I recently wrote a piece in Haaretz about the decision to rerun the mayoral elections in Istanbul, Turkey. Admittedly it is not a very sanguine outlook for the opposition. This is not to say that Ekrem Imamoglu, the main opposition candidate who won the original election, will not win. However, what I am saying is that it will be very difficult.
It must be added that it is not simply the case (as has been claimed) that international analysist tend to view President Erdogan as an undefeatable figure while Turkish analysts think differently. First, many Turks also see Erdogan in a similar light, and express it if not in public then certainly in private. Second, I can’t speak for others, but I think it is pretty clear that the Turkish President has amassed overwhelming power and won multiple elections. To ignore this fact, would be irresponsible. This does not mean that such a view cannot be held concurrently with the position that the term “strongmen” belies the fact that such political figures are often vulnerable from internal and external sources - the very reason for them to feel the need to grab power.
Erdogan won't let Turkey's opposition win Istanbul again
In August 2013, following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey announced that, "Democracy's path passes through the ballot box and the ballot box itself is the people’s will."
Although he lambasted General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for removing Morsi and touted the conspiracy theory that that Israel was behind it all, Erdogan was really taking aim at his domestic critics.
Demonstrators who had gathered at Gezi Park to protest government plans to destroy one of Istanbul’s last central open green spaces had just been violently dispersed. Erdogan’s message was clear: the only way to beat him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) was through the ballot box.
That’s easy to say that when you are winning elections, but the real test is what you do when you lose. Nearly six years and seven elections later, Turkey’s opposition finally handed Erdogan a defeat.
On March 31, the AKP lost control of four out of the five largest cities in local elections. Instead of conceding defeat, Erdogan and his party put immense pressureon Turkey’s Supreme Election Board to announce a re-run of Istanbul’s mayor elections.
Erdogan and his AKP simply shrugged off the EU’s concerns about cancelling the election, while the U.S. response was subdued, to say the least. The victor, opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, only managed to enjoy 17 days in office.
If this was a surprise, it shouldn't have been. President Erdogan once infamously quipped that democracy is like a bus ride: when you come to your stop, you get off. He got to his stop after the July 2016 attempted coup which ushered in a two-year state of emergency. During this time adversaries were purged from state institutions, the armed forces and security services.
Erdogan, who called the coup a gift from heaven, also used the state of emergency to quickly pass constitutional amendments through an unfree and unfair referendum and bestowed on himself unprecedented power with only token checks to his rule.
Meanwhile, parliamentary immunities were lifted to deliberately target the liberal and Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). To its eternal discredit, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the man secular opposition, supported the maneuver, knowing full well that the HDP would be targeted.
Sure enough, HDP lawmakers were arrested, tried and/or imprisoned under trumped-up terrorism charges. Mayors and locally elected officials in the Kurdish southeast were removed and replaced by AKP appointed officials. Erdogan and the AKP didn’t care then that millions had voted for the HDP.
What should the Turkish opposition do now when their electoral success is effectively vetoed by an authoritarian leader who has got off the democracy bus?
Turkey’s opposition can’t boycott the election. That would simply hand Erdogan and the AKP an easy win and leave supporters feeling betrayed.
Taking to the streets is not an option. After the suppression of the Gezi Park protesters and the post-2016 restructuring of the security services, demonstrating outside of the staunchly secular neighborhoods of Besiktas or Kadikoy would be suicidal - and fruitless.
The opposition has no choice but to participate fully in the new elections scheduled for June 23.
But don’t think that the opposition’s chances have improved. Reports of President Erdogan’s political suicide are greatly exaggerated.
Yes, the economy is in a bad way and sure, there is growing discontent with Erdogan from both inside and outside of his party. There are rumors that former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu may break away and start a new political party, the impact of this would be negligible. There are whispers that former President Abdullah Gul, together with former Finance Minister Ali Babacan might also break away, which would have a more significant impact.
However, stories about key AKP members jumping ship have been in the air for years, and the likelihood of this happening before the new elections are slim.
If anything, the decision to re-run the mayoral race has decreased the possibility of an AKP split, as its leading cadres will calculate that it is better to wait and see. If the AKP candidate wins, they will stick with President Erdogan, especially considering that there will not be more elections until 2023.
Erdogan still remains highly popular and has amassed unassailable political power. There is little tangible evidence to suggest that AKP voters are leaving in droves, and those who do leave tend to vote for the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) who are Erdogan’s coalition partners in the "People’s Alliance" anyway.
This has little impact for the Istanbul rerun because the MHP and AKP share the same mayoral candidate. Those hoping that Erdogan critic Necdet Gokcinar of the Saadet ("Felicity") party, who won 1.2 per cent of the Istanbul mayoral vote, will drop out and his 100,000 votes will fall to Imamoglu are wishful thinking. The majority of Saadet supporters are pious conservatives and more likely to find affinity with the AKP than with Imamoglu.
Complicating the opposition's calculations is the timing of the vote. It will be summer and some CHP voters have already booked their vacations and will find themselves ineligible to vote.
The opposition will also face the full wrath of the AKP machine that includes a monopoly of the means of communication and state resources. That AKP machine will exploit religious rhetoric during the holy month of Ramadan to delegitimize the opposition.
While supporters of Imamoglu praise his positive campaign, this may not be enough this time around. As in other elections, the AKP will intimidate, smear, manipulateand try to divide Imamoglu’s disparate voter base of nationalists, secularists, liberals and Kurds. As we have just seen, it is no good winning by just a few thousand votes - that margin is too easily disqualified. The opposition needs to win big time.
Turkey’s opposition could highlight the AKP’s desperation and political bankruptcy. But so what? For Erdogan, democracy is just a means to an end anyway.
Still, the opposition owe it to their supporters to campaign as hard as possible. They need a clear and concise message that highlights their dedication to the improvement of services and the economy. While encouraging their voter base not to be disillusioned and to get out and vote, they also need to extend their campaign to AKP neighborhoods in order to at least try to pick up disillusioned voters.
