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A Summer of Discontent Awaits Turkey

Sinan Ciddi
Board of Contributors
6 MINS READMay 3, 2019 | 16:42 GMT
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a campaign rally for the ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara on March 28, 2019.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a campaign rally for the ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara on March 28. Divisions within the party have become apparent since it lost several key municipal elections on March 31.

(ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
  • There are signs of divisions within Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party as it debates how to react to the defeats it suffered in municipal elections on March 31 and whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should soften his authoritarian tactics.
  • Meanwhile, Erdogan's questionable foreign policy and security choices are increasing the possibility of sanctions and a rupture with the United States and NATO.
  • The more Erdogan tries to stiffen his hard-line posture at home and abroad, the more he will struggle to maintain a perception of competence with Turkish citizens who are looking for a leader to choose societal interests over those of power and party.

Although Turkey's local elections may be over, defeats suffered by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) clearly show weakening confidence on the part of voters toward both the party and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Sensing these weaknesses, divisions within the AKP are emerging as Erdogan grapples with how to consolidate his base of power domestically and contemplates how to overcome pressing economic and foreign policy concerns.

Cracks in the Ruling Party

Since Turkey's municipal elections on March 31, the AKP has petitioned the Supreme Electoral Board to invalidate the outcome of the election in Istanbul over alleged irregularities and hold the vote again. In pursuing this path, the AKP appears to be showing deep signs of divisions in its ranks, suggesting that there are party elites who are interested in moving on from the elections to concentrate on Turkey's pressing problems, especially its fragile economy and bilateral relations with the United States. On the other hand, there are party hard-liners who are intent on influencing Erdogan to forcefully challenge the Istanbul result, believing that conceding Turkey's largest city is an unacceptable sign of weakness that will continue to diminish Erdogan's base of power. Separate from these internal divisions is an attempt by former AKP elites to persuade Erdogan to change his authoritarian style of governing to embrace the rule of law and democracy.

Ahmet Davutoglu, a former prime and foreign minister, signaled his intention to establish a new political party to unseat Erdogan and the AKP in a 15-page manifesto released on April 22. Davutoglu called for the AKP to abandon its divisive and polarizing tactics and return to the politics of inclusion and consensus building. The statement said Erdogan should distance himself from his party's alliance with Devlet Bahceli's Nationalist Movement Party because it is damaging the AKP's ability to appeal to the majority of voters.

Erdogan will likely ignore Davutoglu's calls, perceiving him to be an opportunist interested in regaining a position within government. More likely, Erdogan will double down by maintaining an authoritarian grip on power, marginalize the ability of mayors to govern their cities independent of the presidency and reassert himself as the center of power. The bureaucracy and state apparatus will continue to report to Erdogan and the ability of provincial governments run by the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), is unlikely to significantly erode Erdogan's grip on power. The Supreme Electoral Board recently decreed that many of the mayors who won races in the predominantly Kurdish areas of Turkey will not be allowed to assume office since many of them were charged with terrorism because of their alleged connections to the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). In other words, while the AKP may be grudgingly willing to accept that the CHP will be running a significant number of big cities, it will not extend this acceptance to areas won by the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).

Questionable Foreign Policy Choices

It is unclear if Erdogan's hard-line posture will extend into the realm of foreign policy. Following a high-profile visit by Turkish officials to Washington in mid-April, it appears as though Turkey is intent on deploying Russian S-400 missile defense systems despite an unequivocal declaration from the U.S. Congress that doing so would lead the United States to cancel the delivery of roughly 100 F-35 next-generation fighter jets to Turkey. In addition, deploying the S-400 could subject Turkey to U.S. sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which would have dire consequences for the country's ailing economy. Erdogan's spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, recently said it was his understanding that U.S. President Donald Trump would veto any congressional sanction of Turkey. But unlike regular congressional legislation, which Trump can veto, CAATSA specifically directs the president to implement it, suggesting that Turkish officials are unaware of this particular law and that Erdogan is poorly advised. In contrast, however, there is also the possibility that Turkey is trying to leverage maximum gain out of the United States before canceling the S-400 deal at the 11th hour.

What we are witnessing is a badly advised president who is making choices concerning Turkey's long-term strategic and security interests with little credible input from the country's best minds.

For example, Turkey reportedly engaged in recent discussions with the White House to extend the sanctions waiver it had received from the Trump administration to allow it to continue importing Iranian gas and oil in exchange for abandoning the S-400. Last month, the Trump administration said it was ending all such waivers on May 1. The loss of its waiver will significantly increase Turkey's energy bill because it will be forced to import oil and gas from less convenient, more distant suppliers, and it's not a switch Turkey can make quickly. At the same time, Turkey already has been reducing its Iranian imports to comply with U.S. sanctions. So instead, Turkey may be more interested in walking away from the S-400 in return for U.S. permission to conduct discretionary operations against Syrian Kurds. There is no credible evidence, however, to suggest the United States will abandon its Kurdish partners in Syria and permit a Turkish attack against them.

As things stand, it is conceivable that Turkey will go ahead with the S-400 deployment. The Erdogan government does not seem to be able to see that while the Russian missiles provide a tactical advantage, the F-35 would provide a longer-lasting strategic advantage that would allow the Turkish air force to dominate the region's skies for decades to come. Instead, what we are witnessing is a badly advised Turkish president who is making choices concerning Turkey's long-term strategic and security interests with little credible input from the country's best minds. As such, the specter of a rupture with the United States and NATO could arrive as early as June or July. CAATSA sanctions will prevent Turkey from accessing U.S.-led financial institutions, including but not limited to the International Monetary Fund. This is likely to worsen Turkey's already liquidity-starved and heavily indebted private sector of urgently needed capital flows.

Moreover, it is likely to worsen Erdogan's ability to convince his domestic audience that he is a capable, even competent leader. If the recent outcome of the local elections is any measure to go by, it should serve as a stark reminder that the people of Turkey are increasingly looking for Erdogan to make choices that benefit societal interests above those of his and his party's. And they are increasingly ready to look elsewhere if he won't.

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