What is Erdoğan after?

Firebrand politician Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has deliberately created such euphoria in the inner circle of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government that Turkey could very well take on the US, the sole remaining superpower, not to mention regional powers such as the European Union, the Gulf States, the Arabs, Russia and China. It is amazing that this illusion is now being fed to the Turkish public by pro-government analysts who cheered in chorus when Erdoğan slammed the US administration on Saturday for the latter’s criticism of Erdoğan’s remark implicating Israel as the culprit behind the toppling of democratically elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

Does it make sense for Erdoğan to use and abuse foreign policy issues when even the most significant issue, Syria, with which Turkey has a 910-kilometer-long border, can have only a 2 or 3 percentage point difference in elections based on the steady trend of polling patterns? Two reasons quickly come to mind. First, Erdoğan is trying to divert the national agenda away from substantive issues such as the rapidly rising levels of personal debt in Turkey, which have left over 1.5 million consumers struggling to repay their personal bank loans, or the failed education reform that left over half a million eighth graders stranded without an appropriate high school.

In July, Erdoğan dumped the blame on banks and called on people not to use credit cards extensively. The ill-defined “interest lobby” theory he raised during the Gezi Park protests was in fact also part of the same plan. On education, he sacked his former undersecretary of the Prime Ministry and education minister to start a clean slate with parents. Neither have worked, and the prime minister has entered the foreign policy front with revisionist rhetoric to create a distraction.

The second reason why Erdoğan is playing with foreign policy is to cater to the small but effective constituency that sits at the core of the political Islamist ideology he grew up with. Mostly coming from the “National View” background, which was the hallmark of the late Necmettin Erbakan, the founder of political Islam in Turkey, these activists subscribing to anti-Western rhetoric will help shape the national debate around foreign policy issues rather than domestic ones. Mobilization of this narrow constituency will also exert pressure on larger groups in Turkey to revisit their positions on foreign policy and allocate more resources, time and energy to discussion of these issues.

While bashing his allies in public, the prime minister is also privately signaling “business as usual” with international partners by not translating most, or possibly any, of this harsh rhetoric into policy decisions. So far, this seems to have worked well even with the Israelis, who have been enjoying booming trade with Turkey despite worsening political relations. But there is now an increasing realization on the part of Turkey’s allies that his unchecked criticisms are slowly chipping away trust, a precious commodity that is hard to find, by dealing a blow to the positive perception of Turkey in foreign media outlets, academia, think tanks, interest groups and nongovernmental organizations.

Even the White House, after resisting recommendations to come out strongly against the Turkish government for so long, had to fold under the pressure of advocacy groups and rebuked Erdoğan over his handling of the Gezi Park protests and his diatribes against Israel. In defense of his boss, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu expressed his displeasure with the public criticisms made by the White House, saying that private communication channels between the two governments are wide open to convey such concerns, and that there is no need to use the media to communicate the message to Ankara. I suppose Obama begs to differ.

Perhaps the more critical question here is why Erdoğan is using the same scorched earth policy in the domestic front in an attempt to railroad his coalition of supporters and political allies. The divisions between Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül have become more visible in recent months, while the coalition within his party has started to show some cracks, mostly developed by heavyweights that do not like Erdoğan’s consolidation of power at their expense. Beyond party lines, Erdoğan has also succeeded in antagonizing a broad coalition of supporters, from liberals to independents, from conservative groups to environmentalists, all turned off by Erdoğan’s “my way or the highway” approach and his failure to deliver on his election promises.

Instead of trying to soothe tensions and de-escalate the deepening divisions, Erdoğan has given all indications that he will take on any and every group he feels is not loyal to his rule. But why? Is this not an ill-advised domestic policy, especially when Turkey’s neighborhood is on the rocks? Would it not be a wise choice to try to reach out, not only to his supporters but to others, in order to build a stronger coalition on the home front to face the mounting challenges?

My sense is that Erdoğan, who has fought more battles than he has settled for compromises in his life, believes that standing firm will reap more benefits for him eventually. He is probably worried that a compromise will be interpreted as a sign of weakness on the part of his leadership. It may also be that the combative style is the only way to which he is accustomed. It might be connected to a feeling of deep frustration about his foiled plan to get himself elected as president with broad powers as part of the presidential system change. The drafting of a new constitution including the AK Party’s proposal of presidential rule met resistance from the main and junior opposition parties, while Erdoğan’s public discussion of the issue did not get enough traction from voters to support the change.

He successfully pushed for legislative change to limit the incumbent Gül’s term to one period only but was rebuffed when the change was struck down by the Constitutional Court after an appeal from the main opposition party. Now he has to deal with Gül, who has shown all indications that he is also a strong contender. Gül makes frequent high profile visits abroad and on the home front seizes practically every opportunity to make a contrast between himself and Erdoğan, as was the case during the Gezi Park protests. Gül made it clear that he won’t be easily sidelined in politics.

Now Erdoğan faces two significant challenges in his future political career. If he runs as the presidential candidate, his chances of winning the two-round election run on a razor-thin edge of a little over 50 percent. It is a possibility that the opposition may join forces to defeat him in the second round, and this loss will be a big blow to his political career. Considering that the presidential election will come some three months after the local elections to be held in March, the ruling party will most likely lose some points in the local elections, as happened in the local elections of 2009, when the AK Party dropped some 8 percent from the 2007 national elections. Therefore, Erdoğan will be running the presidential campaign amid a legitimacy debate over the popularity of his party and himself.

The other challenge comes from the “swap formula” that he will probably agree to, yielding the chairmanship of the AK Party position to Gül if Erdoğan wants to become president. Gül, helped by the disgruntled heavyweights who will be forced to exit politics due to the three term rule within the party, can easily shape the party and the composition of deputies ahead of the 2015 national elections in his image by sidelining foot soldiers loyal to Erdoğan.

The prime minister’s position is always stronger than the presidential post under the existing rules of the country’s governance because it is the prime minister who controls the finances and legislative agenda, the two most important tools to command respect in Turkey. To eliminate this risk, Erdoğan may call for snap elections, moving the 2015 national elections’ date forward to 2014 so that he will be in a position to control the nominees’ tickets in the parliamentary election while running the presidential campaign.

At this juncture, Gül’s moderate style of rule certainly appeals to international partners. He may also help rebuild a national consensus by reducing tension and polarization in Turkish society. Gül projects a risk-averse character while Erdoğan lives by a “no risk, no gain” philosophy which gave him the edge in the past. Erdoğan’s brinkmanship policy helped him achieve victory against the once-powerful military. He did not blink at the threat of blackmail that an exclusive business club leveled against him using front line media companies to run a smear campaign against his party. He pushed them back into the corner.

This time Erdoğan’s situation feels different, however. He has alienated the broad coalition that strongly supported him during troubled times, and his party is showing signs of fractures. The regional outlook and Turkey’s relations with allies and neighbors were not as bad in the past as they are now. The risks Erdoğan is taking are simply too big. He is in danger of gambling the future of this country away, and many people, including his own deputies, can see this.

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