The opposition has its work cut out. But it has nothing to lose.
This article first appeared in Haaretzon 12 May 2019 and can be found here.
Following the results of the March 31 local elections in Turkey which saw Turkey’s main opposition, Republican People’s Party (CHP), win 4 out of 5 largest cities in Turkey, some commentators were quick to call the defeat of President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) a victory for democracy.
But what do these commentators mean when they say victory for democracy? More of often than not they mean that the party they support did well. However, the real test of whether an election is a victory for democracy is not if the party you voted for wins, but the extent to which the elections were held under conditions considered free and fair, the incumbent’s willingness to concede defeat and the applicability of contestation to all parties who have a legitimate grievance.
Sadly, in all of the above counts Turkey failed. Firstly, just as previous elections over the past few years, they were neither free nor fair. Media coverage was overwhelmingly pro-government, there were incidents of intimidation and harassment, and the governing AKP had the benefit of using state resources for their campaign.
Secondly, although the ballots have been officially counted, the ruling AKP has refused to accept defeat in Ankara and Istanbul. Although they were very close races it is quite clear that barring some irregularities, the CHP won in both cities. Still, the AKP has insisted on recounts (there were even rumours that AKP had sought to nullify the vote in the entire city of Istanbul). One may object and say that the AKP has a right to do so. Fair enough, but at the same time the AKP has put up posters across Istanbul thanking voters for their victory. The recounts are taking a long time and there is extreme pressure being put on the Supreme Election Board.
Thirdly, when the ruling AKP demands recounts it usually (not always) gets its way, but when the liberal and Kurdish oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) demands the same by district and provisional boards in localities where it lost by the narrowest of margins, its appeals are rejected. In other words, there are clearly double standards.
Despite the victory of the CHP in several cities, this was not a win for democracy. If it turns out that the AKP concedes defeat to the CHP in Ankara and Istanbul, I have the following words which were published in a piece for Haaretzand have pasted below and can also be found here:
Erdogan wobbled. But can he really be toppled?
The polls should have been a sleepy affair. They were local elections for mayoral and municipal offices. And last weekend was the seventh time in five years that Turkey had held elections.
However, far from being dreary, the elections proved to be a rather lively affair as Turkey’s firebrand president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been at the helm of Turkish politics for 17 years, did not get his way. And that’s just putting it mildly.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost four of the country’s five largest cities to the opposition, including the capital Ankara and the commercial hub and largest city, Istanbul, albeit by the narrowest of margins.
What to make of these results? Do they mark the beginning of the end for Erdogan’s apparent invincibility? How significant a victory is this for the country’s beleaguered opposition, led by the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP)?
The CHP deserves some credit. Together with the Iyi Parti (Good Party) with whom it formed an alliance, the CHP campaigned hard and under very difficult circumstances, managing to not only win major cities and municipalities but also garner 30 per cent of the popular vote, a significant improvement on recent years.
The CHP’s successes in Istanbul and Ankara were also due to the strategic decision by the liberal and Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) not to field candidates in these cities. Reportedly, HDP leaders urged its supporters to vote for the CHP instead. Thus, the HDP got in some retribution against Erdogan, whose government has mercilessly suppressed the party, even arresting and detaining its leadership under trumped up terrorism charges and removing elected mayors in the Southeast.
Unlike the AKP, which also benefitted from the use of government and state resources, the CHP had to fend off underhanded attacks by Erdogan and his followers who accused it of perfidy and siding with terrorists.
Mansur Yavas, the CHP Ankara mayoral candidate, was accused of forging a signature over a decade ago in a spurious attempt to delegitimize him. Erdogan even broadcast footage from the gruesome Christchurch massacre to boost his party’s chances.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s subdued media offered the government obsequious coverage. For example, Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT gave 135 hours of positive coverage to Erdogan and his allies but just 20 hours, most of it negative, to the opposition. It was therefore quite a feat that the CHP managed to attract additional votes.
Still, one should not write off Erdogan so easily. Far from being the beginning of the end, Erdogan and the AKP remain popular.
Despite voter fatigue, international isolation and an economic downturn that has seen inflation spiral and the lira tumble, prompting the government to sell its own subsidized fruit and vegetables, the AKP still managed to win over 44 per cent of the popular vote. This is about two percent more than last year’s parliamentary elections and a gain of 1.5 per cent compared to the last local elections of 2014.
In other words, the CHP has only managed to make a small dent in the AKP’s support base.
Meanwhile, Erdogan still enjoys the backing of his political allies, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Together they won over 51 per cent of the vote. Erdogan also controls all the state’s levers of power from the security forces to the judiciary and is not afraid to use them. This is especially ominous, as there are no more elections scheduled for the next four and a half years. A period of unaccountability looms.
If the opposition wishes to make further gains it needs to maintain the tacit CHP-HDP understanding which thwarted Erdogan’s plans in this election. This means the CHP will have to swallow its Turkish national pride and convince its followers that it is prudent to come to a tacit understanding with the Kurdish-oriented HDP.
And that’s just the easy bit. Despite all the talk of the economy and international affairs during the campaign, this was a local election.
If the opposition is serious about making this a turning point, it needs to knuckle down and dedicate itself to improving municipal services in order to prove to the electorate that it can be trusted with the country’s economy and positively steer Turkey’s political future. That is, of course, assuming that the AKP's attempt to stifle the loss of Istanbul by demanding recounts proves fruitless.
Either way, the opposition will no doubt face a relentless campaign of delegitimization and intimidation by Erdogan and the AKP, who don’t kindly to strong opposition. Pro-government media are already pushing the narrative that the results in Istanbul are an attempted "coup." Still, it’s an opportunity. The opposition best make the most of it.
This article first appeared in Haaretz on 3 April 2019
I recently published an op-ed piece in Haaretz about antisemitism in Turkey which can be found here. This is the second such piece I have authored about antisemitism in Turkey, only this time I provide different examples and offer a more contemporary context.
