Yesterday a few foreigners who are living in Turkey asked me with concern, “Is he seriously bringing the death penalty back to Turkey?
Is he crazy?” Foreigners, especially Europeans, are very worried about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s way of conducting politics. Forget about understanding him, some of them think that he is behaving like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chavez. It took a while to explain that it is just Erdoğan’s way of conducting politics and it was not worth taking him seriously for two reasons.
First, let’s look at Erdoğan’s reputation as a leader who means what he says. Western observers still think that Erdoğan today is the same Erdoğan who built his reputation as a trustworthy leader in the last nine years and thus fail to see the new Erdoğan over the past year as someone who transformed into a typical Middle Eastern leader as he gets closer to the Middle East and moves away from Europe and the West.
Especially in domestic politics over the past year, Erdoğan has been saying one thing and doing exactly the opposite. Whenever he feels public pressure, he throws a hot subject in front of people to discuss to save his image. For Erdoğan, his image as a leader of the people is more important than the policies that he follows. Therefore, in order to understand Erdoğan’s policies, one needs not look at what Erdoğan says but why he says what he says.
The death penalty issue is just a perfect example of the new Erdoğan policies. On Sept. 12, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) prisoners launched a hunger strike with political demands to obtain their rights to defend themselves in Kurdish. Because of the PKK’s pressure, Erdoğan had to accept their demands and is now changing the law. However, the Turkish public perceived this step as an attempt to appease the PKK and considered the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government as a weak government when it comes to the PKK’s demands.
To deal with this public perception, Erdoğan launched an offensive campaign to present himself and the AKP government as a tough leader towards the PKK. Thus, he brought the death penalty issue into public debate to cover up his “appeaser” perception in the eyes of the people.
In the last year, there are many examples of these types of public debates generated by Erdoğan, but whenever Erdoğan feels safe, he returns to business as usual. The most recent example of this was the abortion issue. When people started questioning the Uludere incident and criticizing Erdoğan’s government, he brought up the issue of abortion and concealed the real debates behind the fake debate which he wanted people to discuss.
Second, Erdoğan over the past year has formed all of his plans toward becoming the next president of Turkey. However, he wants to be a powerful president and keep his hand on his party after he becomes the president. There are two obstacles before him. Yes, he is the strongest candidate for the next presidency, but the PKK attacks erode his chance of becoming the next president. Thus, he wants to find a way to make the PKK declare a cease-fire. However, this time, the PKK recognizes his game plan and does not want to declare a cease-fire unless Erdoğan gives the PKK what it wants from him.
The recent tension between the two sides is, more or less, related to the next election and the PKK’s big demands that would risk his political career. To understand this backdrop, one needs to recall Erdoğan’s previous statement at the end of September. He was the one who brought up the issue of resuming negotiations with the PKK. The AKP government was the side that requested jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s brother to visit Öcalan to prepare the grounds for a possible cease-fire.
However, as soon as Öcalan rejected the AKP’s offer to intervene and terminate the PKK’s violent campaign, Erdoğan adopted a policy that flexes his muscles against the PKK.
Erdoğan hopes with this rhetoric to look strong in the eyes of the Turkish people while also threatening Öcalan in the hopes that he would intervene and bring about a cease-fire period until the next election.
Will this policy work? I don’t think so.