In Turkey, Divisions Remain Despite Anti-Coup Rallies

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A massive anti-coup rally was held in Turkey on Sunday, with the leaders of several opposition parties joining Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a call for national unity. But despite the solidarity demonstrated in gatherings in Istanbul and throughout the nation, it is clear that Turkish society remains strained. Many regional commentators have expressed serious doubts about the ability of the country’s political class to overcome these internal divisions, especially given the wide scope of the post-coup purge of alleged Gulenist sympathizers and the continued hostility toward the Kurdish minority. The potential for instability seems to have altered Turkey’s foreign policy calculus, as Mr. Erdogan has quickly made amends with Russian President Vladimir Putin, raising eyebrows across Europe and in the United States.

Last week’s anti-coup rally was meant to show a united country, but as this Hurriyet Daily News op-ed by Yusuf Kanli points out, the Kurdish issue continues to be a wedge issue in Turkish politics: “Will the platform at Yenikapı reflect an image of the new country?…. The failure of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) stood out. The failure of the HDP to denounce terrorism and call for an end to the use of force and distance itself from the illegal separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) justifies why it was shunned and made an outcast in the political spectrum…. if Sunday’s ‘National Unity and Democracy’ rally was aimed at contributing to the consolidation of national unity and democratic governance, neither of the two declared goals can be achieved without Kurds engaged in the effort as well….Obviously, the Kurdish issue, as well as what’s going to happen in neighboring Syria and Iran and how the Cyprus issue will evolve, will have a serious effect on the shaping of the course of the new Turkey. But, the real determining factor will be to what extent Turkey will succeed in normalizing.”

Highlighting the absence of the leaders of one of Turkey’s main parties from last week’s unity rally, the Saudi Gazette editorial staff suggests that the country’s apparent unity is really a temporary fix that only patched over deep internal divisions: “But this huge rally also served to put the country’s problems into relief. Leaders of two of the three main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the National Movement Party (MHP) were present on the podium but the third largest party, the People’s Democratic Party, (HDP) was not invited….Therefore, despite the evident enthusiasm of the demonstrators who represented a broad range of the political spectrum, this was not really the unity event that Erdogan intended….The opposition politicians at Sunday’s immense rally probably realize the repression that is being meted out now could just as easily be turned on them….Among those in the crowd this weekend, were surely a significant number who recognize now that Erdogan has used the coup to mount a countercoup which is securing his position and emasculating his political opponents.”

Asharq Alawsat’s Amir Taheri provides a more sober picture of the current state of Turkish politics: “Having survived last month’s abortive coup, Erdogan now seems closer to achieving his grand neo-Ottoman design under which he would be at the summit of power…. Erdogan really needs to get a grip on himself, if only because, sadly, Turkey needs him right now as the least bad option in a confused situation. He may not be every Turk’s first choice but he sure is the second choice of many….Erdogan may have dreamt of a one-party system with himself at the helm far into the future. That, however, is not on the cards. Going in such a direction could deal the coup de grace to Turkey’s already sick economy by drying up foreign direct investment and fast developing trade links with Europe and North America. What Erdogan can do is to build a ‘one-and-a-half party’ system in which the AKP will set the agenda for the remainder of the decade while opposition parties provide the ‘half’ needed to maintain the appearance of parliamentary democracy.”

The Peninsula’s editorial takes a more sympathetic stance toward Mr. Erdogan and his efforts to create national unity in the aftermath of the failed coup: “The unity rally held on Sunday in Istanbul, said to be the biggest in Turkey’s history, has brought together the country’s president, prime minister and two main opposition leaders for the first time in many years. The ‘Democracy and Martyr’s Rally’, the culmination of daily anti-coup night rallies, was designed to uphold the unity of the country and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the main … force behind the event, had asked people to bring the Turkish flag, instead of party banners. Main opposition Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Killicdaroglu even said that the failed coup had opened a new door of compromise in Turkey’s politics….Turkey has expressed annoyance with what it regards as a lack of solidarity from friendly states including NATO ally the U.S….Turkey’s move to craft a strategic alliance with Russia, which has already normalized relations after Erdogan’s apology for the downed jet, is the new turning point in the aftermath of post-coup scenario.”

Continuing the debate on the foreign-policy implications of the failed coup, the Gulf Times editorial reiterates the importance of stable Turkish-U.S. and EU relations, while suspiciously eyeing Mr. Erdogan’s recent pivot toward Russia: “From the roads of Pennsylvania and corridors of power in Washington to the public squares of Cologne and EU offices in Brussels, the shockwaves from the July 15 failed coup have gone well beyond Turkey. The aftermath of the coup has prompted a drastic sharpening in Turkish rhetoric towards the EU and U.S., with Ankara saying it feels let down by an apparent lack of solidarity….the crisis has erupted at a time when the Ankara-Washington relationship is as important as ever, with the United States needing Turkish help in the battle against Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria….Relations with the European Union — which Turkey has sought to join since the 1963 — could prove even more fraught with top officials in Brussels angering Ankara by raising concerns over the magnitude of the post-coup purge….Having patched up a dispute with Russia over the November shooting down of a Russian war plane, Turkey could be tempted to head into the arms of Russia to counter its problems with the West.”

But as Atilla Yesilada cautions in a recent op-ed for Al Jazeera, such a pivot east would be economically costly for Turkey, at a time when the country cannot afford further instability: “A danger lurks around the corner. The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) effort to cleanse the society of Gulenists is causing a deterioration in relations with the United States and the European Union, which might lead to a confidence crisis among investors and creditors….Turkish frustration with the West’s reluctance to appreciate her plight is comprehensible, but engaging in tit-for-tat competitive diplomacy with the U.S. and EU would be prohibitively costly. It is to be hoped that the most market savvy member of the cabinet, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek and visits from allied capitals explain the cost of escalating conflict to Ankara. A strategic alliance with Russia is not cost-free….The biggest threat from an escalation of conflict with the West would be a blow to Turkey’s extremely fragile balance of payments….Turkey can’t abandon the Western alliance, because over the years it has developed an umbilical cord to Western capital and goods markets. This reality is starkly obvious to anyone outside Ankara to see. Whether Turkey’s coup-shaken politicians appreciate this reality remains to be seen, but until they do, Turkey’s ‘normalization’ will be an incomplete affair.”

Closer to home, the attempted coup has also had a direct impact on Turkish-Israeli relations. Only days before the countries had appeared to be on their path to reconciliation, but according to Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon, the rapprochement has stalled: “Last month’s attempted coup in Turkey and its aftermath have pushed off normalization of Israeli-Turkish ties, since the requisite accord has not yet come before the parliament in Ankara. After the announcement of the Israeli-Turkish accord on June 27, the widespread expectation was that the two countries would formally normalize ties by naming ambassadors by the end of July. But the July 15 attempted coup, and the harsh crackdown that followed, has pushed back the timetable….Under the terms of the accord, there was a clear order of events: First the agreement was announced, then the security cabinet approved it, then each country signed a copy, and then that copy was taken to the other country for officials there to sign. All of that has been done. What still needs to be done, however, is for the accord to be ratified by the Turkish parliament, which also is to pass laws protecting IDF personnel. Only then are the ambassadors to be named and diplomatic relations fully normalized. The Turkish parliament was scheduled to deal with its part of the arrangement two weeks ago, but has still not done so. Jerusalem, according to diplomatic officials, has not received any concrete information about when this might take place.”

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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