The victory of Turkey’s Justice & Development Party (AKP) in Sunday’s parliamentary poll is widely seen, rightly so, as President Recep Erdogan’s gain and has met with a barrage of criticism in the western media.
It brings to mind the hostility with which the western opinion received the victory of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2012. Although Turkey is an important member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), its alliance partners are largely silent.
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel was an exception, but she too acted purposively by calling Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to congratulate him, while utilizing the occasion to urge him that “the bilateral dialogue on stemming the flood of refugees must be continued and swiftly lead to concrete agreements”, according to a German government spokesman.
Indeed, Merkel’s phone call typifies the European dilemma. Erdogan’s victory is unpleasant news for the West, but his cooperation becomes vital for the effective handling of the Syrian refugee crisis. Erdogan acutely senses this and gave vent to it by warning that he expected another 1 million refugees to come out of Syria within this year. Turkey holds a trump card here because there is a gathering storm in Europe with the growing possibility of fighting breaking out in the Balkans along the main route of migrants reaching Europe.
Tensions are already running high in the western Balkan countries that emerged out of the dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia, as Merkel warned in a speech Monday. Commenting on Hungary’s decision to close its borders with Serbia and Croatia, Merkel warned, “It will lead to a backlash. I do not want military conflicts to become necessary there (in the Balkans) again”.
The bottom line is that it is not in Europe’s interests to alienate Erdogan.
On the other hand, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has come out with a scathing attack on Sunday’s poll in Turkey, alleging ‘unfairness’ due to the media crackdown in Turkey, violence and other security concerns.
To what extent the OSCE report works intrinsically as a pressure point on Erdogan may be a moot point, but, ominously, the US State Department has called attention to it. At a media briefing on Monday, spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau said, “As a friend and NATO ally, we are committed to continuing our close cooperation with Turkey”.
But, she added, “The media outlets and individual journalists critical of the government were subject to pressure and intimidation during the campaign, seemingly in a manner calculated to weaken political opposition. We urge Turkish authorities to ensure their actions uphold the universal democratic values enshrined in Turkey’s constitution… We understand that a full report from the OSCE will come out later, so we’ll wait on that, but we’ve spoken very forcefully from this podium on our concerns on media freedom in Turkey.”
In sum, Washington is weighting its options carefully over Erdogan’s dramatic victory that upset all western assessments. What can be gleaned so far is that the US is not exactly in a celebratory mood over Erdogan’s victory. The underlying causes, of course, go far beyond the issues of democratic practices and freedom of expression in Turkey. Differences exist between the US and Erdogan on a range of issues. The two sides are far apart on the Syrian conflict, Erdogan’s proximity with Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood and his hostility toward Israel.
Equally, Erdogan’s crackdown on the shadowy Islamist leader based in America Fethullah Gulen (whom the US regards as a ‘strategic asset’) is a hugely sensitive sticking point. It is unlikely that Washington will accede to Erdogan’s demarche on Gulen’s extradition to Turkey. But for Erdogan, Gulen who challenges his leadership of the Islamist flock in Turkey, poses an existential problem and needs to be silenced. How the Gordian knot can be cut will impact the political climate of the US-Turkey relationship.
On the other hand, the US-Turkey ties are also extremely dynamic, especially in the current regional environment over the Syrian conflict, given Iran’s new assertiveness and the Russian military presence within an overarching axis between Moscow and Tehran.
Thus, Washington all along knew about Turkey’s nexus with extremist groups, including the Islamic State, operating in Syria but found it expedient to look away since it added muscle to the struggle to overthrow the Syrian regime.
In the period ahead too, it is not inconceivable that Washington may not be averse to Erdogan challenging the Russian efforts to bolster the Syrian regime, since that would only strengthen the US’ hands at the negotiating table where the advantage lies today with Russia and Iran.
To be sure, Moscow and Tehran will be keenly watching how Erdogan fares under the American pressure tactic vis-à-vis him in the coming months. Erdogan is a tough politician who does not wilt under foreign pressure.
Besides, he knows fully well that his election victory was despite a huge information war waged on him by the West, and, most important, that his constituency is now much more homogenous than ever before – Middle Eastern (rather than ‘Mediterranean’) in outlook and temper, highly nationalistic and imbued with Islamism.
Of course, Erdogan’s own priority lies absolutely in pushing ahead his domestic agenda to consolidate executive power in his hands under a presidential form of government. But the AKP government lacks a two-thirds majority to change the country’s constitution. One possibility is that he may reach out to the Kurdish party in the parliament with an offer to resume the peace process as quid pro quo for their support to get the two-thirds majority to push constitutional reform through. (The alternative is to take recourse to a national referendum, which is fraught with uncertainties.)
Indeed, now that the elections are over – and another one is due only in 2019 – Erdogan has no more reason to whip up xenophobia by raising the specter of the Kurds’ violent separatism. This may sound implausible today after the bitterly fought election campaign, but Turkish politics can be very deceptive and Erdogan’s skill to maneuver is never in doubt.
All in all, the G20 summit on November 15-16 promises to be an engrossing theatre where the likelihood is that geopolitics may trump economics as the leitmotif.
The summit provides just the opportunity Erdogan needs to carefully weigh the options open to him – as also for the participants to fathom their host’s calculus. It brings together the US and Russian presidents and the European leaders.
Turkey revels in moments when the bazaar instincts come into full play.
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