Turkish President Erdogan waves to his party faithful

Erdogan’s ‘new Turkey’ resembles an old stereotype

  • Turkey’s new constitution gives President Erdogan the free hand he wanted
  • But his “road map” remains obscure after a May 21 speech to the ruling party
  • Mr. Erdogan’s options are constrained with Turkey split at home and isolated abroad

On May 21, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) elected a new chairman: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He received more than 96 percent of the votes.

Mr. Erdogan had been party chairman before and during his stint as prime minister (2003-2014), but to comply with Turkey’s constitution, he was forced to give up the job after being elected president in August 2014.

A new constitution was passed with a referendum on April 16, 2017. Not only does it give the president almost unlimited power, but it also allows him to be a member of a political party. In a more than two-hour speech that followed his election as party chairman, President Erdogan announced that decisions would be made under the new constitution and “enforced with high pressure ... without being obstructed and delayed by other forces.”

Leader unleashed

In the past, he had no trouble identifying those obstacles: the parliament and the judiciary. Now Mr. Erdogan will have no need to rely on coalition governments. This raises questions about the future of the country’s domestic policy.

In his speech, the president once again accused the European Union of pursuing a “hypocritical policy.” Turkey does not need the EU, he said. That attitude could herald changes in Ankara’s foreign policy.

The framework provided by the new constitution represents a deep rupture in the history of the Turkish Republic. In his dual function as president and leader of the ruling party, Mr. Erdogan can now implement his project of a “new Turkey.” At the heart of this project is the claim of the AKP, led by its chairman and chief of state, to “embody the nation.”

Exaggerating a bit, one might say that Mr. Erdogan's "new Turkey" bears some resemblance to an Islamic republic

Turkey is to be Islamic, politically independent of foreign powers and economically strong. Exaggerating a bit, one might say that this “new Turkey” bears some resemblance to an “Islamic Republic.” Not in the sense of its Shia neighbor Iran, but in keeping with the Sunni-Islamic understanding of the nation as a religious community (ummet in Turkish).

Although a few political parties remain in parliament as a democratic facade, they are politically irrelevant. Mr. Erdogan has also attributed a religious legitimation to his charismatic leadership.

In his speech of May 21, the Turkish president announced he had drawn up a “road map” for the next six months. It is not yet clear how he defines that concept. Political observers in Ankara expect a profound overhaul of the party at all levels.

A younger generation, no longer familiar with the “old” Turkey predating the Erdogan era and unconditionally devoted to the president, is being elevated to leadership positions. The office of prime minister will be abolished. A new Political Parties Act could increase the number of lawmakers to 600. President Erdogan, who has concentrated all executive functions in his hands, will be able to count on an absolute parliamentary majority, marginalizing all other political forces.

Turkey divided

Since the protests of the summer of 2013 in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, Mr. Erdogan has accomplished his political goals step by step. He used the failed coup attempt by the army in July 2016 to systematically eliminate the opposition. Has every source of domestic resistance been overcome? Is there any hope of returning to real democracy?

The result of the constitutional referendum in April 2017 shows how deeply Turkish society is divided. Just over 51 percent of the voters were in favor of amending the constitution, while almost 49 percent were against.

From the standpoint of President Erdogan and his party, this result was disappointing, to put it mildly. The referendum took place under a state of emergency, which made it almost impossible for the opposition to run a “no” campaign. Anyone openly calling for rejection of the constitutional reform was denounced as supporting terrorism, by the Kurdish PKK or the Gulen movement. There was also probably some election fraud to boost the yes vote.

The fault lines inside Turkey run between the state and the Kurdish minority, between the Sunni state religion and the religious minorities, and between conservative Anatolia and the cosmopolitan cities. But perhaps more than anything else, it is a clash of different lifestyles – Islamic revival on one hand, and a continuation of the road to Europe on the other.

Turkish President Erdogan meets the presidents of the European Council and the European Commssion
President Erdogan makes no secret of his contempt for the EU. Here shown with European Council President Donald Tusk (C) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (R) in Brussels (source: dpa)

After the failed coup, about 150,000 people lost their jobs and their income. Their families were affected as well. This has contributed to the spread of opposition to the Erdogan system. The economy is weakening and unemployment is on the rise. Public institutions – including the judiciary, the educational system and the security forces – have been rendered ineffective by the purges.

President Erdogan can no longer return to democratic governance. Under the conditions of emergency rule, any form of opposition is to be eliminated. The Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the largest opposition grouping, is coming under increasing pressure. Any return to the rule of law would mean allowing the judiciary to investigate allegations of massive corruption among the ruling elite. The political circles closest to Mr. Erdogan fear this.

Foreign policy

The domestic political tensions and the repressive policy of the AKP government have had a lasting impact on Turkey’s foreign policy. The country has lost its compass and it is difficult to determine where it stands today. Its foreign policy is full of contradictions.

This applies to relations with Europe. President Erdogan has made no secret of his contempt for the EU. The contradictions in Brussels’ attitude since the beginning of the accession talks in 2005 have created scar tissue in Ankara. The “new Turkey” will not be based on Europe’s political values, Mr. Erdogan has stated quite frankly.

