Turkey's 'security' president, Erdoğan faces new test as attacks mount

Erdoğan pledged that he would keep Turks safe in a tumultuous region. Amid public anger, his dream of creating an all-powerful presidential system may now hang in the balance.

Umit Bektas/Reuters
Flowers are placed next to Turkish police officers as they stand guard near the Reina nightclub, which was attacked by a gunman, in Istanbul, Turkey, Jan. 1, 2017.

As Turkey reels from the New Year's Eve attack on Istanbul’s upscale Reina nightclub, the surge of recent terror and militant attacks has turned political, with opposition politicians calling for ruling party resignations for turning the country into a “lake of blood.”

The demand flies in the face of the image President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have projected for years, portraying themselves as the only guarantors of safety for Turks, even as regional neighbors like Syria, Iraq, and Egypt descended into chaos and revolution. Indeed, Mr. Erdoğan pledged in October 2015 that “We [politicians] are responsible for the murders in our country because when people vote for us, they give us their confidence, saying, ‘I will trust you to provide my security of life and security of property.’”

But the opposition blames Mr. Erdoğan and the AKP for creating the environment for nearly 30 attacks over the past year that have killed and wounded hundreds of people. A party with a history of providing stability, they charge, has turned a blind eye to Islamists crossing into Syria to fight in rebel ranks; invited revenge for cross-border military deployments in Syria and Iraq; and reignited a war with militant Kurds in southeast Turkey.

That, analysts say, shapes the critical negative metric for Turks: economic fallout.

Given public anger over economic fallout from the deteriorating security, analysts say, Erdoğan’s dream of creating an all-powerful presidential system through constitutional changes – a controversial goal he has been able to pursue amid strong public support for his leadership – may now hang in the balance.

“The key is not physical insecurity, but economic insecurity,” says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the Chatham House think tank in London. “Turks can manage, can alter their lifestyle to adjust to the growing insecure environment, given the frequency of these major violent attacks. But what Turks cannot handle in any sustained way is a prolonged period of economic insecurity.”

A regional model slides

Just a few years ago, Turkey's surging economic performance made it a regional model, with a thriving Istanbul and immaculate beaches on the Mediterranean and Black Sea a draw for tourists. But multiple attacks in which foreigners as well as Turks have been targeted have caused the all-important tourism industry to plummet, with economic growth rates falling into negative territory and the risk of recession rising.

Last weekend's rampage in Istanbul, where a lone gunman stormed into the packed Reina nightclub an hour after midnight Saturday, killing 39 revelers and wounding 69, further exacerbated those woes. The so-called Islamic State (IS) said the attack was carried out by “a heroic soldier” in revenge for what it called Turkey’s killing of Muslims in Syria with “its air strikes and mortar attacks.”

Turkey launched a a cross-border military campaign into Syria in August, which has effectively forced IS back from its southern border, while also preventing Syrian Kurds – whose fighters have been backed by the US, but which Turkey considers terrorists – from turning a collection of Kurd-controlled cantons into a contiguous territory in northern Syria.

Turkish police launched a manhunt Sunday for the culprit, providing photographs of the man they said changed his clothes to escape anonymously as chaos unfolded.

The slew of attacks over the past year has included a multiple suicide-bomb assault on Istanbul’s main airport and a car bomb just three weeks ago that left 46 dead, most of them riot police, after a soccer match.

Turkey was also shaken in mid-July by an attempted military coup blamed on followers of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose loyalists had permeated all pillars of the Turkish state for decades. Tens of thousands have been arrested, and a state of emergency has already been extended once.

Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş said the attack aimed to further polarize Turkish society, and was a “message” in response to Turkey's role in Syria.

“We are telling them that we will go into their lairs in 2017,” said Mr. Kurtulmuş on Jan. 2. “We will give them the right answer; we will bring them to their knees with the will of God and the support of our people.”

Kurtulmuş said Turkey would continue Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria, and conduct cross-border actions “to the point where there is no harm to Turkey from terrorist organizations.”

'IS is the boomerang of the AKP'

Opposition politicians, however, were quoted in Turkish saying the AKP’s own policies helped create such insecurity.

“The reason for this situation is that the government is not rational, scientific, and sustainable in its anti-terror policies,” said Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). “On the other hand, the fact that authorities are not held accountable for nor resign from office also creates a weakness in the fight.”

“The government encouraged [terrorist groups] instead of obstructing them,” said Bariş Yarkadaş, an Istanbul CHP deputy, as quoted in the pro-government Birgun newspaper. “IS is the boomerang of the AKP…. It should never be forgotten how the AKP created the foundation for terrorist organizations such as IS and [Al Qaeda-linked] Al Nusra Front.”

Turkish police arrested 12 people in a series of raids across Istanbul, and vowed to capture the culprit.

For now, as public fear over the attacks continues to grow, Erdoğan may argue that the best way to contain the violence is to further centralize his power. 

“The No. 1 priority for the ruling party and particularly Erdoğan is to contain the fallout of the Istanbul attacks on the prospects of transforming Turkey into a strong executive presidency,” says Hakura. “If anything, I think these attacks will push the ruling party to bring a constitutional referendum to a popular vote as soon as possible.”

“The main criterion is the economy. What drives Turkish voters is the economy,” he adds. “That’s the key danger zone, the key threat to the ruling party’s popularity.”

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