Turkish politics today, both domestic and foreign, can be summed up in one word: uncertainty. After the failure of the Arab spring, which Ankara had been pinning a lot of hope on, no new strategy has been found. This has led to problems in its foreign policy, and more importantly, in its domestic policy.
The "Party of Justice and Development", which has been ruling since 2002 is still hanging onto power despite everything. But it needs to clearly define its vision for the country's future for the next 10-15 years at a minimum. And this could pose no less of a challenge, and probably even more of one, than everything that has happened to date.
A difficult choice in difficult elections
The last parliamentary elections were the most troubled in Turkey's modern history. After the elections of summer 2015 no government was formed and the country began to descend into a political crisis which in one scenario threatened to produce if not an upheaval then certainly serious problems.
The Party of Justice and Development won a clear victory for the second time in the parliamentary elections, receiving the support of half the voters, to the surprise of nearly everyone. After the preceding voting on 7 June no coalition government was formed, leading to early elections.
Politically, the crisis is over. The opposition admitted defeat and no one took to the streets. President Recep Erdogan and his party received the trust of the people and a carte blanche for several more years. But the main question still remains: what to do next?
These elections were given to Turkey at a great price. Terrorists trying to sow panic among people and to destabilize the country set off a terrible explosion in Ankara which took the lives of 102 people. It was the biggest terrorist attack in the history of Turkey.
On the other hand, the situation in the south east of the country, where Kurdish separatists and extremists have been engaged in a subversive terrorist war, became even more acute. Traditionally the situation on the border with Syria and Iraq has been troubled due to raging civil wars and sectarian conflicts.
With the international recession the "Anatolian tiger", as experts have started calling Turkey in the last few years due to its huge economic successes, has started to limp. In one year the Turkish lira lost almost a third of its value against the dollar.
In this situation the Turkish voter, who is characteristically prudent and votes mainly out of practical interests rather than grandiose ideas, has generally chosen those who have already shown their ability to ensure stability and can bring further benefits to the country in the movement towards justice and development.
The Turkish people, as so often in history, showed its good judgment and common sense. The people chose not only the party that could ensure the most justice and development compared to its predecessors, but also primarily stability and security. The Turks basically realize that the PSR, despite all the questions and objections it may elicit, is the only force in the country that can protect it from the current challenges from within and outside the country (Daish, the Syrian war, Kurdish separatism and terrorism, global powers, economic problems, etc.)
In other words, despite the wide variety of choice, there are no alternatives to the PSR. That is the meaning of the present moment.
A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. All the more so if the birds in the bush turn out, as so often, to be hawks or even crows. People understand this very well intuitively. Despite their religiosity, the Turks are very rational and prudent when it comes to politics, and it might be said, when it comes to material life in general.
The masses are hard to distract with illusions and utopias. People make choices consciously with their heads and hands, not with their hearts, Even with a theoretical understanding of the reality of certain changes, the masses do not agree to them whatever the conditions, if it means substituting the ends (benefit to the state and nation) for the means (reforms). Rocking the boat now would do more damage to oneself. Turks are not ready to pay the price for political games. Nobody wants the government leapfrogging, military coups, unemployment, and rise in crime and chaos on the streets that were common in the 90s.
It is interesting that the terrorist attack in Ankara and the different security threats did not have a serious negative effect on the voting for the PSR. In fact, according to Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the final analysis it was the security services of Bashar Assad who were behind the explosion. They were aiming, apparently, to undermine the PSR's support of the Syrian opposition, hoping to turn people away from "moderate Islamists" as well from people who were incapable of ensuring peace and the defense of citizens within the country.
Efforts by the "parallel government", as it is called in Turkey (organizations close to Fethulla Gulen), to spread conspiratorial stories in the media did not have much effect either. The scandals they organized and their detonation of "information bombs" did not really catch the attention of the masses.
By comparison to June, the PSR showed an almost 10% rise in popularity. The party succeeded in stealing away voters from its competitors. It attracted a part of the nationalist vote as well as pro-Islamist inclined Kurds. In addition, the party's natural base was mobilized even more actively and people who had thought that victory would be achieved even without them came to the booths.
In principle, it was obvious to everyone that it was an honest result. Ballot-rigging in Turkey today is practically unheard of.
On the other hand, Turkey has once again given the Islamic world an example of how to solve contradictions and avoid complex political collisions in a peaceful and democratic way.
