On June 24, Recep Tayyip Erdogan made history to be elected as Turkey’s first President of a new executive presidential system. In a referendum conducted last year, Turkey had decided to scrap its parliamentary system that had been in place since 1946. Once its champion, the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) has recently condemned the parliamentary system of causing chronic instability and chaos in governance. In fact, the Turkish parliamentary system has seen alternating periods of majority governments, coalition governments and military regimes. The question whether the new presidential system will be a cure to Turkey’s massive political and economic problems is yet to be seen.
“…the new system seals the fate of Turkish politics fundamentally as a system of electoral alliances.”
In my view, the new system seals the fate of Turkish politics fundamentally as a system of electoral alliances. It increases the motivation for achieving the highest number of votes rather than an attempt to capture votes from different segments of the population, ethnic groups and geographic regions. There are important domestic and foreign policy repercussions of this change. A short background analysis will be helpful to shed light on the process through which Turkey’s political system changed and its politics has evolved. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is the transformation of the ideological outlook of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) elites from globalism to populist nationalism.
The Collapse of the Liberal Center Right: The Military and the Islamists
The untimely death of Turgut Özal and the election of another center-right leader, Süleyman Demirel, to Presidency in his place in 1993 led to a massive vacuum in the center right platform of Turkish politics. The inefficiency of civilian politics as well as the chronic economic crises and corruption created the suitable conditions for the rise of the military, only to radically shape Turkey’s foreign and security policies. In the meantime, the Islamic conservative Welfare Party led by Necmettin Erbakan also benefited from the political vacuum to emerge as a major electoral competitor, winning key municipal governments including in Istanbul and Ankara in 1994. In the general elections of 1995, the Welfare Party secured the highest number of votes, ultimately bringing it to power in a coalition arrangement with the Doğru Yol / True Path Party. Thus, for the first time in the history of the secular Republic of Turkey, an Islamic-leaning political leader assumed the post of the Prime Minister.
“…in 1997, the military issued a strongly worded memorandum which accused the government of encouraging ‘backwardism’ (irtica), an old secularist reference to resurgence of visible religiosity in the public sphere.”However, the military elite suspected that Erbakan would spoil the close alliance with Israel that the military high-brass had crafted and rollback the military’s near-monopoly over handling of the Kurdish question. The nationalist generals did not as much care about Erbakan’s strong opposition to Turkey’s membership aspirations in the European Union, yet his attempt to form the D-8, a Muslim group of countries, including Iran, that sought to match the G-7, was not regarded favorably by them. In their minds, Turkey was fighting a war against “two and a half enemies,” according to veteran diplomat Şükrü Elekdağ – Syria, Greece and the Kurdish separatist group PKK, all bent on destroying the national integrity of Turkey. Finally in 1997, the military issued a strongly worded memorandum which accused the government of encouraging “backwardism” (irtica), an old secularist reference to resurgence of visible religiosity in the public sphere. The memorandum, which Prime Minister Erbakan was forced to sign, asked for the implementation of measures such as the headscarf ban in universities, the closure of the religious middle schools, and the firing of practicing military officers. Furthermore, Erbakan was forced to sign significant military cooperation deals with Israel. Finally, in June 1997, in the midst of continuing pressures and public demonstrations against his government that were engineered by the secular-military establishment, Erbakan turned in his resignation. This ushered in a new period of coalition governments and economic crisis that continued until the elections of 2002. The Welfare Party was in turn closed down by the Constitutional Court and Erbakan along with his party’s young mayor of Istanbul, Tayyip Erdogan, were banned from politics.
The Emergence of Justice and Development Party: The Liberal Conservative Synthesis
Erbakan’s acceptance of resignation without putting up a resistance prompted a bitter internal fight between the old elites led by Erbakan and the younger generation of party leaders (yenilikçiler). The leaders of this new opposition, which included the Istanbul mayor Tayyip Erdogan and former Minister of State Abdullah Gül, criticized Erbakan for acting solely on the basis of his charismatic leadership and without consultation with his own party cadres. The young group put up a challenge against Erbakan’s leadership asking for the implementation of internal party democracy. When this attempt failed, the younger Islamists argued that the requisite conditions for the formation of a new political movement had emerged. They then formally established a new political party, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi / Justice and Development Party in August 2001.
“The main difference between Erbakan and the new leaders lied not only in their perspective for leadership but also, and even more significantly, in their contrasting political philosophies and foreign policy visions.”
