Victory for Erdogan?

Turkish opposition is resurgent, economy is prompting concern, critics are circling. And then there’s the matter of relations with Israel...

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan 521 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan 521 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
The rumors had already been circulating many months before Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP or AK Party) even kicked off its current reelection campaign. Although nobody was really sure what it was going to be, newspapers with close ties to the government reported that the AKP’s pugnacious leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was preparing to unveil a “crazy” project that would take Turkey’s – and perhaps even the world’s – breath away.
And, indeed, in late April, with his party’s campaign kicking into gear, Erdogan unveiled the much-anticipated project, which certainly turned out to be “crazy” – in the sense of the macho audacity and bravura that is catnip for a large cross-section of Turkish voters, who will go to the polls on June 12.
The project? A 50-kilometer canal west of Istanbul that would link up the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and would serve as a bypass for the tankers that currently steam up and down the Bosporus, the busy waterway that runs through the crowded heart of Turkey’s largest metropolis. The cost? Perhaps as much as $40 billion from start to finish, according to some reports.
The canal idea was actually not very new; similar plans have been tossed around since the days of 16th-century Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, all of them abandoned after being deemed unfeasible. But even if Erdogan’s canal vision suffers the same fate as his Ottoman predecessors’, it was the message that counted in the project’s unveiling. The AKP, Erdogan was telling voters, is willing to think big and has the will and the resources to (literally) move mountains to make Turkey a world-class political and economic power.
But the prime minister’s announcement could be read in another way, and that is that after almost 10 years in power, the AKP has shifted from being an underdog that came to power by challenging the established state order, to now being that big state itself.
In 2002, when the party first came to power, it ran on its status as an Islamic-rooted outsider whose leadership had been persecuted by the country’s secular establishment.
In the 2007 elections, it scored another big victory by running a campaign that doubled as a referendum on the Turkish military’s unsuccessful efforts to prevent one of the AKP’s founders, Abdullah Gul, from becoming president because his wife wore a head scarf.
This time around, the party is no longer playing the role of the aggrieved outsider, but that of the consummate insider, basing a large part of its campaign on making promises for large-scale projects throughout the country. Along with the canal, Erdogan has proposed “crazy” projects for several other cities: a new underwater tunnel linking two parts of the port city of Izmir, a new airport for the southeast’s Diyarbakir and, in Ankara, what he has promised will be the Middle East’s largest zoo.
“The party has been in power for nine years, and it has made quite some headway in challenging the established order, but it’s now a much more normal campaign compared to 2007, in a sense, where it’s about more regular issues like unemployment, growth, infrastructure projects,” says Suat Kiniklioglu, a member of the AKP’s central executive and an outgoing member of parliament.
“The AKP doesn’t have the extraordinary moral high ground that it enjoyed when it ran in 2007 opposing the military’s efforts to not allow Abdullah Gul to become president,” Kiniklioglu adds.
Erdogan and his party are, in many ways, running against themselves in this election. Most surveys show the AKP winning a majority in parliament, allowing it to once again form a single-party government. The only questions are whether the party will be able to get more than 330 seats in the 550-member parliament, allowing it to draft a new constitution – the current one was drafted by the military in 1982 and is democratically deficient – and send it off to a national referendum, or whether it will manage to get more than 367 seats, which would then allow the AKP to approve the new constitution outright.
Still, analysts are suggesting the party not get too relaxed after its expected election victory. As it moves toward further consolidating its power and further becoming the “big state,” the AKP could very well find itself falling into the same trap of corruption and mismanagement that previous Turkish governments have.
At the same time, the party is also faced with a resurgent opposition and growing Kurdish discontent, as well as an overheating economy that could lead to possible economic troubles on the horizon. Meanwhile, the continuing turmoil in the Middle East – something that is raising new questions about Ankara’s policies in the region – and the ongoing deterioration of relations with Israel add yet another layer of problems for Turkey.
Indeed, while the path to an election-day victory appears clear for Erdogan, the road beyond election day is starting to look increasingly less smooth.
WHEN IT was first voted into power in 2002, the AKP promised that despite its conservative roots, it would be a force for democratization and reform, something on which it certainly delivered. Once in office, the party instituted a number of political and economic reforms that helped kick Turkey’s European Union membership bid into high gear, and started taking steps to resolve some of the country’s historic problems, particularly regarding Cyprus and the Kurdish issue.
But some are now wondering if that initial reformist zeal has petered out and if Erdogan and the AKP have somehow strayed from their original course of liberal democratization.
“The first period of AKP rule was filled with so many changes and reforms, finishing up with the grand finale of having the 2007 elections act as a public vote on putting the military firmly back in the barracks. There was a very clear AK Party in those five years. But the next five years have been less clearly reformist,” says Hugh Pope, Turkey analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “The EU issue, for example, which in my mind is still the main locomotive of change in Turkey, has fallen off the agenda.”
