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Working with President Erdoğan: A Transactional Relationship

By Svante Cornell

Thursday, August 21, 2014

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As expected, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected Turkey’s president in the first round of elections on August 10. This victory—by his largest margin yet—appears to cement Erdoğan’s dominance of Turkey’s political scene for the foreseeable future. It does not, however, herald an end to the political divisions and dissent that have plagued for years. Rather, it is a testament to Erdoğan’s political savvy—and the opposition’s fecklessness—in turning Turkey’s polarization into votes. The results of this election already hint at the long-term unsustainability of such a strategy: Erdoğan’s level of support was underwhelming, and trouble is already brewing in his party. This in turn means that Turkey is likely to remain unstable and Erdoğan a highly troublesome partner, requiring political attention that Washington may not be prepared to provide.

Going into the first round of elections, Erdoğan had tremendous advantages. In addition to incumbency, Turkish mainstream television both public and private – which once provided relatively equitable airtime to different parties and candidates – almost exclusively portrayed Erdoğan and always in a positive light. The administrative resources of the government were widely used to promote Erdoğan’s candidacy: the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission noted that the campaign “was undermined by the misuse of state resources, [and] the staging of campaign activities during official state events.” The financial advantages of the ruling party were lopsided, with its sources of money only being partially accounted for.

In this light, Erdoğan’s 51.8 percent of the vote is no landslide. In fact, it is underwhelming, and it appears certain that the unfair character of the campaign affected the integrity and the outcome of the election. In fact, the combination of the misuse of administrative resources, the AKP’s domination of the media, and the low turnout gave Erdoğan his first-round victory. Concerning the last point, it is an irony indeed that the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) opponents (primarily secularists) stayed home instead of voting for opposition candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, thus handing Erdoğan his victory. A preliminary analysis of the election results shows that 15 million people voted for Ihsanoğlu, compared to over 20 million for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) combined in the local election held in April. Clearly, many CHP voters chose to stay home, some young liberals voted for Selahattin Demirtaş, and many MHP voters fell for Erdoğan’s last-minute nationalist rhetoric, and pulled the lever for the prime minister.

Erdoğan will surely capitalize on this victory as a further popular mandate to continue the transformation of Turkey into a more authoritarian and Islamist nation. But in Turkey, many are not fooled. The respected columnist Taha Akyol observed on August 11 that Erdoğan’s voter support shows he will not be able to impose the presidential system he craves. The notion that the AKP would increase its parliamentary vote in 2015 and be able to command a two-thirds majority in parliament is highly unlikely, assuming those elections remain unfair but free, like the most recent ones.

Erdoğan will surely capitalize on this victory as a further popular mandate to continue the transformation of Turkey into a more authoritarian and Islamist nation. But in Turkey, many are not fooled.

That shifts the focus to the AKP’s post-Erdoğan leadership. President Gül’s statement that he planned to return to politics, interpreted as a declaration of his intent to seek the prime ministership, wreaked havoc in the AKP. Preferring a weak prime minister whom he could control, Erdoğan scrambled, announcing that the party will nominate its next leader on August 27 – just one day before Gül leaves the presidency and becomes eligible for the leadership post. This “coincidence” can only be interpreted as an indication of the real concern within Erdoğan’s circles of the vulnerability of his control over the AKP. This also generated a rare public disagreement. AKP deputies, proxies for Erdoğan and Gül, took their fight to Twitter, one attacking Gül and another defending him. Apparently defeated, Gül has now publicy accepted the likelihood of current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu becoming the next leader of the AKP and, therefore, prime minister.

At a deeper level, this incident indicates the fatigue within the Islamic conservative movement itself with Erdoğan and his abrasive and polarizing leadership style. Time is only likely to exacerbate this reality. Erdoğan is sure to maintain control over the party and government in the short term; but he will likely have to fight for it and may well eventually lose it.

For the United States, this means Turkey will be preoccupied with its internal politicking–hardly the bastion of stability America has long sought in this troubled region.

Indeed, if Erdoğan’s campaign is any indication, Turkey will be a very weak partner going forward. The most worrisome aspect was Erdoğan’s overt appeal to ethnic and sectarian divisions, particularly in the latter phase of the campaign, when he tried to appeal to the nationalist vote. In a campaign speech, he referred to candidates by their ethnic identities, branding CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as an “Alevi” and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtaş as “Zaza,” while emphasizing that he is himself, by contrast, a Sunni and a Turk and not afraid of saying it. Erdoğan plays on and exacerbates the Sunni and Turkish majority’s suspicion of ethnic and religious minorities – all while obfuscating his own heritage, directly denying his widely known ethnic Georgian origins, emphasizing time and time again that he is Sunni and of Turkish descent.

This ensures that Turkey’s internal divisions will grow, which, given the descent of the wider Middle East into sectarian strife, amounts to playing with fire. But in the near term, identity politics benefit Erdoğan, because his tactics will help him rally the Sunni and Turkish majority against the minorities.

Nor is such sectarianism limited to Turkish domestic politics. Erdoğan’s anti-Israeli rhetoric has reached new heights, putting Turkey squarely on the opposite side of the Gaza conflict than the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress. Perhaps more importantly, Turkey’s approach to the crisis in Iraq and Syria differs markedly from America’s. Ankara’s support for Jihadi groups in Syria is well-known and prompted a rare rebuke by President Obama during a summit with Erdoğan. The full picture of Turkey’s role in supporting the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and al-Sham (ISIS) remains unclear, but it is clear that Turkey helped midwife the organization’s rise to prominence. Its relationship with ISIS and jihadi groups in Mesopotamia more generally is complex. Ideologically, the AKP is essentially an offshoot of the Muslim Bortherhood, which is a rival to the Salafi currents dominating the jihadi groups. Yet Turkey has tolerated and facilitated ISIS’s operations on its territory, and perhaps even directly funded it. Yet when ISIS took over Mosul, it captured the staff of the Turkish Consulate, which it still holds. And while ISIS fights against the Kurdish peshmerga, Turkey has increasingly intimate relations with Barzani’s Kurdish government.

The full picture of Turkey’s role in supporting the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and ISIS remains unclear, but it is clear that Turkey helped midwife the organization’s rise to prominence.

It is remarkable that Turkish leaders have yet to issue a single word of condemnation over ISIS’ blood-letting in Iraq in recent months. Furthermore, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has repeatedly downplayed the ISIS threat, taken pains to describe it as an “opposition group” against former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, blamed al-Maliki’s policies for all problems in Iraq, and derided the Turkmens forced to flee the ISIS onslaught for “causing most damage to themselves.” The AKP’s ideological blind spots have led Ankara to allow itself to slide into Iraq’s sectarian quagmire. For Ankara, the problem is Maliki’s Shi’a sectarianism, and he is the enemy. By contrast, ISIS is viewed not as a dangerous terrorist group, but as a legitimate although brutal response to Maliki. The parallels to Pakistan’s attitude toward Jihadis in Kashmir and Afghanistan in the 1990s are glaring, and Turkey stands likely to pay a similarly high price.

It is now accepted in the West that Erdoğan’s and Davutoğlu’s Sunni-sectarian foreign policy has collapsed, leaving Turkey with little influence in the region and generating problems that have come to threaten its own integrity. Yet there is little indication of a change in the insular, ideological mindset that shapes Erdoğan’s leadership. Indeed, one of his chief advisors, Yiğit Bulut, has already publicly toyed with the idea of abandoning the European Union integration process while simultaneously stating that Turkey should focus on its ties with the United States. As such, the divergence of Turkish and American perceptions of the world will only grow.

Against this background, U.S. policymakers will face many difficulties dealing with Turkey. On the one hand, America has few allies in the region and will be forced to seek Erdoğan’s cooperation. But in so doing, American officials should not expect the behavior of an ally, in spite of Turkey’s NATO membership. Turkey’s priorities may occasionally align with America’s, but more often, they will not. Syria and Iraq have showed that when that happens, Erdoğan cannot be trusted. Despite Turkey’s dependence on its security and defense partnership with America, there should be no illusions of Turkey serving as a close partner, advancing American interests in the Middle East.

Svante Cornell (@SvanteCornell) is a task force member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Turkey Initiative and the director at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program.