Unfortunately, these pieces are just too easy to write. Conspiratorial notions of world Jewish power are not intimated in Turkey, they are overtly pronounced by public intellectuals and political figures especially by those who identify with the religious-nationalist and conservative camps (left wing antisemitism is also present albeit somewhat differently). As my recent article highlights, every time there is a political, economic or social crisis in Turkey, it almost goes without saying that there will be at least one public official or so-called intellectual who will point the finger at the Jews. Last month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed George Soros “the famous Hungarian Jew” for being the secret puppet master behind the Gezi Park protests of 2013.
The case of anti-Semitism in Turkey is a rather paradoxical phenomenon when you consider that the once thriving Jewish population of Turkey today barely stands at 20,000. Turkey, in other words, is one of those countries where there is a significant presence of antisemitism but with very few actual Semites. This is not unlike antisemitism in the contemporary Muslim world where conspiratorial notions of world Zionism are rife, but the Jewish population virtually nil. This of course stands in stark contrast to the antisemitism of Russia and Europe in the centuries leading up to World War II where the notion of world Jewish conspiracy was born.
When faced with accusations of antisemitism, Turkey’s political elite like to respond by declaring their affection towards Turkey’s small Jewish community and remind anyone who will listen that it was the Ottoman Empire which welcomed the Jews of Spain after they were expelled in 1492, forgetting that when Sultan Bayezid II commented of the expulsion of Spain’s Jews that “You venture to call Ferdinand [of Spain] a wise ruler…he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!" In other words, the Ottoman Sultan had an economic motive for opening Turkey to Jews rather than a benevolent one.
Regardless, with a community that barely stands at 20,000 souls, less than 0.1% of the population, it shouldn’t be difficult for a country to have good communal relations with such a small minority, especially when one considers that the Jewish community is barely distinguishable by looks, language or nationality to the rest of the population and are law abiding, integrated and quiet. And still this tiny community has faced terrorist atrocities such as the 1986 Abu Nidal attack where Palestinian gunmen burst premises to slaughter 22 people while a service was taking place. There was also the 2003 Istanbul bombings in which two synagogues were bombed (including the Neve Shalom), this time by a home grown Turkish al-Qaeda faction which killed 23 people. Let’s not even get to threats against Jewish targets and violence and insults against individuals.
Still, the idea of a global pernicious Jewish conspiracy against Turkey remains as strong as ever, begging the question why do such notions continue to resonate within Turkish society, especially among ultra-nationalists and religious conservatives?
Leaving aside purely religiously inspired antisemitism, my answer to this perplexing question is that the Jewish scapegoat works in the Turkish context because of the of prevalence of religious-nationalism which emphasises that Turkey is predestined to be a both a great nation and the leader of the Islamic world. This is the view of leading cadres of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and also members of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and also has roots in the thinking of the Milli Gorus (National Outlook) tradition from which leading members of the AKP, Erdogan included, emerged. This was an Islamically rooted political movement which emphasised that it is Turkey’s natural place to lead the Muslim world and that the Turks are the warriors of Islam. Therefore, it would follow on that just like it Ottoman forbearers Turkey will once again have a powerful position in the world and it is currently in the process of achieving this aim.
But if Turkey is predestined to be a leading world power, the question looms why has this still not been realised? What is holding Turkey back? It is here that the international Jewish conspiracy makes a fine answer which allows the government and its supporters to point towards an easy scapegoat and avoid the difficult (but more constructive) path of self-criticism and accountability. This is why international Jewry is blamed for anything from the Gezi protests and the current financial crisis to Kurdish nationalism. What a pity.
A couple of days ago I had an op-ed published by Haaretzentitled, “Turkey: The One Place that Trump’s Bullying is Actually Working” and can be found here. In the piece, I argue that President Trump’s hard line against Turkey, mainly over the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson, paid off. Following US sanctions and tariffs, Turkey finally relented and a few weeks ago Brunson was released. In the period since, Turkey and the US seem to have advanced in other areas including progressing on their Manbij agreement with joint patrols in the city. Washington even offered a US$4-5 million reward for information about the whereabouts of leading PKK operatives.
It seems as if President Trump has taken a page out of Russia’s playbook. Back in 2015, Turkish-Russians relations hit an all-time low after Turkey downed a Russian SU-24 jet which was traversing northern Syrian into Turkish airspace. In order to get its apology and other Turkish concessions, Moscow ratcheted up the pressure and announced sanctions which hurt the Turkish economy ranging from banning Russian travel agencies from selling package holidays to Turkey and ending visa-free travel to the banning of Turkish fruit and vegetables. Finally, in June 2016, President Erdogan relented and issued an expression of regret while blaming the affair on the activities of the Gulen movement, the ultimate internal Turkish bogeyman. Soon, Russian-Turkish relations began to blossom with regular ministerial visits, cooperation in Syria and Turkey’s decision to buy Russian military hardware.
Although US-Turkish relations are far from where they were several years ago, I think what is happening is that the US is seeking a transactional relationship with Turkey, something I have actually long advocated. In other words, Washington is basing its bilateral relationship on specific areas of interest and working out respective arrangements based on a formula of give and take - a concession in one sphere for a concession elsewhere. For example, releasing Brunson in exchange for easing US sanctions (including allowing Turkey to purchase Iranian crude following the snapping back of US sanctions on Iran), US support for the Turkish position west of the Euphrates in Syria in return for expectations that Turkey hold back in the East of the Euphrates.
In some respects, Europe has also turned towards a transactional relationship with Turkey (although the ties are considerably deeper especially on civil-society, trade and human capacity levels). Following the very vocal and ugly bust-ups between Turkish leaders and several European countries over the last couple of years and Turkey’s seeming strategic about face towards Russia and Iran, Europe seems to have calculated that relations with Turkey are best worked out on a case-by-case transactional basis, the 2016 Migrant deal being the prime example of this – European aid and work towards visa free travel in exchange for Turkey ensuring that Syrian refugees remain in Turkey. Despite all the turbulence in Turkey’s relations with Europe and the West and strains in mutual relations, this example of transactional diplomacy has lasted to this day.
