Election of Joe Biden and Internal Contestations, the New Hardships of Erdoğan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is having a rough go of it. Joe Biden’s election means a toughening of US-Turkish relations. And on the home front, Erdoğan finds himself increasingly isolated, since his only political allies are the dangerous Grey Wolves, the radical right-wing MHP movement. With elections coming up in 2023, Erdoğan seems to have lost his touch and is grasping at straws, even attacking the LGBT community.

Istanbul, 2 February 2021. Student demonstration against the Turkish president’s appointment of a member of his party as head of the University of the Bosphorus
Bulent Kilic/AFP

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faces grim prospects, leastwise as far as his relations with the USA are concerned, but also on several domestic and regional fronts. With Joe Biden in the White House now, the Turkish president has to fear a tougher US attitude towards his country than under the Trump administration. One of the new US President’s first appointments was making Brett McGurk White House adviser for the Middle East. In 2015, McGurk supervised the international military coalition in Syria. He resigned in 2018 after Donald Trump decided to withdraw US troops from Syria, leaving the Turkish army free to attack the Syrian Kurds. His return to the forefront is not to everyone’s taste in Ankara.

Ragip Duran, former correspondent for the BBC, Agence France-Presse and Libération, believes, like most analysts, that “the party in power in Turkey, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) was not at all happy about Biden’s election. In fact, Erdoğan was one of the last to send a message of congratulations. Moreover, Brett McGurk’s appointment as Middle East Co-ordinator was perceived as a slap in the face by the pro-governmental Turkish media and the AKP.” In the eyes of the reporter, who served a gaol sentence in the nineties merely for publishing an article, there are many reasons why Erdoğan is annoyed. “There was a business relationship between Trump’s and Erdoğan’s families. Trump has personal economic interests in Turkey with two huge buildings in Istanbul, the Trump Towers. And Erdoğan is also afraid that President Biden will prevent him from carrying out military operations in Syria, Iraq, and Libya or in Nagarno-Karabakh. Anthony Blinken, the new Secretary of State, has already made it perfectly clear that Washington will be on the side of the Cypriots, the Greeks and the Kurds.”

And Fehim Taştekin adds that “Turkey is a member of NATO, which determines its entire foreign policy. There can be temporary conflicts and small-scale influence peddling, but at the end of the day, that alliance with the USA through NATO remains decisive. This is why Erdoğan is making eyes at Biden, but it all has a phoney ring about it.” Tastekin is a Turkish journalist with Al Monitor and has collaborated on newspapers like Radikal and Harriyet, as well as with the main opposition TV channel, IMC, now shut down by Erdoğan. Like most of the people I’ve interviewed, he left Turkey to be able to carry on his work as a journalist. “Without Russia’s permission, Erdoğan could never have gone into Syria,” he continues. “Those operations were aimed at the Kurds, not the Islamic State. The Strategic goal is to prevent the Kurds from establishing a corridor between Qamichli, Kobanî and Afrin. But Erdoğan won’t drop the US in favour of Russia. His calculation is simple enough: if he can improve Russo-Turkish relations a little, he can blackmail the US and the EU on account of Turkey’s geostrategic importance.”

The partnership between the US and the Kurds in Syria had infuriated Erdoğan because he’d begun using the US against Russia. But now he needs to rebalance his relations with those two superpowers after having flirted with Russia to get support for Turkish interventions in Syria and purchasing its S-400 missiles. Now the Turkish president feels the wind shifting and is making eyes at the West.

Looking for hypothetical allies

Erdoğan also has political problems at home. For the moment he has only one ally, the MHP, the Nationalist Action Party, the party of the radical right. For over a year now, all the polls have shown that neither the AKP nor the MHP will reach 50% of the vote. “This is why Erdoğan is searching for new allies, but this is likely to prove very complicated because the animosity of the main opposition parties is bitter indeed,” Ragip Duran explains. “Erdoğan has made overtures to his former party, Saadet Partisis (The Felicity Party), but it is credited with only 0.7% of voting intentions. He can no longer make a deal with the Kurds of the HDP (People’s Democratic Party) nor with the main opposition party CHP (The Republican People’s Party), nor with a major split-off from the MHP, Meral Akşener’s IYI Partisis (The Good Party) which totals some 10% of voting intentions.”

