5 percent rule in Turkey’s foreign policy

The Turkish diplomatic engine has started sputtering with not-so-welcomed developments taking place in our neighborhood one by one, risking the alienation and isolation of once a shining beacon of democracy and a model country in the Middle East. Some of the challenges Ankara is confronting today may have nothing to do with Turkey of course and it would have appeared on our horizon no matter what Turkey did. Yet some partially happened due to homegrown and ill-advised policies that were fundamentally a departure from the traditional approach of an overly cautious foreign policy. If the country’s past foreign policy basically represented remaining aloof on many issues and detached from reality at times, its recent one should be blamed for overkill and excessiveness.

The mismatch between the capacity and capability to deliver on the one hand and set goals and ambitions on the other was exacerbated by the Hugo Chavez-style rhetoric of Turkish officials that irked many of our allies and partners. But most importantly, the prevailing ideological leanings of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government in foreign policy and its tendency to identify and associate itself closely with specific groups along religious lines in other countries aggravated the mistakes made in the course of pursuing this ambitious foreign policy agenda.

As in the case of many domestic woes, this has to do with the introduction of what many in Ankara call the “5 percent rule” in Turkish politics. This rule indicates a traditional block vote for a politically motivated Islamic agenda that was pushed through by the late Necmettin Erbakan and took on different names over the course of Turkish political history. Whatever its name, the popularity of this bloc always roughly hovered around 5 percent, with upswing votes happening only when it sought larger alliances with other groups. The success of the AK Party, although many of its founding fathers in 2001 came from this background, was mainly attributed to dropping this rule and becoming an inclusive party that embraced everyone from all different walks of life, including liberals, independents, moderate conservative groups and others.

However, since 2011, we increasingly started to notice the return of the 5 percent rule in the party in both its domestic and foreign policy choices as party leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan consolidated his power within the party and in the government. The imposition of the 5 percent rule in a straightjacket style on a coalition of various social and civic groups represented in the AK party led to cracks and failures in Turkish foreign policy, not to mention in many domestic policies. The AK Party government has shown increasing willingness to use, and in fact abuse, foreign policy choices for domestic political purposes, mainly catering to this 5 percent core group that is passionate on mostly elusive and unrealistic goals.

Constant Israel bashing, justified or not, as well as fantasizing with Iranian so-called revolutionary mullahs who exploit Shiites and the Palestinian issue to advance Persian nationalist discourse, resonates well in this narrow constituency. They love the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas and despise other factions, including Fatah. They feel sympathy towards politically charged Islamic activist movements in different countries where some of these may be described as violent, separatist or even terrorist groups. A strong anti-Western character is another dominating figure of this constituency in opposing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the European Union, which they label as Christian and anti-Muslim clubs.

When the 5 percent rule strongly asserted itself in Turkey’s foreign policy choices, albeit unrealistically and detached from realism, we started to see failures, one after another. Ankara’s critical position towards the military-backed interim government that ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president via a coup may be partially explained with this phenomenon. Although the government is perfectly justified in criticizing the coup in principle and on moral grounds drawing from its own lessons in Turkey that experienced four military coups, all of which led to further problems in society, there is no denying that part of the motivation also came from the AK Party leadership’s sympathy towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

But the realism and interests of Turkey dictate that Ankara should have found a way to work with the interim government, soften its rhetoric and shy away from agitating and provoking millions of Egyptians who do not feel the same way as the Muslim Brotherhood. The introduction of the dangerous 5 percent rule in framing Turkey’s position towards Egypt put Turkey in a lone wolf situation that does not benefit anyone, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Ankara may also lose its friends in the Gulf if it sticks to this unsustainable position. Why risk the investment that Turkey has cultivated in recent years in attracting the attention of Gulf powers, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in bringing closer cooperation in politics, economy and other areas? But the 5 percent constituency sees the Gulf as mere puppets of the Western alliance in the Middle East and they have no problem doing away with these countries.

The same mistake happened in the Palestinian file as well. The government worked very closely with the Hamas leadership at the expense of the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah group, risking a sharpening of divisions among Palestinians. Instead of consolidating the Palestinian factions and working seriously for reconciliation, its actions have given mixed signals that Ankara in fact favors Hamas more than others. On many occasions, the AK Party bypassed traditional diplomatic customs by dealing directly with Hamas without the knowledge of the Palestinian Embassy in Ankara. Erdoğan’s insistence on visiting the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which will boost the legitimacy of Hamas rule, irked other factions in Palestine while angering Turkey’s key ally, the United States.

The stalled negotiations with the EU accession talks for over three years now is partially attributed to this world view subscribed to by the 5 percent constituency as well, even though most of the blame goes to the German-led anti-Turkey bloc in the EU. Turkey could have done a lot in strengthening the hand of the its sizable number of friends within the EU and successfully isolate the anti-Turkey bloc on a number of issues. It has done this in the past and Germany unwillingly had to go along with the rest of the pack in yielding to Turkey’s demands. Instead, however, Turkey began bashing the EU across the board, weakening the position of Turkey’s friends while stalling reforms and democratization steps in the country. Again, you sense the anti-EU rhetoric on ideological grounds from some AK Party leaders who privately admit that Turkey has no place in this so-called Christian club.

The vision of the US is also blurred at times from this perspective that sees an imperialist power that is only interested in undercutting Turkey’s role in the region. Dressing this manifestly ill-advised confrontational style of foreign policy with major powers, including the US, as the “independent policy of a new Turkey,” the AK Party leadership is actually appeasing the 5 percent constituency. It tries to sell this policy to the world on “moral high ground” arguments even though there are many contradictions and flaws associated with this approach.

The AK Party does not have the right to put the future of the remaining 95 percent of the population in this country at great jeopardy by promoting the agenda of the 5 percent in its foreign policy. Instead of driving its policy on religious and ideological lines, we need a bridging agenda that will bring together multi-ethnic and multi-religious groups and countries that can be mobilized around conflict-resolution and peace resolution campaigns.

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