The main difference between Erbakan and the new leaders lied not only in their perspective for leadership but also, and even more significantly, in their contrasting political philosophies and foreign policy visions. Defining its ideological identity with reference to a neologism, “conservative democracy,” the new party departed from the traditional political Islamist movement in internalizing liberal integrationism within Western institutions. Unlike Erbakan’s traditional National Outlook (Milli Görüş) movement which embraced a more visible pan-Islamic orientation and vehemently opposed Turkey’s membership attempts in the European Union, the young group had a more globalist vision and strongly supported the EU membership prospects. Countering Erbakan’s traditional opposition to the EU as a Christian Club, the new party strongly supported Turkey’s full membership goals even before coming to power.
Turkey obtained candidacy status at 1999 Helsinki European Council on equal footing with other potential candidates and the leaders of the emerging new party, including Erdoğan and Gül, actively lobbied to achieve that outcome.In 2002 general elections, the JDP, campaigning mainly on a platform of political reforms that targeted full membership in the European Union, became the first party, capturing 34 percent of the votes. It obtained a comfortable parliamentary majority, as only two parties were able to pass the necessary electoral threshold of 10 percent. In the same year, the Copenhagen Summit of the European Council accepted the opening of negotiations with Turkey provided that Ankara fulfills the Copenhagen Criteria by 2004. And in December 2004 the European leaders agreed to start accession negotiations as of October 2005. Utilizing its massive parliamentary majority, the new government initiated a wave of requisite legal reforms. The eight compatibility legal reform packages that were passed in the Parliament between 2002 and 2004 “expanded scope of basic rights and freedoms, and initiated reforms to strengthen and protect existing regulations in the realm of democracy, the rule of law and freedom of thought and expression.” These milestones in Turkey’s long and complex path toward accession to the EU would not be possible without the dynamic leadership of the JDP government.
JDP’s Reform Agenda: Economic and Political Liberalization
In the positive atmosphere of this period, reforms were initiated also in multiple areas of foreign policy and domestic politics. The newly minted JDP government embarked upon a process of reforms concerning the cultural rights of ethnic minorities, most specifically the Kurds. In the realm of foreign policy, Turkey initiated diplomatic contacts with Armenia and deepened the ongoing process of normalization with Syria. It turned the Kurdish autonomous zone in Iraq into an almost completely integrated part of Turkish marketplace through encouraging and facilitating massive investments by Turkish businessmen. In traditionally isolated regions for Turkish foreign policy, most notably Africa and Latin America, massive diplomatic, economic and public diplomacy initiatives contributed to Turkey’s soft power and foreign policy dynamism.
“In traditionally isolated regions for Turkish foreign policy, most notably Africa and Latin America, massive diplomatic, economic and public diplomacy initiatives contributed to Turkey’s soft power and foreign policy dynamism.”
Overall, the JDP government was firmly committed to the EU process but this area did not dominate Turkish foreign policy at the expense of its relations with other parts of the world. Its foreign policy perspective was not confined to a narrow regional focus, it was multi-dimensional in its orientation.
Yet the key framework of foreign policy was liberalism and this was boosted by the EU membership process. The record economic success that the AKP had generated was made possible by the electoral victories the party achieved in the subsequent general elections in 2007 and 2011. In those elections the party easily maintained its parliamentary majority, increasing its votes to 46 and 49,8 percentages respectively. The JDP not only repeated the record of the 1950s’ Democratic Party by winning three general elections consecutively, but it also surpassed that success by increasing its votes in each subsequent election. During this period, Turkey also achieved a remarkable economic development; its per capita income increased three folds from $3500 USD in 2002 to nearly $10000 USD in 2011. This success was achieved through export-driven economic development for which a dynamic foreign policy and a liberal reform agenda were essential.
Yet, in the next few years, Turkish income level stayed the same. Turkey’s total amount of exports increased from $53 billion USD in 2002 to $140 billion USD in 2008, more than doubling in a matter of six years. A similar increase rate, however, could not be maintained in the next six years as 2014 figure is only $160 billion USD. Economists mainly point out that the heavy reliance on energy and construction sectors as well as foreign capital mobility for economic development coupled by the economy’s inability to produce high value-added products with strong brand names were the main culprits for this relative contraction. Clearly, the political and economic miracles achieved by the JDP governments were approaching its terminus amidst the re-emergence of significant domestic and regional security issues.
