ISTANBUL — Confronted with widespread protests two summers ago, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered a harsh police crackdown and tarnished the demonstrators as traitors and spies. Faced with a corruption inquiry focused on his inner circle, he responded by purging the police and judiciary.
So when Mr. Erdogan, now president, suffered a stinging electoral defeat in June that left his party without a majority in Parliament and seemingly dashed his hopes of establishing an executive presidency, Turks were left wondering how he would respond.
Now many say they have their answer: a new war.
In resuming military operations against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., analysts see a calculated strategy for Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party to regain its parliamentary majority in new elections.
Having already delayed the formation of a coalition government, analysts say, Mr. Erdogan is now buttressing his party’s chances at winning new elections by appealing to Turkish nationalists opposed to self-determination for the Kurdish minority. Parallel to the military operations against the Kurds has been an effort to undermine the political side of the Kurdish movement, by associating it with the violence of the P.K.K., which has also seemed eager to return to fighting. The state battled the group for three decades at a cost of about 40,000 lives before a fragile peace process began in 2013.
“The overall assumption is that President Erdogan wants to create the conditions so the result of June 7 can be overturned, so that he can run the country from the presidency,” said Suat Kiniklioglu, a former lawmaker from Mr. Erdogan’s party and the executive director of the Center for Strategic Communication, a research organization in Ankara.
Now a sharp critic of Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Kiniklioglu said, “I think there is little debate among normal and sane people in Turkey” that the war with the Kurds is being used as a tool to reverse the election defeat. The Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., recently began conducting nationwide polls to see how it might fare in snap elections, which could be held as soon as November.
“The outcome of these polls will be indicative of which direction they will go,” Mr. Kiniklioglu said.
Many analysts say that after weeks of stalled coalition talks between the A.K.P. and three opposition parties, new elections are likely. And at a time of crisis, Turkish voters, experts say, could very well turn again to Mr. Erdogan and the A.K.P.
Indeed, a voter survey released Wednesday by a widely cited Turkish pollster found that Mr. Erdogan’s party could regain a parliamentary majority if elections were held today.
“He is going for early elections,” said Henri J. Barkey, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an expert on Turkey. “In any society when there is a crisis people rally under the flag, even if they don’t support the leader. In this instance, Mr. Erdogan is playing the nationalism card for his own benefit.”
In addition to domestic political concerns, analysts said, Mr. Erdogan is also worried about the growing military strength of the P.K.K., whose military affiliate has been working closely with the United States in northern Syria to resist and repel advances by the Islamic State. The bombing campaign against the P.K.K., they say, is intended to weaken it.
However, the president’s domestic political opponents see his moves as directed mostly against them.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the largest opposition party, the secular People’s Republic Party, has accused Mr. Erdogan of interfering in coalition talks by preventing Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the party leader who on paper is Turkey’s most powerful politician, from negotiating a deal, and also using war for domestic political gain.
“I say this with all sincerity, Prime Minister Davutoglu really is willing to sit down and form a coalition and save the country from its problems,” Mr. Kilicdaroglu said in a recent television interview. “But the person sitting in the post of the presidency is not allowing it.”
He added, “If there is an aim to take the country to elections through blood politics, that would be extremely costly.”
The resumption of war with the P.K.K., with Turkish warplanes strafing targets in northern Iraq, where the group is based, came as Turkey, in a major shift, decided to join the American-led coalition against the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that controls a large section of territory in Iraq and Syria. Turkey has struck Islamic State targets in Syria, and granted the use of air bases to American warplanes, restoring its international standing as a reliable ally in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
On Wednesday, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, reaffirmed the government’s commitment to the coalition, saying Turkey was ready for a “comprehensive fight” against the Islamic State.
Mr. Erdogan has said he is acting in Turkey’s national security interests in targeting terrorists of all stripes, both the Islamic State and the P.K.K., as well as a homegrown leftist group that has also periodically carried out attacks here.
But the bulk of the military operations so far have been directed at the P.K.K., which has carried out numerous attacks in Turkey over the past weeks that have killed nearly three dozen people, mostly soldiers and police officers. The latest came Tuesday when a roadside bomb killed three soldiers in the southeastern province of Sirnak, an attack that was followed by more Turkish airstrikes on P.K.K. targets, according to Turkish news reports.
In a newspaper column on Wednesday, Ibrahim Kalin, Mr. Erdogan’s spokesman, characterized the war against the P.K.K. as self-defense and said that despite promises under the peace process, the group had failed to disarm.
Others close to Mr. Erdogan say domestic politics had nothing to do with the decision to go to war. “Turkey’s military operations are being carried out in the interest of national security and has nothing to do with internal politics,” said one A.K.P. lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he had not been authorized by top party officials to speak publicly.
The lawmaker added: “Those who are trying to connect these operations to the president’s political goals are trying to cause provocation and influence the formation of the new government, which has entered a critical phase.”
Turkey has also arrested many suspected militants, and has seemed to go to extra lengths to publicize the arrests of suspected Islamic State members, perhaps to counter longstanding criticism from the West that it has been ambivalent about the threat posed by the group. However, according to news reports, many of the Islamic State suspects have been quietly released for lack of evidence.
Meanwhile, the electoral success of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, a largely Kurdish group, is the main reason that the A.K.P. lost its majority. Mr. Erdogan had once embraced the Kurds, going further than any modern Turkish leader in the pursuit of peace, and counted on them for support in elections.
But this year, by attracting many liberals who had grown disenchanted with Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian governing style, the Peoples’ Democratic Party for the first time passed the 10 percent legal threshold to gain representation in Parliament.
Now, though, rumors have circulated that officials are trying to close down the party, and its charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtas. He is facing a judicial investigation over protests against Turkey’s approach last year to the battle for Kobani, the Syrian Kurdish border city that faced an Islamic State onslaught. Kurds accused Turkey of aiding the extremists, while the West was sharply critical of Turkey for not coming to the aid of the Kurds.
“We believe Erdogan is dragging this nation into war to move forward with his own political agenda,” Mr. Demirtas said in an interview. “He believes that by targeting the H.D.P. he can push us below the electoral threshold and regain the majority his party lost in the June 7 elections. I don’t think he will be successful because the Turkish public wants peace, and most people realize that the real motive behind all this is not peace but an A.K.P. victory.”
Just two months ago, the elections were hailed as a victory for democracy, with many analysts predicting that the dominance of Mr. Erdogan, who has been the pre-eminent political figure in Turkey for more than a decade, had run its course.
“People celebrated the election result prematurely,” said Ibrahim Tumen, 46, a banker in Istanbul. “It was obvious that the opposition wouldn’t be able to unite and that Erdogan would try to win back his majority at any cost.”
Many are doubtful that such a strategy by Mr. Erdogan could work.
“The more that time passes and people see through this, I’m not sure it will produce the outcome Erdogan wants,” said Mr. Kiniklioglu, the former A.K.P. politician.
He added, “The way this is being digested in society is not clear yet.”
Yet the country’s new war footing already seems to be influencing some voters.
“I don’t support Erdogan or the prime minister, but Turkey can’t afford to have a weak coalition government,” said Oktay Cenk, a taxi driver in Istanbul. “The government tolerated the P.K.K. for long enough. It’s not possible to negotiate with terrorists, so we need to show strength against them and we need a strong government to do that.”
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(via NY Times)