Turkey Plays the Terrorism Card

Not all of Erdoğan's opponents are terrorists. He just says they are.

Domestic security has been headline news for Turkey in 2016. Successive terrorist attacks in Ankara and Istanbul have increased in intensity—an indication that Turkey’s parallel wars, against Kurdish separatist groups in the southeast of the country and against Islamic State in Syria, are far from being under control.

For President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the rising death toll and economic damage of these attacks represent both a challenge and an opportunity. Erdoğan and his former party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), successfully regained a majority in the Turkish parliament in November 2015, in part by running a campaign that only the AKP could deliver security and development for the Turkish people. Every bombing in the major population centers of Turkey contradicts this message, but it also contributes to Erdoğan’s wider political ambitions.

Although elected president in 2014 with almost 52 percent of the vote, Erdoğan is openly dissatisfied with the constitutional checks to his authority that the Turkish political system outlines. He is pushing for a change in the constitution that would shift the political executive away from parliament and into his hands. Erdoğan already exercises an unprecedented amount of control over decisionmaking in Turkey, both legally and through an extensive and opaque network of informal mechanisms and relationships.

 

If You Don’t Like What They’re Saying, Change the Conversation

There are, however, obstacles to Erdoğan’s ambition. Turkey has undergone a definite shift towards authoritarianism over the last year, but real political opposition still exists to check Erdoğan’s ambitions, if not quite challenge his position. As his administration has been dogged by successive allegations of corruption and nepotism, Turkey’s opposition parties have grown concerned that Erdoğan would exploit any constitutional shift towards an executive presidency. They fear he would use the position to prosecute as many of his perceived opponents as he felt necessary, and secure immunity for himself and his family once his term expires.

If speculation is to be believed, and Erdoğan intends to start his campaign for constitutional change before the summer, he needs to bring outside support to the AKP and sufficiently discredit his most determined opponents. Accordingly, Erdoğan has decided to securitize the political environment in the hope that a polarized opposition will bring undecided voters to his cause.

This has taken the form of attacks on political parties like the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and alleged adherents of the Gülen movement, an moderate Islamist group that Erdoğan has been feuding with ever since its followers in the police and judiciary allegedly orchestrated a corruption investigation into his family and allies in 2013.

On April 8, the Twitter account known as “Fuat Avni” posted a leak of proposals by Erdoğan to accuse the CHP of complicity and support of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C), a Marxist-Leninist political group that has been designated as terrorist by Turkey, the United States and the EU.

The Fuat Avni account claims to be a whistleblower operating from within the government, and has reliably predicted key government crackdowns since it went active in 2014. This was the same day that Erdoğan publicly derided Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the CHP, as unfit for his position, saying that he did not recognize him as such.

The leak, if true, suggests that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) will use moles within the DHKP/C to implicate the CHP. Aside from an attack on a police post on March 30, the DHKP/C’s most high-profile assault was the murder of prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz after a standoff with police.

Targeting supposed representatives of the Turkish “deep state” would predictably put the DHKP/C in direct confrontation with the CHP, whose members are vocal upholders of the Atatürk legacy. Despite pro-Erdoğan newspapers promoting the idea of complicity and ties between the DHKP/C and CHP, evidence supporting these claims has not been forthcoming.

On April 9, Kılıçdaroğlu reiterated the stance of the party by refusing to accept Erdoğan’s current proposals for constitutional change. The CHP are the largest opposition party in parliament and the main focus of Western-oriented secular-liberal ideology in Turkey, although the party has not won a plurality of seats in parliament since 1977; its core constituency is in Turkey’s west, including its European section. As a voter base, the CHP’s supporters find the increasingly intrusive Islamism of the AKP anathema and are unlikely to support any move that strengthens Erdoğan’s hand.

Targeting the CHP as terrorist supporters is a crude move on behalf of the president and his allies, but it is not without strategic merit. Doing so would represent the culmination of a broader trend that has come to characterize Erdoğan’s approach to political discourse.

 

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