Turkey’s peaking political tensions could spur civil war - analysts

The polarisation in Turkey since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 has widened to frightening levels, spurring widespread tension and political violence that could lead to civil war, according to two analyses published on Wednesday.

A political culture in Turkey that drives the less-educated masses to convert the “other” to their views or punish them with violence has increased considerably under Erdoğan, Burak Bekdil, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, wrote for Gatestone Institute.

In September 2015, angry AKP supporters attacked the office of Hürriyet, Turkey's largest newspaper, for its critical reporting, smashing windows with sticks and stones. The next month prominent Hürriyet columnist Ahmet Hakan was assaulted outside his home.

The next year saw Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs call for the creation of youth branches to be formed at as many as 45,000 of the country’s mosques, a sort of “mosque militia”, according to Bekdil, while a pro-Erdoğan group called the Alperen Hearths threatened violence against the annual gay pride march in Istanbul.

Bekdil said such aggressiveness has only increased since Turkey’s election board annulled the results of the March 31 Istanbul mayoral vote, which the AKP lost, and set up a rerun election for June 23. Erdoğan backers nearly lynched main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu after he attended the funeral of a Turkish soldier, and the AKP member who punched him was later hailed as a hero, according to Bekdil.

In May, a handful of Turkish journalists were assaulted and beaten, including well-known columnist Sabahattin Önkibar, outside his Ankara home.

According to the 2019 Peace Index, published by the global think-tank the Institute for Economics and Peace on Wednesday, Turkey is the only European country among the world's 50 least peaceful countries. Turkey’s rank among 163 countries included in the survey fell to 152 from 149 last year. 

The survey results show Turkey diverges from European countries with a high level of political terror, which includes political imprisonment, disappearances and torture, while it has the worst terrorism score in the region.

“Turkey never was a Denmark or Norway in political maturity, tolerance and culture,” wrote Bekdil, “but it is dangerously coming closer to being like one of its neighbours to the south or to the east.”

Writing for the National Interest, Ali Demirdas, a former international affairs professor at the College of Charleston, argued that Erdoğan and the AKP are responding to an apparent loss of political support, which could increase if the party loses again later this month. 

Turkey’s economic troubles and the pressure of hosting some 3.6 million Syrian refugees have added to the social and political tensions, according to Demirdas. If the AKP wins, Turkey could see a mass protest movement challenging the legitimacy of the ruling party, akin to the Gezi Protests of 2013, Demirdas said.

“An AK Parti win in Istanbul may trigger social turmoil in Turkey, which the state may be unable to control,” he wrote.

If opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu wins, the opposition might call for early elections, which aren’t scheduled until 2023. If Erdoğan were to lose a presidential vote, according to Demirdas, this would lead to the long and painful process of the opposition replacing the deeply entrenched AKP.

“This kind of transition will undoubtedly spark violence between the opposing layers of the society leading to a vicious civil war,” said Demirdas, wondering how pro-Erdoğan generals, police chiefs and intelligence officers would react to an anti-Erdoğan president, and whether they might block such a figure from taking power.

“Turkish society has never been so polarised,” Demirdas wrote. “The politicians and the prominent figures need to come up with some sort of congruity before the society consumes itself from within.”