Turkey: Erdoğan’s endless dilemmas

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Translated by Melissa Clissold

President Erdoğan, throughout his political life, had to make a series of critical choices and especially in his first years, he hit the bulls eye. However, it looks like the tables have turned in these recent years; Erdoğan is making some serious strategic mistakes in domestic and foreign policies.

Hello, good day. Dilemmas have been prominent throughout President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political life, as far as I have observed. He was generally successful during the first years of the 90s in making decisions. But later, I believe the situation has changed especially in the last 4-5 years. If we look at Erdoğan’s political career chronologically, I believe we can see a difference. I will try and go through them quickly. Especially during his time as provincial head of the Welfare Party (RP) in Istanbul, he paved the way for the birth of the Movement for Innovation; he didn’t do it alone, it was a team, but he was sort of an unassigned leader. This was a dilemma, because  Necmettin Erbakan was not someone who looked kindly upon his authority being shaken; but despite this, Erdoğan did this.

At times he had troubles with Erbakan, but as a result of the Movement for Innovation, he was elected the mayor of Istanbul and then the period experienced afterwards…including the formation of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Therefore, despite Erbakan, he chose the other path and became successful. Afterwards, during the time that the Felicity Party (SP) was formed, or rather, when the Virtue Party (FP) was shut down, he did not listen to Erbakan’s calling and he formed the AKP together with his friends, he made an important choice there. When looked at from today, his decision may appear normal; but during the circumstances of the day, it was hard because the party had just closed down and a group of people decided to leave the party under Erdoğan’s leadership and took the chance to be labelled a “traitor”, they formed the AKP and became successful. Therefore, the decision truly hit the mark.

Afterwards, he changed his discourse from the moment that the AKP was formed, and instead of using the old National Vision Islamism language, he built this discourse on a more globalised conservatism, in his own words, conservative-democracy. He chose to get on well with the West, European Union, the US and in fact Israel; so, he sort of bid farewell to that Islamic line in some respects. To take of the famous National Vision shirt, signifies this. And he was quite successful in this too, he got very serious support from outside and because of this attitude, certain people who were not from a National Vision background but searching within politics, leaned towards the AKP.

Afterwards, during the first years of the administration, he faced the deep state resistance;  he faced the resistance of especially the army, certain institutions working together with the army, the higher judicial bodies, the media and certain civil-society institutions (claiming to be civil-society).

And he had a choice here too: Either he was going to be part of Turkey’s established order, so to be the government but not the ruling administration, or he was going to struggle against them. He preferred to struggle, and as he did, he entered an alliance with the Gülenists, with Fethullah Gülen, he entered a strategic relationship. I know that Fethullah Gülen pressured Erdoğan for that alliance a long time, and I know that Erdoğan did not enter it because he did not trust Gülen.

But after a certain phase, it was inevitable, because as the pressures from the deep state increased, he entered a relationship with another deep state structure, by joining forces with Gülenists. Ergenekon, Sledgehammer…when we look at the results, he came out of these successfully and controlled a high portion of the administration. But after a certain phase, the Gülenists wanted a large portion for themselves, they wanted more. Either he was to be ok with sharing his power with Fethullah Gülen, or he was going to fight against them; he chose to confront them here too. Firstly, the shutting down of private teaching institutions began, and the Fethuallists replied sternly, the MIT crisis was experienced etc. we know the processes there. He made a choice there too, this was a very risky preference, but here, when we look at the results, we can see that he managed to neutralise the Fethuallists to a large degree – especially after the July 15 coup attempt.

That was a strategic choice, he may have been ok with sharing his powers; but if he had actually shared his powers to wider extent, then Fethullah Gülen was most probably going to liquidate Erdoğan – and as we saw during the 17-25 December investigations, these were the preparations as far as we can see. And there is another investigation that started during that period called the “Tehvid Selam”; together with this, they were probably going to eliminate Erdoğan, his family and his close environment. They tried this when they were excluded too, but they didn’t succeed.

Another dilemma that Erdoğan faced was the Kurdish problem. Here he was either going to continue the rejection/denial policies, a secure line, or he was going to prefer to resolve this through peaceful means. He chose the second, it was risky; but with certain applications – first the Oslo phase, then the Habur phase, and afterwards, the Peace Phase – he went on this way for a while, there was a phase where the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) was a sort of mediator for the dialogues which included Imrali and Quandil.