Today, no matter what people have been saying in the last few months about Turkey being on the road to revolution, chaos and war, the 'Ak party' has shown that it is too early to write it off. This is a very serious event in Turkish politics and even in its political history.
However, the results of the PSR should also be considered as a sort of credibility test. No one has abolished the need for reforms, changes, development and justice.
In the near future people want to see further economic growth, the resolution of security issues, progress in regulating the Kurdish question, as well as steps to increase the role of religion in culture and social life, and the realization of neo-Ottoman-inspired promises and ideas which the current premier and leader of the PSR Ahmet Davutoglu was talking about enthusiastically 5 years ago. The question is simply how to achieve this under current conditions.
A presidential republic?
Turkey is now a presidential republic. Ahmet Davudoglu is officially head of the government and the ruling party. At the same time the former premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even though he has left his post due to limitations on occupying the position for more than two consecutive terms, remains the most influential politician in the country. The real power is concentrated in his hands.
The current situation recalls the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev in Russia. But everything could soon change. If Turkey is transformed into a presidential republic, then the conflict will resolve itself. Erdogan will become the head of state both de facto and de jure. What is more, he will be able to stand for election in the future another time.
After the parliamentary elections which closed in Turkey on 1 December, Erdogan will need a decision from the mejlis to carry out a referendum, but he does not have enough support among the deputies for this. A referendum is necessary to realize the long-held dream of the Turkish leader, namely to introduce changes to the Constitution and turn the country into a presidential republic with a strong system of ruling,
Strategically, this is a sensible goal: the world in the next 10-15 years is going to go through a stormy period and the country will need a system of strong power. Erdogan wants to build a presidential vertical after the model of the USA, France and Russia, thinks Shamil Sultanov, director of the "Russia-Islamic world" centre.
The Turkish president has no doubt that the referendum will be won, but for this to happen the decision must be taken by the deputies. And here he really needs the help of the Party of National Action (Turk. Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP), the party of Turkish nationalists.
"In this context the defense of the Syrian Turkmens is a tool by which Erdogan is hoping to form an alliance with the MHP. It is telling that a son of the founder of the MHP Alparslan Turkesh became one of the deputies in the Turkish mejlis, appearing on the list of the ruling Party of Justice and Development. So Erdogan need an alliance with the MHP, which holds over fifty votes in the parliament, in order to push through a decision on a referendum. This is important for Recep Erdogan personally as well as for his Party of Justice and Development," observes Sultanov.
Conflict with Russia
A serious challenge for Turkey's foreign and domestic policy was the unexpected conflict with Russia, with whom relations up until the last moment had been not only friendly but even approaching something in the nature of a strategic partnership.
After the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian bomber a serious crisis erupted in this relationship. The world saw its first case of direct armed conflict between an army of NATO and Russia. This had never happened even during the worst years of the Cold War.
At the very least the result was a sharp escalation in Russian-Turkish relations: economic sanctions, trade wars, flight bans, and the drying up of the tourist flow. Possibly, Moscow's support of Kurdish separatism will even increase, as in Soviet times or under Yeltsin. In Syria Turkish citizens are at risk, for example, nationalist volunteers who have recently gone there with official state support to help the Turkmens. At the level of rhetoric, threats and hints are being made about the most radical measures, including the closing of the Bosphorus.
Ankara has reacted by trying to wean itself off Russian gas in favor of Turkmen, Iranian or Azerbaijani supplies. Turkey might also start giving more active support to the Crimean Tatars from the Mejlis and Ukrainian radicals who have organized a food and energy blockade of the peninsula.
At the same time a no-fly zone is being created in Syria along with a buffer zone in Syria Free Army controlled areas bordering Daish. Furthermore, Turkey has moved a limited force into Iraq, causing extra tensions with Moscow.
Today, one can already speak of a sort of hybrid "cold war" between Turkey and Russia. It brings to mind the relationship between Kiev and Russia in the last 2 years.
Nonetheless, it is clear that there will not be a hot conflict between Russia and the NATO member. That would be in no one's interests, including the USA.
Moscow does not need a serious complication either, as after the Ukrainian crisis it is trying to enter into dialogue with the USA via its participation in the Syrian conflict, and any escalation with Ankara (a NATO member) would be extremely unhelpful; and Turkey cannot afford it, as it has quite enough of its own internal problems (it has only just got out of a period of protracted instability). Breaking off with a country which has huge economic interests in common with Ankara would be extremely costly. And you cannot simply tear up multimillion dollar contracts just like that.
So it is likely, and even probable, that in the not too distant future relations will somehow be restored in the economic sphere.
The two great Eurasian powers are doomed to dialogue and collaboration. The guarantee of this is their deep humanitarian and human links.
In reality, political crises pass and nations remain. We will always be neighbors. That is how the Almighty has ordained it. The head of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation recently spoke about this. He called on people not to transfer the conflict in relations between the two nations to the sphere of everyday life and culture.
The political scientist Ruslan Kurbanov also thinks that Russia and Turkey “are doomed to restore relations”.
“Today, both Russia and Turkey, despite the recent history of competition, have far more economic interests than political contradictions. Moreover, nobody is going to try and restore peace in the Middle East after the end of the Syrian conflict apart from our countries, because nobody other than us has an interest in returning this region to a peaceful life. For Turkey, it is literally a question of their next-door neighbor. And for Russia, it is a zone of strategic interest and a question of international honor.
“Of course, we will all have to live through an unpleasant period of mutual accusations by Moscow and Ankara, the introduction of economic sanctions and limitations on each other. But the need for common resolution of joint tasks will in time take the upper hand,” reckons Kurbanov.
For us, the regular inhabitants of the two countries, the best thing is “not to give in to hysteria and tit-for-tat political declarations between our countries; rather we should realize that this is not about a clash between the Turkish and Russian nations. It is just a temporary crisis in relations between the elites in a highly tense situation of global conflict in a highly inflammatory conflict-ridden region, where every step made by the other side is interpreted as a direct challenge,” added the expert.
At the same time, of course, it would be wrong to speak of any military or political alliance, at any rate in the next few years.
In order to understand Ankara’s harsh reaction to what it considered a violation of its air space by a Russian plane, one must understand the most painful sore spots of Turkish foreign policy. This primarily concerns the Turkish population of Syria and Iraq, the Crimean Tatars and the issue of the so-called Armenian genocide. So when Russian air forces began major bombings of the Syrian Turkmens opposing Assad (who are certainly not Daish), Ankara was obviously very unhappy.
This is the very same foreign policy question which is strongly affecting domestic politics. The citizens of the country are expressing extreme indignation at Russia’s attacks on their “fellow” Turkmens, and the rulers cannot remain silent in such circumstances and ignore public opinion.
Not long ago during elections the ruling party promised to defend its citizens from any internal or external threat. Ignoring challenges like a foreign bomber’s violation of its airspace is simply not a possibility.
The situation with Crimea is very similar. In Turkey there are 3-5 million Crimean Tatars and their descendants. This is a significant proportion of the electorate.
However, even the Crimean question is not as painful as the problem of the Syrian Turkmens. As regards Crimea, Ankara in general took a very restrained position after it was annexed by Russia.
For Turkey, Syria is like Crimea and the Donbass for Russia, especially its Turkmen part. The Turks, I should emphasize, consider themselves to belong to the same people as the Syrian Turkmens. A huge part of the population is feeling their pain. This can be seen quite easily by looking at social networks. There have been several public campaigns.
So the action over the Russian plane met with complete understanding and support from the people, and one can observe a sort of rise in patriotic feeling. This step consolidated the divided population after the recent elections, conflicts and terrorist attacks.
On this “hot” wave of public opinion Erdogan’s positions are being strengthened, leaving him hopeful about turning Turkey into a presidential republic. With an exacerbated mood in the country there is good reason to return to this idea.
The phenomenon of the Party of Justice and Development and its leader Recep Erdogan is deserving of serious and deep study. On the one hand the “Ak parti”, due to its origins, can be considered pro-Islamic, and expressive of the interests and hopes of the religious sections of Turkey’s population. But on the other hand, from a strictly academic point of view, the party is right centrist and moderate conservative. It calls itself “conservative-democratic”.
Thus many political scientists compare the PSR not to the Arab Islamists, but rather to the European Christian democratic parties and even, in the opinion of the first assistant head of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, Damir Mukhetdinov, to “United Russia”. “In reality, the model of ‘Muslim democracy’ developed by Ankara can probably be seen as a ‘cousin’ of our ‘sovereign democracy’,” he writes.
