Recep Tayyip Erdoğan © ToskanaINC/Shutterstock

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan © ToskanaINC/Shutterstock

Twenty-one years after the serious economic and financial crisis of 2001 that accompanied its rise, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) presents itself for the electoral appointment in June in a context of full economic and social turmoil

12/01/2023 -  Chiara Maritato

(Originally published by volerelaluna  on 22 December 2022)

At the beginning of November, the loss of support of the party for twenty years in government in Turkey was quite apparent on the streets, in the market, and on the buses, perceivable aloud and without the need for interviews. The economic and financial crisis that has gripped the country since 2018 has recorded inflation that reached 85.5 percent in October and a drop in employment that has spread discontent among different social groups. Those who do not have bank accounts abroad anxiously observe their savings losing value every day and the growing poverty in the big cities affects young people who are unable to bear the costs of university and families who have been protesting for months against the rising bills  and food prices. The government's measures, based on ideological choices like continually cutting interest rates against the trend with any valid remedy aimed at curbing inflation, have so far proved to be unsatisfactory. In fact, the increase in exports and the high indebtedness of households and the state do not seem able to hinder what promises to be an imminent monetary crisis to the point that the aid of old and new friendly states  (Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Qatar) seemed inevitable in view of the next elections scheduled for June 2023. Twenty-one years after the serious economic and financial crisis of 2001 that accompanied its rise, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), presents itself at the next electoral appointment in a context of full economic and social turmoil.

In parallel, in the last five years the migration issue has exploded and has been used by the oppositions, albeit with different facets. The main accusation against the government is that of having let too many Syrian refugees into the country without being able to guarantee them decent conditions. Then there is the criticism of the management of the funds (over 6 billion Euros) that the European Union has donated since 2016 to allow Ankara to welcome around 3 million and 700,000 Syrians under a "temporary protection" regime. With the worsening of the economic crisis, the anti-immigrant rhetoric then took over with episodes of racism and violence  and, since 2021, the newborn Victory Party (Zafer Partisi) has gathered nationalist and xenophobic tendencies. Policies for the management of Syrian refugees have thus been redefined in the light of two objectives: on the one hand, obtaining additional funds from Brussels, and on the other, organising a  “voluntary return” of refugees to Syria – a project shared, albeit in different forms and ways, by the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP). Indeed, the latter recently stated that, if it comes to power, it will undertake a necessary resumption  of contacts with Damascus to define a refugee return plan. On the first point, although it is still unclear what the continuation of the controversial 2016 agreement between Turkey and the EU will be, various analyses show how Ankara is in fact implementing an  “open borders”  policy for migrants heading to Europe, a practice to which Greece responds with pushbacks   by sea and by land. As for the eastern border, since 2016 Turkey has launched military operations in northern Syria against the Syrian Democratic Forces considered by Ankara to be "terrorist" groups and a threat to its national security. The attacks, most recently that of November 20, are accompanied by the request for a safe zone , a territory of about 30 km in which to relocate Syrian refugees. This request raises three main questions, primarily how to legitimise the existence of an area under Turkish control in Syria at an international level and how to ensure that this is accepted by Damascus. Furthermore, it would be a matter of populating Syrian territories with a Kurdish majority with Arab refugees, a top-down practice that generates doubts about the construction of a stable peace and full security of the territories. Finally, it is worth asking how voluntary a return to Syria of anti-Assad refugees is when the conflict is still ongoing.

However, it seems clear how Ankara has managed to tie the migration issue to the military operations in Syria. In a recent article published by the pro-government Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), this link   is clearly cited: "The safe zone has three functions: to provide a 'safe haven' to the civilian population by promoting a fight against terrorism, try to stop irregular migration and finally allow Syrians to return to their homeland". For the Turkish government, the attempt to create a safe zone in Syria is therefore vital not only for "national security", but also for electoral security.

On November 20, the safe zone returned to the fore with the launch of a new military operation in northern Syria. The bombings were presented by the Turkish government as "the price  to be paid by the PKK and YPG terrorists" for the November 13 attack on the Istiklal Caddesi power plant in Istanbul. The explosion of a bomb on a sunny Sunday afternoon caused 6 deaths and 81 injured and to date has not been claimed. A few hours later, the police arrested a woman who said she acted on behalf of the PKK and entered Turkey from Syria. Despite the blocking of social media in the hours immediately following, citizens reacted with cynicism and distrust of the official version. As the days go by, the growing questions  and rumours about the dynamics of the attack and the fear that a new season of attacks similar to the one between 2015 and 2016 will open, has pushed the opposition parties, in particular the CHP and the pro-Kurdish left-wing party HDP, to request that a parliamentary commission of inquiry be set up to shed light on what happened – a proposal rejected by parliament.

Whether and to what extent the nationalist and belligerent propaganda that accompanied the start of the military operation in Syria will be able to allay the rampant discontent will be clear in the coming months. In a context in which there are severe limits on freedom of opinion (even more following the Law against disinformation  approved last October) and of assembly, with detentions and arrests of protesters – in 2022 alone, 800 people were tried for taking part in peaceful protests , as was recently the case with the Italian Dalila Procopio – both protests and silence take on multiple forms and meanings.

In the meantime, the oppositions have started forms of dialogue in view of the elections, meeting in a common coordination group, the "Table of Six" (formed by the CHP, the nationalist IYI Parti, GELECEK Parti, DEVA Parti – both born from a split of the AKP, the Demokrat Parti, and the Islamist conservative Saadet Parti). They call for "patience", confident that, even in a regime of competitive authoritarianism, elections will mark the end of the Erdogan era. However, the opposition has not yet expressed its candidate. One of the potential names, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, was sentenced to two years and seven months with a ban from holding public office on 15 December. While waiting for the Court of Appeal to pronounce, Imamoglu received the support of thousands of citizens  gathered in the Sarachane district of Istanbul. Opposition leaders condemned the court's decision, recalling how in 1998 it was a sentence of then mayor of Istanbul Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the interdiction from public offices that transformed victimisation into electoral consensus. Various concerns about the independence of the judiciary have been raised in the international press. The fluctuating polls indicate that the games are open for the elections on the centenary of the birth of the Turkish Republic. The coming months therefore promise to be long and decisive.

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