fifty diplomats abducted when Islamic State (IS) forces seized the Turkish consulate in Mosul have been held hostage for nearly two months. It seems likely that Turkey had supported IS, at least at the beginning.

Erdogan’s response to these problems has been to become increasingly authoritarian, wreak havoc with the judiciary which might have investigated corruption and turn as much of the media as possible into slavish eulogisers of the government. The presidential election results show that he’s getting away with it so far.

The reason he can do so is that for 12 years he has faced Islamophobic opposition, both from military plotters, from the so-called social democrats and much of the left which have hankered for the military to step in. This has only strengthened his support and led the opposition into a blind alley.

In the past two months the CHP has gone into a series of convulsions; the Communist Party has split down the middle; the general secretary of the old Maoist party has resigned; and there are signs of seething discontent at the base of many of the other Stalinist/nationalist parties of the left. Until an opposition emerges which is not Islamophobic, nationalist and pro-military, the rise of Erdogan seems likely to continue.