Erdogan era will be defined by Turkish president’s new term
Longevity in office is far from telling about the whole story of a leader’s legacy. But, in the case of Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was this week re-elected, longevity is becoming an inescapable marker of what can suitably be called the Erdogan era. Turkey now faces significant internal and external challenges, and the way the new super-presidential system will address them over the next five years is likely to prove decisive well beyond this presidential term.
By 2022, when Erdogan’s new term expires, he will have been heading the destinies of his country for two decades — he became de-facto leader in 2002 with the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) landslide victory in the general elections, and prime minister the following year. By measure of comparison, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the iconic founder of the republic, held the presidential post for 15 years until his death in 1938. After last year’s constitutional referendum, among the president’s enhanced powers is the option of running for yet another five-year term.
Turkey’s president got 52.6 percent of the vote in the June 24 presidential election, corresponding to more than 26 million of the 50 million-plus valid votes. His closest contender, Muharrem Ince of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), received 31 percent. However, this electoral race was tighter than first meets the eye.
Crucial for the outcome was the role of the whole state apparatus (including TV) in support of the incumbent during the campaign, and the alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which allowed the AKP to keep a majority in parliament. The AKP’s decision to bring forward the vote, previously scheduled for November 2019, was perhaps the biggest indication of unease among AKP cadres about the future. Much of this nervousness can be attributed to the problems with the economy.
The economic conundrum faced by Turkey can be summarized by a plummeting currency, double-digit inflation, alienated foreign investors and domestic capital flight, risings levels of foreign debt, and the urgent need to create jobs in a situation that demands at least a moderate degree of austerity. In addition, there are reports of widespread corruption and all its associated heavy burdens.
The high levels of insecurity, including the revival of the Kurdish insurgency, terrorist attacks across the country, and the impact of and involvement in the war in Syria, have all contributed to a strong sense of instability.
To complicate matters, various experts and observers now note that the alliance with the MPH could force the AKP to embark on an anti-Western foreign policy line, giving continuity or even enhancing a nationalism that leans toward Russia. In a moment when Turkey needs to foster its economic ties with the West and attract Western investors, the management of this tension between foreign policy alignments and economic needs could be critical.
Consolidation of Erdogan’s power could give him leeway to implement much-needed reforms without worrying excessively about tactical consequences.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
The consolidation of Erdogan’s plans for the presidential post could give him more leeway to implement much-needed decisions and reforms without worrying excessively about tactical consequences. Some passages of Erdogan’s victory speech from the AKP headquarters in Ankara have been interpreted as a page-turner and recognition that Turkey needs better relations across the board. The president told cheering supporters: “Turkey has decided to take the side of growth, development, investment, enrichment and a reputable, honorable and influential country in all areas in the world.”
Turkey’s tensions with the EU and the Council of Europe revolve around curtailed freedoms, mass imprisonment of journalists and the endless state of emergency. Relations with the US face a long list of issues: The US logistical and military support for the Syrian Kurds, key in the fight against Daesh, crossed a critical red line for Ankara; Turkey’s requests for the extradition of Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen, unmet by US authorities; and Turkey’s acquisition of S-400 air defense missiles made in Russia.
Still, much will depend on president Erdogan himself. Strategically, Turkey is seen in Western decision-making circles as a fundamental country and Ankara has willing interlocutors in Washington and European capitals if he shows openness to meet them half-way on the various issues at hand.
Another foreign policy matter that may require some recalibration and that has political and economic components is relations with the Arab Gulf states. Since the crisis centered on Qatar erupted last year, Turkey took a strong stance in Qatar’s defense, exemplified by the parliamentary decision to fast-track a bill allowing the deployment of Turkish troops there. Coupled with various other joint Turkish-Qatari activities in the Red Sea and East Africa, the leap toward Doha could run the risk of looking like a definitive choice of sides. Considering how much the AKP has invested in deepening Turkey’s relations with the GCC states, and the importance of these trade and investment ties, a more balanced approach should be in order.
With the president’s new powers, the office of prime minister is abolished and the parliament’s powers are curtailed. This means a more emboldened and confident president, but also one less focused on the consuming task of internal consolidation of power. Addressing the various internal challenges, starting with the economy, devising a foreign policy that contributes with solutions rather than more problems, and pushing forward painful yet much-needed reforms should become the priority.
- Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida