Post-election Turkey: Beyond wishful thinking

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is certainly the big winner of the recent presidential and general elections in Turkey. Not only did he manage to get re-elected for a third term as president, but his coalition, the People’s Alliance, bucked expectations and won the majority of seats in parliament. He is officially the country’s longest serving leader, surpassing Mustafa Kemal himself, and “Erdoğanism,” as an ideological framework, is gaining more and more institutional, social and political ground. At the centennial of the Turkish Republic, the signs of Erdoğan’s “New Turkey” and “Century of Turkey” are already visible. Yet, Turkish society is more polarized than ever.

Election results and the day after

Even though the election results have been overanalyzed, perhaps two important takeaways out of the many should be emphasized. First, Erdoğan will continue on the trajectory of authoritarianism, trying to completely control the state and suppress or divide the opposition in the process. Second, although nationalism has always been an important ingredient of Turkish politics across the ideological spectrum, these elections have shown that it has become much more central. The whole political landscape has moved further to the right, and ultra-nationalism has become mainstream, which was evident both in the governance of the People’s Alliance — led by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party and defined by its particular brand of right-wing Islamism and nationalism — and the opposition’s Nation Alliance — a mixture of center-left, center-right and far-right parties united by their anti-Erdoğan stance — as well as in the 5.2 percent of votes that went to Sinan Oğan; the third candidate who is supported by the Ancestral Alliance, a group of ultranationalist parties driving a more hardline critique of Erdoğan with a specific focus on his refugee policy. This political shift to the right will certainly influence Turkish domestic and foreign policy, as well as the country’s dominant narrative and political culture.

One could dwell on the “what ifs” of the scenario in which Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu had been elected or lament over “what could have been,” but these would be futile undertakings — the following day is already upon us and developments rapidly unfold. Erdoğan has the March 2024 local elections set in his sights and will do everything in his power to regain control over the key cities he lost in the 2019 local elections, such as İstanbul and Ankara. The opposition’s stakes are running high since local election results could signal the anti-Erdoğan front’s demise or its survival into another term. To be sure, disappointment among the opposition’s ranks has stirred an air of numbness, while the blame game about the elections’ results and talk around the necessity of changing the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) leadership may pose significant problems in the months to come — in addition to the obstacles raised by Erdoğan’s government. These dynamics, in conjunction with a collapsing Turkish lira, high inflation, high borrowing costs and loan defaults, are leading to a bumpy road ahead for both sides and Turkey in general.

Erdoğan seems to think that he can mitigate some of these issues while simultaneously improving the country’s external affairs and foreign relations through a mix of symbolic gestures and tactical moves, and the new cabinet he announced is clearly part of this approach. Perhaps the most important name in this context is Mehmet Şimşek, a former finance minister — among other key positions — and a respected ex-banker, who was appointed once again to head the economy. Şimşek enjoys international markets’ and investors’ trust and disagrees with Erdoğan’s approach to managing the economy. His appointment is meant to restore international trust and indicate the Turkish state’s willingness for a more orthodox economic policy. The other two important names that were introduced to the cabinet are former Turkish National Intelligence Organization chief Hakan Fidan, who was appointed as foreign minister to replace Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, and former Turkish Armed Forces General Staff Chief Yaşar Güler, who replaced Hulusi Akar as the national defense minister. Controversial and hardline Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu was also left out of the new cabinet and was replaced by former İstanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya. And among other changes, Erdoğan’s personal advisor and spokesman, İbrahim Kalın, has taken over Hakan Fidan’s position at the helm of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT).

Wishful Thinking versus Reality

For the optimist, these changes could lead to a fresh dynamic and an improved foreign relations climate, especially between Turkey and the West, which has suffered over the years due to recurring crises with the United States, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and become more complicated with Turkey’s growing ties with Russia and China. There is already hope that, in the absence of forthcoming elections and a need for more populism, Erdoğan will be more pragmatic and adopt a more positive attitude. It is not unlikely that we will see more orthodox economic policies put in place, some important foreign policy changes (such as Turkey lifting its veto power over Sweden’s accession to NATO), and more constructive approaches to relations with areas such as Ukraine, Syria and the EU.

After all, this is precisely the new cabinet’s (and new government’s) objective. For example, Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan is an experienced and effective negotiator with deep knowledge of both the diplomatic and “on-the-ground” situations in Syria, Libya, Iraq, US-Turkey or US-Russia relations, and beyond, and is expected to be more pragmatic and less conflictual. But his appointment to the Foreign Ministry entails both a stronger grip by Erdoğan and a harder bargain on key geopolitical issues that remain open in the broader region and at the international level, albeit by someone who maintains functioning relations with everyone. İbrahim Kalın is seen as a more pragmatic official with good relations with Washington as well, and Yaşar Güler has held NATO positions in the past, but he is still seen as a candidate closer to Erdoğan’s vision than Hulusi Akar.

