The Turkish election and NATO

03 November 2015 2:47 pm

So the world is still trying to make sense of Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tightening his grip on power decisively after his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) swept back to single-party government with an unexpectedly convincing win in national elections.

International observers said Erdogan’s crackdown on opposition groups and the press created an election characterized by “violence and fear.” The international election observation mission that monitored the polls said violence against the opposition and their party premises hindered their ability to campaign freely. It also cited the arrest of activists of the opposition pro-Kurdish HDP in the run-up to the vote.

“Criminal investigations of journalists and media outlets for support of terrorism and defamation of the president, the blocking of websites … and the effective seizure of some prominent media outlets reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views and information,” the mission said in its statement.

So what can we expect? Apart from security issues - Ankara’s decision last July to provide the United States and coalition forces access to air bases close to the Islamic State’s territory has made Turkey a target – there are the deep divisions that Erdogan has created.

As Steven Cook writes in Fortune, Erdogan’s success has produced an environment in which there are two mutually incomprehensible societies living side by side. Erdogan and the AKP have governed those who support them and sought to intimidate the others. Turks have not experienced this kind of tension and mistrust since the violence that broke out between leftist and rightist political groups in 1976 and that lasted for four years, taking the lives of anywhere between 4,500 and 5,000 Turks.

Mr Erdogan, emboldened by this unparalleled success, will strengthen his grip on government. He will keep sidelining his opponents, he will suppress dissent in the media and impose his vision of a more conservative Turkey.

And the problem with this election result is that it will drag Turkey into the war zone.

Consider this: the Kurds stopped voting for Erdogan, which is why he lost last June’s election.

So in this month’s election he replaced those lost votes with nationalist voters. Frightened of a Kurdish secession, they just want stability and peace.

But to win them over, Erdogan had to start a war. Erdogan threw Turkey’s support firmly behind the rebels when the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011. A devout Sunni Muslim, he had nothing but contempt for Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime. So Erdogan kept Turkey’s border with Syria open to facilitate the flow of volunteers, weapons and money to the Islamist groups fighting Assad, including the Nusra Front and ISIS (which eventually became Islamic State).

We saw Erdogan backing Islamic State when it attacked the territory that had been liberated by the Kurds of northern Syria which extends along the whole eastern half of Turkey’s border. That issue cost Erdogan the support of Turkish Kurds.

Erdogan’s solution for getting support from the nationals: restart the war against the PKK, the armed separatist movement that is based in the Kurdish-speaking northern provinces of Iraq. A ceasefire had stopped the fighting between the Turkish government and the PKK for the past four years, but Erdogan now needed a patriotic war against wicked Kurdish separatists . His agenda: lure the nationalists and the naive into backing his party.

The pay-off came on Sunday with the nationalists frightened of Kurds throwing their support behind Erdogan.

But here is the problem: the Turkish Kurds will continue to fight, and they will have the support of the Syrian Kurds just across the border. As a result, the Turkish army will invade northern Syria to crush the Kurds there. And when that happens, all of south-eastern Turkey will become part of the war zone.

And that will have big implications for NATO.