Convention speech and Erdoğan’s dream

Turkey’s powerful prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will be delivering a keynote speech at his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) convention on Sunday, 11 years after he first formed Turkey’s 39th party, in August 2001. His young party swept the parliamentary elections a year later in November 2002, becoming a very successful political movement and leading to wins in the next two elections in 2007 and 2011 as well.

He has been instrumental in pushing the once-powerful military to its barracks, restoring the relative balance on civilian-military relations while maintaining impressive economic growth. Today, he is at a critical juncture however his party’s rule has been facing huge challenges from the recent surge of terror attacks to the emergence of economic difficulties at home, and strained ties with neighbors in the Middle East region. He has not been able to consolidate the democratization process in Turkey yet, leaving the most important pillar of a functioning democracy incomplete: a lack of a civilian constitution.

His aides have been paying a lot of attention to every detail in his upcoming speech, which will simultaneously be translated into seven languages to convey his messages to foreign audiences. That means he will devote a substantial portion of this impact speech to foreign policy issues, while laying out a grand vision for Turkey in 2023 when the republic will celebrate its centennial. In a television interview this week, Erdoğan stressed that his long speech on Sunday will be the last one he will give as the chairman of the party at the party congress, signaling that he is intent on delivering a memorable speech.

Yet challenges the nation faces will make it harder for him to deliver a speech that has considerable impact. Circumstances in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood as well as the general outlook of global affairs are not very promising for Turkey. I remember his speech in the last party congress held in 2009 during which Erdoğan was touting foreign policy achievements to rally his supporters. He was making a point that during his party’s rule, the nation has minimized long-standing problems with its neighbors based on a newly adopted “zero problems with neighbors policy.”

Unfortunately that policy seems to have collapsed with regard to many countries in Turkey’s neighborhood. Of course not all the blame goes to the AK Party government for the frayed relations with some of our eastern and southern neighbors. The unnecessary deep engagement policy with Iran did not benefit Turkey in any meaningful way and there has been sort of undeclared war waged by Iran against Turkey because of Ankara’s growing influence in the Middle East and North African region. Relations with Iraq under the Shiite leader Nouri al-Maliki have also worsened to the point that Maliki rebuffed Erdoğan’s personal invitation to show up at his party congress, which signaled a further strain on relations with Baghdad.

Turkey could have eventually ended in the same spot whether it tried a different trajectory with regard to Syria and Iraq. But that is not a point the voters and AK Party supporters will pay any attention to as public perception is shaped by the general outlook of relations, not by diplomatic details. He kept Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the architect of this new foreign policy, in party management in 2009, but whether he will do the same again during the party congress on Sunday will provide a hint about the orientation of Turkish foreign policy as well as Davutoğlu’s future career.

I’m sure he will again use Israel as a punching bag as he loves to lash out at the Jewish state often for the occupation of the Palestine territories and harsh military policies disturbing the daily lives of the Palestinian people. In a 2009 speech, he devoted much time to discussing the Gaza offensive, in which the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) allegedly committed war crimes such as using prohibited weapons including phosphorus bombs and indiscriminately killing civilians in combat zones in the December 2008-January 2009 period. This time he is expected to dwell on the flotilla incident during which eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American were killed by an Israeli raid on a humanitarian ship in international waters en route to Gaza. He will reiterate Turkey’s demands for an apology and compensation over the killings and ask that the Gaza embargo be lifted. Given the fact that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal will be present among the audience, Erdoğan will try to raise Turkish concerns over domestic woes in Palestine, specifically the reconciliation issues between Hamas and Fatah.

As the fury over the anti-Islam movie produced by an extreme anti-Muslim Egyptian Christian campaigner in the US continues to stir protests across the Muslim world, Erdoğan will seize the opportunity to talk about rising Islamophobia in the West. He will talk about the necessity of introducing an international mechanism that would protect sacred values from insult, while condemning the violence associated with the protests that claimed the lives of more than 50 people including the US ambassador to Libya. He will say freedom of speech should not be abused for the purposes of legitimizing hate speech and using it to insult the sacred values of others.

In the 2009 speech, the AK Party chairman dwelled on the government’s intensified efforts to resolve problems facing Turkish expatriates in foreign countries’ especially in Europe, while addressing issues such as problems faced by Turkish citizens in visa applications. The problems Turks face in EU member states especially in Germany where some 3 million Turks live continue to be exacerbated however. The Cologne court order banning ritual circumcisions, practiced by Jews and Muslims, has practically turned into a nationwide ban as doctors across the country have refused to carry out operations due to fear of legal action. As if that is not enough, a poster campaign by the German Interior Ministry against young Muslims who the ministry claimed might be Islamist radicals or terrorists due to behavioral disorders created a backlash among Muslims in Germany.

The xenophobic and Islamophobic tendencies across Europe are on the rise and the Turkish government feels helpless in making a positive impact on the lives of Turks and Muslims in this old continent. Erdoğan will raise these issues in his speech on Sunday, but how effective he will be in getting foreign governments to tackle these issues remains a source of concern for Turkish people. The AK Party government’s promise of making international travel easy for Turkish citizens is not going according to plan because the visa facilitation talks with the EU for an eventual waiver agreement are not expected to bear fruit for at least three years.

How he resumes the EU membership process, which has virtually been halted with no new negotiations chapter having been opened in the last two years, will tell us what the extent of involvement by the new party administration will be in respect to EU relations. In a 2009 speech, he made it clear that Turkey would stick to the EU path despite difficulties, and would continue to adopt reforms to raise Turkey’s standards. His criticism for the EU was limited to the extent that Turkey faced some injustices at the hands of some European countries acting on populist politics. I expect he will come out strongly against the EU this time, bashing Brussels for the lack of progress on membership talks.

Unlike his previous speech in which he touted the normalization of Turkey’s relations with Armenia as a successful step for the government, I do not think Erdoğan will amplify this issue in his speech. When he made his speech on Oct.3, 2009, he knew the government would be signing the Zurich protocols a week later on Oct.10, which would have opened the common border that was closed by Turkey in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan after Armenian armed forces occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan in 1992, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Since the protocols did not make any reference to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan reacted strongly against Turkey which led to the country’s shelving of the protocols. It is now a dead issue in Turkey.

I think he will talk at length on the significance of Turkish-Egyptian cooperation in the Middle East while hailing the presence of Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi in the AK Party congress. The visit reinforces the impression that Turkey’s AK Party government will cultivate much better ties with an Egypt ruled by the former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. The photo-op with Erdoğan standing next to Morsi is also a significant warning to Iran that two major powers in the region are very much worried about Iranian encroachment against the Sunni sphere of influence in the Middle East. Both Erdoğan and Morsi have adopted a similar position on Syria and want Assad to depart from power as soon as possible.

I’m sure he will briefly mention the Afghanistan issue with a reference to Turkey’s mediation efforts between Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Cyprus, Caucasus, the Balkans, nuclear disarmament, poverty, global climate change, food shortages and other global matters. But Syria will take up a considerable part of the speech.

In his last address, he borrowed from Martin Luther King Jr.’s major speech “I Have a Dream,” saying, “We have a dream and a story to tell,” to the world. But judging from what’s happening in the region, the AK Party’s story is getting worse and the dream of a zero problems with neighbors policy is in tatters.

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