Doesn’t the decisive victory of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Sunday’s elections put an end to concerns about the country’s stability? Hasn’t calm returned to Nato’s strategically vital bulwark on the edge of the Middle East after five months of political impasse and growing sectarian violence?
Sadly not. By handing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan such a strong mandate, Turkey’s voters have swung behind a leader whose hallmarks have become capitalising on tension and fear. In the run up to the polls, the president was accused of threatening to come after critical newspaper editors once the elections were over. Given the scale of Mr Erdogan’s triumph, and his past form, expecting generosity from him now seems naïve. More of the same is a perverse form of stability.
But clamping down on a divided and demoralised domestic opposition will probably concern Turkey’s Nato allies less than whether Mr Erdogan sticks to his policy towards his neighbours to the south. President Erdogan definitely shares Washington’s desire to see the back of Bashar al-Assad. But what he would like to see replace him in Damascus is very different from Obama’s, admittedly over-optimistic, vision of a secular liberal democracy.
Erdogan’s disdain for Turkey’s constitutional secularism is now as clear as his refusal to play his prescribed role as figurehead president, and his preference for the Muslim fundamentalist Syrian opposition puts him at odds with the West’s declared strategic goal. While President Obama has begun to assist Syria’s Kurds against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), Erdogan has consistently tried to undercut the West’s new allies from gaining ground in northern Syria. At the same time, Ankara has let the jihadists operating in Syria and Iraq use southern Turkey as a safe haven. To Erdogan, the existential threat posed by the Kurds at home, as well as in Syria and Iraq, is a problem which he now has a solid four-year mandate to solve.
As Washington fails to disguise its unhappiness with Erdogan’s Syrian double game, the EU desperately needs him as a partner in handling the refugee crisis. Angela Merkel’s recent visit to Ankara was a huge boost to the president’s standing: Europe’s premier minister came to him as a supplicant looking for help to stem the flow of migrants via Turkey to Greece. Erdogan played up the visit for all it was worth. After decades of Turks toiling as Gastarbeiter at the beck and call of German employers, now it was the Germans’ turn to come asking for favours from him.
But although Berlin is trying to cobble together a generous aid package from Brussels for Turkey, Merkel does not want to offer the prize of a timetable for accession to the EU. It is difficult, however, to see the all-conquering Erdogan accepting less. A key stumbling block remains Europe’s sympathy for Turkey’s Kurds who have built a powerful lobby in Brussels, where they are seen as an oppressed minority.
In Turkey, meanwhile, militant Kurds have established “no go areas” in some south-eastern cities and the revived AKP government surely won’t tolerate them for much longer. Turks may have voted for “peace and stability” on Sunday but Erdogan’s strategy for restoring peace requires a spike in violence first. If Kurdish resistance isn’t crushed quickly, the domestic situation could soon sour.
After the June electoral wobble, President Erdogan may think himself now securely seated in his vast new palace in Ankara, but his appeal to a potent mix of Turkish nationalism and Muslim solidarity shouldn’t blind him to the limits of his power. He won despite the recession which overshadowed his earlier “economic miracle”. His foreign policy agenda threatens the economy further. The migration crisis in coastal resorts has hit tourist bookings as does the violence in Syria and terrorism. Exports to the oil rich Gulf are stymied because Turkish products cannot go safely through Syria and Iraq. His old partner, Vladimir Putin, is blocking Turkish transit trade through Russia to Asia because they are at loggerheads over Syria too.
Unless a sudden fit of uncharacteristic magnanimity seizes President Erdogan in this moment of triumph, his Turkey, its allies and neighbours are set for a rocky ride.
Mark Almond is writing Secular Turkey: A Short History.