The Arab Spring and its Aftermath
The sudden emergence of the Arab Spring caught Turkey unprepared to cope with this new challenge. On the one hand, Turkey was, with its blend of conservatism and democracy as well as its record of economic development, indirectly responsible in inspiring the wave of democratic revolts. On the other hand, the country was already in a process of implementing several projects of economic integration with the very countries that the Arab Spring was affecting, thanks to the zero-problem foreign policy, a dynamic regional strategy implemented by the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu. This dichotomy resulted in uncertain policy responses, particularly during the initial stages of the Arab uprisings. Yet, the ideological commitment to liberalism and conservative democracy won over the realpolitik calculations and Turkey chose the side of democratic change over authoritarian stability. Ankara supported downfall of long-lasting Middle Eastern and North African leaders and embraced the democratically-elected leaders installed in their place. This stance was also in tandem with the stance adopted by Barack Obama who in 2009 gave hope to Arab youth in his historic address at the University of Cairo. In spirit, this talk had promised to discontinue traditional policy of supporting dictators and obstructing change in the Arab world if the people so desire.
The downfall of decades-old dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, gave hope to millions of young Arabs that a fourth wave of democratization was in process and it promised a bright future for them. Turkey was supportive of this radical transformation, massively boosting its positive image in the Arab Street. It offered its firm support to anti-regime opposition and soon its armed elements in Syria. Yet, Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s violent reaction to peaceful demonstrations forced the opposition to resort to armed resistance, and, in process, to the fragmentation of the opposition largely due to the intervention of various regional and international powers contributing to the longevity of the conflict. The forceful intervention of Russia in Syria was particularly an important turning point, leading to operational decline of the mainstream Syrian opposition groups, and, in their place the rise of radicalized groups. This situation prepared the conditions of the conflict between ISIS and the PKK-affiliated armed Kurdish groups over territorial control in northern Syria.
“In Ankara, the mood was slowly becoming less marked by liberalism and defined increasingly by security concerns. Two significant domestic developments were directly responsible in adding to this mood. The Gezi Park revolts of May 2013 and the Gülenist attempt to topple the government through corruption allegations and legal investigations (the events of December 17-25, 2013), aided by its destructive media campaign, quickly changed the climate of stability and confidence and brought about a mood defined by survivalist measures that often resembled pre-2002 Turkey.”
In Ankara, the mood was slowly becoming less marked by liberalism and defined increasingly by security concerns. Two significant domestic developments were directly responsible in adding to this mood. The Gezi Park revolts of May 2013 and the Gülenist attempt to topple the government through corruption allegations and legal investigations (the events of December 17-25, 2013), aided by its destructive media campaign, quickly changed the climate of stability and confidence and brought about a mood defined by survivalist measures that often resembled pre-2002 Turkey. Adding to this context was increasing fears of the creation of a Kurdish autonomous zone alongside Turkey’s border with Syria, which, when combined with the autonomous Kurdish territory in Iraq, would seal Turkey’s entire south border. Encouraged by the support provided to Kurdish groups first by Russia and then by the United States, the PKK resumed its terrorist activities, breaking the Kurdish peace process (çözüm süreci). In this context of worsening security situation, Turkey had to shift its priority from toppling Assad to preventing the creation of an autonomous Kurdish zone. This prompted Turkey to move closer to Russia and away from the United States.
Adding to this, the Turkish state faced a failed coup attempt in July 2016. Turkish state charges with strong evidence that the coup was perpetrated by Fethullah Gülen who lives on a self-imposed exile in the United States. The coup attempt failed thanks to popular resistance to the putschist soldiers, resulting in a massive number of civilian casualties. This event also paved the way for a rapprochement between Turkey and Russia, as President Putin quickly offered his strong support to President Erdogan in the absence of the same from Western leaders. On the domestic front, a new mood of alliance between the JDP and the nationalist political parties started. The charismatic leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, Devlet Bahçeli, ended his previous bitter anti-Erdogan discourse and offered a strong line of support to the government. This alliance would prepare the ground for the eventual acceptance of a presidential system in 2018.
The government responded to the coup attempt by declaring a state of emergency under which thousands of government employees and military officers were fired due to their alleged links with the terrorist networks. President Erdogan repeatedly indicated his willingness to reinstate the death penalty to deal with the perpetrators of the coup. The perceived suspension of the rule of law created a deep tension in Turkey’s relations with the European Union. In November 2016 the European Parliament asked for a temporary suspension of Turkey’s accession process alleging that Turkey no longer fulfills the Copenhagen criteria. In December 2016, the European Council declared that it would not open any new chapter in membership talks with Turkey under “the prevailing circumstances.” In April 2017, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted to reopen its monitoring procedure against Turkey, a significant development as Turkey is a founding member of the Council of Europe. Finally, in July 2017, the European Parliament again called for Turkish accession talks to be suspended. These simultaneous crises in Turkish-American and Turkish-EU relations took a major toll on Turkish economy. While the crisis in relations with the United States concerned Turkey’s security issues, particularly with regard to Syria, Turkey’s relations with the European Union have more to do with its integrationist foreign policy vision and perspective. Turkey’s expansion of influence in other areas of foreign policy including the Middle East required utilization of soft power for which Turkey’s democratic quality, its ambition of membership in the European Union and its overall international economic dynamism undeniably carry a significant weight.
Post-presidential Turkish Politics: the Demise of Liberalism and the Rise of Nationalism
In a referendum held in 2017, Turkey had voted for a new Presidential system to replace its parliamentary system. On June 24, 2018 the nation voted to elect the first executive President of its history – Turkish citizens also cast votes on parliamentary elections the same day. Erdogan became the first executive President by capturing more than fifty percent of the votes and retaining his 16 years of rule. Yet the parliamentary election results show that the JDP has lost significant number of votes compared to past elections. It secured 41 percent of the votes in the June 24 elections, which is eight percent less than its previous score – the party fell short of a parliamentary majority. The difference between Erdogan’s over fifty percent vote share and his party’s relatively dismal performance was a direct consequence of the electoral alliance with the nationalists as well as Erdogan’s personal charismatic appeal boosted by his image of the undefeatable national leader.
The new presidential system thus changed the playing ground of Turkish politics in significant ways. In the new two round election system, the candidates have to win more than half of the votes in either of the rounds. The JDP has never historically reached this point of support even though lesser percentages were sufficient to form majority governments under the parliamentary system. President Erdogan is well aware that he was elected President with the support of the MHP and that he needs the same party’s continuous support to retain its parliamentary majority. This outcome is quite ironic given that the primary campaign propaganda during the referendum process centered on ending the coalition formation and increasing the power of the executive branch. Given the highly polarized and fragmented nature of Turkish politics, it can be plausibly claimed that the new system made the coalitions a permanent feature of Turkish politics.
“Given the highly polarized and fragmented nature of Turkish politics, it can be plausibly claimed that the new system made the coalitions a permanent feature of Turkish politics.”In fact, the nationalist turn in Turkish public opinion is so clear that the presence of another nationalist party in the competition, the Good Party/ İyi Parti a split group from the MHP, did not cause a reduction in the votes of the MHP. In contrast, the two nationalist parties obtained 10 percent of the votes each, doubling the nationalist votes compared to the previous elections. The largest contributor to this increase in the nationalist platform was the worsening security situation, particularly the elevated concerns around the resurgence of the PKK-affiliated groups in Syria. In a political climate increasingly shaped by security concerns, the JDP itself campaign on a nationalist platform. In other words, the push for a new presidential system forced the JDP to abandon its liberal integrationist program and increasingly adopt a discourse of securitization in order to capture the maximum amount of votes from Turkey’s increasingly nationalist public opinion. The nationalist discourse during the elections was so dominant that even the presidential candidates, Muharrem İnce of the Republican People’s Party and Meral Akşener of the Good Party campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform, promising deportation of 3,5 million Syrian refugees who sought shelter in Turkey. Given the increasing sensitivity of the issue, it appears that the refugee card will be one of the most significant ammunitions for the opposition to utilize in the future of Turkish politics. “
In a political climate increasingly shaped by security concerns, the JDP itself campaign on a nationalist platform. In other words, the push for a new presidential system forced the JDP to abandon its liberal integrationist program and increasingly adopt a discourse of securitization in order to capture the maximum amount of votes from Turkey’s increasingly nationalist public opinion.”
What is Awaiting Turkish Foreign Policy?
The nationalist turn in Turkish domestic policy strongly influences its foreign policy in almost all areas. It is highly unlikely that Turkey will have radical decisions as regards its security alliances despite significant crises. Turkey’s position in Western alliance system is strongly rooted in geography, historical memory and centuries-old security perceptions. No one realistically expects Turkey to withdraw from NATO or close down NATO bases in the country.
