On defensive before vote, Erdogan could harden foreign policy stance

Imamoglu is popular across the splintered opposition camp and has picked up support from other parties, giving him a boost that could secure his victory in the rerun.
Sunday 19/05/2019
Bumpy ride. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gets off a vintage tram at Taksim Square in Istanbul, May 12.  (Reuters)
Bumpy ride. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gets off a vintage tram at Taksim Square in Istanbul, May 12. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Struggling against a resurgent opposition six weeks before a key rerun election in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could harden his foreign policy stance and seek cross-border interventions to fire up his nationalist voter base, analysts said.

Turkey faces several crises on its borders, with the Syrian conflict in the south and the row over oil and gas resources around Cyprus to the south-east among the most pressing. Ankara must handle the hot spots as Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) campaigns to recapture Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city and a source of funding for government favouritism, in an election June 23 after narrowly losing the mayoral race in March.

Opposition claims that the AKP pressured Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) to order the new vote, a worsening economy and inner-party conflicts are hampering the government camp. Data published by the government indicated that the unemployment rate was close to 15%, with more than 26% of young Turks out of work.

In a sign of how much the initiative has passed to the opposition, Erdogan has resorted to using a mere copy of the opposition slogan “All will be well” — a phrase that has gone viral on Twitter and has been sung by crowds in football stadiums — by saying that “All will be even better.”

Binali Yildirim, the candidate of the AKP and its right-wing partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), was confronted with shouts of “All will be well” from the audience at an opera performance he attended.

Ekrem Imamoglu, of the opposition Republican People’s Party, won the March election by about 14,000 votes but was stripped of his mayorship by the YSK’s decision. A survey by polling firm Konsensus indicated Imamoglu had support of just more than 50%, a 2-point lead over Yildirim.

Imamoglu is popular across the splintered opposition camp and has picked up support from other parties, giving him a boost that could secure his victory in the rerun. The AKP has not come up with a viable strategy to stop Imamoglu. The government is also battling a falling value of the lira, high inflation and rising unemployment.

“Lacking any positive agenda to offer either at the local or the national level, the Turkish president would be looking for opportunities to create a rally-round-the-flag effect until the vote on June 23,” Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Washington think-tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said via e-mail.

Erdemir said Erdogan could decide to act abroad to motivate voters. “A cross-border operation against the [Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia] YPG in Syria or the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK in Iraq or a flare up with Greek Cypriots in the eastern Mediterranean would be his top options,” he wrote.

Turkey is engaged in a long-running dispute with the United States over Washington’s support for the YPG. Ankara says the YPG is an affiliate of the PKK, seen as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the West, and a threat to Turkey’s national security. Erdogan is also at odds with Washington over a Turkish plan to buy a Russian missile defence system.

Erdogan has repeatedly warned that Turkish troops would cross into Syria to push the YPG back from the border. “We will soon clear terror-infested regions of Syria and give 4 million Syrians the chance to return home,” he was quoted as saying this month in a report in the pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah.

It would not be the first time that Turkey launched a military campaign before important elections. An intervention of the Turkish Army in north-western Syria against the YPG in January 2018 led to a surge of nationalist support that helped Erdogan win presidential and parliamentary elections several months later.

Reports said US Syria Envoy James Jeffrey has acted as a go-between in indirect contacts between Turkey and the YPG aimed at preventing a Turkish intervention.

In the Mediterranean, Erdogan’s government is protesting efforts by the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus to explore for undersea gas fields without taking the views of the administration in the Turkish part of the divided island into account.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar has insisted that Turkey would take all necessary measures to “protect its rights in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas and in Cyprus.” Earlier, Turkey said it would carry out exploratory drilling of its own off Cyprus. The European Union said that would encroach on Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone and the United States described the move as “highly provocative.”

However, Turkey does not show any willingness to compromise on Cyprus. Magdalena Kirchner, senior analyst at Conias Risk Intelligence, said via e-mail that “the AKP-MHP coalition’s nationalistic base would not reward concessions, especially [with] international pressure to withdraw from the island and the need to mobilise voters for the upcoming local elections in Istanbul.”

She added that Turkish gas explorations “could serve the government’s narrative of defying efforts of international powers to force Turkey into surrendering.”

Kirchner also pointed out that “there is not much disapproval from opposition politicians or critics of the AKP government” on the Cyprus issue, “reflecting an overall consensus on Turkish claims in the eastern Med.”

As tensions around Cyprus rose, on May 13 Turkey’s military began a major naval exercise in the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black seas. The drill featured 131 vessels, 57 planes and 33 helicopters, a Turkish Defence Ministry official confirmed to Agence France-Presse.