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#Shariah4Turkey: Turkey’s 2023 Election – Do or Die?

Dr Can Erimtan

21st Century Wire

What began with a referendum in 2017 should this year arguably reach its apogee at the Centenary of the Turkish Republic’s foundation (29 October).

But, under current circumstances, the New Turkey’s absolute leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (aka the Prez) seems on the verge of losing his position at the head of the Turkish government, or so many hope and think: “[t]he modern Turkish republic turns 100 in 2023, and holds elections that may dramatically reshape the political scene,” says the Balkan Insight reporter Hamdi Fırat Büyük.

An Auspicious Election Date

Originally, this pivotal electoral contest was scheduled for June 18, but recently (on 2 January, to be precise) the Prez muttered that there could be a “slight chance” that its date could move forward. In order not to upset the AKP (or Justice and Development Party)’s public perception as a sound and stable ruler of the land, the spokesperson Ömer Çelik promptly issued a clarification: “We want elections to be held on June 18. But since this date corresponds with summer holiday season when people are travelling, we are evaluating bringing the date slightly forward.” These words appear slightly disingenuous to a seasoned or even casual Turkey watcher. Instead, I would like to suggest that the Prez wants to solidify his rule after the end of Ramazan (or annual Muslim fast) 2023 (22 March-21 April) and its subsequent feast or Ramazan Bayramı (consisting in all of a four-day holiday period starting with the preamble or Arife on 20 April and ending on 23 April) in Turkish newspeak (traditionally, Eid Al-Fitr was called Şeker Bayramı, or Candy Holiday, in Turkish but in its years of the ruling the land, the AKP establishment has dispensed with that somewhat frivolous name in official parlance). In fact, some time later, the AKP MP from Isparta and Parliamentary Deputy President (TBMM), Süreyya Sadi Bilgiç, told the public that in view of the religious holiday of Eid alAdha (or Kurban Bayramı or Festival of Sacrifice celebrated just over two months after Eid alFitr or on the 10th day of the final month of the Muslim calendar, Dhu al-Hijjah­–28 June-2 July), the pilgrimage to Mecca (or hajj, taking place during Dhu al-Hijjah), and the university examination calendar an appropriate date has now been chosen – either 7 or 14 May. This Gordian knot was finally cut by the Prez himself, saying that May, 14th will the day the New Turkey will decide its ultimate fate. As per usual, Erdoğan is once again making a big deal of the day and the date, as it is a direct reference to the Demokrat Parti (or DP)s crushing victory 73 years ago. On 14 May 1950, the DP smashed the 27-year rule of the Kemalist establishment personified in the CHP (or Republican People’s Party or Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi). Led by Adnan Menderes (1899-1961), the DP ushered in a first return of Islam to the Republic’s political and public life. The ‘martyr’ (şehit) Menderes, executed following the military coup of 27 May 1960, has been greatly admired by Turkish Islamist for generations.

Meaning that Turkey’s momentous 2023 elections would be doubly blessed: taking place on the anniversary Menderes’ victory and couched between Eid Al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha – an auspicious time, if ever there were such a thing the Prez and his henchmen must be thinking. The end of this year’s fast would be an ideal date to mark a new beginning, namely the Turkish Republic second century now in the rightly-guided hands of the pious Prez and his AKP henchmen.

Presumably, such were (and probably still are) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s expectations. But many now argue that such assumptions seem quite unrealistic or even illusory, as “Turkey’s deepening economic crisis has eroded President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s popularity,” as worded by the think tanker Merve Tahiroğlu. For Erdoğan’s emphasis on lower interest rates, as part of his much-vaunted ‘Turkey Economy Model,’ “fueled consumer inflation to almost 90% last year,” opines Bloomberg‘s economy and government reporter Beril Akman. The ‘Turkey Economy Model prioritizes low-interest rates to boost exports, production and investments, expressed the AKP propaganda bullhorn Daily Sabah. The Dutch multinational banking and financial services corporation ING’s Chief Economist in Turkey, Muhammet Mercan states that “annual inflation turned out to be 64.3% in 2022 on the back of large favourable base effects, after a change in direction in November [this beginning the month constituting ‘the peak of the current inflation series’ at a whopping ‘107%’].”

