Worried over security, Turkey rallies behind Erdogan

Belying the predictions of almost the entire community of political observers in Turkey and abroad, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has won a landslide victory in Sunday’s parliamentary poll. The Justice & Development Party (AKP), which he had founded and remains his power base, secured over 49% of the votes, giving it 315 seats in the 550-member parliament.

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This is indeed Erdogan’s victory, since his imprimatur is writ large on it. Although holding a constitutional position he ought to be above the hurly-burly of party politics, he was unfazed, barely concealing his canvassing for the AKP.

Thus, the consequences of the AKP’s success in forming yet another single-party government – third in a row – translate as much as a great leap forward for Erdogan’s political future as into new directions of Turkish policies.

To be sure, Erdogan’s politics of fear and division has proved hugely successful. He already had a hardcore ‘Islamist’ constituency and to that he managed to rope in a thick slice of extreme nationalist voters and the combination has proved unbeatable.

There is no real contradiction here because Islamism (read religion) and ultra-nationalism do make fellow travellers. Rhetoric is the glue that binds them and Erdogan is a first-rate demagogue. (India’s shining example personified by the present government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes to mind.)

For Erdogan, Sunday’s poll was a do-or-die event and he is expected to push forward his agenda of constitutional reform to establish a presidential form of government. In any case, his executive authority remains unchallenged under an AKP government that will surely follow the script he hands down on policy matters.

Erdogan has displayed an authoritarian streak in his highly personalized form of governance, intolerance towards dissent, crackdown on the media and unconstitutional methods.

A petition was addressed to him only Saturday by a group of internationally-known editors including such figures as Dean Baquet of the New York Times, David Remnick of the New Yorker and Michele Leridon of the Agence France-Presse conveying their dismay over the Turkish government’s “concerted campaign to silence any opposition or criticism of the government in the run up to the election” and pointing finger at the rising “culture of impunity” in the country hindering journalists from doing their work” and urging Erdogan to “foster a culture where press freedom is fully respected”.

Interestingly, in a remark on Friday in Washington, the US State Department spokesman John Kirby also urged Turkey to “uphold universal democratic values … including due process, freedom of expression and assembly, and of course access to media and information.”

Simply put, Erdogan is a controversial figure in the western opinion. However, he is unlikely to be perturbed by it and, in fact, may have good use for it in his scheme of things. For one thing, the West’s stock is very low in the Muslim Middle East, which is Erdogan’s favorite parish. Second, he knows that at this point in time, the West needs him and cannot afford to alienate him.

The refugee crisis and the threat posed by the Islamic State compel the West to appease Erdogan. On a recent visit to Brussels, the European Union gave him a red carpet welcome and even proposed a resumption of talks on Turkey’s accession.

The EU offered a generous handout in billions of euros if only Turkey would keep the Syrian refugees on its soil. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to Ankara with the same objective, although she makes no bones about her opposition to Turkey’s EU membership.

As for the United States, the equations between President Barack Obama and Erdogan have been icy cool. Erdogan’s bitter acrimony with the shadow Islamist group led by Fetullah Gulen, based in US and enjoying American patronage, cannot but cause friction in Turkey-US relations.

Again, Washington disapproves of Turkey’s dalliance with Islamists and Hamas and is unhappy that Erdogan ignored its entreaties to him to kiss and make up with Israel.

But, having said that, for the US’ Middle East strategies today, it is imperative that the access to the Incirlik air base (and Turkish territory) continues to be available for mounting an effective military campaign against the IS.

On the other hand, a genuine US-Turkey convergence on Syria remains problematic, given  Obama’s reluctance to get entangled in the conflict and the US’s selective co-option of the Syrian Kurds as its key partner in fighting the IS.

Erdogan is unlikely to militarily challenge the US’ dealings with the Syrian Kurds, but he could be uncooperative in many ways that matter in practical terms.

In fact, it is Erdogan’s imminent pivot on Syria that engages maximum attention today. He must be sensing already that a Syrian peace process is within the realms of possibility. Turkey has already shifted to a stance that it can live with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad remaining in power in a transition for a period of six months.

Arguably, Turkey’s top priority is going to be the prevention of a Kurdish autonomous region shaping up in northern Turkey as part of any settlement.

Erdogan realizes that his hopes of a Muslim Brotherhood government succeeding the Assad regime are unrealistic. Turkey has been party to the communiqué issued after the talks in Vienna on Friday, which deems it “fundamental” that Syria should remain united and independent, with its territorial integrity and secular character remaining intact.

In all probability, therefore, Erdogan will engage Russia and Iran in an attempt to reach a consensus regarding the Turkish concerns in Syria. The bottom line for Turkey will be the prevention of any form of Syrian ‘Kurdistan’ appearing on its borders.

Turkey and Iran – and, ironically, Assad himself – have been traditionally on the same page with regard to tackling Kurdish separatism, and in the current scenario, it is unlikely that Russia will encourage the Syrian Kurds to press ahead with their agenda to form an autonomous region in northern Syria.

In all this, what cannot be overlooked is that Erdogan has gone beyond any Turkish leader in the country’s history to signal willingness to accommodate the Kurdish aspirations. True, in the past year he has veered round to a hardline on the Kurdish issue – branding it as a manifestation of ‘terrorism’ – and opted for a harsh security crackdown in the Kurdish regions of eastern Turkey.

But then, this also needs to be put in perspective against the backdrop of a crucial battle for capturing political power in the next parliament where Erdogan needed to whip up the ultra-nationalist forces by presenting himself as the custodian of the Turkish state.

The point is, Erdogan is a man of many parts. He has taken many avatars. From the controversial beginning as an ‘Islamist lite’, he easily switched tack to project himself as a modernizer and reformist, keen to navigate Turkey’s passage to a common European home.

He then promised to be a messiah of economic development – and, indeed, Turkey touched an unprecedented level of prosperity under his rule.

But as he gradually abandoned his European project, adopted a ‘Look East’ approach with strong ‘neo-Ottoman’ slant, began aggrandizing state power in his hands and took to authoritarian rule, he alienated the liberal constituency.

The June elections saw the erosion in his electoral base. Erdogan has since reached out to the ultra-nationalist constituency to make up for the electoral deficit. He stands today with the backing of a formidable coalition of Islamists and ultra-nationalists.

However, Erdogan has not reached his final destination. He is only ending Act III in a five-act drama.

Erdogan does not have to face any elections till 2019 – local, parliamentary or presidential – and four years is a long time in politics.

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