22.07.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

On the Storm That Hit Turkey That Night

0010842342While the ‘coup attempt’ in Turkey carried an altogether different meaning in other countries, such as Pakistan, from what the Turks themselves thought of it, it can hardly be gainsaid that the episode is likely to have some serious repercussions both in internal and external sphere of Turkish polity. Within Turkey, the episode is likely to be followed by a sort of mechanical purge of all “disgruntled elements” from the military and other state apparatuses—elements that are suspected of having links with Gülen movement. The purge will, as can be expected of it, be based upon extensive criminalization of these elements. Such criminalization often results from as well as leads to a tighter grip on what can be professed, practised and politically propagated.

Anybody familiar with Turkish politics and especially its recent dynamics would know the kind of ‘hyper-nationalism’ Erdogan regime has been espousing. The ‘street action’ that we witnessed on the night of coup-attempt was not merely—and not only— directed towards the protection of democracy, it was equally a show of massive support for Erdogan’s political ideals i.e., the re-creation of ‘Ottoman glory.’ The massive display of flags, which were used as a sort of ‘weapon’ against the ‘treacherous soldiers’, speaks volumes about the nationalist hype that Turkey is currently experiencing. This display of nationalist sentiments not only puts Turkey in contradiction with political ideals of both EU and NATO—and explains the distance the people of Turkey now have established vis-a-via EU– but also raises an important question with regard to the survival and place of ethnic minorities, such Kurds, within the polity. Would they be regarded as equal citizens in the ‘empire’?

Over the years, the Kurdish question has assumed a lot of significance, putting Erdogan’s idea of ‘Turkish purity’ in danger. For instance, a review of the recently-released 2015 population data shows that the demographic scissors between Kurds and Turks continues to widen. Despite Erdogan’s exhortations on behalf of Turkish fertility, the baby bust in Turkish-majority provinces continues while Kurds sustain one of the world’s highest birth rates.

The Kurdish demographic problem has led Erdogan into a political swamp from which he may not emerge successfully. He won last year’s presidential election by stirring up national ardour against the Kurdish minority, and has kept the Kurdish southeast of the country in a low-level civil war since then, leading leader of the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party to warn of an “ethnic war” in the country. Hence, for Erdogan, the need for a strong political centre to protect ‘Turkish race’ and maintain a certain level of ‘purity.’

With Erdogan already preparing for fundamental change in Turkey’ political system, a switch over from parliamentary to presidential from of government, this incident has certainly created a strong logic for him to introduce such radical changes and tighten his grip over structures of power. This is quite evident from the speech that he made in Istanbul after the failed coup-attempt. Speaking to a highly charged crowd he said that the coup was a “gift from God” as it would enable them to cleanse the state institutions of all “terrorists”, who, he thinks, are running a “parallel structure”—a state within the state—in Turkey. Erdogan claimed that forces loyal to US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen were behind the attempted coup, saying that Friday’s events had shown that “the Gülen structure is an armed terrorist organization.”

Post-coup-attempt scenario has only confirmed what we have sketched here. The president, who is attempting to create a broadly Islamist and strong presidential executive regime is generally thought to have the backing of about 50% of the population and the answer to his ‘clarion call’ did indeed confirm the support he certainly enjoys. This is also evident from the way sounds favourable to the president and the ruling AKP are now increasingly dominating the broadcast media and Internet.

Such support as well the need for tighter control over politics also ‘suits’ Turley’s economic conditions. This is no coincidence that poor economic conditions are usually side-lined by tighter political controls. A look at Turkey’s recent and recent past economic performance does strongly indicate how economic is related to the political upheavals Turkey is undergoing.

Economic condition of a ‘common’ Turk is poor and is likely to translate into ‘disgruntled’ political action if not put under tight control. Erdogan regime is aware of this reality and the consequences it can have for its political future.

According to the Turkish central bank, consumer debt is now almost equal to total personal income in Turkey. The average interest rate on consumer debt, the central bank reports, is just under 17%. That means Turks pay about 14% of their personal income as debt service, compared to about 5% a decade ago. More than anything else, it does show that Turkey’s much-heralded economic growth spurt of the 2000’s has come to a grinding stop. The Erdogan boom, which inspired predictions that Turkey might emerge as another China, has turned out to be a fantasy only, leading now to extremely uncertain scenarios ahead.

Were Erdogan regime to fail in reversing both economic and demographic trends in any positive way, Turkey will continue to move, inch by inch, towards crisis. Political, ethnic, economic and demographic fractures constitute the main factors that seem to have triggered this ‘chain reaction’ and the more Erdogan persists in establishing ‘stability’, the more he will push his country to an uncertain future.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.