Spare a thought for Turkey as it goes to the polls on November 1. It straddles Europe and Asia, but it is not sure if it is part of either. Nor is it part of the Middle East, yet it shelters more Arab refugees than any other country there. They number two million – mainly Syrian – who are not exactly welcome. It is the south-east European bulwark for NATO, but the EU has taken fright at the idea of a secular Islamic nation of 76,000,000 people becoming a member. It shares a large border with two of the most unstable states in the world, Iraq and Syria. It is overwhelmingly Sunni and has the ambitious Shia stronghold of Iran as another neighbour. Its two-year truce with the Kurdish PKK, a terrorist organisation, has been shattered. It stood by and did nothing while Islamic State (IS) roamed unchecked on its very doorstep in Syria, causing the refugee exodus. It now has IS jihadists in its midst inasmuch they were blamed for the recent Ankara suicide bombings which claimed 105 lives. And Turkey’s president has been accused of trying to manipulate the political process in order to become a dictator.
The election is for a new parliament. It is aimed at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reasserting his authority. He has ruled Turkey since 2003. But his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority in the last election in June and now President Erdogan wants it back. He also wants more, according to his critics. One, Daniel Pipes, president of the conservative Middle East Forum, claims President Erdogan plans to establish a dictatorship, possibly hostile to Western interests, and even introduce sharia law. In the past five years under his watch, Islamic schools have proliferated and the number of students jumped from 60,000 to 1.6 million.
Turkey has always been troubled by division: secular and religious, rich and poor and Turks (80%) and Kurds (20%). At one time, President Erdogan seemed capable of resolving those differences, according to the New York Times. ‘He sought peace with the Kurds, empowered the formerly oppressed religious masses and presided for a time over a robust economy’, it said. All that has now changed.
‘Turkey is so deeply polarised after 13 years of AKP. rule’, according to Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He now fears it is ‘about to come apart at the seams’. The prominent Turkish novelist, Eli Shafak, was quoted in news reports as saying ‘Today, so deep is the rift between the pro-government and anti-government sides that it cannot be bridged anymore, not even in celebration or grief’.
It will be the fourth parliamentary election in just over 18 months. The best outcome would be a coalition with the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), says former MP Suat Kiniklioglu, writing in the Huffington Post. ‘It would lessen the tension and polarisation in the country’, he says. ‘But the AKP has been used to running the country unchallenged for more than a decade and is not ready to share power’. One reason is that the CHP would want to pursue the matter of corruption allegations against President Erdogan and his son.
The AKP’s chances have been boosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s startling promise to support Turkey’s entry into the EU and ease visa and travel restrictions for Turks. Her promise was a surprise as she has long opposed Turkey joining the EU. But Turkey’s pledge to try to stem the flow of refugees to Europe, particularly to Germany where she faces an electoral backlash, was enough to change her mind or at least for now.
Turkey’s Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said Turkey was ‘not a concentration camp’ and would not host refugees permanently to appease the EU which has donated $4.7 billion towards their upkeep. ‘We cannot accept an understanding like “give us the money and they stay in Turkey”’, he said. A recent poll quoted by the Wall Street Journal said 70% of Turks want the Syrians to return home, not least because they are potential threat to jobs.
The election is no threat to President Erdogan’s own position. But a majority victory for his AKP would enable him to achieve what he has long desired: to change the constitution to make his job, the presidency, the absolute ruler of Turkey and for 10 years.
Daniel Pipes warns that ‘Whereas Ataturk and several generations of leaders wanted Turkey to be in Europe, President Erdogan brought it thunderingly back to the Middle East and to the tyranny, corruption, female subjugation and other hallmarks of a region in crisis’.
Turkey’s powerful military, which has often intervened at times of crisis, will be watching developments with close interest.
FOOTNOTE. Back in the 60s, I took the weekly train from Beirut to Istanbul. Although I bought only a second class ticket, I was put in an ancient first class sleeping car on the grounds that, as a Christian, I might get in the way of Islamic passengers with their daily prayers. We left Beirut at 7 o’clock on a Saturday night. The next day in Aleppo, we linked up with the weekly train from Baghdad which had a dining car. When would we arrive in Istanbul? The Turkish guard shrugged. It depended on how long it would take to get over some mountains in Anatolia without the need for back-up. The steam train panted into Istanbul several hours behind its supposed schedule. But no one was upset and everyone – Turks, Arabs and Christians – enjoyed the fellowship and hospitality of that journey. Would it be so today?
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.