The MHP has a long anti-religious and ultranationalist tradition. When it joined forces with the Islamo-conservative AKP, a faction of the party seceded and created the IYI Partisi. Moreover, Erdoğan has to cope with sizeable defections in his own party, the AKP. Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former Finance Minister Ali Babacan have founded two parties hostile to the AKP which will certainly make him lose votes. “The polls show the anti-governmental front in the majority now,” Ragip Duran adds. “Erdoğan is obliged to come to terms with his far right ally and try to divide the opposition. One point in his favour: he is on good terms with the deep state, i.e., the clique traditionally in command of the army which is anti-American, tends to be pro-Russian and pro-Chinese.”

The face-off with the Gülen Brotherhood: a bumpy ride

However, this is not the first time Erdoğan has found himself in trouble and he has a reputation for pulling through by playing his adversaries against one anther. In the nineties, following the collapse of the USSR, the European Union set in motion a process aimed at extending its political influence. Turkey, which already sat on the Council of Europe and was part of NATO, became a membership candidate. The main condition laid down by the UE was a liberal economic and political reform, the famous “Copenhagen criteria.” Turkey was the only NATO country whose Defence Minister had to get permission from the Army Chief of Staff before voting a NATO resolution. Thus the European proposition represented a regular sea change in Turkey since it implied that the military organs would henceforth have to obey the political institutions.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who began his political career as mayor of Istanbul in 1994 with the Refah party, which became the AKP in 2001, was at first sidelined by the Turkish State apparatus, which was Republican and secular. The National Security Council, a military body resulting from a 1980 coup (the third in twenty years), ran the country. When Erdoğan became Prime Minister in 2003, he continued to advocate Turkey’s becoming a member of the EU, agreeing to diminish the army’s preponderance in the political life of the country. But he needed allies to overcome his political isolation. “When Erdoğan’s party took power in 2002, it suffered cruelly from a dearth of personnel capable of running the State,” Fehim Tastekin explains. “It turned to the Gülen Brotherhood to remedy this”.

Fethullah Gülen, who lives in exile in the USA, is the “godfather” of this brotherhood which grew considerably in the seventies and especially the eighties. Influential in the media, it is also a network of local associations, businessmen’s clubs, and educational institutions. In the nineteen eighties, the Gülen Brotherhood acquired positions in the Turkish army. When the AKP took power, it came into its heyday and its officers moved up in the military echelons. Erdoğan called upon Gülen cadres to replace secular Kemalist civil servants in the police and magistrature, but also in the army, the diplomatic corps and the media.

But since the army’s political weight had already been eroded, the chief threat to Erdoğan’s power came from the brotherhood which was trying to take over the State to the detriment of the AKP and Erdoğan. The rift in the luth appeared in 2009 when Erdoğan discovered secret files on himself and his family established by Gülen. Family scandals were brought to light.

Ahmet Insel, professor emeritus at Galatasaray University in Istanbul, believes that “the clash came into the open in February 2010 when Gülenist judges issued arrest warrants against the director and several high-ranking officers of the secret service for “intelligence with a terrorist organisation” and revealed the Oslo negotiations between PKK cadres and the Turkish secret service. At the last minute, Erdoğan prevented these arrests from taking place by issuing a decree which required a special authorisation from the Prime Minister for any investigation of secret service members. He then began purging the police and the magistrature of their Gülenist personnel. And in 2013, Erdoğan granted amnesties to the secular generals.” “War was declared on Gülen and full-scale repression got under way,” Fehim Tastekin adds.

