Turkish ruling party moves against opponents ahead of Sunday vote

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He’s been accused of campaigning for the ruling Justice and Development Party ahead of Sunday's general elections, a breach of laws that require him to be neutral.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He’s been accused of campaigning for the ruling Justice and Development Party ahead of Sunday's general elections, a breach of laws that require him to be neutral. AP

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 this past week.

Already battling Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) 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 teargas and water cannon, 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 (AKP) will rally voters to deliver the parliamentary majority the party lost on June 7 or galvanize opponents to turn out in greater numbers even 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 for anti-government demonstrations in 2013 over Erdogan’s plans to pave over a park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

The country’s Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party, for the first time won enough votes in June to hold seats in parliament.

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 the AKP. 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, they 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, the AKP lost its majority in parliament, winning 258 seats in the 550-seat parliament, 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 hold 80 seats in parliament.

But the other 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 HDP.

Polls show the AKP will win at least 250 seats, fewer than it won in the last vote and still short of an absolute majority.

Erdogan has been for exceeding his powers, campaigning for the AKP party, and most significantly for a corruption scandal that he swept under the rug by removing the prosecutors who were trying to pursue it.

Erdogan 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, accusing his former ally of setting up a parallel government and planning a coup. He 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 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 by its initials.

When Davutoglu did not produce a government in the time allotted, Erdogan didn’t turn the mandate over to Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who heads 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 to a highly polarized country.

Take the Turkish attacks on the Kurdish militia in northern Syria that officials disclosed this week. Prime Minister Davutoglu said Tuesday that Turkey had twice attacked the People’s Defense Units, or YPG, militia, which the U.S. considers a key ally in fighting the Islamic State in Syria and which Turkey says is a terrorist organization. “We hit them twice,” he said. “It’s not possible to do anything in Syria without Turkey.”

A day later Erdogan said Turkey will take the necessary steps to prevent the YPG from establishing power in northern Syria. “Turkey does not need to obtain permission from anyone to interfere in the region to defend its borders,” he said. Both men skirted the question of where the strikes occurred and exactly what provoked them, and government officials refused to elaborate.

But to many Turkish Kurds, the YPG are heroic fighters who sacrificed many lives to save the Syrian town Kobani with the help of American airstrikes. Erdogan’s practice of labeling YPG a terror group like the PKK will not go down well. Kurds comprise as much as 20 million in the population of 78 million, and religious Kurds had previously voted for Erdogan and the AKP. Many defected to the mostly Kurdish HDP in the June elections and are likely to again on Sunday.

Turkey’s hostility toward the YPG will likely earn new scrutiny after the U.S. announcement Friday that it would send as many as 50 special operations troops to YPG-controlled territory to coordinate air and ground operations against the Islamic State.

As in June, the man likely to make the difference is Selahattin Demirtas, the human rights lawyer at the head of the HDP, whose success in winning 13 per cent of the vote in June, well over the 10 percent required, made him the giant-killer, depriving Erdogan of his majority.

Just a month after his historic achievement, Demirtas was blind-sided when the Iraq-based PKK declared an end to a two year cease-fire with the Turkish state and proceeded executed two Turkish policemen, triggering a resumption of the three-decade-long war. Demirtas issued repeated calls for the PKK to lay down its arms.

Still, he denounced the Erdogan and Davutoglu threats against the YPG “shameful” and said the two AKP politicians were manipulation events to “make the situation convenient to virtually declare war” on Kurdish region in Syria.

McCaltchy special correspondent Guvenc reported from Ankara.

Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc