Views: US to reconsider Turkey relations, and Erdoğan in for a win?

Two thought provoking pieces, written by keen observers of Turkey, deserve to be mentioned here, and demand attention.

The first one underlines an immense dilemma for the Obama Administration on how to approach Turkey, and specifically, Erdoğan.

The other, is a bet on how Erdoğan is riding the storm successfully and may end up, against all odds, as a winner. 

While I reflect with gloom on the first article, I disagree with the second one, on the basis that it is far too early by Turkish measures.

Let us have a look.

Whatever his achievements over the past decade, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is destroying his country’s parlous democracy. That is a profound problem for Turks and Turkey’s Western allies.Staying silent, out of fear that speaking out would harm some short-term interests, risks Turkey’s longer-term stability, write Morton Abramowitz and Eric Edelman, former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey and co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Turkey Initiative, in an Op-Ed article for Washington Post, together with Blaise Misztal, acting director of foreign policy at the center.

Here are some excerpts:

Last month police arrested more than 50 people close to Erdogan’s government — including prominent business executives and sons of government ministers — on charges of corruption. While graft has long permeated Turkish governments, these allegations are unprecedented. They reach high levels of governmentand involve not just domestic transgressions but also sizable evasions of Iranian sanctions

Rather than ensuring a meticulous examination of these charges, Erdogan is burying them. He has removed the case’s lead prosecutors and some 3,000 police officers nationwide, sought to increase government control over a weak judiciary, limited the ability of police to conduct independent investigations, prevented journalists from reporting on the case and mounted a media campaign to destroy his enemies — particularly the followers of powerful religious leader Fethullah Gulen, who were once his strongest allies. And, as he did when protests erupted against his government last summer, Erdogan portrays the events as a massive plot against him. He has also implicated other opposition parties and foreign powers and even threatened to expel the U.S. ambassador.

These are not the actions of a politician simply seeking to stave off scandal. Erdogan is exploiting the allegations to further stifle dissent and strengthen his grip on Turkey.

His tactics are not new. When challenged, Erdogan has sought to destroy his opponents rather than compromise. After effectively sidelining the military’s political influence , Erdogan went after other centers of power: mediabusiness leaders and civil society; now, the Gulenists, a strong, politically effective community. The prime minister has exploited crises — whether real or manufactured — to undermine the rule of law.

The protests in Gezi Park last year and the present scandal are neither isolated domestic disturbances nor simple political infighting. Their occurrence and the government’s reaction are symptomatic of a struggle between an increasingly authoritarian government, which seeks to reduce resistance to its rule, and opposition movements ranging from secular liberals to conservative Gulenists.

That struggle has entered a new phase. Turkey has important local elections at the end of March, followed by presidential and parliamentary campaigns. Erdogan has not yet declared whether he will seek the presidency or reelection as prime minister, but he is intent on continuing to run Turkey. These allegations, and his subsequent actions, could lower his vote tallies; they have given the opposition parties new life.

Turkey’s democratic decline creates a pressing dilemma for the United States. Erdogan’s current course would take Turkey from an imperfect democracy to an autocracy. Such a fate for a close ally and NATO member would have profound implications for our partnership, the United States’ beleaguered credibility and the prospects for democracy in the region. It would also threaten Turkey’s economy.

Erdogan’s denunciation of supposed U.S. meddling puts Washington in a difficult position: If the United States weighs in on the scandal, it might give his accusations merit and rally more supporters to his side.

Yet for much of Erdogan’s rule, the U.S. approach has been mostly public silence on unfavorable developments, with occasional private rebukes. As we argued in a recent Bipartisan Policy Center report, this strategy has not succeeded. It has not influenced important aspects of Erdogan’s foreign policy, which have often diverged from U.S. policy; moderated his confrontational rhetoric; or led to a less antagonistic domestic policy. Indeed, U.S. silence all these years might have encouraged Erdogan.

U.S. policymakers should lay aside their reluctance to confront the disastrous impact of Erdogan’s dictatorial tendencies and remind the Turkish leader of the importance the United States attaches to Turkey’s political stability and democratic vitality. Particularly as their influence is greater than it appears: While Turks do not trust the United States, neither do they like to be at odds with it.

….

However significant U.S. interests with Turkey are, neither silence nor platitudes will help halt its political descent.

….

Erdogan is doing great harm to Turkey’s democracy. The United States should make clear, privately and publicly, that his extreme actions and demagoguery are subverting Turkey’s political institutions and values and endangering the U.S.-Turkey relationship.’

Read the full article here.

And, Steven Cook, another expert on Turkey and Egypt, predicts that Erdoğan after all might win in the upcoming elections.

