What is Erdogan’s endgame?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently called his cabinet and all the deputies of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to an urgent meeting. In his usual blunt language, he said: “The only target of the attacks from inside and outside is the AKP” and called on “whoever is weary, to step aside.”
The chain of events enveloping Turkey shows that signs of isolation have become stronger. The Qatari crisis caught Erdogan in a position that resembles political paralysis. His recent visit to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf did very little, if any, to convince the hosts about the Turkish position.
His intervention in another crisis, one regarding Jerusalem’s holy sites, unleashed a harsh response from Israel, postponing the easing of tensions he had for long hoped for.
The escalating rift between Berlin and Ankara, on the basis of the severe erosion of human rights in Turkey, threatens a contagion of financial measures from other members of the European Union, which has signalled that it has shelved negotiations about visa-free travel for Turkish citizens on EU soil.
Until recently, Turkey’s iron-willed leader had felt relatively safe at home. His steady challenges to Western governments, coloured with threats, increased after the referendum in Turkey. A survey done in 26 provinces by Kadir Has University on Turkish foreign policy indicated that Erdogan’s approach gained appeal as 38.5% of the respondents said they consider Turkey’s foreign policy successful, an increase of 4.5%, when compared to the 2016 survey.
The percentage of those who said that “Turkey has allies” decreased from 23.1% to 17.2% in 2017. Countries perceived to present the biggest threat to Turkey were the United States (66.5%), Israel (37.4%) and EU members (24%). The European Union’s perception as a threat more than doubled since the 2016 poll, one of the most striking conclusions of the research. Threat perception towards Russia, on the other hand, fell to 18.5% in 2017 from 34.9% in 2016.
Erdogan has three imminent challenges. The first involves amending the by-laws of parliament. The essence of the changes, supported by his de facto ally in politics, the National Movement Party (MHP), means severe limitations of the activities of the opposition in the legislature meaning that Erdogan will seize nearly full control over the legislation.
Second, Erdogan must move to complete the purge that began in the once-mighty Turkish Army. Reports suggest that a massive redesign of its top echelons is under way. The Turkish armed forces, however, will continue to operate with an institutional DNA, which may stand sympathetic to political Islam and its derivatives.
The third challenge, which has to do with Erdogan’s July 20 call to his cabinet and AKP deputies, seems the hardest one. Unconfirmed reports from within the party indicate growing discontent with the constant tension politics Erdogan implements abroad, in particular because of his confrontations with Germany.
Erdogan knows that any loosening of his hard-line authority over the party would likely cause an extremely dangerous chain reaction: Not only would it trigger a new dynamic within the Turkish right but also among nationalist-militarist forces that seem to be positioned at the trenches.
The road map is utterly clear from Erdogan’s perspective: There is no way to stay in power without the full control not only over the judiciary, media and legislature but also over the military and the party. Consequently, Erdogan only has to play hardball at every level at home.
”If anything, the world ought not be surprised if it continues to detain and sentence foreigners as Iran does” wrote Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University, about the Erdogan administration in a recent analysis in the Atlantic magazine.
“Erdogan is intent on reshaping the Turkish system into one anchored by his personality… In order to succeed, however, he must quash rival narratives — hence his obsession with jailing academics, journalists, think-tankers and intellectuals,” Barkey wrote.
The harder Erdogan is challenged from abroad, the deeper the Turkish crisis will be.
”There are only two factors the government cannot completely control: Economics and events in neighbouring countries, Barkey said. “Ultimately, what happens in these domains and a much-diminished decision-making apparatus in Ankara, whose talents have been depleted by purges, will determine whether Erdogan’s reign will endure.”
The drama is that Erdogan, by his resolute steps, may have passed the point of no return for Turkey. Will Western leadership consent to a dictatorial format in the name of perceived containment and stability? This is Erdogan’s endgame and he can win.