They came in the early hours of the morning to arrest members of the parliament belonging to the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish party that received more than five million votes and 59 seats in the latest elections. This is part of major countrywide crackdown initiated by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s mercurial authoritarian leader. Erdogan has been on a tear since the failed coup attempt of this past July 15.
By invoking emergency rule, he has fired more than 100,000 government employees and arrested 36,000; there are some 133 journalists behind bars, and scores of newspapers, news agencies, and television and radio stations have been closed. The universities have been purged of 6,000 professors and other cadres. All of these firings were done without recourse to the rule of law. Once dismissed, none of the government employees or professors can ever work again for the public sector.
Now comes the most audacious move: arresting opposition parliamentarians, including the leaders of the HDP. The HDP’s leader, Selahattin Demirtas, a 43-year-old charismatic politician had been a thorn in Erdogan’s side for some time. Demirtas had first managed to turn the HDP into a real force by crossing the 10 percent threshold needed to get MPs elected to parliament, not once, but twice in quick succession. Second, he campaigned against allowing Erdogan to transform Turkey’s constitutional system from a parliamentary to a presidential system with few checks and balances. HDP and Demirtas have been more resilient than the main opposition party (the CHP), which is also one reason that the government press, constituting the vast majority of newspapers, never covers their activities other than when they get arrested.
Erdogan has been consistently escalating his actions of late; it seems as if every week he does something that shocks the public and his opponents, from shutting down media outlets to jailing Mayors to confiscating assets—and now jailing opposition leaders. The question is what comes next. There is reason to worry for Turkey’s allies abroad.
Turkey’s isolation from its primary allies, the United States and Europe, is growing rapidly. To date, both have kept their powder dry when it comes to criticizing Ankara, because the Europeans are worried that Turkey will prematurely undo the deal that prevents Syrians refugees from inundating European shores. Americans do not want Turkey to mess up their anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria by sending its own troops across either or both borders. The problem is that Turkey has threatened to do both; it has repeatedly said if the Europeans fail to give Turkish citizens visa-free access by the end of this year the refugee deal will be revoked.
Similarly, Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to send his forces across the border if Shi‘a militias take Tel Afer, a predominantly Turkoman town, as part of defeating ISIS. He has also bombed the Syrian Kurds (U.S. allies) and threatened to interfere in future operations designed to capture Raqqa, ISIS’s capital in Syria. The United States might also be anxious not to lose access to the mammoth Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, from which much of the anti-ISIS bombing is being conducted, and other bases along the border that are there to provide support for the Special Forces operating in both Syria and Iraq.
Given his strident anti-Western rhetoric since the failed coup and his single-minded determination to purge Turkey of his opponents, real and imagined, could Erdogan up the ante and move against these U.S. and EU interests? In so doing, he may think that he will rally the country behind him. While he could, it would be a quixotic action. The Turkish economy is far too integrated with the rest of the world and with Europe in particular. Turkey is already on the verge of an economic downturn and such policies would certainly accelerate it.
The problem is that Erdogan is living in an echo chamber. Having eliminated his early collaborators who could stand up to him, there is now no one who would dare contradict him. He is persuaded that the West was complicit in the July 15 coup attempt; he cannot understand why the United States has not extradited Fethullah Gülen, the alleged mastermind of the coup who lives in Pennsylvania. He has taken personally the perceived slowness of the U.S. and European responses to the coup attempt. There is not much his allies can do at this stage to dissuade him from pursuing his current confrontation style and politics.
For the Kurds, this represents another setback—neither the first nor the last. Incarceration is a way of life. If Erdogan thinks this will make them change their mind, he is deluding himself. If anything, Erdogan’s party is likely to lose the support of that segment of the Turkish Kurdish population that had voted for it. The split between Turks and Kurds risks becoming permanent, especially because the HDP had offered a peaceful out, in fact, only two years ago. Erdogan, to the great consternation of nationalists in Turkey, had courageously attempted to start negotiations with the PKK, the armed Kurdistan Workers’ party, which has led an insurrection since the 1980s. After a road map had been concluded, Erdogan decided to abrogate it. And the conflict restarted, devastating the cities in the southeast as the PKK altered its rural strategy in favor of an urban one.
What might make Erdogan alter his course? In the short term, nothing. He thinks that all his moves are helping him to ensure that he passes through the constitutional changes for his cherished executive presidency. Once he gets his wish, will he then moderate his stand? Possibly, but this is highly unlikely because the damage done is deep and not easily repairable. Second, Erdogan is deeply suspicious and fearful of everyone save those he can control. To control, he has to instill fear.