In other words, the message being conveyed by these Cabinet appointments is multivalent and, depending on who is listening, an indication that the logic informing the selections is more image management in the eyes of international onlookers than a genuine or substantial shift in internal politics. Hopes that under Erdoğan’s new government a new dawn will rise for Turkey are misguided and more in the realm of wishful thinking, similar to the misguided great expectations that were placed on Kılıçdaroğlu and the opposition prior to the elections. At this point, one should be able to distinguish between the short-term and the long-term and between the tactical and the strategic, when it comes to Erdoğan’s decisions.

Erdoğan’s vision for the “Century of Turkey,” namely the second century of the Turkish Republic, is irreconcilable with expectations that Turkey will make a radical, or even mildly pro-Western, shift. The Century of Turkey entails, among other things, the promotion of democracy, development, peace and welfare globally. It essentially refers to a more independent and autonomous Turkey in a position to push its own values, principles and interpretations of concepts like democracy, development and peace onto the world, as opposed to the currently dominant principles and normative frameworks put in place by the West. Central to this vision are Erdoğan’s electoral version of authoritarianism and Islamic conservative and nationalist interpretations of peace and democracy.

In this sense, the Century of Turkey encompasses the notion of a geopolitical, civilizational and economic clash between Turkey and the West, driven by myths, narratives and nostalgia about the Ottoman Empire. It could be suggested that the first phase is already underway, as expressed through various crises and Ankara’s continuous efforts to (re)negotiate Turkey’s place within and in relation to the West and the broader regional and international order. Erdoğan is playing the long game. His ultimate and idealistic desire is to restore Turkey to what he believes is its historically rightful position, not only as a great global power but also as the leading country of Islamic civilization, to push it, at least, into being on a par with the West. Turkey’s geopolitical, economic and institutional flirting with Eurasia (e.g., Ankara’s interest in BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) is instrumental to challenging the liberal international order and the United States’ dominance alongside like-minded Eurasian and global South powers.

In a nutshell, this is the Turkish state’s long-term and strategic vision, the proverbial “forest,” and as the saying goes, we should not miss the “forest” for the “trees,” which in this case represent the state’s short-term and tactical moves. Strategies are driven by an objective, no matter how moderate or ambitious, but they also need to be adaptable to survive. One should not mistake a change in tactics — Erdoğan’s efforts to adapt — for a change in overall strategy. And yet this mistake has been repeatedly made in Turkey over the past 15 years by various actors within and outside the country.

We have seen this quest unfold at the regional level, especially after the Arab Spring, and bring Turkey in competition with other ambitious regional powers like Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Iran. Turkey has been more recently trying to alleviate this competition for the sake of its tactical and short-term maneuvering. The recently improved relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia were not only necessary for boosting the Turkish economy through swap deals, but they were also necessary for the Turkish government to adapt to the Middle East’s shifting broader geopolitical climate as relations within the Arab world with Israel increase. The recent normalization of Turkish-Israeli and Turkish-Egyptian relations falls within the same framework, functioning to de-escalate some geopolitical tensions and benefit the economy on the back of trade, tourism and other deals. It also sends a message to the West that Turkey is a trustworthy ally that should not be seen as a spoiler. One should not discount the importance of this policy change for the disruption of Eastern Mediterranean collaboration networks developed between Cyprus and Greece and Israel, Egypt and other extra-regional actors, such as the UAE and France. Having said that, it is highly likely that, just like on the international level, Turkey will return to its subversive foreign policy behavior in the region once it regains its confidence and feels ready again — meaning that the changes currently underway are rather superficial and that, in the medium to long-term, regional competition with the Gulf and other states is likely to resurface.

Erdoğan is a man with a purpose, and he is going to do whatever it takes to advance it. Anyone who follows Turkey’s trajectory during the 21st century with any degree of attention knows this. Beyond his ambitious vision for Turkey, he also has a personal agenda. He wants to leave his mark on Turkish history as the new “Atatürk,” who brought back the country’s old and true essence and glory. His task will not be easy. It could even be argued that it is impossible. He is already tired, and his empire shows clear signs of decline despite his powerful grip on the government. Regional and international actors are increasingly suspicious of Turkey’s role and foreign policy and are more willing to stand their ground or react to Ankara’s demands or actions than go against their own interests. But Erdoğan still knows that his country is important and necessary on a regional level, a fact that he will keep instrumentalizing as a bargaining chip. This means that, at least in the medium to long-term, Turkey will keep negotiating hard for its regional and international role and position. Other actors, particularly the US, NATO and EU, will keep trying to find ways to do business with Turkey while keeping it in check and, to the maximum extent possible, away from further integration into Eurasia. This is a recipe for new tensions, crises, uncertainty and instability, as the world is in the process of transitioning into a post-American order, the nature of which is currently far from clear or certain.

By Zenonas Tziarras

The article was first published by Egyptian newspaper Mada Masr.

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