Monday, June 14, 2010

Rally Around the Flag (But Whose?)

In the more than two weeks that have passed since the flotilla crisis, AKP government officials continue to pound Israel, raising concern with Western alliances, favor in the Arab Street, and just as significantly, political points at home. Milliyet columnist Semih Idiz weighs in on the domestic side of the equation in today's Hurriyet Daily News:
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears set to milk the popularity he gained in the streets of Turkey and the Middle East after the Marmara crisis in which nine Turks were killed by Israeli forces in a seriously botched up military operation.

It is almost as if he was waiting for a new crisis with Israel to be able to work the streets in order to regain some of the political ground his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has been loosing over bread and butter issues at home.

He and his party executives are clearly worried that the reinvigorated Republican Peoples Party, or CHP, may make headway given the successful manner in which its new leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has been hitting at the government over topics that really matter for the average man on the street. He is also concerned that the Saadet (Felicity) Party, the other Islamist party, may steal votes from the AKP given the rising dissatisfaction among the public.

Turks are fickle though, and easily swayed emotionally even if this means that the bread and butter issues of vital importance to them are pushed to the background. It is clear that there is great public animosity towards Israel today. As for the almost endemic anti-Americanism among Turks, this is also adding grist to Erdogan’s populist mill.

So we see him increasingly turning up the volume of his demagoguery, and hitting at Israel and the United States at every opportunity that presents itself. No doubt he is keeping a close eye on the “political rating meter” as he sends his crowds to paroxysms of delirious applause with his remarks, some of which smack openly of anti-Semitism and reflect a growing anti-Western tendency.

After the Marmara incident he was not only quick to use the harshest and most insulting adjectives when referring to Israel, but also had thinly veiled warnings to Washington, suggesting openly that those who stood behind Israel were also culpable in the crimes committed by that country.

Over the weekend he went further and openly named the U.S. this time, thus revealing what lies in his heart-of-hearts. This is what he had to say while addressing an adoring crowd in Rize, on the Black Sea coast, where people are not only religious but also ultra-nationalist.

“They are asking us what Turkey is doing in the Middle East, in Palestine. Why is Turkey bothered about Gaza? But could they not be asked in return what America is doing in Iraq? What is it doing in Palestine? Could it not be asked what is it doing in Afghanistan? What are France, Britain, and Holland, and so on, doing in these places?”

Erdogan went on threateningly to say, “I am calling on the Israeli supported international media and their subcontractors at home: Turkey is not like other countries.” His only tribute to sophistication during this show of demagoguery was his reference to “the Israeli supported international media.”

Previously he had made references to the “Jewish controlled international media” but must have been warned by his advisors that this was too overtly “anti-Semitic,” and thus politically incorrect. This no doubt forced him to make a slight modification in his nevertheless anti-Semitic reference to the international media.
A survey conducted by METROPoll on June 3, just four days after the flotilla raid, found that nearly two-thirds of the 1,000 Turks surveyed thought the government response was too weak, a finding the AKP is no doubt aware. Winning votes is important for any government, and with the possibility of early elections looming as the constitutional reform package waits to be ruled on by the Constitutional Court, no doubt figures into AKP decisionmaking.

Additionally, there is reason to be concerned. A rejuvenated CHP might well take economically-minded and liberal (those that are left) voters away from the party at the same time the Israel issue has mobilized the Islamist right, possibly bringing votes to Saadet Partisi. Though Saadet has finished far under the 10 percent election threshold since the AKP came to power, an increased vote for the party could all the same take critical votes away from the AKP even if it does not pass the threshold. The question for me here is why did Erdogan let the Mavi Marmara sail knowing that what happened on May 31 was a definite possibility. If domestic politics figured in at all, a calculation may have been made to divert attention away from the Kurdish front and score political points, but was thought not given to what effect such a move could have on those right of the AKP, namely strengthening the hand of Saadet Partisi? Is this perhaps what was behind the warnings of Fethullah Gulen in his interview with the Wall Street Journal (see June 7 post)?

It is hard to say to what extent this figures into the AKP's anti-Israel rhetoric and foreign polcy posturing, but the domestic factor should not be ruled out. Injured by its failed Kurdish initiative and increasing PKK violence, the Israel imbroglio helps the AKP at home at a time when it needs all the help it can get, which might explain why the government is focusing on the larger Palestinian issue and the Mavi Marmara incident (though this has been more or less the case in its relations with Israel since the latter's incursion into Gaza in December 2008), often conflating the two, rather than the growing conflict in the southeast. Nationalism has always been a powerful force in Turkish politics, but now the Israeli flag also serves a potent a force at the moment as the Turkish one.

UPDATE I (6/18) -- Istanbul's municipal council has accepted a proposal made by the Saadet Partisi to make Gaza a sister city.

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