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Turkey: time for reassessment June 27, 2011

Posted by Yilan in EU, European Union, Turkey.
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Supporters of Turkey’s ruling party AKP ‘Justice and Development Party’ celebrate with party flags and pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan after the first results of the parliamentary election in front of party headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, 12 June 2011 |EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLU

The remarkable thing about the Turkish election result is not that Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won but the unanimity in the international press that it would not be good for Turkish democracy if they gained 330 seats or more in the Turkish parliament. In the event, half the votes only resulted in 326 seats, falling short of the 330 seats needed to change the constitution with a referendum and the 367 seats which would have made it possible for the government to change the constitution alone.

The other common denominator was the fear that an overwhelming victory would reinforce what the Financial Times called the AKP’s “unsettling authoritarian tendencies”. This was demonstrated when The Economist recommended that Turks voted for the opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party) to put a brake on Erdoğan’s autocratic style of government.

The reaction was not long coming. Erdoğan blasted The Economist for being part of  “a global gang” which took its orders from Israel, and for good measure blasted the CHP’s leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu for also being “a project of international gangs”. The Wall Street Journal in turn accused Erdoğan of “reviving the crackpot anti-Semitic media theories of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad”.

In a report published five days before the election the Pew Research Center confirmed the reasons for Prime Minister Erdoğan’s success. 49% of the Turks interviewed were upbeat about the economy as opposed to 14%  in 2002  (when the AKP was first elected) and 46% in 2007 (the second election). In addition, 62% expressed confidence that Erdoğan would do the right thing in world affairs.

Correspondingly, strong majorities of Egyptians, Jordanians and Lebanese expressed confidence in the Turkish prime minister whereas, somewhat surprisingly, he enjoyed less support in the Palestinian territories. Predictably, Erdoğan received resoundingly negative ratings (95%) from Israeli Jews, whereas 60% of the minority Arab community expressed their confidence.

The AKP government’s foreign policy orientation was clearly displayed in Erdoğan’s victory speech when he declared: “Today Sarajevo won as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara, Ramallah, the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza won as much as Diyarbakır. Today the Middle East, the Caucasus, the Balkans and Europe won as much as Turkey.” ´

Another reason for Erdoğan’s popularity is his no nonsense style of speaking – that of the Kasımpaşa (district of Istanbul) kabadayı (tough guy). He won acclaim not only in Turkey but also the Middle East for his “you know well how to kill” confrontation with Israel’s president Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009.

Erdoğan also laid it on the line at a meeting of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg in April, when he was confronted with critical questions. Here it should be noted that Turkey has been a member of the Council for 61 years and Turkey now chairs both the Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Ministers.

According to Burak Bekdil, a Turkish columnist, Turkey behaves like a nouveau riche businessman. “With a newly-gained self-confidence and the deep layers of an inferiority complex that stems from a past full of poverty and disgrace, he insults, provokes, agitates and tests the limits of his powers.”

As Erdoğan underlined in Strasbourg, Turkey is no longer the supplicant at the gates, but Turkey needs Europe as much as Europe needs Turkey. Nevertheless, the Pew Research Center’s survey points out that only 17% of Turks believe their country should look to Europe in the future, whereas 25% look to the Middle East. 37% believe that both regions are equally important.

The exercise of Turkey’s “soft power” and its policy of “zero problems with neighbours” have already met their first setbacks in Libya and Syria, and Erdoğan has been forced to distance himself from Bashar al-Assad’s savage repression. A greater  challenge lies with the growing unrest in Turkey’s southeast and Kurdish demands for regional autonomy, which will not diminish now that the Kurdish BDP (Peace andDemocracy Party) has almost doubled its number of seats in the Turkish parliament.

Erdoğan, who in 2005 was the first Turkish leader to acknowledge “the Kurdish problem”, recently declared there is no longer a Kurdish problem in Turkey, and  stated he would have hanged the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan if he had been given the opportunity. As Öcalan has the same iconic status among many Kurds that Mandela has in South Africa, this statement can hardly have won many Kurdish votes.
The main stumbling block to Turkey’s EU accession prospects is Cyprus. To date only limited progress has been made in the current negotiations and the core issues of property, territory and the Turkish settlers remain to be broached. At a meeting of the European Parliament’s Friends of Turkey at the end of March Andrew Duff stated Turkey would be making “a profound and historic strategic mistake” if it put Cyprus before the European Union. But the onus now lies on Turkey – and in particular Erdoğan – to take the necessary steps to end the impasse.

Turkish columnist Semih Idiz recently mooted the notion that Ankara’s relations with Europe should be based more on economic self-interest than integration, and called for the establishment of a new “modus vivendi” and a new narrative between Turkey and Europe.

Now that a number of European and Turkish politicians are no longer labouring underthe illusion of Turkish EU membership, this might be an opportune moment to reassessthe situation.

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