Erdogan’s populist diversion serves his survival goals well
I have argued that US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a gift for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan, a master reader of domestic and international mood, seems determined to procure a bonus as well.
Without missing a beat after Trump’s announcement, Erdogan rapidly convened an emergency summit of the world’s leading pan-Islamic body, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul.
Both the level of participation and the outcome probably exceeded Erdogan’s expectations: 16 of the dozens of members that attended were represented by heads of state. The final statement declared that East Jerusalem is “the capital of the state of Palestine” and invited “all countries to recognise the state of Palestine and East Jerusalem as its occupied capital.”
From the point of view of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), the summit and its final statement served as a great public relations stunt. For Erdogan, the summit topped several days of decisive and unexpected moves.
First, he took Athens by surprise with the suggestion that the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne needed to be “revised.” The treaty has long governed Greek-Turkish relations and been considered a cornerstone of regional peace. Though the Greeks were confused and angry, Erdogan emerged as a strong leader who protects the interests of the Turkish nation.
This is how — with small, calculated political steps — Erdogan manages to change the narrative about him, especially the ugly storyline emerging from the Zarrab trial in New York. The “oil-for-gold” case alleges attempts to evade US sanctions against Iran. Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman arrested in 2013 and charged with money laundering and sanctions violations, has implicated Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time.
Unsurprisingly, Erdogan has felt the need to change the subject and he did with his loud denunciation of Israel at the OIC summit. He said it is a state defined by “occupation” and “terror” and lambasted Trump. “With this decision, Israel was rewarded for all the terrorist activities it has carried out. It is Trump who bestowed this award even,” he said.
The summit was a diplomatic coup for Erdogan. There has been little or no criticism or questioning of the summit’s outcome from Turkish diplomats and analysts. Instead, there has been an overall agreement that the meeting was a success. This, even though it is rather far-fetched to think the decision to recognise East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state can be implemented. Still, the declaration was considered a balancing act to counter the destructive decision taken by Trump. How many OIC members will recognise a Palestinian state is another open question.
However, neither issue counts for Erdogan as he continues to aggregate power at home.
Indeed, his comments on the Treaty of Lausanne in Greece and the Jerusalem issue in Istanbul showed the weakness and disarray of the Turkish opposition.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, could do nothing other than agree with Erdogan on the Treaty of Lausanne. He added that several Aegean islands were under Greek occupation. It illustrated the increasing force of nationalism across the Turkish political spectrum.
As for the Jerusalem issue, Erdogan’s critics showed themselves to be spectacularly divided. Some demanded that Turkey move its embassy to East Jerusalem immediately. Others said that Turkey should cut diplomatic ties with Israel because Erdogan had branded it a “terrorist state.”
Erdogan’s star looks set to shine so long as he beats the drum for religion and a populist notion of nationalism but he’s also a master of survival tactics.