Erdoğan plays a shrewd cat-and-mouse game with the opposition

“President Erdoğan is taking a wrecking ball to Turkey’s legal and political institutions in an effort to shut down his political opponents,” wrote two prominent Turkey observers, Henri Barkey and Steven Cook, in an article for the American Interest.

Focusing on recent politically-motivated judicial issues in Turkey, including the case of Mustafa Koçak who died in a Turkish prison and Zülal Koçer who is facing an investigation for publicising police violence, Barkey and Cook wrote, ''Erdoğan and the AKP have used the country’s legal system to run roughshod over basic liberties, silence dissent, and intimidate citizens—sometimes with deadly results.”

“The Western Alliance, of which Turkey is a part through NATO and its desire to join the European Union, was created to combat these pathologies,” they continued.

The article's publication (on June 4) coincided, ironically, with yet another tragic farce in Turkey centred around its parliament, orchestrated by President Erdoğan and his shadow partner in power, Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Under tumultuous circumstances, a fait-accompli-like motion was passed in the general assembly, to strip of their seats and credentials as elected parliamentarians three opposition deputies, Enis Berberoğlu from the main opposition secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), along with two Kurdish deputies, Leyla Güven and Musa Farisoğulları, from the pro-Kurdish left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Soon after the vote, all three were arrested, and sent to prison to serve their remaining sentences they had been issued a couple of years ago - for Kafkaesque charges based on sheer free speech.

The former CHP deputy had been sentenced to five years in prison for his role in releasing state secrets by publicising images of what appeared to be weapons shipments allegedly by Turkish intelligence officials to Syrian rebels. Güven and Farisoğulları were convicted for membership in the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) after speaking against Turkey’s incursion into Syria’s northeast Kurdish-majority province of Afrin and attending memorial services by families of PKK members killed in clashes with the Turkish military.

The Orwellian episode led to a massive outcry, both the CHP and the HDP screaming foul, with the tiny section of the media that is not under the control of the government declaring “yet another civilian coup!” HDP deputies rallied in Ankara and were met with police harassment, as the CHP contented with verbal protests.

But, in a sharp twist, Berberoğlu is now out of prison, released last night, with authorities citing Turkey’s measures against the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus in prisons.

The immediate question is why the other two deputies were not released. “Probably Kurds are immune to COVID-19,” was the bitterly ironic joke that made the rounds on social media.

The answer is simple: President Erdoğan, escorted by Bahçeli, plays a cat-and-mouse game with the fragmented opposition, continuing comfortably to discriminate against the third largest parliamentary group of elected deputies - of the HDP - and, most importantly, driving a deeper wedge between the CHP and HDP, to block an eventual opposition front that may be built between them.

By releasing Berberoğlu and keeping the two Kurdish deputies behind bars, the solid hard-liner power block in Ankara sends a clear message to the main opposition:

Don't even think about a unified pro-democracy camp with the pro-Kurdish party - or else.

It is now a question of whether CHP’s top echelons will act accordingly, and abide by the warning. It is most likely that the large “pro-state” flank within the party will receive the message and continue with a low intensity opposition to the arrests, if at all.

Under normal circumstances none of the three deputies would have been charged at all. The accusations and prison sentences are simply ridiculous. But the reason for the release of Berberoğlu will stand now as a powerful symbol of how Erdoğan and his partners in power weaponise the justice system and instrumentalise the judiciary, to the fullest extent.

“Paradoxically, Erdoğan, who oversees this system of intimidation, was in a bygone era the victim of the same political justice,” Barkey and Cook wrote. Erdoğan in 1998 was convicted of sedition for reading at a rally a poem, “that the authorities at the time, especially the military establishment, interpreted as an Islamist call to arms.”

One of Erdoğan’s great ironies, they wrote, is that he is using the very same methods of the injustice he suffered to undermine his own opponents.

The government has ignored calls to release all political prisoners (there are, according to Human Rights Watch, around 50.000 of them in Turkish jails) while upping the count by another two. The absence of the rule of law and the arbitrary acts of political leaders remain as facts that speak for themselves.

The president’s supporters will deflect critiques in these areas, pointing to the crisis in the United States over the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police, Barkey and Cook wrote.

“They have a point,” they said, but the crisis and the spreading anti-racist demonstrations “ought not to distract from the march to authoritarianism in Turkey.”