Erdogan 2012: The Year in Review

Youssef al-Sharif offers a look back at the most important issues faced by Turkey in 2012, including the restriction of media freedom, Turkey’s failure in solving the Syrian crisis and Prime Minister Erdogan’s ever growing ambitions.

al-monitor Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan shakes hands with Syrian refugees as he visits a refugee camp near Akcakale border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border, Dec. 30, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Kayhan Ozer/Prime Minister's Press Office/Handout.

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turkey, syrian, recep tayyip erdogan, journalists, erdogan

Dec 30, 2012

The rhythm of Turkey’s internal and external politics are following the footsteps, vision and even mood of just one man: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Turks began the year 2012 discussing Erdogan’s health. He had undergone bowel surgery, a procedure surrounded by secrecy, running in contrast to Erdogan’s calls for transparency and democracy.

As the Turks get ready to put 2012 behind them, Erdogan is engaged in a quarrel with a television series depicting the life of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in a way that Erdogan disagrees with. Political commentators say that the prime minister’s power and dominance have exceeded those of any political opponent. So much so that Erdogan can only satisfy his political vanity by comparing himself to the Ottoman sultans.

In 2012, Turkey had five major political issues: 1) The increased restrictions on freedoms, especially in the media, 2) Judicial politicization and scandals, 3) Erdogan’s plan to become president and his attempt to establish a presidential system in Turkey. His objective there is to keep all his powers after entering Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s palace and prevent a leadership crisis in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the prime-ministership, 4) Turkey’s foreign policy toward Syria, and 5) the Kurdish issue, which is at a standstill but is still a part of the political discourse.

An Inquisition?

Turkey started 2012 by further purging the military of Erdogan’s opponents. Retired chief of staff Gen. Ilker Basbug was arrested for “leading a terrorist group that is plotting to overthrow the regime.”

This new judicial scandal shocked the Turkish media and political scene. It forced Erdogan to finally order the shuttering of the Special Criminal Courts—as soon as the cases they were reviewing were closed. The “Ataturkish” opposition considered those courts to be a form of inquisition because they were established five years ago specifically to investigate so-called “coup plots” and to silence political opponents.

Erdogan issued the order to close those courts when one his assistants, the head of Turkish intelligence Hakan Fidan, was accused of holding secret negotiations with the PKK. Erdogan issued a special law to protect his assistant. But on the other hand he allowed the special courts to rule in the Ergenekon conspiracy and hand down life sentences to the plot’s leaders, some of whom were retired generals, and long prison terms to dozens of soldiers and officers. All that was despite several legal irregularities, which were detailed in an EU report.

There was also a marked increase in detainee complaints of torture and ill-treatment, and independent human rights bodies were prevented from visiting prisons.

In 2012, Turkey was accused of being the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, ahead of China and Iran. The Turkish government continues to pressure local media and interfere in the appointment of newspaper editors. The latest victim of that policy was the leftist Taraf newspaper, which was highly vocal in criticizing Erdogan and his government. Its editor, Ahmet Altan, and his two assistants were forced to resign this month, after their newspaper had upped its criticism of the government.
An Ataturkish Awakening

But Erdogan’s policies of using the judiciary to silence his “Ataturkish” opponents has sparked an awakening. There has been massive demonstrations to commemorate the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. There were also Republic Day marches that were marred by clashes with the security forces, who tried to block the crowd from reaching Ataturk’s shrine under Erdogan’s orders. But the organizers broke through the barriers and reached the shrine, in a challenge to Erdogan.

Erdogan was forced to acknowledge that he did not have enough time to amend the system and become president. Nevertheless, the AKP still tried to push through a constitutional amendment in the committees. But all opposition parties united against the proposal because it would give Erdogan unlimited powers and make him the favorite to win the 2014 presidential election.

The issue of the presidency raised the ire of President Abdullah Gul. He was reported to have been irritated by Erdogan’s aides asserting that their boss will be next president without them paying the slightest regard to Gul’s right to run for a second term. They acted as if the matter was settled. The media started focusing on the two men’s different behaviors and policies and argued that Gul is more fit for the job. The media published a poll showing that the majority of AKP voters favored Gul remaining at his post.

But Erdogan is expected to insist on the presidential system and refer the matter to a referendum. This means that 2013 will be full of news about Erdogan’s political ambitions.

The Kurdish Issue

Turkey started 2012 with the news that 34 Kurds were killed when the Turkish air force bombed smugglers, mistaking them for PKK gunmen. The incident widened the gap between the government and the Kurds, especially after the government refused to reveal the military official who was responsible for the “mistake,” or provide details about what led up to the incident.

The gap grew even wider when Erdogan requested that immunity be lifted for 10 Kurdish deputies for having met PKK gunmen in Turkey and supporting them publicly.

These incidents overshadowed the government’s announcement that it has approved teaching the Kurdish language in schools as an option, and that it has allowed Kurdish offenders to defend themselves using the Kurdish language in court.

The Syrian Crisis

In 2012, Turkey sought to establish the so-called Friends of Syria Conference, which held four meetings this year. Turkey then changed its Syria policy after it lost a jet fighter to Syrian anti-aircraft fire near the Latakia coast, and after Syrian artillery struck inside Turkish territory, causing casualties.

Despite Ankara’s effort in forming the Syrian National Council and uniting the armed Syrian opposition, it was forced to hand over the steering wheel on the Syrian issue to Washington. Turkey then helped Washington form the National Syrian Coalition and establish a unified military command that rejected Jibhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups, which Turkey was accused of supporting in the Syrian conflict.

The emergence of a liberated Kurdish area connected to the PKK in northern Syria has worried Ankara. It reacted by conceding to the US and NATO more influence in the Syrian crisis. And 2012 ended with the announcement that Patriot missile batteries will be deployed in Turkey near the Syrian border.

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