The reality is that shared values of democracy, human rights and rule of law are no longer factors that even from an aspirational perspective link Turkey with the West. Also, Turkey is under the centralised control of its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who perceives himself as leader of a powerful international power which is not bound by any particular alliance. I would also argue that in terms of strategic priorities, Turkey’s threats are not the same as those of the West (with the more or less exception of ISIS since 2016) and there is therefore little interest for close strategic relations as was the case during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. With this is mind, a transactional approach to Turkey is the West’s best bet, at least for the short to medium terms, and perhaps, in the not too distant future mutual confidence can be built to once again foster closer relations.
Turkey’s current monetary crisis is certainly not the first that the country has faced. There have been many. However, this recent crisis, which was made all too real during the collapse of the Turkish lira against the dollar and other major currencies in August 2018 (as much as 40%), highlights a stark contrast to the way in which the previous financial crisis was handled just over a decade and a half ago.
Back in 2001, Turkey was rocked by a financial disaster while still dealing with the tremors of the earlier 1994 crisis. The 2001 crisis was a result of the country continuing to run a financial deficit while also experiencing inflation and having to cope with the consequences of foreign divestment – a very difficult obstacle considering that the country was dependent on foreign investment. Add to the equation instability within the coalition government and you have a toxic mix that made an economic meltdown all but certain. The subsequent recovery of the Turkish economy was a result of an IMF $11.4 billion. Following the IMF loan, Turkey saw several years of stable Justice and Development Party (AKP) government which ensured, at least for a while, economic discipline. However, just as importantly, during the critical March 2001 to 2002 period, before the AKP swept into power, Turkey’s road to recovery was paved by Kemal Dervis who was appointed economy minister.
This is important. It is one thing to take an IMF loan and meet the DC headquartered international organization’s conditions geared towards economic restructuring (which isn’t easy – initially the IMF programme was hard to implement), but quite another to actually run a country’s economy during a period of turbulence. One of the most important things politicians must do is to create confidence both internationally and domestically. Perhaps the wisest decision of Bulent Ecevit’s political career was to appoint Kemal Dervis economy minister in March 2001. Later, their relationship deteriorated but that’s another story.
Why was the appointment of Dervis so critical? Well, for a start Dervis was a graduate of the London School of Economics and then went on to earn a PhD from Princeton University. For a while he was a faculty member at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, the finest higher education institution in Turkey. He then went back to the US to join the economics faculty at Princeton. Dervis spoke a bunch of languages including English, French and German. Now all this is impressive in and of itself, but Dervis then pursed a career at the World Bank. Soon he found himself Vice President of the MENA region and then vice-President for Poverty Reduction and Economic Management. He also had a network of contacts in the financial sector and his positions at the World Bank made him familiar with the inner workings of such organizations such as the IMF.
So what’s my point? It’s simple. When a country is faced with a financial catastrophe, this is the type of person you want at the helm of the economy. Someone who is academically accomplished and has 20 years or so experience at the highest levels of the financial sector. Someone who in a meeting with the CEOs of the world’s top banks, creditors, regulators, credit agencies and the so-called masters of the universe, is seen as an equal – a person who talks their language, commands their respect and can even teach them a thing or two. With Dervis at the helm the framework for the recovery of the Turkish economy was put into place, but following the 2002 general elections it was the AKP and Erdogan who reaped the rewards of Dervis and his team’s hard work.
Fast forward to today, and just before the looming economic crisis and just after the June 2018 Presidential and Parliamentary elections, who does President Erdogan appoint (without oversight as permitted by the new constitutional changes) as his economy minister? Does he choose a seasoned economist with academic and professional accomplishments? No. He didn’t even keep his previous economy minister Mehmet Simsek who had a pretty decent career in the financial services before entering politics and had worked hard to gain the confidence of international investors. Instead, President Erdogan appointed his son-in-law Berat Albayrak.
Now, one could argue that the choice of Albayrak has some merits. As the former CEO of Calik holding, a company sympathetic to the President, Albarak knows the inner workings of Turkish conglomerates and their relationship with government. Also, as the son-in-law of the President, Albayrak certainly has the ear of the most powerful man in the country. Foreign investors would hope that Albayrak would be able to gently steer his father-in-law to a positive economic path.
However, the positives of having the ear of the President is not enough for this sort of position at this particular turbulent time. Turkey needs a Dervis. Short of another IMF bailout, if the Turkish government were serious about putting the economy right they would enshrine the independence of the central bank. They would immediately take measures to release all foreign nationals under detention, especially those who could spark a diplomatic crisis with any country with financial clout. Pastor Andrew Brunson should have been released a year ago. The Turkish government should also create a bipartisan advisory group (a real one I mean) comprising of leading Turkish CEOs both in Turkey and abroad and meets regularly and has an influential advisory role. Turkey should also stop spending and being wasteful. This includes mega projects which have everything to do with vanity rather than real infrastructural development. Also, the idea that Turkey should seek the services of consultancy firms such as McKinsey, which the Turkish opposition lamented leading the government to call off the commission, was actually, in my opinion, a good one. Sometimes it takes an outside party for someone to heed good advice.
In 2001 Turkey was lucky enough to have someone at the helm of the economy who could lead Turkey out of its difficult mess. Today, it doesn’t and this is an important reason why this economic crisis is not going away anytime soon.
It has been weeks since the falling out between the US and Turkey over the continued detention of pastor Andrew Brunson, a symptom of many problems between the two countries. Just to briefly recap, some of the other outstanding issues between the sides include Turkey’s anger at US support for Kurdish forces affiliated to the PKK in Syria; the violation of the Iran Sanctions Act by a Turkish state-owned bank, possibly with the full knowledge or even behest of the highest levels of the Turkish government; Turkey’s intent to purchase Russian S400 surface to air missiles; and the residence in the US of Fetullah Gulen who Ankara blames for the July 2016 attempted coup.
