Erdogan Will Make Sure the Khashoggi Affair Doesn't Disappear Before the Next Turkey Elections

With local elections coming up in Turkey in March, Erdogan could not have anticipated such a sweet, valuable political gift as the Khashoggi murder landing in his lap

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chairs a government meeting in Ankara, Turkey, October 25, 2018.
AP

The most recent, and as of yet not final, version of “the worst cover-up ever,” as Trump has described the Saudi accounts of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, came yesterday from the Saudi attorney general.

“The murder was premeditated,” he said, adding that this conclusion is based on information attained by the joint Saudi-Turkish investigative committee. This is the fourth account that Saudi Arabia has provided, with each account contradicting its predecessor.  

One can only wonder at the delicate wording by the prosecutor who knows that the joint committee is not really a joint committee, certainly isn’t cooperative and is like a sign hung over an office that doesn’t exist. Saudi Arabia allowed Turkish investigators to visit the murder scene only after all evidence there was washed away, it has denied anything to do with the murder and therefore from its standpoint there’s no reason for a joint investigation.

>> Opinion: On Khashoggi, U.S. journalists are falling for Turkey's conspiracist, state-run media

But now, as part of the advice it is getting from expensive public relations firms it has employed, the royal family is attempting to do damage control. An acceptance of responsibility was required at this point to possibly avert a direct American accusation that was about to be published after CIA Chief Gina Haspel’s visit to Turkey where she said she had heard recordings gathered by Turkish intelligence from the consulate in Istanbul.

As long as Saudi Arabia confesses, it can swallow an American response by punishing all those involved, and most importantly will exonerate the one that mustn’t be presented as guilty, the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could not have anticipated such a sweet, valuable political gift landing in his lap from the hands of his Saudi rivals.

One could imagine he would have preferred that the affair explode closer to local elections and overshadow all the failures and criticism he has sustained in the past year, but it can still play a role in those elections. The dramatic nosedive of the Turkish Lira, the flight of capital from Turkey, the rift in ties with the United States, not yet healed and which forced Erdogan to surrender to Trump’s demands to release Pastor Andrew Brunson following American sanctions, his decision to back Qatar - which caused a rift with Saudi Arabia - alongside the other ills including a 10.2-percent unemployment rate and a rise in the national debt, could have been very useful ammunition for his political rivals in the campaign.

These issues have not completely disappeared from the campaign, but the Khashoggi affair has overtaken most of the public debate, where even his rivals have been forced to admit that Erdogan has handled it wisely. While holding on to critical information that could sabotage Trump-Saudi relations, Erdogan has slowly leaked the “facts” to Al-Jazeera and Western media, without attacking the Saudi king or his son who runs the country.

By so doing Erdogan has not only made the issue an international affair that has diminished criticism of his oppression of civil rights and the media in his country, he is also being courted with constant phone calls from Trump. There was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit, and a visit by CIA chief Haspel to Ankara, and Angela Merkel’s statement calling Turkey an important ally. These actions have not resolved the economic crisis but have made Erdogan a central axis in the international arena. He is now asking Washington to exempt Turkey from the sanctions being imposed on Iran, thereby aiding Turkey’s great trade and other ties with Iran and he’s scored points with Moscow, which enjoys the complications between Trump and the Saudis. Erdogan can now comfortably announce that the S-400s he purchased from Russia and caused a stir in NATO will be installed in October 2019. 

Erdogan’s problem is how to keep the affair alive long enough to avoid letting other issues spoil the elections. One method is to push for the establishment of an international investigative committee that would keep the media busy with Turkey playing the main role. He may find himself up against an American wall, however, if Trump decides to bury the affair and suffice with punishing those directly involved in the murder. But then he would be able to ride the wave of criticism against Trump.

Erdogan intends to exploit this international position for the elections being held in March. It won’t be an easy campaign, especially since his coalition partner has decided to break off and run independently. 

The first signs of a rift arose with what would seem to be a minor controversy, over the revival of public debate about a recently reinstated student’s pledge. 

“I am a Turk, honest and hardworking. My principles are to protect the younger, to respect the elder, to love my homeland and my nation more than myself. My ideal is to rise, to progress. O Great Atatürk! On the path that you have paved, I swear to walk incessantly toward the aims that you have set. My existence shall be dedicated to the Turkish existence. How happy is the one who says 'I am a Turk!'”

Elementary school pupils are required to say this pledge each morning during attendance roll-call. Composed by an education minister in 1933 and changed twice since then, Erdogan dropped the pledge in 2013, as part of what he called a “democratic package” that included educational reform, and which also permitted female lawmakers to cover their heads. For five years school children were exempt from this pledge, which reminded them who founded the Republic and who Turkey owes its independence. Erdogan was accused of trying to erase Ataturk’s memory by doing away with the pledge. The State Assembly recently accepted an appeal by nationalist and labor groups to reinstate it, despite the state’s argument against the oath for its hints of racism by placing the Turkish ethnicity above all, particularly above the Kurds.

Devlet Bahceli, head of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Erdogan’s main opposition, called the decision a “prize for patriotic students.” MHP had originally formed a political block with Erdogan's party prior to the parliamentary elections, which ensured victory for Erdogan and that MHP would pass the 10 percent threshold, but Bahceli was soon disillusioned with the partnership. 

It wasn't only Erdogan’s objections to reinstating the oath that angered Bahceli. Bahceli has recently introduced an initiative for the pardon and release of tens of thousands of non-political prisoners to relieve intolerable overcrowding. Erdogan, who, like Netanyahu, cannot tolerate populist initiatives even on the part of political partners, was perturbed. Such an initiative can earn the nationalists points in the coming elections and reduce his own party’s victory. In addition, Erdogan knows that freeing prisoners convicted of crimes is not popular in Turkey, especially when it’s clear that those up for release include some 50,000 drug dealers, gang leaders and mafia heads such as Bahceli ally, Alaattin Cakici, who is serving 19 years for murder. 

“The state can forgive only crimes against it (and not crimes against other citizens),” Erdogan said, responding to the initiative. With regard to the students’ oath, Erdogan said only the national anthem was recognized by the state, and not any other anthem or pledge. It isn’t only an ideological pledge; it has to do with Erdogan’s intent to satisfy more communities ahead of local elections, especially the Kurds who view the oath as exclusionary and amounting to ethnic discrimination. Erdogan’s hostility toward the Kurdish minority needs no proof, but out of fear of the Kurdish party he is trying to pull Kurdish voters to his side, and he has more than a handful of supporters from their midst.  

Bahceli, well understanding Erdogan’s steps, has decided to push the envelope as far as he can, by announcing he will not cooperate with Erdogan's Justice and Development Party in the local elections. He has also put forth his own candidates in the most important cities of Istanbul and Ankara. “Partnership cannot be forced by one side,” Bahceli said, explaining his decision that “the coalition is over.” Bahceli is correct in arguing that Erdogan hasn't taken his seriously since the last elections, hasn't appointed any of his party members to the cabinet and that Erdogan rejected all his initiatives.

Erdogan, the almighty president, hasn’t worked within the coalition since his election in 2002, and he has no intention of changing his course of action now, either. He intends to present the local elections as a vote of confidence in him and his policies. If his coalition partner wants to flex his muscles, he won’t hesitate to destroy him, too. In this regard, Khashoggi’s death will have to stay alive politically in order to fulfill the role intended for it by Erdogan.