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How Erdogan acquired his groove again

While everyone was puzzling over the who, what and how of the coup-non-coup family drama in Jordan, it was another wild week in Turkish politics. On April 3, around the same time Prince Hamzah was allegedly plotting against his half-brother King Abdullah II in Amman, 104 retired Turkish admirals published a letter expressing concern that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government was becoming apparent suggested pulling Turkey out of the Montreux Agreement, which gives Turkey the right to regulate access to the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits. The letter also warned of what naval officers see as the Islamization of the armed forces.

That's a big deal; There have been fewer coups in Turkey. However, it is completely unclear what the admirals intended. Perhaps they wanted to activate like-minded officers who would stay in the ranks. If so, the letter was the first step in the long-awaited showdown between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and secularist nationalist officers who have disposed of their common enemies – their NATO-friendly colleagues and supporters of cleric Fethullah Gulen. Perhaps it was just a group of retired admirals who were upset about the changes Erdogan and his party had brought about over the past 19 years and who finally felt the need to exonerate themselves. Maybe it was a setup.

Whatever the admirals hoped for, their letter worked in favor of the Turkish President. In the days since the letter appeared in the early hours of the morning on an obscure, ultra-nationalist news site called Veryansintv.com, Erdogan, his advisors and their media representatives have declared, "Coup!" Given the government's unmatched ability to shape the public narrative, this strange episode can be remembered as an attempted coup. One can also remember the moment when Erdogan got his groove back, at least in domestic politics.

The letter closed the turbulent months in Turkey, most triggered by Erdogan. It comes after the protests that shook Bogazici University; Ankara's withdrawal from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention; another change at the top of the Turkish central bank; a case filed with the Constitutional Court regarding the closure of the People's Democratic Party (HDP); the party leader's belief that he offended Erdogan; and the arrest of another high profile member of the HDP. During the chaos, the Turks struggled with a deteriorating economy, coupled with the uncertainty of the pandemic and the increasing cases of COVID-19.

Though the calendar says April 2021, Erdogan – a cautious and paranoid politician – is fixated on 2023 if Turkey's next presidential and parliamentary elections are due to take place. This impending cycle is even more urgent for the Turkish leader as recent polls show that he and his party are slacking off, although they can still get the most votes. As a result, Erdogan has been raising several hot button issues lately to bolster the political support he already enjoys as he seeks to improve his chances of winning and an AKP parliamentary majority in the upcoming elections.

The protests in Bogazici – an internationally respected university – began when Erdogan appointed an unqualified political hack and accused the plagiarism Melih Bulu of being the school's principal. In response to the demonstrations, the government employed riot police and blamed the university's LGBTQI club for the protests. This was gross bigotry versus the gross bigotry of religiously conservative voters. However, it was not the only time in the past few weeks that Erdogan and his henchmen acted with homophobia. When Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention on March 21, the Turkish President defended the move, stating that the agreement had been abused by groups that "want to normalize homosexuality, which is incompatible with Turkey's social and family values". It was the AKP that turned itself on in search of votes from reactionaries. It was only a decade ago that Erdogan watched the signing of the convention – hence its unofficial name – with great enthusiasm. Although he was already on the path of authoritarianism at the time, Erdogan continued to be interested in projecting an image of the AKP and Turkey as forward-looking and progressive.

The day before leaving the Istanbul Convention, Erdogan dismissed the governor of the central bank, Naci Agbal, who had only been in office since November 2020. Agbal's transgression was to raise interest rates to reflect sound monetary policy. Until the takeover of Agbal, Turkey had fluctuated from one lira crisis to the next over the past three years. In his place was Erdogan Sahap Kavcioglu, a former AKP lawmaker, manager of the state-controlled Halkbank and most recently a writer for the very Erdogan daily Yeni Safak, in which he wrote columns in which he argued – like the Turkish president. This rate hike leads to inflation. It seems clear that Erdogan looked at the calendar and decided that, despite the inflationary effects and long-term damage involved, his policies dictated an unorthodox approach, as opposed to policies that would have hurt an overstretched middle class and the business community associated with it higher interest rates.

Then there is the plight of the HDP. Besides the gulenists, the party is Erdogan's biggest Bugaboo. This is because the party, although routinely referred to as "Kurdish" in the press, has a broader appeal. In the parliamentary elections in June 2015, the HDP received 13 percent of the population's vote, which was enough to get into parliament (the threshold is 10 percent) and to deny the AKP a parliamentary majority. That is why Erdogan sabotaged the coalition government's talks this summer and forced another election in which he was able to reverse the AKP's losses. Since then, Erdogan has attempted to behead the HDP, accusing its leadership of collaborating with the terrorists of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). HDP co-founder and presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas has been in jail for terrorism since 2016 and was recently convicted and sentenced to more prison for insulting Erdogan. Another high profile party leader and MP, Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, was recently stripped of his immunity and arrested in March for sharing and commenting on a tweet in 2016 calling on the Turkish government to resume peace talks with the PKK.

Obviously, the Turkish leader is concerned about the HDP and its ability to get enough votes to again deny the AKP a parliamentary majority in 2023. The executive presidency, which Erdogan created through constitutional amendments in 2017, only works as he wishes – unchecked – if the president shares party membership with the majority party in the Grand National Assembly. It is no coincidence that Turkish prosecutors have filed a case with the Constitutional Court in recent weeks to shut down the party on the grounds that it supports terrorism. The court sent it back, citing technical issues, but that probably won't end the case. The ironies here are almost too much to endure. The AKP is the successor to a series of parties that have closed and whose leaders have been banned and imprisoned. For this reason, shortly after it came to power, the AKP implemented reforms to make it difficult for authorities to close down parties they dislike. That was then.

It's hard to judge what could happen when the elections are about two years away, but it seems clear that Erdogan has been looking for every possible advantage wherever he can get it. The polls suggest it didn't work – and then some retired admirals wrote, like a gift from God, a letter that caused a political argument, considering who they are and what problems they faced. The political discourse in Turkey will now certainly revolve around a strong political dichotomy: you are either with Erdogan or with putschists.

Erdogan has long been able to turn the tables on his opponents. The Ergenekon conspirators have been jailed, Abdullah Gul became president despite efforts by the military to block him, and Gulenists are on the run. Perhaps the admirals' letter is another one of those matters that gives Erdogan a political boost, even as his and the AKP's rule deteriorate and deteriorate further into coercion and corruption. This proves, as the old saying goes, that it is better to be lucky than good.

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