Despite the US sanctions which wreaked havoc on the already vulnerable Turkish economy, and the threat of more to come, Turkey is still resisting US pressure. All Ankara has to do is drop the charges against Brunson, so why is Ankara resisting so much? Why not find a face-saving measure and fall into line, just like Ankara did after tensions with Russia?
In an earlier post, I explained how Turkey and the US might overcome some of their differences. And if I can think of a way, I am sure the brilliant minds in Washington and Ankara can do better. I also wrote a post about the underlying symptoms for the breakdown of relations in which I factor Turkey’s internal security threats, Ankara’s delusions of grandeur and Turkey’s authoritarian turn. But there is an additional factor, namely, President Erdogan’s version of political Islam.
Faced with ongoing Magnitsky Act sanctions and high tariffs on aluminium and steel, as well as being excluded from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme after the passing of the 2019 defence spending bill, Turkey is experiencing a continued strain on its economy, an ongoing currency crisis and uncertainty about future military hardware. If President Erdogan truly cared about the Turkish economy, he would have appointed representatives from the business community to establish an economic advisory council, increased interest rates by guaranteeing the independence of the central bank, and, of course, immediately released American Pastor Andrew Brunson. Instead, Erdogan chose his son-in-law to be the country’s economy minister, maintained his position that high interest rates leads to inflation and pressured the central bank to reframe from raising rates. Not only did Erdogan not release Pastor Brunson, but he responded to US sanctions with some of his own, which practically amounts to a trade war against the biggest economy on Earth.
“They have their dollars but we have the Quran”, declared Erdogan, not just once but on countless occasions over the past couple of weeks. This is typical of religious fanatics everywhere; when they don’t have the answers, they double down on God. When asked about the dismal economic performance of the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, Ayatollah Khomeini responded that, “the revolution was not about the price of watermelons”. Indeed, how can it be when Khomeini promised that Islam was the solution? This is why Erdogan continues to resist increasing interest rates which he has described as “evil”, no doubt a reflection of Islam’s abhorrence to usury. If it is not proscribed by God, it cannot be part of the answer.
Erdogan adds that there is no need to fear, the world is bigger than the United States. Never mind the fact that the US accounts for 25 per cent of the world’s economy, Turkey, Erdogan insists, can turn to other countries for economic support and arms purchases. Qatar and Russia, or, in the case of F-35s, Turkey’s own military aviation industry (ignoring that the TF-X project, for example, is currently dependent on the expertise and intellectual property of UK firms).
It appears that President Erdogan and his sycophantic band of advisors believe the hype about America’s demise and the rise of the rest. But unlike serious observers who write about America’s inwardly looking trajectory and the rise of China and other developing nations, President Erdogan and his cohorts seem to think the time is nigh. They appear to have missed that for the time being at least, the US is still the most powerful nation on earth, and that remains the case whether we are talking about hard power, soft power, smart power or any other kind of power.
President Erdogan once commented that there is no such thing as moderate Islam. His foreign policy reflects this. President Erdogan’s government continues to support Hamas. It sides with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and sponsors a range of Islamist militants in Syria. Erdogan himself earned his political stripes with the openly Islamist Welfare Party of the one-time Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan who was anti-western to the core and talked about forming an Islamic currency and uniting the Muslim world against US and Zionist conspiracies. Although Erbakan was ousted following a military intervention, his thinking inspired a generation of Turkish Islamists, and President Erdogan was his (wayward) protégé who is beginning to act more and more like his old mentor. “The attack on our economy has absolutely no difference from attacks on our call to prayer and our flag,” Erdogan recently stated, showing his inability to separate religion from economics and international relations. Just last March, Yeni Safak, a pro-Erdogan newspaper and government mouthpiece if ever there was one, talked about creating an Islamic army of millions of soldiers to fight Israel. Erdogan didn’t distance himself from the piece. It also reflect the apparent statements of King Abdullah II of Jordan who told US congressional leaders back in 2016 that the Turkish head of state believes in a “radical Islamic solution” to conflicts in the Middle East.
Erdogan sees himself as the head of a country that leads the Muslim world. The most recent example was when President Erdogan used Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as a means to speak on behalf of the Muslim world by convening a special emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Erdogan used this pulpit to lead the Muslim world’s condemnation of the Trump Administration in the most visceral terms imaginable.
In this context, how can it be possible for Erdogan to back down against Trump? It be a setback for Erdogan’s attempt to lead the Muslim world legitimized by Turkey's Ottoman past, Islamic credentials and the Turkish president’s ability to stand up to Israel and America. Of course, the losers will be Turkey’s long-suffering population who are seeing their money devalued, their savings hurt and their businesses on the brink. But they needn’t worry, they always have God.
Although the term “Neo-Ottomanism” actually pre-dates the establishment of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the phrase has often been used to describe Turkish foreign policy under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. However, not only is the term widely used, it is also under defined and, as a consequence, interpreted in many different ways.
For some, Neo-Ottomanism is a blanket term for Turkey’s greater involvement in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Balkans, areas where the Ottoman Empire once occupied. This could include both diplomatic ties and economic relations. For others, Neo-Ottomanism is a more specific policy of Ankara’s, especially under Erdogan and the AKP, to not only re-engage with the Middle East, but to also position itself as a multi-regional actor rather than being part of Europe. This is in contrast to Turkey’s traditional Kemalist foreign policy which considered itself part of the West. Although fewer in number, some go as far as to define Neo-Ottomanism as an attempt by Turkey to dominate neighbouring states and expand its territory beyond the international barriers stipulated in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.
But please allow me to add my thoughts on this subject and define how I understand Neo-Ottomanism. For the sake of clarity, and no doubt to the chagrin of you international relations theorists out there, I will do my best to limit my social science jargon unless absolutely necessary. I’ll save that for an academic article which I hope to write one day in the not too distant future. As always, feel free to email me your thoughts.
Imagine that you have been invited to visit Iraqi Kurdistan. You find yourself staying in Erbil, the KRG’s capital. You spend the night in a hotel which is Turkish owned. In the morning, you drink a cup of tea which is a Turkish brand. You go for a walk and notice that the roads were built by a Turkish construction firm. You enter a shopping mall which was also built by a Turkish company and perhaps owned, at least partly, by a Turkish firm. The shops inside the mall are Turkish chain outlets selling Turkish products. Even the food court consists of Turkish franchisees. And I haven’t even mentioned Turkish schools, universities or hospitals yet.
If one were to replace the word “Turkish” in the above paragraph with “American” or “British”, or nowadays increasingly “Chinese”, some would not hesitate to label such influence an example of neo-colonialism. I see no reason why this term cannot be applied to Turkey. Indeed, it can. And in this case, Neo-Ottomanism is the appropriate word. And let us not forget, Turkey often legitimatises its overwhelming influence in such places because of its presence of these countries during Ottoman times.
The above is how I define the central core of Neo-Ottomanism. In addition to Iraqi Kurdistan, a similar scenario is taking shape in Afrin, Syria, which was recently captured by Turkish supported forces. It is also taking place in the other area of northern Syria which Turkey captured after Operation Euphrates Shield which ended in March 2017. You might even want to include Northern Cyprus too, but you would have to concede that this predated the AKP by almost three decades and has a different historical context and military dynamic. Azerbaijan could also be included in this central core of Neo-Ottomanism, although to a much lesser extent mainly because of continued Russian influence.
Then there is a second layer, the inner core, of Neo-Ottomanism. By this I mean areas which are slighter further away from Turkey, but where Ankara is seeking to exert influence based on both military power, trade relations and cultural capital. Again, this attempt to exert influence is justified by Turkish politicians, President Erdogan included, because of Turkey’s imperial past. Specifically, I am referring to Sudan and Qatar. In December 2017, it was announced that Sudan had agreed to lease Suakin Island, located strategically on the Red Sea, to Turkey. In addition to the historical significance of the port Island during the Ottoman period, Turkey sees this as an opportunity to redevelop the island as a port, a naval dock (civilian and military), and to restore its ancient ruins. The deal represents the strengthening of Turkish-Sudanese ties in which Turkey is by far the dominant force and will give Turkey a long-term presence in the country. Meanwhile in November 2017, Turkey opened a military base in Qatar just as the energy rich Gulf Arab island was being isolated and boycotted by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt for its apparent support for the Muslim Brotherhood and sympathies with Iran. Turkey saw the crisis as a means of currying favour with Doha and benefitting from the now almost monopolised purchases of Turkish goods and services. This together with a military base, translates to unprecedented influence.
Finally, there is the third layer, or outer core, of Neo-Ottomanism in which Turkey seeks a leadership role in Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs. In addition to having important military, commercial and cultural ties with its Muslim neighbours, Turkey again justifies its leadership role among the Muslim world based on its Ottoman legacy. After all, wasn’t the most recent and greatest Islamic empire that of the Ottomans? Sure, the Koran was written in Arabic and the world’s most populated Muslim countries are in southeast Asia, but, using a mix of Turkish Islamist tropes and ultra-nationalist thought, the role of the Turk is to be the warrior of Islam, those who fight to defend the faith. Wasn’t that what President Erdogan was essentially doing when he convened the OIC in in December 2017 to condemn Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital - leading the defence of Muslim holy sites against foreign onslaught and occupation? Sites which were once part of the Ottoman Empire.
Regardless, Neo-Ottomanism is an aspirational policy. There are many drawbacks, not least the risk of overreach, regional opposition, and having to come to pragmatic arrangements with greater powers such as China and Russia. However, the above is the basis of how I consider and define Neo-Ottomanism, the central pillar and driver of Turkish foreign policy in recent years.
Following the downturn in US-Turkish relations and the recent re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as President of the Turkish Republic, only this time with enhanced powers, some have begun to ask what happened to Turkish democracy?
But the question is misplaced. Sure, Turkey has certainly drifted from liberal democratic politics in recent years; however, the reality is that Turkey was never, ever, a democracy. It is worth having a brief historical recap in order to remind western journalists, politicians and wonks as well as some of their self-deluded Turkish counterparts of this fact.
The idea that Turkey is a democracy is a western construct. It is an invented and artificial idea based on the hopes of western policy makers (and some wishful thinking Turkish intellectuals) who, in the post 9/11 war on terror, thought they needed an example of a modern, western friendly and democratic Muslim country in order to convince the Muslim world that they were not at war with Islam. This construct was given additional impetus after the misnamed Arab Spring of 2011. Again, the international community wanted to point towards a model or example of a Muslim democracy. They pointed to Turkey, but they shouldn’t have.
Following Turkey’s establishment in 1923, Turkey was under the one-man rule of its principle state-builder and first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Secularist, reformist, revolutionary, moderniser and visionary, Kemal-Ataturk was, however, no democrat. There were a couple of short periods when he experimented with a two-party system, but when the politics of the opposition drifted in a direction not to his liking, he swiftly did away with it. Following his death in 1938, Kemal-Ataturk’s successor Ismet Inonu took over the mantle. Elections took place in 1946 which the ruling party won in a landslide because, quite frankly, they were unfree, unfair, and undoubtedly rigged. It was not until 1950 that free and fair elections finally took place and even brought about a change of government. Adnan Menderes of the Democrat Party became Prime Minister. However, ten years later the military ousted him in a coup. Incensed by Manderes’ handling of the economy, his creeping autocratic nature and his popular appeals to Islam, they decided he needed to be gone for good. One year after the coup Menderes was hanging by the neck.
And like a kid with an open packet of Oreos, the military just couldn’t help itself. It staged another intervention in 1971 and another in 1980 after urban political violence was tearing the country apart. Until 1983 Turkey was led by a military junta. In addition to arresting hundreds of thousands of citizens, executing dozens and the many incidences of torture, the men in uniform oversaw the drafting of the 1982 constitution. They also vetted political candidates ahead of the 1983 elections. Even after return to “normal” civilian politics, the military retained control of nearly all institutions of state through informal networks and by heading supervisory bodies. Nothing could happen from foreign policy to television broadcasts if it were against the will of the generals.
