Recep Tayyip Erdogan, modern Turkey’s longest-serving ruler, won a mandate to govern with sweeping new powers after a double victory in presidential and parliamentary elections. Erdogan had 53 percent of the presidential vote to 31 percent for his closest challenger, Muharrem Ince of the secular Republican People’s Party or CHP, with more than 99 percent of ballots counted, according to government news agency Anadolu. “We must leave election tensions behind us,” Erdogan told a jubilant crowd of supporters in Istanbul after winning elections. For Erdogan, installing an executive presidency has been his years-long ambition and he staked his career on it by calling the elections 18 months early.
Erdogan has overseen historic change in Turkey since his ruling party first came to power in 2002 after years of secular domination. But critics have accused him of trampling on civil liberties and of autocratic behaviour. The president has for the last two years ruled under a state of emergency imposed in the wake of the 2016 failed coup, with tens of thousands arrested in an unprecedented crackdown, which cranked up tensions with the West. According to analysts, the results mark “the last step towards Turkey’s transformation into a one-man regime,”.
Erdogan, who has governed since 2003, campaigned on the need for continuity in turbulent times. He’s presided over an economic boom that in recent months has threatened to turn into a bust. The currency plunged and capital fled as Erdogan fought with his own central bank, insisting against economic orthodoxy that interest rates need to be lowered.
Erdogan has never lost an election and has been in power since 2003, initially as prime minister, then as president from 2014.
At 64, Erdogan has in his political career overcome a stint in prison, mass protests and even a bloody coup attempt to emerge as Turkey’s uncontested leader. He has freed up constraints on religion in the officially secular but overwhelmingly Muslim state, overseen a vast programme of infrastructure building he calls his “crazy projects” and implemented a more assertive foreign policy. For supporters, Erdogan gives a voice to Turkey’s Muslim majority, has brought new levels of economic prosperity and commands respect on the international stage.
Erdogan’s AK Party was formed by a breakaway group of the Virtue Party, which was shut down by the courts in 2001 due to its “anti-secular” activities. Erdogan entered politics at a very young age. During high school in the early 1970s, he was elected chairman of the National Salvation Party Istanbul Youth Organisation. After the 1980 military coup, Erdogan followed most of Erbakan’s followers into the Welfare Party. He became a district chair in 1984 before advancing to chair of the Istanbul city branch. He was elected to parliament in 1991, but barred from taking his seat. During his tenure, he developed a new organisational structure for the Istanbul Branch, which became a model for other political parties. One of his most important initiatives, while serving in Istanbul Branch, was strengthening female participation in politics. This successful structure was credited with placing the Welfare Party in the first place in subsequent elections. Erdogan’s political rise within the Welfare Party continued in 1994, when he became the mayor of Istanbul.
Many feared he would impose Islamic law. However, he proved to be pragmatic in office as mayor. In 2007, the party won again in parliamentary elections, but its share of the vote slipped to 39 per cent in 2009 local elections, attributed by analysts to a dip in Turkey’s economic fortunes during the global economic crisis.
In 2011, Erdogan’s party won 327 seats in parliament, and picked him as prime minister making him the only prime minister to win in three consecutive elections.
In 2014, he was elected as president before seeking another term in office with more expanded powers this year. His only setback – so far – came in June 2015 elections when the AK Party won the most votes but lost its overall majority for the first time, But Erdogan swatted away the prospect of a coalition, saying such governments belonged to the days of “old Turkey”. He called new elections in November 2015 where the party’s majority was restored. Erdogan pressed on with an April 2017 referendum on a new constitution that abolishes the office of prime minister and that critics said resembled an autocracy, but eked out a relatively narrow win. In one and a half decades since his ruling party came to power, Erdogan has now taken part in 14 elections – six legislative polls, three referenda, three local elections and two presidential votes – and won them all.
“Now is the time to work, set aside the tensions from the election period and focus on the country’s future,” Erdogan declared in his victory speech after he was re-elected.
The pace of Turkey’s economic growth more than doubled last year to 7.4 per cent, powered by consumer and government spending that offset a slowdown after a failed coup, fuelled expectations that the expansion would exceed government targets this year they also highlighted the risk of overheating. The country’s economy has accelerated markedly since 2016, when growth was a comparatively low to 3.2 per cent after being dragged down by the botched military coup of that year, which stoked fears of instability. The government introduced a series of incentives to power the economy forward in the aftermath of the failed putsch, including guarantees for TL250bn ($63bn) of loans and spending on infrastructure. Nihat Zeybekci, economy minister, said the figures showed that the country was “advancing along a comprehensive and sustainable growth path” and could outdo its 5.5 per cent growth target for this year. “Among large economies, Turkey is Europe’s fastest-growing and most dynamic nation, and this situation will not change in the coming decade,” he added. Output in the fourth quarter rose to 7.3 per cent which is the fastest among G20 nations. However, it marked a dip from the third-quarter growth rate of 11.3 per cent. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has based a large part of his electoral appeal on his stewardship of the economy and a series of elections scheduled for next year means he is unlikely to hit the brakes. But the rapid expansion has led to warnings from institutions including the IMF and Moody’s, the rating agency, that higher inflation and a deepening current-account deficit is now 5.5 per cent of GDP.
Imports in the last three months of the year jumped 22.7 per cent compared with the same period of 2016, far outstripping a 9.3 per cent rise in exports, the figures from the Turkish statistical institute showed. Turkish industry relies on imports of key inputs, including almost all of the fuel it consumes. Turkey’s services industry expanded 10.7 per cent last year, and manufacturing was up 9.2 per cent. The construction sector, a big employer in the country’s $850bn economy, rose 8.9 per cent.
In European capitals, negative or hostile attitudes toward Turkey have been legitimized on the basis of a regression in the quality of Turkish democracy and deterioration of its human rights record. Turkey’s foreign policy preferences or decisions have not been analyzed within the geopolitical context of the country or its real political imperatives. Rather, there is a tendency that overemphasizes the role of identity — the Islamic identity in driving Turkish foreign policy. Most of Turkey’s foreign policy decisions that are arguably motivated by factors other than identity have been portrayed as Turkey’s search for a new geopolitical identity and positioning, which is implicitly or explicitly understood as Turkey turning away from its centuries-old European Western orientation. In such a reading, the multipolar nature of the Turkish foreign policy is being simply framed as a shift of axis for the country. The shift of axis has come to represent a shift of Turkey’s identity away from Europe and the West. This approach is problematic and reductionist.
On the other hand, if we put historical and ideological justifications/animosity to one side, the anti-Western sentiment that has risen in Turkey over recent years has been based on the perception that the West is continually carrying out operations against Turkey. Most Turks believe that the West (meaning the United States and NATO) had a hand in the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. This perception cuts across sociopolitical lines at the societal level. Turkish government circles regard the West and Europe as being free from compassion when it comes to the security challenges and threats it is facing from neighboring Syria and Iraq, and in confronting the multiple terrorist groups within and outside of its borders. Western apathy toward Turkey or its inability to show solidarity with its people in the aftermath of coup attempt has only deepened public suspicion of the West. This has reduced the ability for Europe to have the moral high ground and credibility to criticize Turkey for its post-coup policies and purges — particularly in response to the ongoing state of emergency.
However, Turkish–Western relations cannot be confined to the debate on or dispute over the quality and health of Turkish democracy and secularism. They are the core ingredient for Turkey’s relations with the West, particularly with Europe, but apparently not sufficient factors to solve the underlying simmering tensions in these relations. The fact that Turkey has glaringly failed on these necessary conditions in recent years has rendered the debate on the sufficient factors and conditions to deal with the root-cause of this tension as frivolous. Moreover, the political picture that has emerged recently has obscured the view of the fundamental factors that have tainted the state of Turkish–European relations.
AK Party’s first term in power, 2002–2007, can comfortably be depicted as one of the most reformist eras in the history of the Turkish Republic. This reformism was rewarded by the EU by starting the membership negotiations with Turkey in 2005. But joy for a new phase in relations soon fizzled out after German Chancellor Merkel and then French President Sarkozy came to power. Instead of Turkey’s democratic deficiency, both leaders rejected the prospect of Turkey’s EU membership from an identity-centric perspective. Therefore, putting Turkey’s democracy back on track would reduce tension, but it is unlikely to have any real impact on Turkey’s EU membership process.
Turkey still seeks to gain “full membership” of the EU, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said. Joining the bloc remains a “strategic goal”, he further said, ahead of a meeting with EU leaders in Bulgaria.
The responsibility for the current state of Turkey-EU ties cannot be laid at the feet of any one party. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Paris opened the door to a more realistic era in Turkey-EU ties. Erdoğan neatly summarized how fed up Turkey is with the never-ending accession process. But French President Emmanuel Macron said the current situation did not permit the opening of any new accession chapters with Turkey. Still, both parties said they agreed on the importance of “anchoring” Turkey to Europe. In an age when the risk of conflict has risen in global politics, Turkey and the EU share a number of interests and approaches on a number of issues – most notably on the fight against radical terrorism, refugees, the Israeli-Palestinian question, ending the Syrian War and maintaining the Iran nuclear deal. One could add a shared desire to pursue balanced ties with Russia and ensure energy security to this list. Despite internal challenges, the EU remains the sole representative of the liberal democratic order and a balancing power at a time when the United States’ unilateralism has weakened the United Nations and NATO. Abandoning sentimentality and identifying and acting on areas of common interest could help Turkey and the EU reduces tensions and fosters a positive agenda.