It was risky, but he managed to cover a certain distance here. Yet, on 28 February 2015, it seemed that the dialogues of negotiation weren’t working, he came across another dilemma and ended all the phases. Of course, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) must have had an impact on this decision but of course Erdoğan made the choice here, he moved towards the old state policy of rejection and denial. He was in a dilemma there once more, and choice to return to the old methods.

And this was an important aspect in showing us that Erdoğan had started to make wrong decisions. Of course, before that, during the Gezi movements, he had two choices between coming to an agreement with the societal opposition or suppressing it – this was one of his greatest mistakes. Even though he first appeared to come to an agreement and accepted committees etc. But later he suppressed this movement harshly, and he thus split his ways  with important actors within the administration such as Abdullah Gül and Bülent Arınç.

Gezi had an impact on splitting their paths – despite the fact that Bülent Arınç was reintegrated once more, years later. Gezi, then refusing the transition from dialogue to negotiation during the Solution Phase. And the June 7 elections…a coalition was formed out of it, he chose to rerun the elections instead of forming a coalition. He looked as if he was successful, but this once more showed us how Erdoğan’s desire to resolve his crisis backfired. Because years later, especially after the March 31 elections, the “Alliance of Turkey” that Erdoğan has expressed from day one, could have been formed after that election and Davutoğlu could have entered a coalition with  the People’s Republican Party (CHP) – and he intended this -; Erdoğan chose not to allow this either.

The country entered an election after that chaotic time, and the AKP administration won once again. Therefore, this decision may appear correct to Erdoğan, but it is understood through the mid and long-term consequences that this was wrong. There was of course another option before this, and that was who he was going to leave after he became president. Abdullah Gül came first to mind, but Erdoğan did not approach this and of course assigned Ahmet Davutoğlu, he chose Davutoğlu as opposed to Gül – and after a while he dismissed Davutoğlu, but that’s another aspect.

But  there is a background to him not preferring to choose Gül, because again in 2007, after elections – in fact the reason why early elections were carried out was because the military did not accept Gül’s presidency – Erdoğan actually did not want the AKP, which came out with a larger success, to present Abdullah Gül once more for presidency. He really tried to prevent this from happening, he even got the large media institutions (that he was not on good terms with) involved, but he could not convince Gül. Then he took a serious step in preferring Davutoğlu as opposed to Gül and strengthened his one-man management system. If Gül had come in his place, things could have been a little different, Davutoğlu is a figure that allowed Erdoğan to strengthen his one-man system. Now Davutoğlu is criticising this system due to its one-man rule structure, and it must be noted that this is a strange twist in his fate.

Erdoğan was once more within a dilemma between the old system and the presidential system. He preferred the presidential system and won. But we witnessed that the alliance application he brought about with this system, worked against him. And it is very probable that this presidential system will work against him too. Because in this system 50+1 votes win all, Erdoğan has this at the moment. But even if his party is chosen first in the future, if he does not win 50+1 in the presidential elections, he will not control anything. In conclusion, even if the presidential system looked logical to Erdoğan to begin with, we will see that this is not the case in the upcoming period. Together with this process, he took in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Devlet Bahçeli as and ally and therefore changed his discourse to fit theirs.

However, the Islamic movement in Turkey, especially the nationalism of the National Vision Movement, is something that is way behind the conservatism here. Of course, there is nationalism, but since conservatism, meaning Islamism is more at the forefront, Kurds were able to take part within the National Vision parties. And in a lot of circumstances Erbakan, and in fact the AKP were able to take clear and open positions against the Turkish Nationalism that the MHP expressed – and this was a plus for them.  

But this relationship formed with the MHP, having chosen nationalism and pushing Islamism to the second plan, led Erdoğan and his party to lose and continues to do so. When we look at it, in the last elections, a lot of votes from the AKP  have gone to the MHP; as the AKP weakens the MHP strengthens. Under normal circumstances, the MHP was not really a party to promise a future. But with Erdoğan expressing similar opinions to the MHP regarding the Kurdish problem and other issues, seriously paved the way for the MHP.

In foreign policy there is the US-Russia dilemma. Erdoğan created this himself; it happened with the S-400s. It does not look as if this crisis will end and now it has led all the way to “We can take the Patriot too”, but it is now clear that the F-35s aren’t going to come. He is in a  serious dilemma here. It may not be possible to deal with them both. We have not faced the consequences of this crisis yet, but I do not believe this is a sustainable relationship. He may have to choose between both; but preferring to choose the US at this point, may be understandable in order to continue a tradition.

