Erdogan will seek legitimacy in an assertive foreign policy

The last decade witnessed Ankara feeling more self-confident, especially in the Middle East.

Supporters listen to the speech by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a rally for the upcoming referendum in Istanbul, Turkey (photo credit: REUTERS)
Supporters listen to the speech by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a rally for the upcoming referendum in Istanbul, Turkey
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The results of the recent referendum on constitutional amendments in Turkey showed that the current political regime is continuing to lose its legitimacy among broad layers of society.
Despite the regime’s heavy grip on state institutions, access to immense propaganda resources and dedicated constituency, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has utterly failed to build broad electoral support for his political project of transforming the country into a super-presidential republic. With a political opposition in the parliament going further into a blind defense against the president’s initiatives, and the AKP’s religious-conservative electorate suffering internal divisions, the emerging political regime under Erdogan will be forced to resort to a belligerent foreign policy in order to consolidate its authority and to survive as a viable political force.
Turkish history has very few examples of a national government enjoying broad legitimacy and acceptance. A nation-building project initiated by Atatürk and further spearheaded by the Kemalist elites from its onset till today has always had many opponents. This partly explains why Kemalist elites since the republic’s foundation were reluctant to introduce free elections and were suspicious of any experiments with democracy. After introduction of a multiparty system in the aftermath of the Second World War, Kemalist elites, represented mainly by bureaucracy and the military, struggled to keep their influence on national politics either by misusing state institutions or intervening directly, for example via coups or Constitutional Court decisions. Atatürk’s legacy and the political regime had to be preserved through close control by nondemocratic means.
Yet another arena for maintaining considerable political dominance was via constant recourse to security-oriented foreign policy rhetoric. A newly established political regime under Atatürk resorted to the idea of a hostile neighborhood, among other things, to silence and marginalize domestic opposition challenging the Kemalist project of modernization. After the Second World War, Kemalist elites used the Soviet threat to legitimize its disproportionate influence in politics as well. Finally, when global bipolar competition was losing its significance for Turkish society, the army and Kemalist elites represented by political parties and bureaucracy eagerly used the Islamist threat and Kurdish separatism to further preserve their dominance in national politics and thus to secure the political regime formed by Atatürk reforms. This rhetoric however was limited to political statements and the Turkish political establishment rarely resorted to active engagement beyond the national borders, focusing instead on maintaining the status quo.
No wonder political forces that were seeking to change the nature of political regime were struggling to change Turkish foreign policy and introduce a more cooperative rhetoric that could improve relations with its neighbors. To challenge the narrative of a hostile environment, be it the unstable and uncooperative Middle East, radical Islamism or destructive Kurdish nationalism, was for anti-system forces to delegitimize the political dominance of the Kemalist elites who were enjoying considerable influence without a popular mandate. One needs to take a closer look at the Menderes (1950-1960) and Ozal (1983-1989) governments to see that political forces that were trying to challenge the Kemalist political regime, in varying degrees, were at the same time the ones that were trying to bring cooperation and openness into a traditional security-based and anxious Turkish foreign policy.
The radically new language of the AKP government on foreign issues served precisely this goal. A so-called Kurdish opening, a policy of zero problems with neighbors, and cooperation-based foreign policy approaches were designed to challenge the most powerful stronghold of the Kemalist elites at home – the army, which was still having a say in foreign policy decision-making. Having gained considerable support from Turkish society through multiple successful general and local elections in the early 2000s the AKP managed to initiate a civilian takeover of the decision-making process and with it – to transform security-based foreign policy. This process coincided with the beginning of the Turkish army’s demise as a political actor in national politics, mainly through legal processes. The nail in the coffin of the army’s influence was placed after the coup attempt in 2016.
It is important to note that the very broad political legitimacy of the AKP was a principal source of its power vis-à-vis the military. However, as a result of dynamics inside the AKP and its transformation into a political platform dominated by a single charismatic leader and therefore driven by narrowly defined political ambitions rather than a political ideology, the government’s popularity started to decline since early 2010s. The decline of a political program that essentially brought the AKP to power, coincided with instability in the region, particularly in the Middle East, on which the AKP had long been focusing its creative energy. This dynamic served as a background in recent years for Erdogan’s attempts to secure his power over the state institutions and to anchor in law his enormous political clout. The results of the referendum however indicated that the emerging new regime under Erdogan will not enjoy broad legitimacy, contrary to the politician’s expectations, not only among his traditional opponents, but more important among Turkish conservatives, the AKP’s natural electoral base.
In this situation Erdogan may be forced to seek alternative sources of legitimacy for his new political regime. The current political instability in the Middle East and Turkey’s growing alienation from its traditional security partners have already initiated a transformation of Turkish foreign policy. As evidenced by Turkish history, Erdogan can try to run a more assertive, security-oriented and anxious foreign policy that won’t hesitate to react to the emerging hostile environment rather than adapt to new conditions. The principal logic behind this argument is that a new political regime in Turkey underpinned by a strong leader with broad powers but without broad legitimacy would see much broader acceptance if such a foreign policy is used to place the authorities into the position of guarantors of national security and stability.
The main problem that comes with this is that the Turkish government would not be a passive actor anymore. The last decade witnessed Ankara feeling more self-confident, especially in the Middle East. The Turkish government under the AKP invested huge resources to expand the nation’s military capabilities and establish a network of supporters in the region. With a lack of close cooperation by Turkey, the EU and NATO, a new political regime in Ankara will be ready to act independently when its national security is at stake and when a decisive engagement beyond the national borders may serve the regime’s political ends. The great political utility of a proactive foreign policy suggests that the Turkish political regime is going to be yet another factor in unpredictability and instability in the region.
The author is an Ankara-based freelance journalist who writes about politics and society in Turkey.