What are the prospects Turkey is facing under President Erdogan, widely seen as increasingly authoritarian leader? Radio VR discusses it with Erkan Saka, Research Fellow of the Bilgi University, and Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere, political analyst based in Istanbul.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has effectively won the first-ever direct presidential elections in Turkey, having served as the country’s Prime minister since 2003. His victory, though uncontested, has stirred different reactions. Having gained 52% of the votes according to preliminary results, Mr. Erdogan vowed to build a “new Turkey” and reconcile a divided country. Yet, he is seen as increasingly conservative Islamist leader, and the prospect of his staying in power for two more terms, till 2024, raises anxiety with some.
In its article ‘Age of Erdogan’ The Times has described him as a ‘formidable politician’.
“The election result confirms the longest-serving leader in NATO as the heavyweight of the region, with a growing voice in Syria, Iraq and Kurdistan, and a brief to further modernize his country”, it writes. But, to quote the Asian Age (India) both Erdogan and Turkey may face turbulent times ahead as he prepares to beef up the powers of the President, which in recent years has been a largely ceremonial role.
Says Erkan Saka, Research Fellow of the Bilgi University, Turkey:
“In fact, it was sort of expected that the opposition parties would challenge him more, at least that was the expectation, and that he would win in the second round. But it didn’t happen like that and he won in the first round.
Now the opposition tries to define who is to blame, basically. And there is this accusatory tone. Everybody blames the others. In the meantime, this is the lowest turnout in an election for the last decade. It seems that many opposition citizens did not go to vote and they didn’t like the opposition candidates.
I think the campaigning has also had problems. And many citizens in the opposition couldn’t really identify themselves with the main opposition candidate. So, they even refused to go to vote.
But then, what should we expect in Turkey now?
Says Erkan Saka: The thing is that Erdogan has been ruling for a while like the President. In fact, in the last few years, if you think about it. So, I guess, in one sense, there won’t be a very huge change in the style of governing. The former President was not very effective in challenging the Prime Minister.
I assume that one man’s state, one-party-rule style of governing will continue now with more symbolic backing and maybe more legally based. But I'm not expecting a huge change in the style of governing, because it is already happening. Erdogan acted like a President for a while, but, maybe, now he will push for some constitutional changes, so that a real presidency can start.
Also, there are rumors that because he becomes the President now, he cannot control his party as he would want to. Maybe, there will be rivalries within his party. And maybe because of the rivalries within the party, there might be some changes on the political scene. But it is too early to say now.
If we compare the style of Erdogan in 2003 and that of Erdogan now, how has it been changing and what further changes in his style do we need to expect?
Says Erkan Saka: Three years ago there was this referendum that changed the structure of the higher legal structures in Turkey. Since then, there was a radical change in his style of governing.
Before he was promoted and accepted as a more conservative democratic politician, who was defeating the old regime elements that were not liked much by many sections of the society.
But since these legal changes that nobody, no institution could challenge Erdogan’s ruling, Erdogan seems to have switched to a more authoritarian manner of governing. And since then, he is one-by-one eliminating the possible challenges to him – structural, institutional or personal.
Another symbolic turning point would be the Gezi Park protests. And since then he acts more like an authoritarian leader, and he is not ashamed of it. In fact, he even promotes it.
So, we could say that at one point he shifted from a conservative democratic politician to an authoritarian one and this goes on like this right now”.
This hardly makes Western politicians happy. But then, what do we need to expect of Turkey in the coming decade? How is the Turkish foreign policy likely to progress in the rapidly changing regional and global landscape?
Says Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere, Political analyst and journalist based in Istanbul:
“That’s, of course, still one of the question marks. And we don’t know for sure how Mr. Erdogan will interpret his role as the President, because, according to the constitution, the President in Turkey is, first and foremost, a representative and has little to do with shaping up the foreign policy.
