In the wake of the Paris attacks, Turkey seeks to affirm its regional position
Erdogan’s G20 summit in Antalya
The horrific events in Paris that left 129 people dead and hundreds more injured could only influence the talks between the world leaders who gathered in Antalya for the G20’s tenth annual meeting, which opened on November 15.
Although it was Erdogan himself who suggested the prioritization of terrorism as a subject of focus and talks, he appears to be in dire straits.
Not long before the Paris attacks took place, the Turkish president declared he had the ability to harm Europe by allowing more illegal immigrants to cross over. He thus declared that if his demands –visa-free entrance to Europe for Turks, EU accession, and European financial aid for the handling of the migrant crisis in Turkey– were not met, he would punish European leaders who did not pay attention to his demands.
Unfortunately, he could not have foreseen how important those words would be. The terror that spread over Paris a few days ago made them more painful and tangible than ever. Indeed, the French police confirmed it had found a Syrian passport that may belong to one of the terrorists found dead after the attacks; the passport holder had crossed from Turkey to Greece last October, and then somehow made it to France. This man, and perhaps many more in France and elsewhere in Europe, could be a terrorist. For now, there is no evidence that he took part in the attack, but the finding alone creates uncertainty over who crosses the border from Turkey to Europe.
In spite of the hazard in making unfounded assumptions, the current events leave no doubt that among the immigrants who truly need the support and solidarity of well-off Europeans, some have dark plans in mind.
Thus, even though intolerance must not take over, and ire against Muslims is a pointless, misplaced reaction, a great number of EU citizens are afraid of possible well-organised ISIL cells spreading to and within Europe.
A high-stakes socio-political poker game for Erdogan
This brings us back to what Erdogan threatened EU officials he would do. As he correctly predicted, the situation in the EU could rapidly get out of hand if he continues to let illegal immigrants across. Let us consider the fact that migrant arrivals increased in the spring of 2015, a few months before the first Turkish elections. Quite surprisingly, Turkey has been hosting over two million Syrians in the past four years–and many more from other conflict zones or poorer Asian countries. Immigrants and refugees are nothing new to Erdogan and it was his choice to open the doors to them at that particular time. He was sure of the agitation that would follow, and of the impact of such a decision.
Erdogan has good chances of achieving his goal, however, because Europeans clearly see that he has the upper hand.
If Turkey were to be admitted into the EU, would Erdogan be alright fighting both the Kurdish PKK militants–which Turkey considers as terrorists–on his soil and the IS jihadists in the rest of Europe? I think not, but since the talks for Turkey’s accession to the EU are going nowhere, perhaps he is only banking on the weariness of leaders like Angela Merkel, who may eventually help him, at least financially, in return for stopping illegal migrants from leaving Turkey.
Erdogan is engaging in a dangerous political game, with highly uncertain gains. His position is all the more unfortunate that multiple fronts are open.
As a result, it matters little if he enjoys the power his role allows him. What is truly important is whether he can safely navigate between Scylla and Charybdis, notably, financial instability, militant insurgency, a chaotic immigration crisis, and the political status quo of Turkey with regard to political animosity between countries such as Egypt, Israel, and Russia.
Is there a middle ground?
The question is whether Erdogan will be able to reinforce his position in the region, now that Iran appears more lenient toward the West, and thus less unreliable than previously. Technically, he has all the cards in hand. While Turkey has gone through a rough patch lately, it retains the power to determine the outcome of the game if it manages to appear less stubborn and focuses on long-term gains.
On 11 October 2015, Turkey experienced yet another terrorist attack in Ankara, shortly before the latest polls. How safe will its citizens be if, due to the ongoing insurgency, more of these deadly attacks occur on Turkish soil? Will Erdogan’s popularity remain as high as it currently is?
Experts stress that if Erdogan does not successfully tip on this tightrope, we should expect major geopolitical changes in the wider region. These changes could affect and even determine coalitions between Turkey and other states; they could influence oil and gas prices, immigrant influx to Europe, Syrian and Kurdish insurgency, or trigger a fight with Russia for predominance and the country’s further isolation from the West as a sort of punishment.
A look at the recent past and Erdogan’s appeal to voters
Was Tayyip Erdogan ever an underdog in his country’s electoral arena? He was if we are to believe the opinion polls preceding the November 1st elections. However, he quite surprisingly achieved a resounding victory. Nonetheless, his sultan-like behaviour and his autocratic stance have created an atmosphere of financial doom in Turkey, whose currency has been free falling in recent months.
This personal win followed Erdogan’s defeat against the surprisingly high scores of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, last June. The current polls are thus a rerun of the June election, when left-wing HDP’s co-leader, Selahattin Demirtas, made an impression on the public, who quickly left the Turkish president behind.
The recent vote in Turkey shows that the previously ruling Justice and Development party, or AKP experienced a thriving victory. Its president Ahmet Davutoglu and its founder Recep Tayyip Erdogan can surely smile since they do not need to find a political partner within Parliament.
Thanks to the election’s outcome, the AKP does not have to form a coalition government. Turkey’s election board has announced the final official figures, which gave Erdogan parliamentary 317 seats.
Until now, however, one thing is certain: even AKP’s majority in Turkey’s 550-member Parliament does not give president Erdogan the right to review and amend the country’s Constitution. For this, he would need at least 330 seats, which had been his goal. If he were able to secure this quota and amend the Constitution, Erdogan would gain the ability to transform Turkey’s parliamentary democracy into a presidential system.
“It’s me or chaos”
This time, Turkey’s strongman left no space for victory for any of his political opponents. He used various tactics to safeguard his position and succeeded in convincing the masses that he was the president they needed. As a result, not only did he remain in power but he simultaneously regained the parliamentary supremacy he had lost last June.
A short while before Turks went to the polls, Erdogan warned them that it would be him “or chaos”; they followed his injunction.
With pinpoint accuracy, he presented himself as the country’s only solution in order to ensure safety and stability. Among other things, Erdogan also guaranteed financial stability in an attempt to restore local and foreign investors’ confidence in Turkey’s battered economy.
Moreover, he decided to openly oppose his “enemies” and attacked those expressing and representing different -mainly liberal- voices.
Undeniable economic decline
Odd as though it may seem, it is because of Erdogan’s politics that his homeland’s economy was in tatters. Inflaming the Kurdish issue and engaging in a flagrant war against opposition media created an unbearable atmosphere for many capital holders and businesses.
An example of how edgy the situation had become is the exorbitant fines many television channels were made to pay only because they had covered demonstrations organised by the opposition.
Prominent analysts and economists in Turkey and abroad have rung the alarm about a looming economic crisis in the country. Among them Wolf-Fabian Hungerland of Berenberg Bank who, as early as 2013, spoke about the volatile nature of the country’s economy, Foreign Affairs magazine, and Finansbank’s chief economist Inan Demir. The latter expressed fears that if Erdogan’s strong-arm tactics continued, a whirlpool of events may bring the country to its knees.
And how oxymoronic a scheme that is. It was Erdogan who made Turkey the developing and competitive power we now have in front of us. His work and determination initially boosted Turkey’s economy. But the vision he once had for a country open to foreign investments and to the West now severely collides with his current Islamic sympathies. It is again himself the possible cause of a potential destruction of his own construction due to the damage his absolute beliefs are causing.
Yet the dreary Turkish market was favorably affected by the election results.
For starters, Turkey’s currency was up more than 5% against the dollar, while the Borsa Istanbul 100 index performed well, too, reaching a somewhat similar value.
None of these facts, however, can erase the question in many specialists’ minds, who are wondering if this positive effect can last, and if so, for how long. Practically speaking, it remains to be seen how Erdogan will tackle the matter so as to stabilise his emerging economy.
A calculated political strategy
Erdogan’s manipulative one-man-show began long before November’s elections. The Turkish president succeeded in polarizing the Turks, controlling the country’s media world, and triggering nationalist reflexes. He was massively “helped” by the tragic explosions in Ankara, a little over two weeks before the public went to the polls, which killed 102 people, leaving hundreds more injured.
When he realised he was losing ground, Erdogan opened the doors to immigrants. As a result, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants were allowed, encouraged even, to cross from his country to Europe in an effort to teach EU leaders a lesson. Erdogan’s attitude is not a surprising one. He knew cornered EU officials would have to listen to him and found an efficient way to pressure them.
Thus, by letting almost a million immigrants enter EU territories, Erdogan was sure the ones in charge would take him more seriously.
Even Germany’s iron lady, Chancellor Angela Merkel, heard his voice and seemed to listen more carefully.
Consequently, she visited him in Turkey not long before the polls and made several promises. Who cares if the opulence of the “thrones” they sat in were not her cup of tea? Who cares whether she appeared uncomfortable, as if she were betraying the other European leaders with her choice but could not do otherwise for the moment? All that mattered was that she promised Erdogan financial aid and help with the progression of Turkey’s EU accession bid.
She also publicly congratulated him on his tackling of the Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey. In exchange, Turkey agreed to take measures to effectively police its borders with Europe and its neighbouring countries.