Wed, Nov 7, 2012 | By Halil M. Karaveli
This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst, vol. 5 no. 21 (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. © Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012.
Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been well served by the confrontational style of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Confrontation and the perpetuation of high political tension have helped to keep the base of the party mobilized. However, there are now many signs that indicate that confrontation fatigue is spreading among the population. The majority of Turkey’s population does not want to remain engaged in the confrontation with the regime in Syria, and President Abdullah Gül has concluded that he can mount an effective challenge to Erdoğan in the contest for the presidency by casting himself as the advocate of moderation and reconciliation at home.
On October 29, on the day of the 89th anniversary of the Turkish republic, police in Ankara violently dispersed thousands of secularists who attempted to march to the mausoleum of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic. The march had been outlawed, as the secularists had allegedly been planning to provoke and commit acts of violence. When the secularist protesters nonetheless did gather at the city center, President Abdullah Gül ordered the governor of Ankara to show lenience toward them; subsequently the police barricades on their way were removed. However, that in turn drew the ire of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who stated that the police barricades should not have been removed. In what amounted to an act of defiance against President Gül, Erdoğan stated that “there cannot be a double-command at the helm of the state”.
Yet the opposing stances of the president and prime minister as to how the demonstrators on October 29 should be treated underline that there is indeed a growing dissonance between the two men at the helm of the Turkish state, with Erdoğan — as usual — standing for confrontation and with Gül, who has always taken care to make a cautious impression, now explicitly positioning himself as the advocate of societal reconciliation and reason.
Erdoğan is not a politician who shies away from confrontation. Indeed, that is in essence what characterizes his leadership style. Erdoğan has rarely made any serious attempt as prime minister to engage in constructive dialogue with political opponents; be they secularists or Kurds, he tends to treat them with utter disdain. But picking fights with adversaries and rivals, at home as well as abroad, may no longer serve Erdoğan’s political purposes as well as has been the case so far; on the contrary, the polarizing effects of his confrontational style are increasingly resented also by adherents of his own political movement, which makes him — for the first time — politically vulnerable. Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s confrontational foreign policy, notably the attempt to bring about violent regime change in neighboring Syria, has made Turkey vulnerable to the counter-measures of those regional powers, chief among them Iran, that his polices have challenged.
Speaking before parliament on October 1, Gül made the case for the release of the opposition legislators who are incarcerated, and the president has similarly taken a moderate stance toward the Kurdish prisoners who are on hunger strike demanding better conditions for Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdoğan meanwhile, has been dismissive toward the prisoners and has not shown any concern for their dangerously worsening state of health.
While Erdoğan seems to assume that hard line policies and confrontation is going to continue to pay off politically, Gül has apparently reached the opposite conclusion. As his seminal speech before parliament on October 1 clearly demonstrated, Gül is challenging Erdoğan, and he does so by appropriating the cause of democratic reform and societal reconciliation; what is interesting is that Gül has concluded that he stands to gain politically from casting himself in that role, which suggests that there is indeed a constituency for reform and reconciliation to be mobilized.
Prime Minister Erdoğan plans to become Turkey’s first popularly elected president in 2014, and he is currently attempting to change the constitution and introduce an executive presidency that would enshrine one man rule. But Gül has advertised that he does not intend to quietly step aside in 2014, and some polls in fact show Gül to be ahead of Erdoğan in the contest for the presidency. And it may very well be that Gül is better at reading the public mood than Erdoğan.
For the first time since becoming prime minister, Erdoğan is not in tune with public opinion on a major issue; according to the polls, a vast majority of the population — around seventy percent — disapproves of the Syrian regime change policy of the AKP government, and an overwhelming majority is similarly opposed to any kind of Turkish military intervention in Syria.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, whom Erdoğan wants to see toppled, has proved to have far more staying power than Erdoğan had expected when he set about to engineer regime change in Damascus. Al-Assad has also — together with his ally Iran — managed to turn the tables on Ankara by playing the Kurdish card against Turkey. Thus, what was supposed to demonstrate Turkey’s, and thereby Erdoğan’s power — that Turkey, in the recent words of Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is the “master” of the Middle East which it supposedly “owns” and is going to “redesign” — has instead served to expose Turkish vulnerabilities and the limitations of its power. What had seemed to be a golden opportunity to project Turkish power has the potential to turn into a security nightmare for Turkey. It may also confound Erdoğan’s personal political plans.
What may prove consequential for Erdoğan’s political future is that his foray into the Syrian civil war is contributing to widening the cracks among the coalition of Islamic movements that sustain the power of the AKP.
Ali Bulaç, a leading Islamic intellectual writing in the daily Zaman, recently laid out the case against Erdoğan’s “personalized foreign policy”, condemning his attempt to overthrow al-Assad. The Zaman writer warned that a Turkish military intervention in Syria would provoke an enmity between the Arabs and the Turks “lasting centuries”, that it would once again subordinate civilian power to the military, make the Kurdish problem intractable “and perhaps most dangerously”, embroil Turkey in war with Iran and its proxies Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (presumably Hezbollah). The power struggle that has erupted between Erdoğan and the Islamic movement of Fethullah Gülen during the last year may explain why such criticism is voiced at this particular juncture in the main media outlet of the Gülen movement.
But it is also a fact that Erdoğan’s Syrian regime change policy is in variance with the material interests — as well as with the attendant worldview — of the Anatolian, pious middle class. In fact, the pious middle class, which has been the main engine of the AKP’s rise to and entrenchment in power, has a vested interest in a non-ideological, business-friendly international environment, not in sectarian and religious strife.
Erdoğan’s Middle Eastern adventurism runs counter to such fundamental class dynamics, and has indeed already come at a significant cost for the Anatolian middle class. The economic hubs in southern Turkey have suffered substantial losses in income as a result of the collapse of trade and business with Syria. And neither has the pious middle class any interest in the perpetuation of confrontation at home, be it with the secularists — a minority that has already been evicted from power — or with the Kurds, a minority that the state has been unable to subjugate despite decades of warfare and oppression.
The interests of the ascendant Anatolian middle class were best served when Turkey sought to have “zero problems” with its neighbors. Turkey’s imperial ambition to “redesign” the Middle East, meanwhile, is about to squander valuable Turkish soft power in the region. A recent survey by TESEV, a Turkish NGO, which was undertaken in sixteen Middle Eastern countries, demonstrates this fact; whereas Turkey was viewed positively by 78 percent of the respondents in the region a year ago, that percentage has now gone down to 69 percent. 66 percent of the Middle Eastern populations nonetheless still want Turkey to assume a more active role in the region; however, the case of Syria is a notable exception, with only 39 percent of the Syrians endorsing a greater Turkish involvement in the region.
Turkey’s rulingparty has been well served by the confrontational style of Prime Minister Erdoğan; confrontation and the perpetuation of high political tension have helped to keep the base of the party mobilized. However, there are now many signs that indicate that confrontation fatigue is spreading among the population. The majority of Turkey’s population does not want to remain engaged in the confrontation with the regime in Syria, and President Gül has concluded that he can mount an effective challenge to Erdoğan in the contest for the presidency after 2014 by casting himself as the advocate of moderation and reconciliation at home.
Kemalism may have been thoroughly defeated, but Kemal Atatürk’s famous dictum “Peace at home, peace abroad” resonates perhaps more powerfully today than it has done in a long time. And that is something that speaks for Gül in the contest between him and Erdoğan for the presidency.
Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow with the the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center and the Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst.