Turkey Solidifies Leadership amid Regional Turmoil

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By Dexter Thompson-Pomeroy

There are very few people in the world who have made plans for 2023. Even the Olympics have only been determined as far in advance as 2016. But in the weeks preceeding Turkey’s June 12 election, posters for the incumbent AKP all over the country confidently proclaimed: “Türkiye Hazır, Hedef 2023” (Turkey is ready, Goal: 2023). Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) have won their third election since they came to power in 2002, and as evidenced by their bold campaign, intend to hold onto power as long as they can.

The posters, with Erdoğan’s face looking resolutely into the distance, announced his ambitious plans for the next twelve years: The Istanbul Canal is a plan to build a 50km long, $10 Billion waterway cutting across the western fringe of the European side of Istanbul, creating a second shipping lane between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. The Prime Minister himself has dubbed it his ‘crazy project’ and among other economic goals, Erdoğan aims to have Turkish exports at $500 Billion by 2023. But despite the grandiose projects, the election victory, and talk of a 21-year AKP reign, serious challenges lie ahead for Erdoğan’s government, both internally and abroad.

Since 2002 the AKP government has pursued a policy of reconciliation with its neighbors. Spearheaded by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the “Zero Problems Policy” has generally succeeded in improving economic and political ties with Turkey’s neighbors. Trade with Iran, Iraq, Syria and Eastern Europe has increased relative to trade with the EU, keeping the AKP popular among business circles in the “Anatolian Tiger” cities like Kayseri, Gaziantep and Kahramanmaraş.

Politically, Turkey has mounted diplomatic efforts to resolve conflicts with past enemies, including Cyprus, Armenia, Greece and Syria. Although progress with Cyprus and Armenia remains slow, the AKP government has greatly improved ties with Syria, and even introduced visa-free travel in 2009. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have taken enormous steps to improve relations with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, ending a long period of animosity between the two countries that peaked in the late 90s when Syria was supporting PKK rebels.

It should come as no surprise then, that today’s unrest in Syria causes deep anxiety in Erdoğan’s administration. Having painstakingly repaired relations with Al-Assad, Erdoğan was initially hesitant to denounce him for his violent response to opposition protests. Now, with a refugee crisis on Turkey’s southern borders and the recent conference of the Syrian opposition held in the seaside city of Antalya, Turkey is intextricably tied to the uprising in Syria, whether the AKP likes it or not.

Domestically, the government faces criticism for its allegedly autocratic leadership style, and its disregard for the opposition. The government has also been accused of using the ongoing trial of alleged ‘Ergenekon’ or ‘deep state’ coup plotters as an excuse to stifle political opposition. As for the opposition itself, the center-left secular Republican Peoples Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP) remains far behind the AKP, especially in the areas of central Anatolia. The second largest party, the Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP) is far more conservative than the AKP. The MHP suffered major electoral losses this election after a sex scandal, which it claims was orchestrated by the AKP to smear them in order to win over MHP voters. Indeed the AKP has been courting the Turkish-nationalist vote, which may make the AKP less flexible when it comes to the Kurdish issue.

In the early years of AKP rule, the party made significant inroads in the southeastern Kurdish region, by appealing to religious Kurds, and talking of recognizing Kurdish identity and rights. Today, many Kurds feel that Erdoğan’s administration has not followed through on its promises. However, with a 9 seat increase in independent MPs supported by the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi, BDP) after the election, their bargaining power may have increased.

Turkey’s democracy is far from perfect, and many Kurdish activists have objected to the way in which Turkey is sometimes portrayed as a beacon of democracy and human rights in the Middle East, while abuses continue in the Kurdish region. And it is certainly impossible for Arab states to achieve a pluralistic democracy using the same method that Turkey did (modernize the state through an oppressive, ultra-secularist dictatorship, and then gradually open up to political rights).

Nevertheless, with more and more interaction in recent years between Turks and Arabs, there is no doubt that many Arabs have come to see Erdoğan’s Turkey as a source of inspiration. Whatever authoritarian, non-pluralistic politices may persist in Turkey’s government, the fact remains that unlike in Syria and Bahrain, citizens are generally free to openly criticize them without fearing for their lives. Flaws, lack of pluralism, Kurdish frustration and all, Turkey and the AKP’s blend of political freedom and Islam will continue to influence the Arab World at a crucial point in Arab political history.

As the ‘Arab Spring’ continues in Turkey’s neighbor states, Turkey will inevitably play an important role in the outcome of these various Arab protest movements. Just what that influence will be, and how much of a democratization effect Turkey will have, will depend on Erdoğan acts over the next few (or perhaps even twelve) years.

As Erdoğan and the AK Parti embark on their third term in office, the ‘Zero Problems Policy’ will no doubt come under intense scrutiny. With Syria and its refugee crisis causing a serious headache for the Turkish government, and other Arab countries looking unstable, it is possible that Erdoğan’s administration will be forced to reconsider its Middle Eastern goals, or its ‘realignment’ as some like to think of it. Nevertheless, with the AK Parti and its leaders still wildly popular in much of the Arab World, Erdoğan may see a strategic value in playing a productive, mediating, role-model role in the Middle East, and the ‘realignment’ may well continue.

Dexter Thompson-Pomeroy is a senior Columbia University studying Political Science and Linguistics.

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