The main challenge to the military’s grip over power was the rise of Welfare Party and its leader and Necmettin Erbakan who became Prime Minister in 1996 and advocated an openly Islamist foreign policy. No problem for the boys in uniform. In 1997 they gave Erbakan an ultimatum which made him obliged to resign. He was then banned from politics and so was his party.
But hold on a minute. As far removed from democracy as the above might sound, it doesn’t relate to the whole of the country. While all this was taking place, the southeast was a different case altogether. The 1920s and 30s were marked by insurrections and brutal crackdowns by the full arm of the state. The 1980s and 1990s were particularly dreadful as insurgency and counter insurgency claimed the lives of 40,000 citizens. Death squads roamed southeastern cities assassinating Kurdish leaders. Thousands of villages were destroyed and perhaps millions displaced. There were many instances of extrajudicial killings and torture which still remain uninvestigated let alone punished. So when you hear people talk of Turkish democracy, they are usually talking about only part of the country, the places where people go on holiday and policy makers and businesspersons visit rather than the southeast which resembled a war-zone.
It was not until October 2001 that Turkey entered a period of democratization with the first of a series of reforms geared towards EU accession. Not long after, in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) entered government. The following year, after his ban from politics was lifted, Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Prime Minister.
This was perfect timing for the West which was in the early stages of the War on Terror. Running the show in Turkey were outwardly pious politicians whose political careers emanated from Islamist parties. They had covered wives, reframed from drinking alcohol and talked about piety, and, yet, Turkey still appeared to be pro-western and friendly. These Turkish politicians even talked the talk about democracy.
But it was all nonsense. Throughout this period, Erdogan and the AKP worked hard to undermine Turkey’s opportunity at democratization. Just a few examples to illustrate the point. In 2005, Erdogan sued Musa Kart and the Cumhuriyet newspaper for a cartoon that “insulted” him. This was while 60 academics, journalists and publishers were already in prison or facing prosecution. The onslaught against freedom of expression which would go full speed ahead ten years later had already begun. Meanwhile, the infamous article 301, which banned the insult against “Turkishness” was also in full sway and used against novelists Orhan Pamuk and Elif Safak. Also, in 2004, there were serious discussions by the AKP government to criminalize adultery. Yes, you heard right – criminalize adultery! To make matters worse, the AKP got into bed with the Gulen movement who had infiltrated the judiciary and police force and laid fraudulent charges on hundreds of military officers in what turned out to be a successful bid to ouster the military’s ability to interfere in politics. It was also designed to make room for the rise of Gulenist ranks within the armed-forces. Although the military was by far an anti-democratic force, these means to supress it were contrary to the rule of law. They made a mockery of the courts.
In 2008 there was an attempt through the constitutional court to shut down the AKP for anti-secular activities. Ultimately it failed (although it did slap the party with a fine and a warning). However, in response, the AKP spearheaded the 2010 constitutional changes which began the process of eroding Turkey’s fragile system of checks and balances.
All the while, politicians and liberal intellectuals in the West and Turkey were heaping praise on Turkish democracy, and, by extension, Erdogan and the AKP. In reality, democracy in Turkey was barely in existence. And I haven’t even gone beyond 2010 when things got even worse. The myth of Turkish democracy should be understood as just that, a piece of fiction.
Just as the ink was drying on my last post about US-Turkish relations, the White House announced sanctions against Turkey based on the Global Magnitsky Act, targeting the justice and interior ministers over the continued arrest of Christian pastor Andrew Brunson. Turkey has announced retaliatory measures with some sanctions of its own. It’s rather unprecedented that mutual sanctions have been imposed on fellow NATO allies. The question on many minds is how did it come to this?
There are several symptoms of the low ebb in bilateral relations. They include the presence in the US of the alleged 15 July attempted coup mastermind Fetullah Gulen, the continued detention of Pastor Brunson and other US nationals and consular workers, Turkey’s intention to purchase the Russian S400 SAMs which are incompatible with NATO hardware, and US assistance to the YPG Kurdish militia in Syria against the so-called Islamic State which Turkey says is affiliated to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
However, these are all symptoms rather than the root causes of the problem. In terms of the actual underlying reasons for the downturn in bilateral relations I contend there are 3 main reasons and a related fourth. Let me explain them one by one.
Firstly, the nature of the Turkish state is often misunderstood by both Western and Turkish officials alike. Turkey should be understood as a weak or a fragile state. Turkey has many of the attributes of a weak state. For example, the internal threat in Turkey is greater than the threat posed by its external enemies. Ankara’s two greatest existential concerns are the PKK and the Gulen movement. Sure, both have international branches and are influenced by international affairs, but they are, by and large, internal challenges to both state security and the institutions of state. Turkey also resembles a weak state because for many citizens the primary threat to their personal security is the state itself, the body which is supposed to protect them. This is the case for many Kurds in the Southeast of the country as well as those affected by the recent post 15 July 2016 purges. Let’s not also forget the marginalisation of the remnants of the Gezi movement and progressives in general, all considered fifth columnists by President Erdogan and his government. There are other factors as to why Turkey is a fragile state including the economy which often runs along patrimonial lines and is marred by corruption and nepotism.
The reason why understanding Turkey as a fragile or weak state is important because the US, or any other country for that matter, will have difficulties finding common cause with Turkey over an external enemy. Quite frankly, an international threat will always be less of a concern for Turkey which has to prioritise internal threats, or view international affairs through the lens of domestic security matters. Meanwhile, internal developments in Turkey, if not understood and acknowledged by other countries, leads to anger and recriminations. We saw this take shape after the attempted coup two years ago. Such wounds will be slow to heal.
