“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark…”
That’s how Turkish politics feels these days. It is as if the stage is being set behind the curtains: the audience is cognizant of the busy activity going on behind the scenes, the rustling of the curtains — but they can’t discern what exactly is going on.
Something’s building up, something’s rotten: but what is it, what does it add up to?
When three opposition MPs were stripped off their parliamentary status due to convictions on terror charges that were upheld by an appeals court on June 4, it was as if the opaque backdrop opened part-way to reveal what may be happening.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) is dissatisfied with the “new status quo” and wants to alter it for its benefit. Seemingly unconnected developments that have been unfolding in the past few weeks in the domestic and international politics of Turkey lead to this end.
As far as the international front is concerned, July will be an important turning point as Germany becomes the European Union Council President, a first since 2007. One of the top items on Germany’s agenda is migration policy. But “migration policy” is synonymous with more impregnable borders: Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has already called on Germany to use its upcoming presidency to overhaul the EU asylum system and to strengthen border controls. In one way or the other, Turkey is bound to stay as the major broker in any new migration deal.
Simultaneously, on the international front, Turkey has been cast suddenly as the winner in Libya, against all odds. So, Ankara sees their hand of cards as a full house as summer approaches.
But on the domestic front, things are not so rosy.
According to MetroPOLL’s May 2020 data, AKP's level of support has slipped down to 30-31% — an all-time low in the last 18 years of them being at the helm of Turkey’s politics. Its electoral alliance partner, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), is lingering around 7%. MHP cannot make it above the electoral threshold at this point. Moreover, it has been surpassed by the offshoot that grew out of its trunk, the nationalist İYİ Party founded by Meral Akşener and other ex-MHP members. Support for President Erdoğan has also receded, with his support down by 5 points after reaching its zenith at 56% during the initial panicky times of the coronavirus pandemic in March. Although Erdoğan remains the most popular politician in Turkey with 50.6% support, names like Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş have become his close contenders with similar popularity levels.
Now, let’s zoom back to the developments behind the curtains:
As mentioned, last week Leyla Güven and Musa Farisoğulları of the Kurdish-friendly People's Democratic Party (HDP) and Enis Berberoğlu from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) lost their seats in the 600-seat Grand National Assembly. All of a sudden, it was 2017 all over again: back then, Berberoğlu was arrested on “espionage” charges and served time for allegedly leaking images to an opposition newspaper that showed Turkey’s national intelligence agency smuggling weapons to Syrian rebels. That arrest triggered the most “rebellious” act by CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who is usually “tame by nature”: he embarked on a civil disobedience march from the capital Ankara to Silivri, where Berberoğlu was imprisoned.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s “Justice March” is now going to be replicated by HDP co-leaders Mithat Sancar and Pervin Buldan. They will be marching towards Ankara from the easternmost city of Hakkari and the westernmost city of Edirne. There is a lot of symbolism in the HDP march: Kurdish Buldan will march from Edirne and Sancar from Hakkari, and the co-leaders will unite in the capital, demonstrating HDP’s (and the Kurds’) focus on Ankara and their keenness to be a part of Turkish politics, simultaneously refusing allegations of “terrorism and separatism.”
Meanwhile, Buldan struck a less conciliatory tone towards the CHP and other opposition parties, indicating that HDP will not become a part of electoral alliances unless its name is officially pronounced. So far, HDP’s de facto support has been crucial for key electoral victories of the opposition.
Other developments deepened the wedge between the CHP and HDP: this time, the CHP’s Berberoğlu was released the day after he was arrested, but the two HDP parliamentarians have remained imprisoned.
On an ostensibly separate note, the issue of the Hagia Sophia made a grand entry into Turkey’s agenda. Converting (or rather reconverting) the Hagia Sophia into a mosque has been the “Holy Grail” of Turkish Islamist politics, long before the AKP ever existed and before President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was even a part of the political scene. On July 5, 1967, Pope Paul VI prayed at Hagia Sophia when he visited Istanbul, and as a reaction, the Islamist-Turkish nationalist National Turkish Student Association’s (Milli Türk Talebe Birliği-MTTB) lead cadres conducted the daily prayer ritual namaz at the Hagia Sophia. The AKP and MHP have various members that come from the MTTB; old members of the AKP are from there as well, such as Abdullah Gül and other names that support the newly-founded DEVA Party by Ali Babacan and the Future Party by Ahmet Davutoğlu.
As might be discerned, “behind the curtains,” an artfully-crafted strategy to crush the electoral alliances between opposition parties is at play. On the one hand, the “Kurdish-nationalist” divide is being played, and on the other hand, secularist versus pious and Islamist/nationalist versus secular/globalist cleavages are being exploited.
New electoral legislation might be in the cards in Turkey, such as altering electoral districts so that opposition candidates may find it harder to get elected. Furthermore, the political guillotine of stripping of parliamentary status and even imprisonment hangs over various opposition MPs. In recent weeks, there have also been sporadic arrests of young and active figures of the CHP, each time with allegations of inciting hatred.
In the middle of these complex and bizarre political games, the Hagia Sophia is bound to feature even more strikingly. On Monday, June 8, the chamber of the Council of State (Danıştay) abruptly announced that it will announce its decision on the status of Hagia Sophia in the coming weeks. So, on July 2, the decision on whether Hagia Sophia will be designated as a mosque will be announced. Looking at the political fanfare and recent declarations by President Erdoğan, the decision will be for opening Hagia Sophia to prayer.
Hagia Sophia means “Holy Wisdom” in Greek, and according to the holy wisdom of Turkish politics, if “reconquering the Hagia Sophia” is becoming the motto, the target to redesign the political, electoral and legislative scene is looming over the horizon in Turkey.
Let us remember that the status of Hagia Sophia was thrown to the forefront by President Erdoğan as a hot topic right before Istanbul's repeat elections in spring 2019.
NB: The Hagia Sophia was built as a church by the Byzantine Empire in 537 and continued to serve as such until 916. Upon the Ottomans' takeover of Istanbul on May 29, 1453, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque as was the practice at the time. Almost half a millennium later, on November 24, 1934, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum by a Council of Ministers decree in the newly founded Turkish Republic.