ISTANBUL, Turkey – Turkey’s moderate Islamist government staged a tough-guy act in the days before its citizens go to the polls for the second time in five months to elect a new Parliament.
Already battling Kurdish separatists in southeast Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stoked tensions with Kurds this week by boasting that the Turkish military had attacked U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria. He didn’t say exactly why and when.
Meanwhile in Istanbul, riot police using tear gas and water cannons stormed the offices of a business conglomerate identified with one of Erdogan’s rivals, as court-appointed trustees seized control of two opposition newspapers and two television channels and promptly ousted the editors and fired staff.
The assault on Turkey’s news media drew protests from around the world. But Erdogan effectively endorsed it, with a newspaper quoting him as saying that the government had information that it would turn over to a court that is investigating Akin Ipek, the owner of the newspapers Bugun and Millet, and their respective TV channels.
Now the question is whether the mailed fist of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, will rally voters to deliver the parliamentary majority the party lost on June 7 or galvanize opponents to turn out in even greater numbers than they did in the earlier vote.
Leftist and centrist voters are still reeling from a Turkish court decision Oct. 22 that found 244 demonstrators guilty of such charges as “damaging the environment” and sentenced them to as much as 14 months imprisonment for anti-government demonstrations in 2013 over Erdogan’s plans to pave over a park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic leader of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, summed up the views of many when he denounced the Wednesday raid against the newspapers and television stations.
“Since June 7, they are acting like they have won a victory,” he said of Erdogan’s party. He accused the party of a series of “anti-democratic acts” designed “to still the voice of opposition.”
There’s no question Turkey is at a crossroads. After 13 years of Erdogan, first as prime minister and since 2014 as president, it must decide whether to give him a vote of confidence, which likely will lead to further excesses, or to vote for other parties that want to cut him down to size and eventually send him packing.
It’s been a quiet campaign since twin bombs struck an anti-government rally in Ankara, the capital, on Oct. 10. Since then, few candidates have made public appearances.
In the June 7 parliamentary elections, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party lost its majority in Parliament, winning 258 of the 550 seats, when the country’s Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party, or HDP by its Turkish initials, for the first time won enough votes to secure seats in Parliament, winning 80.
But the opposition parties didn’t have enough seats to form a government, in part because one of them, the People’s Democratic Party, or MHP, refused to join a coalition with the Kurdish party.
Polls show Erdogan’s party will win at least 250 seats, fewer than it won in the last vote and still short of an absolute majority.
Erdogan has been accused of exceeding his powers, most significantly for a corruption scandal that he swept under the rug by removing the prosecutors who were trying to pursue it.
He has used all the instruments of the state in a vendetta against Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish religious scholar who heads a moderate Islamist movement from his exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan accuses his former ally of setting up a parallel government and planning a coup. Gulen now tops the official Turkish “wanted” list. The assault on the two newspapers, which are affiliated with Gulen’s movement, is part of that drive.
Rather than doing everything possible to facilitate a coalition government, Erdogan’s actions indicated he preferred to rerun the June 7 election. His chosen prime minster, Ahmet Davutoglu, held only “exploratory talks” on a government and never actually started negotiations with the faction thought most likely to join it, the Republican People’s Party, Turkey’s oldest political group, which is known as the CHP.
When Davutoglu did not produce a government in the time allotted, Erdogan didn’t turn the mandate over to Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who heads the CHP, but called new elections.
Pique may have been a factor. Erdogan had predicted that other parties would come to his new palace “like a lamb,” but neither Kilicdaroglu nor MHP leader Devlet Bahceli was willing to call at the 1,000-room compound, which they said was a symbol of alleged corruption and profligacy.
Erdogan is not on the ballot Sunday, and as the president, he’s supposed to be above the political fray. But as in the run-up to June 7, he has grabbed daily headlines in the pro-government media, adding with almost every comment to tensions in a highly polarized country.