In other words, the Prez and his minions don’t really know how to handle the economy. As a result, it stands to reason that the proverbial Turk-on-the-street is all but unhappy about the state of his (or her) country’s economic health, leading them to question the wisdom of those steering the state’s ship into choppy waters. On the other hand, I would argue, Erdoğan’s core base does not really care all that much about the state’s fiscal fitness and economic welfare (or its effects on ordinary citizens’ lives), being supposedly more concerned about their own exploits in the next world. And, the Center for American Progress’ Max Hoffman declares that these “dedicated partisan supporters” constitute “roughly one-third of the country.” Hoffman wrote these lines in 2019, but the next year, he opined that “[a]cross all age groups, President Erdoğan now has a diminishing group of dedicated partisan supporters,” adding that “younger Turks are less supportive of Erdoğan and the AKP than their older counterparts.” In view of the fact that Turkey’s population has a median age of 30.9 years, and that “young Turks (aged between 0 and 24) make up about 40% of the country’s total population” of about 84 million, this could be a cause for concern. As Hoffman points out, “18- to 29-year-olds are now the largest demographic voting bloc in Turkey.” And that could give the Prez a serious headache in the coming months. Then again, how likely are these ‘youngsters’ to queue up, while staring blankly into their smartphones, to cast their ballots? That would be anybody’s guess.

The Mayor who would be President

In addition to these potential demographic woes, there is also the fact that a potential rival has now also emerged on the scene – in fact, he’s been doing his best to hog the limelight since İstanbul’s mayoral elections in 2019: Ekrem İmamoğlu. The AKP machinery is acutely aware of this danger, as is the Prez himself. Hence: a Turkish “court has sentenced Ekrem Imamoglu, the popular opp mayor of Istanbul to a prison sentence of 2 years and 7 months, banning him from politics as well. Even if he has a chance to appeal it’s an outrageous ruling coming just as national elections are around the corner,” tweeted Dr Louis Fishman on ’14 Dec 2022.’ He goes on to explain in tweet that the “charges are for insulting public officials; it’s a low-level case–w/most seeing it as aimed politically against him. If anything this will make him more popular and could land him to be the joint candidate of the opp in elections against Erdogan – still it complicates matters.”

The utter irony of this somewhat-but-not-altogether unexpected move by the Turkish court lies in the fact that Ekrem İmamoğlu has now been handed the same fate that had once been devised for the man-who-was-to-become-the-Prez. Back in the previous century, when Erdoğan was an up-and-coming politician (as a member of the outspoken Islamic Refah Partisi or RP, erroneously translated as Welfare Party) elected as Mayor of İstanbul (in 1994), riding this wave of success and popular approval, he overplayed his hand in 1997: Erdoğan read an overtly Islamist poem (admittedly written by the intellectual father of Turkish nationalism, Ziya Gökalp, 1876-1924) at an election rally: “The minarets are our bayonets. The faithful are our soldiers. God is great. God is great.” In response, the supposedly secular elite of the land tried to shut him down, sending him to jail and ending his political ambitions. And, for all intents and purposes, that would have been the end of Erdoğan’s life as a politician. In the end, however, he was saved by the then-CHP leader Deniz Baykal, who acted like “Turkey’s Von Papen,” orchestrating Erdoğan’s return to the political fold and thereby quite literally ushering in the demise of Kemalist Turkey and the advent of a “Pseudo-Ottoman Sultanate of Kitsch.”

As such, İmamoğlu won two mayoral elections: on 31 March 2019 as well as its re-run on 23 June 2019. Turns out that İmamoğlu said that “those who cancelled the March 31 [, 2019 Istanbul mayoral] election are fools” on 4 November 2019, as related by Human Rights Watch in great detail:

İmamoğlu made the comment to the media for which he has been prosecuted in Istanbul on November 4, 2019. A journalist had asked him to respond to a comment by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu criticizing İmamoğlu where Soylu had said: “I am saying this to the fool going and complaining about Turkey to the European Parliament. This nation will make you pay the price.” In fact, Soylu was referring to a speech İmamoğlu gave not to the European Parliament but at a session of the Council of Europe Local and Regional Authorities on October 30, 2019, in which he had criticized the government’s decision to cancel the election. In response to Soylu calling him a “fool,” İmamoğlu answered, “It is those who cancelled the March 31 elections who are the fools.” Neither of the politicians named each other in their comments, nor did İmamoğlu refer to the Higher Electoral Board. The investigation against İmamoğlu for his comment came after the Higher Electoral Board notified the Istanbul Anatolia Chief Prosecutor’s Office, which opened an investigation into İmamoğlu on the charge of “Publicly insulting state officials working on boards in relation to their duties” under Turkish Penal Code Articles 125/2-1 and 125/3a, 125/4 and 125/5.

