The end has begun

Amid the uncertainty of a hung poll verdict, there has been a check on President Erdogan's authoritarian style of functioning.

The bitter taste of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) first poll setback in 13 years is bound to alter Turkey’s and its President Recep Erdogan’s policies.

Amid the continuing uncertainty of a hung poll verdict in early June, the most important outcome could be a check, however limited, on Erdogan’s unabashed and authoritarian style of functioning. With the AKP losing parliamentary majority, Erdogan’s desire to pursue a ‘presidential system’ with a custom-made constitution is now harder to realise. The results also dampen Erdogan’s ‘megalomaniac’ drive to eclipse Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Modern Turkey, as the country’s greatest figure.

But, just as critics have pointed out, Erdogan probably thinks that ‘he has just lost a battle, not the war’. Irrespective of the merit of this assessment, there is no doubt that in a volatile West Asia, the impact of the election results will have implications beyond its boundaries too.

Equally true is the fact that the election results were partly influenced by Turkish foreign policy. A ‘zero problems with neighbours’ foreign policy, which Foreign Minister-turned-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu set out to achieve in 2002, has now become a ‘full of problems’ foreign policy due to Erdogan.

In keeping with AKP’s ideological foundations, Ankara’s foreign policy has increasingly taken an Islamist outlook, particularly after the outbreak of the Arab uprisings. Till then, Turkey’s ‘visionary’ foreign policy played the ‘modern’ and ‘secular’ card to gain membership to the European Union and pursued the religious line to impress the Arab and Islamic world.

Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time of the Arab uprisings in Egypt and Syria, felt it was an opportune moment to promote political Islam and Islamise the country’s foreign policy. He encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates across the region, which annoyed the ruling regimes in the region, particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which viewed the Brotherhood as a destabilising factor.

This was a quick reversal of fortune after Ankara had become a ‘hero’ in the region by taking a tough line against Tel Aviv over its 2008 attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. This even led Erdogan to publicly admonish Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos in January 2009.

Diplomatic ties between Turkey and Israel worsened in May 2010 after Israeli commandos killed eight Turkish citizens on Mavi Marmara in international waters. The ship was carrying humanitarian aid for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which was under an Israeli blockade since 2007.

The next fallout was with Iran. After Turkey, along with Brazil, played the mediator in a bid to convince Iran to a nuclear fuel swap deal to avoid a Tehran-West stand-off in 2010 (which eventually failed), Turkish-Iranian ties have hit the nadir.

While Turkey ditched secularism by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, it also ditched its erstwhile non-sectarian policy to support pro-Sunni policies across the region – from Iraq to Yemen. This hurt Ankara’s ties with Shiite Iran.

Cumulatively, such blatant Islamist and sectarian foreign policy not only upset countries in the region, but also drew a wedge with its traditional partners and allies in the West.

These strategies were fine as long as its foreign policy did not have any ramification at home. But trouble began after Turkey started supporting opposition groups to oust Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Damascus retaliated with an alliance with the Democratic Union Party, a Syrian Kurdish party with links to the Kurdistan Workers Party that has been fighting Turkey and pro-government Turkish Kurds since the 1980s.

This and other confused policies led radical groups like the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat Al-Nusra to impact Turkey’s domestic social balance, with an inflow of about two million refugees from Syria. It hindered economic growth, increased unemployment, amplified dissatisfaction against Erdogan, even leading to massive protests against government’s plans to raze Gezi Park in 2013.

Foreign policy

With Erdogan’s foreign policy now in disarray and AKP’s loss of parliamentary majority in the recent election, there are already signs of rethink and recalibration. The first of these pertains to Israel. After sending a number of positive messages to the Jewish country in recent months, media reports suggest that Turkish and Israeli officials have begun a direct but secret dialogue in Rome a few days ago to mend ties with Israel.

Reconciliation with Israel will help Turkey signal attempted reorientation of its foreign policy, especially a dilution of its Islamist ideology. This would facilitate repairing ties with some of the Western and West Asian countries, with whom it can ultimately cooperate in the quest for regional stability.

Such an approach would also help it return, at least partially, to its initial goal of ‘zero problems with neighbours’ foreign policy, which was based on two premises – one, that economic development would help overcome longstanding ideological and security conflicts; and, two, that Turkey’s historical legacy is an asset, not a liability.

Turkey’s Kurdish policy could also change, especially due to the new electoral gains made by the People’s Democratic Party, a mainly Kurdish bloc. This holds the possibility of better addressing three decades of insurgency in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, as well friction with some of the neighbouring countries that have Kurdish minorities.

Finally, while discussions are under way to form a coalition government, there are also rumours of a possible re-election. Either way, it is clear that the end of Erdoganisation of Turkey has begun. Importantly, there is chance now for Turkey to move towards a realistic and respectable foreign policy, which could return Ankara to the mainstream of regional politics, enabling it to contribute positively to stability in West Asia.

(The writer is a Dubai-based political analyst, author and Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter)

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