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Erdogan’s Election Victory: Implications for Turkey and the Middle East

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to prepone Turkey’s general election this June to capitalize on the opposition’s disarray, a situation created by jailing several leaders and to take advantage of the recent military offensive in Afrin, have translated into a sound of victory for him.

Erdogan’s centralized and strong command over the basic institutions like media, the court and military have thwarted all the attempts made by the opposition parties to drive away enough religious voters away from Erdogan’s core constituency. All opposition together could not force a runoff. Erdogan’s inauguration on July 9 is more historic than that of his predecessors as it will mark the beginning of new era in the Turkish administration system: A shift led by Erdogan from parliamentary to an executive presidential system.

The constitutional change, which was approved in a referendum last year by 51 percent of the votes, grants Erdogan authority for the next five years to appoint top public officials, intervene in the country’s legal system, and impose a state of emergency. To the critics at home and abroad, a president gaining too much power will effectively render parliament and judiciary powerless, eventually causing a slow death to democracy. While the supporters of Erdogan assert that the new system of government will be more efficient.

For Erdogan, it is an opportunity to become a most powerful leader of Turkey after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. And to maintain this legacy, Erdogan is likely to stymie democracy, polarize the society and sharpen political discourse. In other words, while in an effort to retain and pamper his core constituency, under the new presidential system of Erdogan, it is likely that cronyism and nepotism will soon be an accepted a fact of life in the Turkish political sphere.

To silence any criticism directed at him or his way of rule, Erdogan will install his loyalists into media, business, cabinet and other powerful positions previously occupied by neutral people or his opponents. In the long-run, it will weaken morale in administrative services, not to mention public faith in the integrity of the government. However, this notion of disenchantment does not necessarily pose a threat to Erdogan’s authoritarian rule. He has become so absorbed in battling his enemies that he is acquainted with multiple ways to shun them off to jail or into exile.

The only major element which could concern Erdogan is Turkey’s unraveling economy, which kept the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in power all these years. The Turkish economy is floundering with deficits, inflation and rising oil prices especially after lira plummeted to new lows, coming close to trading at nearly 5 to one dollar, compared to around 1.6 to one dollar in 2011. Previously, the central bank raised interest rate by 300 basis points from 13.5 to 16.5 percent. The move arrested the decline of the currency but was not enough to stamp out investor’s worries about the Turkish economy.

To make thing worse, the ruling party during the election campaign for the purpose to woo voters, unveiled a hefty economic package for the Turkish people. They promised to raise the minimum wages for civil servants and provide pensioners with a bonus of 1000 lira (218$) for main Islamic holidays in June and August. The first bonus, which was paid ahead of the Ramadan holidays, created an additional burden of TL 11 billion (USD 2.3 billion) on the budget and is likely to increase with the distribution of second bonus. While this measure will unquestionably benefit the pensioners, the increase in minimum wage would make labor being more expensive than the capital, and the firms will seek to substitute capital for labor, eventually ending up in exploiting workers and leaving a large population of forthcoming youths unemployed.

This will be far-sighted alarm for Erdogan who has failed to win votes among 18 to 32 years old Turks, especially those who hit their political age under his presidency. By promising economic benefits, the AKP has entered into an austerity trap, where Erdogan’s failure or success to fulfill these campaign vows along with other economic challenges, comes with the risk of being defeated  politically in the next presidential vote. Otherwise, the deteriorating economic condition will provide an essential background or triggering point for the youth to protest en masse.

The Middle East

Though the implementation of the presidential rule has changed the course of Turkish political and economic decision-making, it is also significant to analyse some major foreign policy implication of each scenario.

In the aftermath of Turkish intervention in Syria’s Afrin region, Erdogan reached an agreement about Manbij with the United States, a step towards resolving one of the tense disputes to erupt between the NATO countries. According to the agreement, Turkish forces and Free Syrian Army (FSA) will replace Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) in Manbij along with the American troops, who will conduct independent but coordinated patrols.

However, by placing FSA in the region, Erdogan is likely to drag Turkey the a regional quagmire. The rebel group, which helped Turkey successfully invade Afrin, is hoping that Erdogan will support them in the fight against Assad once he secures his country’s self-interest. Erdogan, on the other hand, is unlikely to do that given Turkey’s current relationship with Russia and Iran. This will clearly disappoint FSA, who eventually can find their way back tothe Islamic State (ISIS) and might react against Turkey for the betrayal.

In Iraq, as an electoral ploy, Erdogan sent his military to attack the PKK, considered as a terrorist organization by Ankara, in Qandil Mountain. Turkey did achieve some success. However, accomplishing the mission is going to be a challenging task for Erdogan. Unlike Afrin or Manbij, Qandil Mountain is not a flatland but a mountain where it is going to be very difficult for a conventional Turkish forces to go up and achieve significant and decisive results. Probably, this could be the reason why jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan called this mountain perfect training ground, hiding place for guerrilla force and being easy to defend the location.

For Erdogan, it is going to be a bloody and long war with serious consequences for the stability of the Iraqi Kurdistan. Meanwhile, the Iraqi administration condemned Turkish invasion, despite the fact that they also want PKK out of its territory. It will be interesting to see how the Erdogan manages to coordinate with the new Iraqi government in the fight against the PKK.

In the case of Israel-Palestine conflict in the region, Erdogan will be firmly supportive to the Palestinians and call for the necessary steps to change the status quo of Jerusalem. Under this pretext, Erdogan has also threatened to cut all the diplomatic ties with Israel. He also accused the U.S. for abandoning its mediating role by violating the most fundamental principle of international law by moving its embassy to Jerusalem, making it the capital of Israel. Moreover, Turkey has also expelled the Israeli ambassador over the recent violence in Gaza, and then put them through a humiliating public thorough security check at the airport on their way out of the country. In response, the Israeli government summoned Turkey’s charge’d affair, officially marking the deteriorating relationship between Israel and Turkey.

In days to come, Erdogan is likely to push the U.S. and the international community to seriously consider resolving the decades-old Israel-Palestine conflict. Simultaneously he may try to break the new alliance between Israel and the Arab countries who aim at getting a peace deal in favor of Israel. The Arab countries have decided to abandon Palestine to establish a strong diplomatic relationship against Iran.

Speaking of Iran, Erdogan has accused Trump for leading the world back into the dark days of pre-World War II for violating the international agreement on Iranian nuclear deal.  Trump’s withdrawal from the deal has affected Turkey business with Iran because of impending new sanctions. This has also scattered the opportunity for Erdogan to advance Turkey’s economic relationship with Iran in the field of energy, petrochemicals, mining, construction, retail, logistics and tourism. To make the situation worse for Turkey’s economy, the U.S. treasury department has imposed new sanctions on entities and nine individuals, several of whom are Turkish, for doing business with previously sanctioned Iran airlines. In response, Erdogan vowed that Turkey will do everything in their power to protect the Turkish firms from the U.S. sanctions. Now that Turkish firms are at stake, Erdogan is likely to go beyond his potential to force the E.U. and the international community to condemn the U.S. for violating the nuclear treaty, while also supporting Iran during its hard days of economic siege.

Erdogan’s sound victory with new powers has deep domestic and foreign implications. To retain domestic order, Erdogan will try to get involved in external matters whether that of Syria, Israel-Palestine or Iran-U.S. relations. Thus Turkey has a significant role in the regional politics apart from the fact that it will be interesting to watch how Erdogan will maintain his control in the country and how he will bring it out from the troubles that it faces.  

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