However, Mr. Erdogan wants to change the constitution and have more powers as the President too. But this won’t happen in the next month and can only after the next national elections with the three-fifth majority in the Parliament. So, it concerns more how he will interpret his role and his role in the foreign policy. But I don’t see that there will be a big change, because he was the Prime Minister before and with the same personnel in different positions Turkey will continue.
But, like we said, the situation around Turkey has been changing quite rapidly. There was tension building up in its relations with the US. The regional landscape has been transformed. Now we have the Islamic State gaining ground. How is Turkey going to react to those changes?
Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere: Turkey is in a very difficult situation, because everything happens very close to its borders. And it shows one of the many misinterpretations and miscalculations of Turkey’s foreign policy of the past years. It thought that supporting the opposition in Syria, it could get rid of Assad and facilitate a regime change relatively quickly. And then, be in good relations with the new Syrian Government.
So, Turkey has actively supported the IS and its forerunners – al-Nusra and the other smaller and even very radical Islamic groups, which are now taking over large parts of Iraq and are also threatening to go on to the Turkish territory, and enlarge their share.
The relations of the Turkish Government with the US, and especially of the Prime Minister Erdogan, were very bad. Obama and Erdogan didn’t talk for the past month. Of course, still, there was a communication between the foreign ministers, but it is not that Turkey has a great share in what is going on it Iraq and among the foreign politics deciding what to do against the IS. It is more or less sidelined and to a certain degree isolated on the international arena.
And what is the stance of Turkey on the situation in Gaza and Syria?
Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere: Turkey has been supporting the Palestinians over the last years, mostly Hamas, Fatah less. In the current crisis, it has been strongly siding with Hamas and condemning Israel. This again has led to the worsening of the relations with Israel, which have improved a little bit at the beginning of the year with the help of the US mediation. Now, again, the relations are almost nonexistent. Turkey is supporting Hamas, but what do they want to get from that, it is not really clear.
Taking into account the position of the US and the EU on the situation around Israel, does that imply that Turkey is actually drifting away from those two international entities?
Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere: Currently, yes. The relations are not really great between Turkey and the US, and the EU. But that doesn’t mean that the relations with the neighboring countries are good. Currently, Turkey does not have an ambassador in Egypt, in Israel and Syria. It does not have really very good relations with any of the southern neighbors and their governments. The best relations are with the Iraqi Kurds and with the Hamas. And it is not that Turkey is very influential among the Arab neighbors either.
There’s been some talk about Turkey being part of that Eurasian initiative. What is the Eurasian dimension of Turkey’s foreign policy?
As the relations with the EU are worsening, Turkey and Prime Minister Erdogan voiced several times that he is thinking of alternatives. One is the Eurasian Union, the other is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. But there is not much positive response among the wider circles within Turkey, because these unions exist on paper, but they don’t have much work going on as the EU, and they are not as much linked as the EU.
And on the other hand, these are not really democratic countries. And if Turkey wants to become a modern democracy with the high standards on human rights, on the freedom of expression, then it is not really an alternative to look towards China, Iran or Russia.
And how do you see the relations with Russia developing in the coming years?
Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere: Even if the Foreign Minister Davutoğlu will become the Prime Minister, there will be a new Foreign Minister, but the personal relations between Erdogan and Putin seem to be relatively okay. There are a lot of economic relations, be it resources from Russia or construction companies from Turkey. Now Turkey might even profit from the sanctions that the EU countries have put on Russia. So, I think that will continue on a good basis.
You said that Turkey might profit. But Turkey is also a NATO country.
Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere: Frankly, there is not much talk about it in Turkey, what that could imply being a NATO member. There is more talk that if Russia cannot import certain goods, agricultural ones especially, then Turkey might fill that void and even increase its exports to Russia, since their relations with the EU are not so good, currently. And I would think that many in Turkey would opt for trying to fill that void and improving the economic relations with Russia. There isn’t any obstacle that I see for being a NATO member and not participating in the sanctions of the EU.