If Ankara’s ties with Berlin are put back on track and Germany’s new government will be critical on that front, it might not have a direct effect on accession talks. But it could usher in positive developments in Turkey-EU ties, especially in terms of updating the Customs Union. One can already count the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), an initiative to develop common security in Europe that was signed by 25 countries which is open to others, as one area in which Turkish-EU cooperation can be developed. Maintaining its European anchor could help Turkey realize a number of much-desired comprehensive economic reforms, while also preventing extreme swings in foreign policy. Keeping the channels of dialogue between Ankara and Brussels would ensure the continuation of cultural interaction and might even help contribute to a democratic transformation in the long run.
From trade to NATO, the EU and Turkey have enjoyed a productive relationship in many domains for decades. However, recently relations have turned frosty as concerns mount over the rule of law and the state of democracy in the country with media outlets being closed and journalists being jailed. There are also concerns about Turkey’s military intervention in Syria. These developments are all the more reason for Member European Parliament (MEP’s) to take another look at how the EU and Turkey are working together. Turkey has been an associate member of the European Economic Community since 1963 and applied to join in 1987. It was recognised as a candidate for EU membership in 1999, but negotiations didn’t start until 2005. Even after that not much progress was made. Only 16 out of 35 chapters have been opened and only one closed. After The Turkish government’s crackdown following the failed coup on 15 July 2016 negotiations effectively ended and no new chapters have been opened since then. In November 2016 MEPs adopted a resolution asking for the negotiations to be suspended while repression continues in Turkey. They repeated their call for suspension in a resolution adopted in July 2017 due to continuing concerns about the human rights situation. Although these resolutions are not binding, they send out an important signal. MEPs also regularly debate the situation in the country. The most recent one was held on 6 February discussed the human rights in Turkey as well as the country’s military operation in Afrin, Syria. The EU has the option of concluding association agreements with nearby countries, such as Iceland and Tunisia. These agreements set out a framework for close economic and political cooperation.
The EU usually asks for reforms to improve the human rights situation in the country as well as make its economy more robust. In turn the country might benefit from financial or technical assistance, as well as tariff-free access for some or all products. The EU already has an association agreement with Turkey, but some MEPs see a new agreement as an alternative to EU membership. Both Turkey and most EU countries are members of NATO. In addition they work together on issues such as migration. In March 2016 the EU and Turkey concluded an agreement to tackle the migration crisis, which led to significantly fewer migrants reaching Europe illegally.
Parties of the right have long dominated Turkish politics. A social democratic party has triumphed in only one election and that was 40 years ago, in 1977. The right has gained mass support by recasting class conflict as culture war. People who, in other countries, would form the base of support for center-left parties, peasants, workers, and those in the lower middle class have rallied to populist conservatives who appeal to their religion and their resentment of the urban elite. The results in last both elections were a repetition of the previous ones with regard to voting patterns, and the winning and losing blocs. Furthermore, the results once more confirmed the dominance of nationalist-conservative base among the Turkish electorate; a large base which continued to be consolidated by Erdogan. However, there seems to be a shift towards Turkish nationalism inside the dominant bloc. The OBOR presents a historic opportunity for Turkey to expand its already strong position in the region and is the most ambitious economic-political project in modern history. The initiative involves plans for monolithic infrastructure projects spanning a vast network of seaports, railroads, highways, airports and other infrastructure to create new trade routes across Eurasia. Among the most important ambitions that the OBOR represents is China’s attempt to bring trade routes back to the Eurasian continent after three hundred years of Euro-Atlantic domination of trade routes. This is where Turkey comes in. It lies in a geostrategically important location that connects Europe, Asia and (by sea and air) Africa. Thus, Turkey lies on the shortest route for China’s ambitious plans to create a Eurasian trading network.
Turkey is the largest economy in the region with an upper-middle income economy and has a strong record of growth over the past two decades. This gives Turkey a strong bargaining position to ensure its own interests are taken into account alongside Chinese ambitions.
The OBOR also provides the opportunity to pursue political and economic interests abroad via the OBOR in a strategic, long-term approach that will centre Turkey as the premier economic power in its own region.
Published in Melange Intl. Magazine in August 2018.