A mug’s game with the Kurds

One of the main bones of contention between Gülen and Erdoğan concerns the Kurds. In 2006, Erdoğan undertook direct negotiations with the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Gülen was fiercely opposed to these talks. Erdoğan carried on with them nonetheless, to indulge the EU but mostly to further his presidential ambitions. The Kurdish vote represents 15% of the electorate in Turkey. But according to Adem Uzum, one of the main Kurdish negotiators, these talks were purely cosmetic.

“The peace process began in 2006 with some “shuttle diplomacy,” Adem Uzum recalls. "It was three years before we actually met face to face with members of the Turkish security services, who had the backing of their government and of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself. Between 2009 and June 2011, several meetings took place in Europe. On the Turkish side, many promises were made but they never materialised. We finally realised Ankara was stalling for time, while speeding up the construction of barracks in the Kurdish region. In 2011, Erdoğan declared on television: ‘If I had been Premier in 1999 (when Abdullah Öcalan was captured) I’d have had him executed.’ Erdoğan broke off the talks and revived that old nationalist chestnut: ‘one nation, one flag, one language’.”

After a suspension, the negotiations between the government and the PKK were resumed in January 2013; but three Kurdish female activists were murdered in Paris. In Adem Uzum’s view, “That was an attempt by the Turkish deep state to undermine the peace process.” In the meantime, war had broken out in Syria.

The turning point: Syria, Rojava and the attempted coup

“When the Gülenists made public the contents of the terms of the negotiations between the PKK and the Turkish government they announced their intention to boycott any possible outcome,” Fehim Tastekin explains. “At the same time the Rojava project in Syria had become a reality, with the Kurdish victory at Kobané. In 2013, Erdoğan tried to persuade Öcalan to abort plans for an autonomous Rojava in Syria in exchange for a few linguistic rights for Kurds in Turkey. Öcalan turned him down, saying: ‘Rojava is a red line for me’. Erdoğan ’s answer was: ‘For me too, it’s a red line, it must be destroyed.’

When the charismatic leader and HDP presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas publicly told Erdoğan in the Spring of 2015: “We will never allow you to become President” the frail peace process broke down before it had begun. Erdoğan walked away from all negotiations with the Kurds and turned to the MHP, the far-right Nationalist Action Party.

The alliance between the AKP and the MHP is based on two major points of agreement: crushing the Gülenists and the Kurds,” says Fehim Tastekin. “The Gülenists’ attempted coup in 2016 was a gesture of desperation. Erdoğan had drawn up a list of 8,000 Gülenists in the armed forces and was preparing to cashier or gaol them. In a situation like this, if you have a weapon, you use it. And that’s what happened. At first, Erdoğan had needed the Gülenists against the army, then he needed the Kurds against the Gülenists, and when that didn’t work, he turned to the radical right to establish an authoritarian presidential regime.”

The repression has taken a heavy toll among the Gülenists and all the oppositional movements in Turkey, be they Kurdish, left-wing, associative, Armenian or other. There have been over 50,000 arrests, including opposition MPs, and over 100,000 civil service workers dismissed. Journalists, members of the opposition, academics have gone into exile… An unprecedented phenomenon. Over 50 democratically elected Kurdish mayors have been removed from office and replaced by loyal Erdoğan supporters. The HDP party is likely to be banned and most of its leaders are already in gaol. Those who are still active find themselves indicted on mind-blowing counts, such as having organised in 2014 marches of solidarity with Kobané in opposition to the Islamic State!

The most recent charge: Erdoğan has just replaced the rector of Bosphorus University with a conservative member of his own party. Student protests were put down with truncheons and the Minister of Home Affairs slammed the LGBT movement, very active among the protestors, calling them LGBT perverts”. “We intend to lead youth into the future, not an LGBT youth but one worthy of the glorious history of our nation,” Erdoğan threatened in a speech he made on February 1, 2021. Now the whole democratic opposition is impatiently waiting for the fall of “Sultan Erdoğan” before Turkey sinks into the pit of obscurantism.