But if he prefers Russia instead of the US, Turkey’s structure, especially strategic perspective with regards to the defence industry, must change drastically. This is a very serious dilemma. Another aspect; relationships with the US, Turkish-American relationships has turned into an Erdoğan-Trump relationship. However, America has a very serious and strong establishment, we know that. For example, the explanation that the Pentagon made recently on the fact that weaponising of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria (SDF) was ongoing, is an example of this. Trump is not of course everything, but Trump is very important. It is observable that Erdoğan’s mechanisms with the establishment have eroded and decreased.

Now there are new parties: the parties that Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan are forming. There is a very serious dilemma here; should he openly declare war against these parties or stay silent, as silent as possible? Because an open war means that he will be advertising them too – this is the dilemma. It does not look as if he has a strategy as of yet. In an interesting way, his allies are much more aggressive: Devlet Bahçeli, in fact Doğu Perinçek. We have not seen Erdoğan come out as severe. There are a few leaked stories; such as, “Don’t break up the community” etc., but he has not appeared harshly before the public, he may do. But we can say that he faces a serious dilemma here.  

Another dilemma was with regards to accepting the results of the March 31 election or not. He made a wrong choice there, a very wrong choice; by not accepting the Istanbul elections, without reason, by not accepting his defeat using unreasonable justifications, his defeat became even more layered. And that went down as a very large strategic mistake in the records. Now he has a dilemma of whether or not to change the cabinet. He has been creating such an expectation for a while, but Erdoğan is constantly postponing this.

Because if he changed the cabinet at this point, he is afraid that he would have created the image of a weak leader by submitting to people on the outside; but this cabinet does not really mean much, this is a dilemma. Of course, the main expectation regarding the cabinet is with regards to his son-in-law Berat Albayrak.

Because there is an economic crisis, the economic crisis is not being managed well,  and the AKP base and team members expect a more trustworthy name to take Berat Albayrak’s place. But Erdoğan, again to not form the image of a weak leader submitting to demands, he is postponing this and not doing it.

A scenario that is expressed is that Berat Albayrak will be promoted to a better position and someone better will replace him – and this is not clear, but if it was, it probably won’t be so satisfactory. Therefore, within Erdoğan’s dilemmas, we are seeing circumstances where both options are bad. Firstly, when we look at the current agenda: Democracy within the party has been shelved. But in order to keep the AKP dynamic after the breakaways to other parties, he must loosen his grip on power. This is an approach that Erdoğan won’t really adopt. It looks like he has already made his decision, but this decision will lead to the erosion of his own administration and the AKP’s too, day in day out.

There are a lot of other things to say, but I would like to say this finally: Media. Erdoğan chose to make the media subject to himself. As a result, the media atmosphere in Turkey has mostly turned into a desert. He controls an oppressive portion of the media. But he has no gains from this media. Those who had watched in the past will remember, when I worked at NTV, Erdoğan would always choose NTV as his final broadcast before elections and I took part in most of them, until I left NTV. These broadcasts were truly very dynamic, and quite harsh on occasion. But we could ask questions openly to him, and he would reply.

Sometimes these answers were criticised a lot, sometimes people would agree etc. I want to say this; from my own experience, the Erdoğan I know, is a politician that can reply to any sort of question. But because he has prevented himself from being asked questions, because he does not allow this, no one can ask him any significant question.

Therefore, Erdoğan’s broadcasts etc. do not interest anyone, this is the situation in which we have arrived, he made a very wrong decision. He goes on all television channels; he is broadcast at the same time from five-six places, a lot of journalists appear before him. Sometimes he tries to encourage them by saying “Come on friends, ask away”; because the broadcasts are dry, everyone is trying to remain subservient to him, they are trying to be as kind as possible by asking questions that won’t bother him so that “nothing bad happens” to them.

And this leads to Erdoğan’s desertification of the media with his own hands. As the media turns into a desert, Erdoğan, who used to appear as a dynamic leader, has started to appear as an inactive leader who can’t really say anything new. Will there be a comeback from here? I don’t think so; he made his choice. It was the wrong choice and as a result of this his crisis is deepening day by day. Yes, that is all I have to say. Good day.

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