In essence, the PSR has gone from being a moderate Islamist or conservative democratic party with a Muslim cultural background (as political scientists have somewhat differently described its ideology) to being the political centre of the Turkish state today, its political administrative centre of gravity – the party of the Turkish state, in other words. This is the position once occupied by the National Republican party that is now in opposition.
Clearly, this being the case, the entire nomenclature and bureaucratic elite has assembled under the umbrella of the PSR, although these elements are comfortable with any regime. Erdogan’s previous allies from “Saadet” and other pro-Islamic and nationalist pro-Islamic parties (which do exist) have criticized them for making a move towards Erdogan’s “grey jackets”.
For many functionaries and supporters of the PSR, Islam is more of a cultural phenomenon. Jenny White, an American professor, calls this “Muslim nationalism”. “It is really a sort of Sunni nationalistic project, not a religious one. In Russia, you have a similar situation: Orthodoxy is not only or even a religion that one must practice every day, it is more a national identity,” reckons the Turkologist, Ilshat Saetov
In his words, “16-17% of Turks according to the latest data are religious, while almost 70% are just traditional, that is, they go to the mosque once a week, but they might have drink once in a while.”
The success of Erdogan and his party lies in his ability to respond to the hopes and implement the measures which at the turn of the century had become practically obvious to everyone in Turkey. This includes the liberalization and democratization of social, economic and political life, including ending the dictatorship of the military in the sphere of strategic governance and creating the conditions for the development of medium and small business. It includes the resolution of the Kurdish question through recognition of the cultural rights and characteristics of this people. It includes ending the policy of marginalizing and discriminating against believers – such as the removal of comprehensive bans and limitations on the hijab, which had become symbolic and highly painful for the country as a whole.
All these measures, along with the neo-Ottoman approach in foreign policy as expressed in Davutoglu’s formula “zero problems with the neighbors” produced enormous results in the 2000s. Turkey took second place in the world for rates of economic growth, second only to China. There was a noticeable rise in the population’s living standards. Political life was democratized, culture and the social sphere revived. Believers and religion in general came out in the public space. Turkey could lay claim to being a regional superpower. Historic comprises were achieved with the surrounding states, new markets were opened up, and huge investment flowed in, and so on.
As the Turkologist Alexander Sotnichenko has observed, the stategy of “zero problems with the neighbors allowed Turkey to normalize relations with nearly all the bordering states and start a process of mutually beneficial cooperation with them.
During the 2007 and 2011 elections the ruling party managed to strengthen its position significantly due to its successful social and economic policy. The authority of its leader, Erdogan, grew both within the country and abroad. After 12 years in power the government successfully curbed inflation, increased GDP threefold and exports fivefold, and joined the G20.
And now the big cities are awash with work advertisements, new metro lines are being built (which did not even exist in the country before), and new regions are springing up 15 years after being settled. Istanbul’s population has grown to 20 million, and its area is now five times the size of Moscow (!). Despite all the reservations and criticisms, Turks have never felt as successful in the entire history of the republic as now.
The PSR was appealing to an electoral base consisting of the religious majority of the country, which had been discriminated against by previous governments. So the “rehabilitation of Islam” and the return of religion to the public space and the successful fight against secular military circles were met with ardent support from a huge number of people in the country. Not long ago, throughout the decades of Kemalism, Turkey was in large part a 3rd world agrarian country that was ruled by a pro-Western elite (or rather, one that understood itself in this way) that was alien to the overwhelming mass of the population. Real modernization, meaning institutions and social-economic foundations rather than clothing, morals and ways of behavior, gained momentum with the “moderate Islamists”. Successful modernization and urbanization were certainly not carried out by secularists or using their formulas. People can see that. They see people who can really achieve a result. They may not be sympathetic to everyone, but they are successful. The party responds to this with its slogan about real deeds and its long enumeration of successful major projects. The classic answer to the question of who to vote for is: “For the PSR. Because now there is no alternative to them.”
The local elections in March 2014 were not affected by the corruption scandals or the infamous clashes between the informal youth and the police in Gezi park in Istanbul in the summer of 2013. The ruling party received 43%. And this figure is even higher than before, which says a lot about the levels of trust among the electorate.
At the same time as a result of the referendum Erdogan has managed to change the Constitution, taking the army out of politics and declaring presidential elections universal. In August 2014 he won in the first round, getting more than 50% of the votes. This was to be the last major undisputed victory of the PSR and its leader.