In response, on the very same day the beleaguered Mayor took to Twitter: “This is a case of justice and we will never give up this fight. We would like to thank the leaders of our political parties, our deputies, mayors, artists, journalists, intellectuals and all our citizens who supported me during this process.” For, İmamoğlu knows that the Turkish people like and support him, as indicated by a survey conducted by the MetroPoll agency late last year: ‘İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu would beat Erdoğan by 48.7 percent to 36.6 percent.’ In fact, the journalist İsmail Saymaz wrote that it is estimated that İmamoğlu would emerge victoriously in the first round of future presidential elections. Adding https://www.economist.com/special-report/2023/01/16/turkey-is-still-just-a-democracy-but-it-is-not-certain-to-remain-that-wayominously and presciently that, the AKP leadership, “for this reason wants to remove İmamoğlu from the competition.” Saymaz’s words were published on 27 December 2021.

The Prez and his AKP henchmen have now turned the İstanbul Mayor into a martyr of sorts, albeit that he apparently won’t be able to challenge the status quo. Deniz Baykal is now bound to a wheelchair and in no position to help anybody, let alone himself. The AKP propaganda machinery was quickly mobilized to further discredit İmamoğlu. For instance, the overtly Islamist daily Yeni Şafak went ahead and published the ‘fact‘ that The Economist had already determined that the current Mayor of İstanbul was no longer a viable rival to the Prez, saying that “İmamoğlu’s star had long been extinguished following his 2019 victory.” Albeit, that The Economist merely pointed out that the İstanbul Mayor’s “victory proved short-lived,” in view of his current predicament.

Thwarting the Kurdish Vote: The Turkey-Syria-Russia Trinity

After having dealt with the competition, the AKP next turned its attention to ‘the Kurds.’ The Kurdophile West likes to see the Kurds as Turkey’s ‘kingmakers.’ And that means, for all intents and purposes, the HDP (or the Halkların Demokratik Partisi or Peoples’ Democratic Party), a political party the MSM invariably refer to as ‘pro-Kurdish,’ but that is basically nothing but a Kurdish unit with pro-minority sympathies and policies in the Turkish (or nationalist) political landscape. The just-quoted Economist carried the following headline recently: ‘Turkey is on the point of banning the main Kurdish opposition party.’ But, in the current constellation, when talking about ‘the Kurds’ these days, the PYD and its military offshoots YPG/YPJ also invariably enter the equation. And that in turn, leads to Turkey’s relationship with Syria: “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is teasing a meeting with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, brokered by Vladimir Putin [aka the Czar],” reports AlMonitor. In fact, over the past weeks, Turkish talking heads one television have been debating the prospect of an Erdoğan-Assad meeting and the crucial matter of its timing – before or after the elections. At the same time, the Prez has been talking up the possibility of another military incursion across the border: with a view of “wiping out the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces and their associated local parties, the Democratic Union Party and the People’s Protection Front, as Amberin Zaman explains.” As a result, high-level meetings are taking place at present, with people like Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Faisal Mekdad or Hulusi Akar and Ali Mahmud Abbas getting together and talking to each other. The main principle underlying these talks appear to be a stress on or “respect for” Syria’s “territorial integrity” and “sovereignty.” These two political concepts are but code words denoting that Kurdish ambitions for a separate and semi- or completely independent Kurdish entity be quashed completely. As if to underline this resolve, the Anatolia Agency reports that “Türkiye [or rather Turkey, if you will] ‘neutralizes’ 11 YPG/PKK terrorists after rockets fired into border area with Syria.”

The Prez and Syria’s leader do have a history in common – a shared past that could once again become a present-day reality. Speaking to the Turkish journalist Ece Zereycan in October 2013, Assad described in some detail “his earlier cordial relations with the [then-]Turkish prime minister [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan], concluding that the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood caused the Turkish state to become an enemy of Syria, while maintaining that the Syrian people are still very fond of Turkey and its people.” In the interview, Assad expressed his belief that Erdoğan, as a Sunni Muslim, had become “allied with” the “Sunni” or rather Jihadi opponents of the Damascus government. Ten years later, reality has changed, President Obama and his erstwhile buddy and ally Tayyip Erdoğan have been thwarted in their designs by Syria in alliance with Russia and Iran. And, at long last, the looming elections have now apparently led the Prez to recognize this new constellation on the ground (appositely expressed by the Turkish noun “konjonktür”). Tayyip and Bashar used to be friends Once upon a time, the former called the latter his “brother” (or ‘kardeşim‘), but following the U.S. decision to indirectly intervene in Syria (famously part of the Bush-declared “Axis of Evil”), Tayyip Erdoğan started tweeting a different tune: from a brother, the Syrian President had become the linchpin of the “murderous Assad regime” (‘Eli kanlı Esed rejimini,’ de dato ‘1:49 am 28 Jan 2014’). Now that the circumstances have changed again and the Oval Office is no longer occupied by his ‘friend’ Obama (with whom he seems to have a close and cordial relationship, as documented by the journalist Tolga Tanış in his book Potus & Beyefendi), ever the pragmatist, the Prez took a different position – maybe the “murderous Assad” will become his “brother” again before long.