The second factor is that Turkey does not consider itself part of the western orbit. It doesn’t see itself in the Russian orbit. Nor part of the Iranian axis either. Turkey sees itself as a great power in its own right. Whenever I read news reports about developments in US-Turkish relations and the comments of Turkish officials, I can’t help but think, “does Turkey think it is the superpower in this relationship?” The answer is yes, actually it does. Turkey suffers from delusions of grandeur when it comes to international affairs and finds it difficult to reconcile its self-image of greatness, often emanating from a selective and politicised memory its Ottoman past, with the reality that Turkey is not even a regional hegemon, let alone an international power. Turkey is a medium sized power at best, albeit one with potential if it effectively harnesses its human capacity. Sometimes Turkey needs a shock in order to recalibrate its self-image with reality. This is what happened with Russia after Moscow announced sanctions in 2015 following Turkey’s shooting down a jet hovering over its airspace. Following this wake-up call, relations between Turkey and Russia were soon back on track. Some advice to Ankara, if you live with a lion, don’t pull its tail!
The third factor is increasing authoritarianism in Turkey. Sure, President Donald Trump doesn’t exactly behave like a liberal democratic gentleman and leader of the free world either, but Turkey is on a completely different level when it comes to strongman politics, so much so that nothing of note happens without the blessing of President Erdogan. This gives the US a firm address to point the finger. These latest sanctions are a warning. Washington knows who is really in charge. And if there is any action that harms US interests, President Erdogan cannot blame shift.
Relatedly, the fourth factor (feel free to email me more) is the reality that times have changed. Turkey’s interests are not the same as those of the US and the West. Turkey also does not identify with the West as much as it used to. This fact is plain and simple and the longer this reality is ignored or swept under the carpet, the more likely these kinds of rifts will happen. It is time for a new paradigm in US-Turkish relations. I propose a transactional relationship based on selective joint interests on an ad hoc basis. After cool heads prevail and this crisis is resolved, surely this is the best way forward to build confidence and trust between both sides and, who knows, soon a lasting partnership that may once again be of a strategic nature. But that’s far into the future.
So, this begs the question, how do the sides get out of this current impasse? Stay tuned, I will offer a few words about that soon.
Once again US-Turkish relations have reached a new low. That phrase “new low” is getting a bit repetitive and overused when describing Turkey’s relations with Europe, the US and the West in general. This in itself tells us a lot.
The current crisis came after President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both tweeted that Turkey could face harsh sanctions if Ankara does not fully release Pastor Andrew Brunson, who is currently facing trial in Turkey on trumped up (no pun intended) terrorism related charges. Ankara has responded by declaring the threats “unacceptable” and is refusing to bow down to US pressure.
The sanctions that Trump and Pence have in mind are in addition to defence budget legislation which is currently being drafted in Congress and contains clauses pertaining to Turkey’s involvement of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. After the draft legislation is passed by both houses it will need a Presidential sign off. Currently the bill contains a reference to Turkey’s purchase and involvement in the F35 project, calling for Turkey’s participation to be contingent with the release of pastor Brunson and Turkey forgoing its purchase of Russian S400 surface to air missiles.
Added to this impasse is the recent victory of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in June following simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections. The overarching power of President Erdogan, secured after a constitutional referendum last year, is now all but sealed. President Erdogan’s power is so overwhelming that excuses for not releasing Brunson such insisting that Turkish courts are independent, just doesn't fly. Arguably, such excuses never washed anyway - let’s not forget that last year Erdogan offered the US a swap, Brunson for Gulen. This led to the detention of Brunsen to be labelled by some quarters “hostage diplomacy”.
This recent crisis is the latest of many fallings out between the two former allies. Currently at least a dozen US citizens are consular employees are being held in detention. There’s also the issue of US support for Kurdish militias in Syria fighting the so called Islamic State. Ankara claims these militias are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but the Pentagon sees as an effective indigenous force against Islamic militancy. Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S400 Surface to air missiles, incompatible with NATO hardware, is an act that obviously strained ties. A purchase and deployment of such equipment risks the leaking of sensitive NATO military data to Russia. Meanwhile, Turkish banks, probably with the blessing of the country’s President, broke US led international sanctions against Iran. Plus, just recently Turkey rebuffed US efforts to enforce sanctions against the Islamic Republic, declaring that Turkey will not follow them. All of these issues alone are serious enough to strain relations for the foreseeable future. Taken together it is inevitable that relations have taken a nosedive.
In fact, relations have dipped so low that it would be foolhardy to expect that they will ever go back to how they were. Elsewhere I have recommended that the strategic component of the West’s relations with Turkey should be reconsidered. I think now more than ever that I am right. The strategy that some analysists and policy makers have recommended to either the US or European governments is continued engagement with Turkey. They believe that western countries should recognise and take steps towards meeting Ankara’s security needs while ensuring Ankara respects their own security concerns. Meanwhile, the argument goes, the sides should work towards greater cooperation in fields outside of the strategic dimension. This may have been sound policy advice a while ago, but quite frankly this method has been tried with Ankara over the past couple of years and is clearly not working.
Instead, it is time for the US and Europe to work towards a transactional relationship with Turkey when it comes to strategic issues. The first thing to do is recognise that the alliance between Turkey and the West is not one of mutual strategic interests, not is it one of shared values. However, there are some fields where western and Turkish interests converge and collaboration should be sought. Issues such as terrorism, aspects of regional security and the future of Syria are areas where there can be some cooperation and serious discussion.
However, this should not be mistaken for a strategic alliance and therefore the west should limit Turkish involvement in projects such as the Joint Strike Fighter and NATO operations until a time when relations improve and warrant an upgrade. However, when it comes to trade, businesses and corporations on both sides should be encouraged to invest, buy and sell until their hearts are content. The same goes for cultural diplomacy. And who knows, maybe they will be the harbinger for strategic convergence at a later date.
Although this state of affairs may seem disappointing, this is the nature of international relations. Alliance form and alliances collapse. A period of transactionalism and trade may be the step back that both sides need before relations become warm again because soon Turkey will discover that the US and the West make better bedfellows that Russia, Iran or China.
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