People are highly sensitive to the political moment. The opposition looks very feeble compared to Erdogan and his circle. Opponents of the PSR do not really have anything to show. They have no attractive ideas that would distinguish them in principle from the ruling party.
At the peak of its influence the PSR took over and absorbed the nationalist, liberal and partially even the Kemalist discourse, and formed from it a new direction for the state. In the Islamic field no competitor has arisen even after Fetullah Gulen’s followers left the party.
The confidence of the PSR has forced the opposition to take unexpected steps. Even the Kemalist NRP, which for decades saw its main task as the marginalization of religion and the enforcement of absurd bans, sometimes speaks in the language of moderate Islamists. And one can see even women in headscarves at their rallies. On the other hand, the classical Islamists from “Saadet” are making contacts with the secular forces. In general almost all the opposition parties are trying to find some sort of common language in order to create an effective model of resistance to the PSR’s total power.
Erdogan and his party started having problems after the Arab Spring. Its failure created a vacuum in Turkish politics. The fact is that Ankara got actively involved in supporting revolutionary processes, but was not sufficiently prepared for it, and indeed could not have been sufficiently prepared. The wave had appeared when no one expected it. The burden turned out to be too heavy.
Relations with its neighbors became tense. Now, the same can be said of Russia. A war started on Turkey’s borders, in Syria, and then Daish appeared.
In other words, Turkey has changed course or been forced to change course due to unexpected disturbances, and has reflexively started focusing on a direction that has encountered not a string of quick successes, as was expected, but rather enormous problems. No new counter-strategy has appeared. The whole system has started to erode, even though this has not led to a sharp fall in people’s trust towards the PSR, i.e. the problem is not a threat to the party’s power, but only concerns attempts to dispute Erdogan’s leadership.
The opposition has got stronger, and is launching a new challenge to the president. This includes a powerful blow from recent allies from the Fetullah Gulen movement. There has been heightened criticism of the government by other pro-Islamist parties and other influential groups. Erdogan is being accused of being authoritarian and using religion to shore up his own power. The courts are seeing cases about corrupting among the top echelons of power. The strategy of regulating the Kurdish question has failed: military action and terrorist attacks have begun again. And a new security threat has appeared in the form of Daish.
It is true that Erdogan is still actively supported in average Anatolian cities where the population is 100-500 thousand people, that is, among people who have received the opportunity to earn money and want that opportunity to be preserved. But Erdogan and the PSR have noticeably lost support among the average educated classes of the big cities.
The internal crisis has reached even the PSR itself. A conflict has arisen. The old model is exhausted, and no one is able to propose anything new. The decision was taken by itself. This includes technocracy, the power of professionals, the politics of real deeds. But this approach is unlikely to solve the problem. Erdogan needs, in his third term in power, a new complex model of transformations, and not an inferior product hastily cobbled together to deal with current exigencies.
This is the context in which it has become necessary to seek a way out of the government’s crisis, to conduct one election campaign after another, to stuff up the holes in the economy. A recession has started, and the lira is losing its value.
On the other hand, the economic difficulties are still not deep enough to crucially change life and the order of things. The problems are more noticeable for economists than for the simple person, especially when compared to neighboring Greece and the general crisis in southern Europe, not to mention the wars in Syria and Iraq. So the opposition’s attempts to ascribe economic failures to Erdogan do not seem very convincing to the masses.
The people have calculated that the PSR should carry on being at the helm. Erdogan and his party will have to show in the coming months that they have lived up to the trust shown them.
You cannot build a long-term political strategy only on the lack of an alternative. Obviously a new agenda will be formulated and proposed, which takes into account past errors and new threats.
In the final analysis, the voter chose the PSR not so much because he supports Islamists, or because he is unhappy with the previous policy of the Kemalists and the military, or for some other ideological reason. People want to see stable economic growth continue, their paychecks and medical insurance get bigger, and so on. The PSR managed to do all that better than anyone else before.
Despite the truly serious nature of the questions outside the country, Turkish politics is primarily inward focused. Whatever the weather, strengthening the state and the economy remains the top priority. This means that Erdogan 2.0 and his team with their rebranded project will continue to pursue purely pragmatic goals rather than some sort of utopian ideas, as his opponents sometimes try to depict the situation.
Abdulla Rinat Muhametov, PhD in politics