Will Turkey now still invade Syria to take care of the Kurds, or will cooler heads prevail, and what does Russia think about that?!? In this context, Reuters reports that the “U.N. Security Council on [9 January 2023] unanimously approved the delivery of humanitarian aid to some four million people in northwestern Syria for another six months, avoiding a traditional fight with Russia over the issue.,” as “Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia described it as a ‘difficult decision’ to support the resolution and that it was not a change in Russia’s position.” President Putin being an ally of President Assad would rather see aid delivered to the whole of country (and carried out by the Syrian government), and just to the northwestern enclave of Idlib, which I admittedly somewhat facetiously like to call the Prez’s little Jihadistan south of the border. Undoubtedly, Russia is at present rather preoccupied with the event on its western flank, but the West would prefer to see Moscow conciliatory stance as another sign of “Russia’s weakness.” Still, weak Russia supports the New Turkey, accommodating meetings and dealings in Moscow to ensure that Syria’s victory won’t be jeopardized by any sudden or unforeseen military upsets. In spite of “the many contradictions between Russia and [Turkey], the two countries have managed to maintain a constructive dialogue and friendly relations,” points out RT – previously known as Russia Today, RT should be seen as a kind English-language voice of the Kremlin. After all, a trustworthy source told me some years ago that President Putin every morning consults with Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief. The just-quoted RT piece, written by the Moscow-based reporter Lidia Misnik, continues: as follows

One of the major factors is the economic interdependence of Moscow and Ankara, which has grown rapidly over the past few years. Between January-September of last year, the trade turnover between Russia and [Turkey] topped $47 billion, which is twice as much as in the first nine months of 2021. This is mainly down to Moscow using Ankara to replace official imports from Western states.

As such, this “economic interdependence” of both countries is important, as it is a bond superseding mere political or ideological ties – “It’s the economy, stupid.” As a result, the Syrian Kurds are unlikely to create major or minor rifts between the Czar and the Prez. For, as I expressed many years ago now, for the latter the political is personal “or rather interpersonal.” And in this context, Viktor Nadein-Rayevsky (senior researcher at the IMEMO or Institute of World Economy and International Relations) clearly indicates that the former entertains similar ideas: “Putin considers Erdogan a ‘real man’ who keeps his word [as] Erdogan has demonstrated loyalty to his obligations.”

Still, Syria’s Kurds do remain anything but a wildcard, and they could very try to throw a spanner in the works. The European Council on Foreign Relations’ Aslı Aydıntaşbaş and Julien Barnes-Dacey opine that “both Ankara and Damascus want to see [the Syrian Kurds’] territorial control and autonomous governing curtailed.” And that places the “Kurds” or rather DYP/YPG/YPJ nexus between a rock and a hard place. Turkey’s main concern is primarily the PKK threatening domestic peace and tranquility. Its organic ties with the YPG mean that safeguarding Syria’s territorial integrity is high on the Turkish agenda, as an independent or even semi-independent Kurdish entity next door would pose direct threat in the eyes of AKP-led Ankara. Hence, the trinity of Moscow-Ankara-Damascus seem more than willing to curtail and contain any Kurdish pretensions in the SAR (or Syrian Arab Republic or al-Jumhūrīyah al-ʻArabīyah as-Sūrīyah). But that would not be met with Washington’s favour. In view of the combustible nature of the set-up, it would seem prudent for Ankara or rather Tayyip Erdoğan to wait until the elections are over and done with . . . still, anything could happen before May, 14th.

Free and Fair Elections in the New Turkey: Back to the Future

As I emphatically stated last year, the 14 May election will be a do or die moment for the New Turkey, its outcome will determine the future of the land and the fate of its population; its outcome will show whether the Naqshbandi network at the root of the political movement known as the Justice and Development Party (or AKP) has enough unseen power to see through the aims and goals published ten years ago (Hedef 2023):

Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP establishment feel that they have to win these elections in order to achieve their very own Hedef 2023, as they named their manifesto containing their practical goals and targets – practical goals and targets that are but prerequisites for achieving the unspoken aim of the transformation of the Turkish nation into a state once again beholden to the religion of Islam and regulated by Sharia law on the centenary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey.