Adds Pope, “The AK Party has become much more nationalist and less liberal in flavor, and they’ve dropped some of the people that gave a different flavor to the party. I think the AK Party has evolved into a more loyalty- based party than the one that wanted to represent all the factions of Turkey.”
The AKP’s successful early reform moves helped serve as a counterweight to the fact that the irascible Erdogan occasionally veered toward populism and illiberalism.
The slowdown in the party’s reform pace, though, has now brought up increasing questions about Erdogan and whether his style of governing is becoming autocratic. In particular, there are concerns about the prime minister’s intentions to use the creation of a new constitution to push through a plan to replace the parliamentary system with a French-style presidential one, creating a powerful new position that most assume would be Erdogan’s for the taking.
In a recent editorial, The Economist, which had previously been a strong supporter of the AKP and its policies, urged Turks to vote for the opposition. “The real worry about the AK Party’s untrammeled rule concerns democracy, not religion,” the magazine wrote.
“Ever since Mr. Erdogan won his battles with the army and the judiciary, he has faced few checks or balances. That has freed him to indulge his natural intolerance of criticism and fed his autocratic instincts. Corruption seems to be on the rise. Press freedom is under attack: more journalists are in jail in Turkey than in China. And a worrying number of Mr. Erdogan’s critics and enemies, including a hatful of former army officers, are under investigation, in some cases on overblown conspiracy charges.”
In a recent column in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News, liberal Islamic writer Mustafa Akyol – who was also a booster of the AKP in the past – voiced his worries about the direction the party was heading.
“There is room for concern for the emergence of an illiberal democracy in Turkey, and the AKP needs to be pushed into heading toward a liberal one,” he wrote.
“The problem is not that the AKP has an Islamist ‘hidden agenda,’ as the secularists have believed in paranoia. The problem is just an age-old rule of politics: Concentration of too much power in the hands of anybody, Erdogan, Atatürk, or someone else, leads to authoritarianism rather than liberalism.”
ONE OF the reasons Erdogan has been able to consolidate his power so dramatically is the almost complete absence of a credible opposition. That was the case, at least, until this current election, which has seen the main opposition party, the secularist and nominally left-leaning Republican People’s Party (CHP), come back to life under the leadership of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a mild-mannered former bureaucrat who took over the party last year.
Under its previous leader, Deniz Baykal, the CHP had descended into an almost grotesque state, offering little in terms of a forward vision for Turkey and basing its opposition on a kind of reflexive and outdated secularism. In the previous elections, the party won only 20 percent of the vote, compared to the AKP’s 47%.
Under Kilicdaroglu, who took over after Baykal was implicated in a sex scandal, the party has purged itself of a large part of its senior leadership and has started going after the AKP over more bread-and-butter issues, such as corruption and unemployment.
“They are trying to bring the party to the center of the political spectrum. They are aware that the social democratic bloc in Turkey is limited to 30%, so if you want to come to power in Turkey, you have to be more open to other parts of the society. They’ve been trying to reach out to those people who might not be the typical CHP base. I think this is only the beginning of this change,” says Yurter Ozcan, founder and president of Turkish Policy Center, a Washington-based Turkish-American organization that’s close to the CHP.
“I think they did change. That can’t be denied. They are saying things that nobody ever expected them to say before, which in that sense is pretty remarkable,” says Soli Ozel, an Istanbul-based political analyst.
“If Kilicdaroglu gets anywhere from 27% to 30%, he can see that as a vote of confidence and can go about remaking the party,” he adds. “I’m not happy with all the candidates from the party, but if he continues with the existing rhetoric, then the CHP could become an interesting balance to the AKP and push it on democratization issues.”
The AKP’s plans to win 330 seats or more in the next parliament also depends, to a large extent, on how the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) does in the elections. The MHP, which has long counted on the support of Turkey’s ultranationalists, is finding itself in danger of not making it over the country’s 10% threshold for entering parliament. Part of that has to do with the fact that Erdogan and the AKP have co-opted some of the nationalist discourse that used to be the domain of the MHP. But another part of it has to do with the party being targeted by a mysterious group that has released online hidden camera footage showing several senior MHP members in compromising situations with young women. The party has accused the AKP of being behind the smear campaign, since it would gain even more seats if the MHP failed to make it into parliament. AKP leaders have dismissed the accusations.
“Should MHP fail to pass the barrier, the AKP – given Turkey’s electoral rules – would almost certainly receive a disproportionate share of seats that otherwise would have gone to MHP. This outcome is what Erdogan would love to see and has strived to ensure,” Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at the DCbased Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently wrote in an analysis piece.
