BEYOND THE BOSPHORUS: Turkey on the edge of the abyss

By bne IntelliNews October 26, 2015

Suna Erdem in London -


The abyss is a dark, miserable place and Turkey is on the verge of plunging into it with both feet. Even before two suicide bombs hit Ankara just three weeks shy of the general election, political instability, an economic downturn, violence along Turkey’s southern border and renewed civil strife at home had been raising alarm bells.

Since at least 99 leftists and Kurds were killed at a peace rally in what has been described as Turkey’s 9/11, Turkey has been talked about as a “failed state” and compared to Pakistan. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly frenzied behaviour as he seeks to cement his rule by changing the entire state structure to favour his own presidential ambitions, has been likened to the impetuous folly of King Lear. Once the star of a troubled region, Turkey is now anything but. “We’ve been saying for years that if [the government] doesn’t change its polarizing, discriminatory language, this country would become unliveable and ungovernable,” warns Mehmet Y. Yilmaz, a leading columnist.

November 1 sees a rerun of an election called, effectively, because Erdogan didn’t like the results of the last one in June. Then, his Justice and Development Party (AK) lost its majority for the first time since 2002 and was forced into coalition negotiations. Turkey’s ineffectual opposition was complicit in the failure of those talks, but it’s an open secret that the supposedly impartial president wanted a stalemate that would necessitate new polls.

It is seen as proof of Erdogan’s delusional state that opinion polls have been predicting almost exactly the same results as last time, and not anything like the sudden swing back to AK from people seeking a return to stability. The People’s Democracy Party (HDP), the Kurdish party which took 80 seats to deny AK its majority, is expected to get into parliament again.

After four elections in two years, Turkey is crying out for some sanity at the helm, and observers believe Erdogan will have to allow his party to share power. “Turkey is certainly not a ‘failed state’, nor is it yet the Sick Man of Europe, but the trajectory is negative,” says Wolfango Piccoli, of the political risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence. “In the best case scenario there will be a coalition. But even if we assume for a second that the parties are able to talk, we could still end up at the end of January with no government in a country that has been in a constant electoral cycle. Nothing has really happened in terms of reforms since 2009.”

Grand plans

The coalition most favoured by investors and the international community is a union of AK and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). “All the signs are that this time around a coalition deal will be stuck and the most likely one will be with the CHP. If that happens Turkey would be a different place,” says a Western diplomat in Turkey. He says he finds the apocalyptic scenarios for Turkey “ludicrously overstated”, while the CHP appears determined to restore some of the freedoms that have been restricted over the past two or three years. “My sense is that the realists in all parties are trying to reassert themselves.”

This grouping would have a big majority and a broad base, but opposition sources point out that previous coalition talks fell apart when AK allegedly refused to offer CHP the long-term deal they were looking for. They are unlikely to accept anything less now, but will AK offer it?

Optimists refer to former minister Ali Babacan’s earlier comments that the two parties had been close on the economy in previous talks. The mere fact that the well-respected Babacan, who had wanted to quit politics, is running again is also seen as reassuring.

A strong economic policy would be key to the success of any coalition government – it needs to deal with a stubborn current account deficit, a slowdown in growth, the rocketing value of the dollar, poor consumer confidence and a central bank that is fast losing credibility under attack from Erdogan. A survey by MetroPoll, conducted just before the bombings, found 63.9% of voters believed that the economy was mismanaged (compared with 52.9% a year earlier).

But party manifestos offer little hope. Many promises are mere fantasies – at least they don’t pledge to abolish football’s offside rule, as one Turkish politician once did, but they all want to significantly raise the minimum wage. “It’s ridiculous,” says Piccoli. “Almost 80% of workers are on the minimum wage – it’s unaffordable.”

And even those close to Babacan are not confident that he will wield influence as foreign investors hope. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu strong-armed him into running again, and the pair may feel that after the elections the beleaguered Davutoglu will carry more weight – but he has so far failed spectacularly to stand up to Erdogan and is unlikely to do so in the future.

Need for peace

Even if a coalition is formed, many are questioning how long it could last. With Erdogan sniping from the wings and the CHP nursing a record of internal squabbles, a year would be good going.

And they also question how such a government could tackle the biggest issue in its inbox – ending the fighting between the military and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is tearing the country apart, and resurrecting the now moribund peace process that Erdogan so brutally abandoned, losing him whole swathes of liberal and Kurdish support.