Here are some parts from his blog:

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a stunningly gifted politician.  He can be thuggish, high-handed, painfully arrogant, but he also seems to have an innate sense of what makes many Turks tick and how to connect with them.  The Gezi Park protests that began last spring—and never really ended—brought tens of thousands of people out into the streets in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, as well as smaller demonstrations in other cities to denounce the Turkish leader and his AK Party, but Erdogan was able to muster hundreds of thousands of supporters in response.  At the time I wrote that Erdogan was weak and vulnerable precisely because the prime minister felt compelled to stage rallies to prove his popularity.  That piece seems to dovetail well with more recent articles wondering if the current corruption scandal roiling Turkey means the “end of Erdogan” or whether his days “are numbered.” I stand by everything I wrote in “The Strong Man at His Weakest,” but Erdogan is not going anywhere.  He may even be the prime minister again. That does not mean that the apparent slugfest has not damaged Erdogan, it certainly has. Yet these injuries (mostly self-inflicted) are offset by the fact that the prime minister’s opponents have some significant political disadvantages and constraints of their own.  It may not seem that way, but upon close inspection Tayyip Bey may very well ride out this scandal.

It seems that everyone in Ankara and Washington is waiting for Turkish president Abdullah Gul to exploit the prime minister’s current problems and wrest control of the AKP.  This makes sense, Gul is an enormously appealing personality.  Like Erdogan, he is charismatic, but in an altogether different way.  Gul is the quieter, confident, more thoughtful and statesman-like of the two.

By all measures, Gul is popular among Turks.  Large and enthusiastic crowds turn out to greet him whenever he travels around the country, leading some observers to speculate that Turkish voters might be tired of Erdogan’s bombast in favor of a more understated leader like Gul. Finally, the president has signaled, albeit mostly implicitly, that he disapproves of Erdogan’s decidedly illiberal turn domestically and his undisciplined approach to the world.

Whether the president has guts is not the problem.  Gul is an important figure in Turkey and in the AKP—he was among the party’s founders in August 2001 and served as Justice and Development’s first prime minister while Erdogan remained banned from politics—but one wonders how broad and deep his support runs in the party.  Of government ministers, I count only one who has remained solidly in the Gul camp while others became Erdogan men and the party’s parliamentary caucus belongs to the prime minister.

There have been stories coming out of Ankara about a steady stream of AKP notables making their way to Gul’s office to encourage him to enter the political arena when his term is up this summer and take on Erdogan. That is good news for Gul boosters, but I am not sure this pilgrimage adds up to that much politically.  It is true that leaders tend to wear out their welcome after a decade—give or take a few years—and there is a noticeable uptick in Erdogan-fatigue of late, compounded by the corruption scandal. Yet the prime minister’s eleven years in office combined with both his particular political style and the fact that Gul’s position places him above politics gives Erdogan a certain advantage.

The AK party is vertically and horizontally integrated into political and economic life of the country.  Erdogan’s patronage networks have taken a hit recently and the press is getting a bit braver, but these are not necessarily fatal problems for the prime minister.  I do not mean to minimize his political problems nor the very real challenge that the corruption investigations pose to Erdogan’s mastery of the political arena, but the prime minister still has considerable resources at his disposal that Gul does not have, if only because the president by dint of the apolitical nature of his office has not been pulling the levers and making things happen since 2007 when he was elected to the post.

In addition to weighing his chances in a fight with Erdogan, Gul has to calculate how much damage it would do to the AKP.  The party may have become an expression of Erdogan, but it is also Gul’s baby and the vehicle for the president’s own success and Turkey’s transformation.  More than anything else an Erdogan-Gul fight for political supremacy will do considerable damage to the AKP and up-end both men’s ambitions.  Some observers do not think this is necessarily a bad idea and that it might be good for Turkish democracy if the inevitable result of an AKP clash of titans is a second center-right party.  It could be, but these observers are not Abdullah Gul, who has an entirely different set of issues, incentives, and constraints to consider.  And anyway it is important to remember that the last time there were two viable center-right parties in Turkey—Dogru Yol and Anavatan—it did not have a salutary effect on democracy.

The wild card here is Fethullah Gulen, the cleric and theologian who commands a huge following in Turkey (from Pennsylvania).  The corruption scandal is widely believed to be part of a larger battle between Gulen and Erdogan over who is the biggest man in Turkish politics: Gulen is rumored to have struck a deal with CHP leaders to throw his support behind Sarigul in the elections.

It would be a setback to Erdogan if he loses Istanbul, his hometown. A symbolic blow to be sure, but in order to divine the prime minister’s political future, analysts are going to have to take a hard look at the local elections returns from all over the country.  Even then, it might not tell us very much.  In 2009, AKP candidates for local positions collectively garnered 38.9 percent of the vote, which was an 8-percentage point decrease from the party’s totals in the 2007 national parliamentary election. It did not tell us anything about the AKP’s prospects because the party came roaring back in the 2011 parliamentary elections with 49.95 percent of the vote—the most ever for a Turkish political party since 1954.

I can hear the screaming of every Turkey watcher from Washington to Brussels.  I can assure them, I recognize the significant differences between 2009/2011 and now.  My only points are that no one has any inkling about the likely outcome of a Turkish election until about 2 or 3 weeks before the polls open and don’t count out Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  He is too good a politician and his opponents have more challenges going into these elections than people realize.

No one should be surprised if they wake up on March 31 and it is Erdogan for the win.’

For full article, click here.

 

 

 

 

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About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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