The power politician is also a pragmatist; values are not the basis for his relations with Brussels

In this light, his continued calls for the EU to admit Turkey might seem puzzling. Yet the power politician is also a pragmatist. Values are not the basis for his relations with Brussels. The Western orientation of the Kemalist elite of past decades has been scrapped. Mr. Erdogan now wants a pragmatic “deal” with Brussels. In his view, the new Turkey is entitled, and European leaders would do well to recognize this. But since Brussels is not buying this argument, the relationship is at an impasse.

This also applies to relations with the United States. At the NATO summit in Brussels on May 25, Mr. Erdogan had his third meeting with President Donald Trump in a span of less than two weeks. Nonetheless, the relations between Ankara and Washington remain fragile – especially regarding the conflict in Syria.

For the Turkish president, who is waging a shooting war at home with the Kurdish PKK, it is a vital interest to prevent the Kurds in Syria from establishing the conditions for an independent state. President Trump, on the other hand, has made the extinction of Daesh (also known as Islamic State, or ISIS) the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East. A central role in that struggle has been allotted to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by the military army of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has been amply supplied with American weapons.

Iranian challenge

As for its other neighbors, Turkey is sitting on the fence. Mr. Erdogan’s connections with the Islamic movement, and especially the Muslim Brotherhood, raises suspicions in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which classify the group as a terrorist organization.

Relations with Iran appear stable, with an emphasis on pragmatic economic cooperation. Behind the facade, however, they are also strained. The two countries have very different ideas about the future of the regime in Damascus. More important, confessional differences make it difficult for Ankara to accept the strengthening of Iran’s position in Syria and Iraq, which it perceives as an expansion of the Shia variant of Islam.

The inherent contradictions in Turkey’s regional policy have been exposed by the recent crisis over Qatar

Tehran thus represents a challenge to the Turkish president. Mr. Erdogan’s worldview has strong elements of neo-Ottomanism, envisaging a return of Turkey to its historical role as the dominant power in the countries of the Fertile Crescent. In the battle to retake Mosul from Islamic State, the Turkish army has been trying to prevent the use of Iranian-supported Shia militias to keep Iran from strengthening its power position in northern Iraq.

The inherent contradictions in Turkey’s regional policy have been exposed by the recent crisis over Qatar. Mr. Erdogan has declared that he will act jointly with Iran to overcome the embargo imposed on the emirate by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the other Gulf states. In addition, he has announced an enlargement of the Turkish military presence (including expansion of a small army base) in Qatar. Yet he has failed to explain the purpose of this risky escalation, which only deepens the divide with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states.

Russia tensions

To overcome Turkey’s growing international isolation, Mr. Erdogan felt compelled to normalize relations with Russia. These had reached a low point following the downing of a Russian bomber over the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin bluntly let his Turkish counterpart feel who had the upper hand. Given the effectiveness of Russian sanctions, especially on Turkey’s tourist industry and agricultural exports, President Erdogan had to relent and apologize.

Even so, relations between Ankara and Moscow remain precarious and unstable. As to the future of the Syrian regime, Mr. Erdogan has reluctantly aligned himself with Russia. This breaks with previous policy, which since 2011 had insisted on the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad as a prerequisite for resolving the crisis. For now, Turkey is taking part in Russian-sponsored peace talks in Astana and Geneva, which would at least provide for the temporary survival of the Assad regime.

Early elections could cement Mr. Erdogan's grip for another five years, but also increase the risk of a violent conflict

Tensions also exist over the Black Sea, where the two countries have waged a centuries-long struggle for supremacy. Free military passage through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits remains a sore point for Russia, while Turkey sees itself as a protector of the Crimean Tatars and the Islamic peoples of the North Caucasus, whom it sees as suffering under Russian repression.


Two plausible scenarios are emerging for Turkey’s development.

The first assumes that President Erdogan remains firmly in the saddle. Exploiting the state of emergency, he will strengthen his position by further marginalizing or even eliminating the opposition. Any return to democratic and constitutional forms of government can be ruled out. One option to further cement his grip for another five years would be to hold early elections. This option also increases the risk of a violent conflict, since internal tensions could not be relieved through normal political channels.

Internationally, Turkey would remain isolated. The country would also become increasingly susceptible to the deepening regional crisis as the system of states established by the Sykes-Picot Agreement a century ago continues to collapse. If Ankara continues its diplomatic convergence with Moscow and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it could reach a point that is no longer compatible with Turkey’s continued membership in NATO.

Under a second scenario, the weakening of Turkey’s economy would begin to be felt by those segments of the population that have so far supported the Erdogan system. Cases of corruption in the president’s immediate entourage would begin to dim his charisma and undermine the legitimacy of his rule. As a result, Mr. Erdogan and the ruling AKP would fall short of absolute majorities in the next parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for 2019. This could lead to the eclipse of AKP and dissolve the domestic power constellation centered on President Erdogan.

It would take time for Turkey’s democratic system to renew itself, and the potential for domestic violence under this scenario would be huge. Beset by internal problems, the country would occupy a marginal position on the regional and international scene. Ankara would also have less influence over the EU’s refugee policy.

In a word, Turkey once again has become the “sick man of Europe.”

By clicking "I Agree" below, you acknowledge that you accept our Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions. Feel free to check out our policies anytime for more information.
I agree