REGARDLESS OF how many seats it wins, the AKP is looking at a bumpy road ahead. Rewriting the constitution – although desired by all parties in Turkey – will likely be a contentious affair, especially if Erdogan tries to also create a presidential system through it. Meanwhile, the AKP’s relationship with the country’s Kurdish population – estimated at 12 million or more – has soured during this election campaign, despite government outreach to the predominantly Kurdish southeast region and the introduction of a full-time Kurdish-language television station and other reforms. As a result, the pro- Kurdish BDP – which is running its candidates as independents to avoid the threshold issue – could end up with some 30 of its members in parliament.
“Erdogan had been assiduous in wooing traditionally nationalist voters through assertively patriotic rhetoric, especially on the Kurdish issue,” a recent briefing by the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies said. “The previous Kurdish perception of the AKP as a party challenging the unacceptable status quo in the southeast, which led Kurdish voters in the region as well as in the rest of the country to support it in large numbers, has clearly changed to one in which the AKP is now seen as a resolute defender of the existing order.”
Meanwhile, while the Kurdish issue is heating up, so is Turkey’s booming economy, something that is making many economists nervous. Turkey has managed to weather the recent global economic crisis spectacularly, its economy growing by nearly 9% last year and exports growing 11.3%. At the same time, inflation is on the rise, and the country’s current account deficit is also swelling.
“Turkey’s current account deficit is simply unsustainable, which means the country is forced to borrow lots of money from abroad. The AKP government and the central bank need to take tightening measures, otherwise this current account deficit will blow up in our face, in terms of rising currency devaluation and a possible recession,” says Atilla Yesilada, an Istanbul-based economist at Global Source, an economic consultancy.
“The AKP needs to turn its attention to the economy after the elections because otherwise it will get derailed. They aren’t taking any measures right now to slow it down.”
While it struggles to tame its economy and prevent it from overheating, Turkey has also been struggling mightily with how to respond to the Arab Spring and to understand what the developments in the Middle East – a region to which Ankara had been increasingly reaching out – mean for its foreign policy. The Turks appear to be particularly paralyzed regarding the violence in next-door Syria, where Ankara has invested a tremendous amount of political capital.
Although Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar Assad have developed a close relationship and Turkish officials have been encouraging the regime in Damascus to reform, it appears to have had little effect.
“What is happening in the Middle East is very much changing the outlook on the region among many in the Erdogan government, although that hasn’t filtered down to relations with Israel,” says Semih Idiz, a foreign affairs columnist with Turkey’s Milliyet newspaper. “Turkey’s role as the grand arbiter in the region has been downgraded back to its original position as a facilitator.”
ANOTHER BIG question mark, of course, remains Turkey’s soured relationship with Israel. While economic relations appear not to be affected – bilateral trade between Turkey and Israel rose 25% in 2010 and 33% in the first four months of 2011 – political relations are more or less frozen. Ankara has yet to return its ambassador to Israel after withdrawing him in the wake of last year’s Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, in which nine Turks were killed by IDF soldiers during a tragically botched raid. Ankara insists that Israel issue an official apology for the raid and pay compensation to the victims’ families, something at which Jerusalem has balked. An effort to use the goodwill created by Turkey’s help in fighting last year’s Carmel forest fire went nowhere and appears to have been the last real effort to bridge the gaps between the two countries.
“I don’t think either side is dealing with things in a way that will allow the divide between them to bridged,” says Anat Lapidot- Firilla, a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. “I don’t think this Israeli government can create a window of opportunity to improve relations with Turkey. The two countries need to see the challenges facing them eye-to-eye and need to see the same regional map in order for their relations to improve.”
With another flotilla, again led by the Mavi Marmara, scheduled to set sail later this month, relations between Turkey and Israel could suffer even more. At the same time, the repercussions for Turkey from the Mavi Marmara event continue to be felt in Washington.
“The cost of the previous flotilla was huge for Turkey in Washington,” says Soner Cagaptay, who directs the Turkey research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I think there’s, unfortunately, likely irreversible anger against Turkey on [Capitol] Hill, and there are questions about Turkey over at the State Department.”
“The question is, will this coming flotilla get presidential involvement?” he adds. “The pattern with Turkey has been that they deliver on what is important for them only after the president gets personally involved. This next flotilla could cost them the president’s friendship – if he gets involved. That could be a game changer.”
Regardless of how the AKP does on election day and what comes after the vote, what is fairly certain is that PM Erdogan – the man with the “crazy” plan for Turkey – will continue to dominate the country’s politics for the foreseeable future.
“He is the party and the party is Erdogan. He is the most dominant politician Turkey has seen in generations,” writes Carnegie’s Barkey in his recent election analysis. “He commands and controls not just his party but the national discourse as well.”
Yigal Schleifer lived between 2002 and 2010 in Istanbul, where he worked as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the German Press Agency (dpa). He is currently based in Washington, DC.