The CHP might see some point in trying to tackle it; an AK-HDP coalition – unlikely due to mutual hostility – would have to. There is also another possible alliance – between AK and the combative, hard-line Nationalist Action Party (MHP), whose members become apoplectic at the mere mention of the peace process. “God help the Kurds if they get in!” says a source close to what remains of AK’s liberal wing. “There will be a bloodbath.”

Kurdish academic Mesut Yegen warns, “If that happens, then any return to the peace process will be kicked into the grass and the possibility of civilian clashes will be constantly hanging over us.” But while the peace process has been pronounced dead, Yegen says eventually Turkey and the PKK will have to get back to the table. He predicts that imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan will help find a face-saving way back.

As Hasan Turunc, a visiting fellow at Oxford University, points out: “There are many destabilizing factors, but structurally too much has changed for Turkey to return to the bad old days. From a low-income country, Turkey has become a middle-income country – that’s quite an achievement. The central bank has become independent, many reforms have been implemented – it can’t go back now.”

Foreign investment may be on hold, but there is little sign of an exodus yet. Turunc adds that much is still happening away from the headlines. Next year will see Turkey and the EU upgrade their Customs Union – a 20-year-old deal possibly more useful to businesses than still elusive full membership to the bloc. And the recent election of new, open-minded leaders in Turkish and Greek Cyprus boosts hope of an end to the island’s 40-year division, which pits Turkey against the rest of the world.

A new Turkish government could also, surprisingly, find the country’s international standing benefiting from the one thing that had sunk its ambitious foreign policy – the Syria crisis. Europe is so desperate for Turkey’s help in stemming the flow of refugees across its borders that German Chancellor Angela Merkel ignored criticism to visit Istanbul and offered to push forward Turkey’s dormant accession talks and speed up visa-free travel to the EU for Turks in return.

Anti-government Turks cringed at the sight of Erdogan and Merkel side by side on what can only be described as gold-encrusted thrones, but the visit also highlighted one of the few issues where Erdogan’s Turkey attracts praise – housing around 2mn refugees at a time when Europe’s richer countries argue over how to accommodate tens of thousands.

And while Russia’s involvement in Syria has dangerously ratcheted up tensions between the two countries, it forced Turkey’s foreign policy more into line with the West on issues such as Ukraine and Nato. “I think Turkey’s foreign policy is already becoming sanguine,” says a diplomat based in Ankara. “There has been less virulence against Israel, less against Egypt. They’re now taking a harder line on Russia than they’ve ever done in public. I think pragmatism is returning even in the highest office.”

‘Sultan in the Palace’

Dubbed the “Sultan in the Palace” for his imperial-style ambitions and his expensive new presidential home, and surrounded by young, excitable sycophants dispensing bad advice, the man in the highest office, President Erdogan, is seen as the single biggest problem Turkey faces.

Whatever happens in the election and its aftermath, this could be the start of a long and painful transition process away from the long, increasingly autocratic Erdogan period. “Nothing will be sustainable in the near future. Will Erdogan actually serve out this term?” asks one disaffected former AK politician. “Voices against him are growing. His recent behaviour is alienating the remaining sensible people in the party. He was completely disgraced by corruption allegations [in December 2013]. He’s cornered. I don’t think that there’s anything that he can do to improve his prospects.”

A leaked internal AK document shows senior party members know full well why they are losing public support, notably the Kurdish issue, the economy – and Erdogan.

A major flaw in the transition theory is that there is no credible alternative to Erdogan, who has for most of his years at the top been an effective leader. The only commanding figure inside or outside AK is the former president, Abdullah Gul, who could return to politics more than a year after he was publicly snubbed by the party that he co-founded, but there are question marks about his power base.

All talk of a steady transition presupposes that Erdogan will sit tight while the country moves on. But could Erdogan do something desperate to hang on, such as trying to force the banning of HDP? And who is to say that the man who obsessively follows opinion polls won’t suddenly call yet another election as soon as he sees AK’s ratings go up?

“The worst case scenario? A third election in the context of a continued decline for the AK party and with Erdogan more and more out of control… The economy would take a complete hit,” says Piccoli. “I don’t think this is likely, but in the end this will be a decision taken by an individual. And we really can’t get into his mind.”

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