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Erdoğan finds new hope for dividing the opposition through Turkey’s infamous ex-PM

President Erdoğan is seen with former Turkish PM Tansu Çiller at the reception.

Tansu Çiller, Turkey’s prime minister from 1993 to 1996 who is associated by many with scandals involving corruption, embezzlement and state-mafia relations, is preparing to come out of her 20-year retirement and return to politics, in a move critics view as a bid encouraged by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who seeks to divide the ascendant opposition bloc.

Erdoğan is criticized for mishandling the economy, emptying the state’s coffers and establishing one-man rule in a country where dissent is suppressed and opponents are jailed on politically motivated charges.

Over the past several years, Turkey has been suffering from a worsening economy, with high inflation and unemployment, as well as a poor human rights record. 

Analysts say that the embattled president, seeing his base shrinking in the polls, is maneuvering to stay afloat against a reinvigorated opposition that took control of the İstanbul and Ankara municipalities in the 2019 local elections.

Former Prime Minister Çiller in this case is seen as one of his latest attempts to destabilize the opposition, who found new traction among dissidents with the leadership of Meral Akşener, also a strong woman in a male-dominated environment.

Akşener also served as interior minister during Çiller’s time as prime minister.

Çiller, Turkey’s first and only female prime minister, signaled her return to active politics last week on a TV broadcast where she answered a question about a possible comeback, saying she “misses her nation” and that she wants to pay back “the debt” she owes Turkey.

On Tuesday Turkish media reported that she is launching a new party called the Great Turkey Party (BTP).

A career marked by scandal

After Turkish President Turgut Özal died, the then-ruling True Path Party (DYP) leader and Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel ran for and won the presidential election in 1993. 

Following Demirel’s election win, Çiller, a professional and an urban woman who inspired Turkey’s secular elite as a figure who could show the West “the modern face of Turkey,” won the election for DYP leadership and became prime minister of the country. 

Juggling “masculine” and “feminine” styles, Çiller boasted of her “toughness” at times, while she said she wanted to be the nation’s mother at others.

As prime minister Çiller promoted conservative populist policies and economic liberalism and also ruled in an authoritarian style while appearing uninterested in women’s issues.

Her rule is thought of by many as a dirty war waged by the Turkish government against Kurdish separatists, namely the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whereby mafia figures sponsored by the security apparatus assassinated businessmen and intellectuals who were thought to provide financial and propagandist support to the PKK.

 “We know the list of businessmen and artists paying the PKK, and we will be holding their members to account,” Çiller said in October 1993.

Beginning in January 1994, a kidnapping spree took hold of the country.

Allegedly perpetrated by the ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves and figures in organized crime, the abductions often resulted in the death of the abductee, leaving Turkey with hundreds of unsolved murders in the span of two years.

That is until a 1996 scandal in which a fugitive mafia boss and a senior police official were killed and an MP was wounded when the car they were traveling in crashed near the town of Susurluk.

Called the Susurluk incident, the fatal car crash exposed links between state officials and organized crime bosses and strengthened claims that the deep state had been responsible for the many unsolved murders that mainly took place in the country’s predominantly-Kurdish Southeast in the 1990s.

The deep state was alleged to be a group of anti-democratic coalitions within the Turkish political system, including high-level figures from the Turkish military, security agencies, judiciary and mafia.

Following the crash, Çiller said, “Those who fire bullets or suffer their wounds in the name of this country, this nation and this state will always be respectfully remembered by us,” allegedly in praise of Abdullah Çatlı, the leader of the Grey Wolves, who died in the crash, prompting outrage among her critics. 

However, the scandals involving Çiller were not limited to the extrajudicial killings of Kurds.

She and her family members were implicated in corruption allegations and unaccounted-for wealth following her time as prime minister. She was also the target of criticism for engaging in favoritism and filling state posts with cronies.

Enforced disappearances common to Çiller’s rule have made a reappearance during the rule of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Following a failed coup in July 2016, the country’s intelligence agency has reportedly abducted dozens of people, with some 24 victims reporting, after they were found, that they were subjected to torture during the time they were missing.

Along with the human rights abuses, the economic upheaval of the mid-90s has also made a comeback as the Turkish lira lost 44 percent of its value against the dollar in 2021.

Turks have seen a sharp decline in their purchasing power, and protests are taking place across the country against the high cost of living and energy bills.

Many Turks view Çiller’s bid to launch a party as part of the surreal return of the political landscape of the ’90s with the poor economic situation and nationalism on the rise.

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