And who can forget Erdoğan‘s famous words that “[d]emocracy is like a streetcar that will carry us to the final destination. When we get there, we’ll get off.” The Prez’s respect for the democratic process therefore seems questionable at best, leading the Sr Director of Research at Freedom House, Nate Schenkkan, to tweet a few days ago that “Turkey’s election isn’t going to be free or fair.” If previous elections are any indication, even the country’s electricity infrastructure could contribute to the electoral outcome in May. We only have to think back to the heavily contested local elections of 30 March 2015, when a sudden and unexpected blackout left all the votes in the dark. Subsequently, ‘Turkey’s [then-]Energy Minister Taner Yıldız [came] forward with a culprit for the power cuts: a cat.’ Yıldız went on the record as saying, “I am not joking, friend.” Adding with a straight face that a “cat walked into a transformer unit. That’s why there was a power cut. It’s not the first time this has happened.” At least, that what the AFP reported at the time.

This year’s crucial elections could have whole cohorts of cats lurking in strategic locations all across the country. Alternatively, tried and tested methods of vote rigging are also not out of bounds for the Prez and his henchmen if and when the people appear not to be voting correctly – from ballot box stuffing all the way to other sophisticated means of electoral fraud and theft. One only has to remember that “Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party achieved a [totally unexpected] runaway victory at the polls on April 3,” last year to realize that Turkey’s opposition has slimmer than slim chances to carry the day in May. Now that the date has been set, the opposition has still not decided whom to front. Ünal Çeviköz, an adviser of the main opposition CHP’s current CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said the other day that the “name of the [six-party opposition’s] presidential candidate will probably be declared sometime in February.” Still, who can forget that Kılıçdaroğlu has overseen nine electoral defeats in his time at the helm of the opposition – he succeeded a disgraced Baykal nearly 13 years ago now. But if the unexpected were to happen and the AKP ever so narrowly lost, it seems reasonable to assume that either the outcome be immediately declared faulty and invalid or that zealous AKP believers would take to the streets to demand the imposition of Shariah law given that some citizens do not seem to realize that Turkey’s destiny had been decided a long time ago.

Who is a Muslim? Somebody who believes in the religion of Islam. Given that I proclaim, alḥamdulillāh [or praise be to Allah], I am a Muslim, according to this [definition] I [also] have the right to proclaim, alḥamdulillāh, I am a proponent of the Shariah.”

In the summer months [of the year 2002], as related by the British Dr Haitham Al-Haddad, (variously described as a ‘Sunni Muslim scholar and television presenter of Palestinian origin,’) in true hadith stye: a “brother that I know, Dr Saleh al-Ayid, present in Istanbul “in the summer of the year 1421 AH, 2001 CE,“ paid a visit to the “great scholar Mohammed Ameen Siraaj at his home“ – a man otherwise known as Mehmet Emin Saraç, a graduate of Cairo’s Al-Azhar and renowned in Turkey as the last Ottoman âlim [scholar of Islam] who has been teaching Islamic sciences since 1958. At that time in 2001, the Turkish scholar was entertaining none other than the ambitious former mayor of Istanbul. In the course of the social call, it is reported that Saraç stated that “[i]t is neither our Ambition nor Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s to succeed in leading a province even if it is the size of Istanbul, instead we are training him to be a successful President, and you will see him soon become the President of Turkey by the will of Allah.”

On 22 November 1994, a slightly younger Tayyip Erdoğan pronounced these words on live television via a telephone connection. Throughout this century, the Prez and his henchmen have pursued a programme, which I have termed a policy of Sunnification by means of dismantling the Kemalist legacy and the memory of Atatürk (1881-1938), only to replace them with Islamic customs and public displays of Muslim piety.

On the centenary of the Republic’s foundation, its founder would hardly recognize the nation state he built on the remains of the multi-ethnic Ottoman state, instead the New Turkey’s leadership has been reviving aspects of the Ottoman legacy, a revival Tayyip Erdoğan and his Naqshi support system hope will come to full fruition this year: #Shariah4Turkey.

21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans, the greater Middle East, and the world beyond. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in the English language Turkish press, culminating in him becoming the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @TheErimtanAngle. Read Can’s archive here.

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