What will change, however, is the very orientation and spirit of its foreign policy. Priorities and goals of foreign policy will no longer be marked by the principles of liberal integrationism and democracy promotion. Now, with a political system centered on a strong president and a weaker separation of powers, Turkey is structurally more distant from European democratic systems. In fact, the symbolic end of Turkish aspirations for EU membership was marked with the removal of the Ministry of EU Affairs from the cabinet roaster. Reflecting the fact that Turkey relies heavily on European economy, it will continue to demand full membership from the European Union and utilize this issue in conducting its diplomacy vis-a-vis Europe. Yet, the membership goal will no longer offer a long term perspective and framework for Turkey to conduct its overall diplomacy in other areas – it seems that the EU anchor has been lost for the foreseeable future.
“…with a political system centered on a strong president and a weaker separation of powers, Turkey is structurally more distant from European democratic systems. In fact, the symbolic end of Turkish aspirations for EU membership was marked with the removal of the Ministry of EU Affairs from the cabinet roaster.”
Regardless, Turkey needs a Western anchor that does not question its democratic credentials. In the past, the United States was a such an ally. Now, however, there are significant security-related issues with the United States, most specifically having to do with the PYD in Syria. Turkey’s best partner in the West could be the United Kingdom who acts more cautiously and strategically towards Turkey in comparison to the United States. London, therefore, appeared to be the most frequently visited Western capital by Turkish leaders and cabinet members in the last year.
Nevertheless, Russia will continue to be Turkey’s closest partner as symbolically indicated by the fact that Russia was the only global power that participated at the leadership level in the inauguration ceremony of President Erdogan. The two countries have significant energy cooperation and trade. In fact, Turkey’s first nuclear power plant will be build and operated by Russia. Furthermore, Turkey has completed negotiations to purchase S-400 air defense system from Russia despite objections from the United States. Nonetheless, Turkish-Russian partnership is highly difficult to translate into a complete reversal of Turkey’s traditional foreign and security policy orientation.
“The most challenging arena in Turkish foreign policy will continue to be the Middle East, particularly regarding the issue of Syria and Iraq. The Arab Spring has left behind a legacy that is impossible to eradicate when it comes to structural changes – it engendered a new climate of security perception. Turkey has returned back to dealing with the Kurdish question through securitization discourse of the 1990s. “
The most challenging arena in Turkish foreign policy will continue to be the Middle East, particularly regarding the issue of Syria and Iraq. The Arab Spring has left behind a legacy that is impossible to eradicate when it comes to structural changes – it engendered a new climate of security perception. Turkey has returned back to dealing with the Kurdish question through securitization discourse of the 1990s. Yet there are several important differences between today and the dynamics that defined Turkish foreign policy in the 1990s. In the 1990s, the military-enforced alliance with Israel and the United States provided Turkey with a solid security anchor. In the view of some Turkish security experts, Russia and Iran are thought to offer a similar strategic value for Turkey today in the context of urgent security threats in Syria. Yet the facts on the ground seem to be contradictory. Russia does not even recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization. And Iran does not view Turkish military operations in Syria and Iraq as desirable. In other words, these countries can be reliable partners only to a certain extent. Furthermore, the territorially disintegrated Syria and Iraq make the matter more complicated for Turkey. In the meantime, the anti-Iranian alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia also view the Kurdish groups as potentially helpful to materialize its strategic objectives, which further complicates the security nexus for Turkey.
“The complex nature of Turkish society and its fault-lines ask for a more inclusive political system which the current presidential system is ill-suited to serve. The motivation of achieving highest number of votes rather than achieving support from all geographical, cultural and educational segments of society augments this fragmentation rather than contributing to its solution.”
The complex nature of Turkish society and its fault-lines ask for a more inclusive political system which the current presidential system is ill-suited to serve. The motivation of achieving highest number of votes rather than achieving support from all geographical, cultural and educational segments of society augments this fragmentation rather than contributing to its solution. The necessity of voicing a more religious and nationalistic discourse in order to maximize share of votes seems poised to trickle down to foreign policy discourse as well. It will result in a more nationalistic discourse that feeds on continuous fears of national disintegration. The Kemalist fears of national disintegration, known as the Sevres syndrome, is once again the shared mood among policy circles, even though the political center is now dominated by former elements of the periphery. A country that is bent on liberal integration is fast being replaced by a country that feels itself besieged and in imminent danger. Democratization and liberal integrationism were the elements that have made Turkey a central power and a source of inspiration in its region. Yet Turkey who adopts securitization as its main discourse in conducting domestic and foreign policy and the primary element of its policy-making toolbox will be left without any reliable partner that shares its primary security concerns. Dressing this discourse in religious garb will not hide the fact that the real solution lies not in further securitization, but in going back to the model of integrationism in both domestic and foreign policy.