Foreign Policy Program

Policy Brief
Turkey’s Travails: Outlook and Strategic Consequences
by Dr. Ian Lesser, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, The German Marshall Fund of the United States1
One of the striking aspects of Turkey’s latest political crisis is its detached, slowmotion quality. As Turkey’s Constitutional Court prepares to act on the closure case pending against the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turks across the ideological spectrum are watching and waiting. Predictions and preferences abound; active responses are limited. Caution and inertia appear to be the order of the day, even for those most exposed to the consequences of political and economic turmoil. Yet this crisis, more than others of recent years, could have dramatic consequences for the evolution of Turkish society and foreign policy. Indeed, the Turkish talent for survival and adjustment, and the proven resilience of the Turkish state, suggest that the most significant consequences of this crisis may be external rather than internal. Turks may adjust to what some observers are calling an impending “judicial coup.” But Turkey’s EU candidacy may be irreparably damaged, nationalist tendencies reinforced, and relations with the United States, already troubled, could be further compromised. Turkey could emerge from its current travails as a less credible and less capable actor on the international scene.

Summary: As Turkey’s Constitutional Court prepares to act on the closure case pending against the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turks across the ideological spectrum are watching and waiting. Predictions and preferences abound; active responses are limited. Caution and inertia appear to be the order of the day, even for those most exposed to the consequences of political and economic turmoil. Yet this crisis, more than others of recent years, could have dramatic consequences for the evolution of Turkish society and foreign policy. Turkey’s EU candidacy may be irreparably damaged, nationalist tendencies reinforced, and relations with the United States, already troubled, could be further compromised. Turkey could emerge from its current travails as a less credible and less capable actor on the international scene.

Political Dynamics The prevailing view among informed observers is that the Constitutional Court will close down the AKP and ban leading figures in the party (a separate closure case has been launched against the proKurdish Democratic Society Party, DTP). The pending indictment accuses some 70 individuals in the AKP of seeking to undermine Turkish secularism. Roughly half are members of parliament, the rest are party activists and advisors. If banned, these individuals could be barred from politics for five years. Many would lose their parliamentary immunity, opening the way for further prosecution on a variety of charges. A decision in the closure case is likely within the next six months. The timing is significant. Even if the AKP is closed, with leading figures barred from politics, the party group would retain a majority in parliament and would be in a position to re-emerge under a different name. But if the closure occurs toward the end of 2008 or later, the party will have little opportunity to regroup prior to local elections in the spring of 2009. Many observers stress that the staunchly secular elements pressing for closure of the AKP are, above all, angling to remove Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

1744 R Street NW Washington, DC 20009 T 1 202 745 3950 F 1 202 265 1662 E

This policy brief reflects the author’s conversations in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey, in April 2008.

Foreign Policy Program

Policy Brief
from Turkish politics; all else is secondary. Some would no doubt like to remove President Abdullah Gul as well. But most observers agree that the presidency is probably beyond the reach of prosecution under current conditions. have a different orientation, whether more moderate, more overtly religious, or more nationalistic in flavor. With leading figures removed from the political scene, others will see opportunities to move up within the governing party. Other forces, including the pervasive Fethulah Gulen organization and its business and civil society network, will no doubt seek to preserve or increase their influence. The Gulen network has been supportive of the AKP, but this stance could change if other alternatives emerge.

“The prevailing view among informed observers is that the Constitutional Court will close down the AKP and ban leading figures in the party.”
In recent weeks, Erdogan has held a series of meetings with members of parliament and political cadres. By all accounts, these consultations have been animated, with some participants openly critical of the party’s leadership since gaining a strong mandate in the July 2007 national elections. In retrospect, the decision to press forward on controversial issues such as the relaxation of the headscarf ban on university campuses, is seen by many as unnecessarily provocative, and part of a general pattern of political hubris. With 47 percent of the popular vote, a solid majority in parliament, control of the presidency, growing sway over the state bureaucracy—and a weak opposition—the AKP has faced few obvious constraints in pressing ahead with its agenda. Erdogan’s energy and charisma are widely seen as encouraging a highly personalized, tactical approach to politics, at the expense of strategic thinking. With the party now facing closure, its members are divided on the most effective response. AKP is preparing a straightforward legal defense, but is also contemplating constitutional changes making it more difficult to close political parties. These would almost certainly require public referenda. Early elections are another possible gambit aimed at strengthening the AKP hand. Others reportedly urge a more vigorous fight, including calls for largescale demonstrations, something the AKP has eschewed to date. In the meantime, the Prime Minister has embarked on a round of domestic and foreign travel, including meetings in Damascus to facilitate Syrian-Israeli negotiations (a process that has been underway for at least a year). At times like this, the government can use all the goodwill it can muster. In all likelihood, AKP members of parliament (unless banned themselves, members will retain their seats) will regroup within a new party. Some may choose to remain as independents, or even to form smaller breakaway parties. Even a re-branded AKP could

Alternative Scenarios and Internal Consequences
The canonical scenario envisions the closure of the AKP followed by a regrouping of AKP cadres under new colors. The lack of a credible opposition makes it unlikely that the task of forming a government will fall on the Republican People’s Party (CHP) or the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). CHP, once a potent centerleft party, is now given to nationalist posturing under an aging leadership. MHP remains a marginal actor, although its message of unreconstructed nationalism is increasingly in tune with Turkish public sentiment, especially among younger voters. The stage is set for renewed confrontation between a refashioned AKP and hard-line secularists within the military, the judiciary, and elements of the Kemalist elite. Alternative scenarios range from the mildly optimistic to the cataclysmic. At least one prominent commentator has suggested that AKP’s enemies in the constitutional court and elsewhere might still decide to pull back from a path of “mutually assured destruction,” opting instead for more limited sanctions against the AKP, or simply removal of the Prime Minister. Or the court could press ahead, and even launch additional prosecutions—a wholesale purge. In this case, AKP supporters might take to the streets in large numbers. A few violent provocations could set in motion a series of events leading to an overt military intervention—an unlikely but not inconceivable scenario. Even the canonical scenario would have substantial implications for Turkey’s internal situation. The pending court case and possible closure will impose a prolonged period of uncertainty against a backdrop of global financial stringency. Turkey’s economy has already been damaged by this combination of domestic and international pressures. Foreign investors are hedging against further risk, and the Turkish stock market has lost roughly a third of its value over the last few weeks. After six years of annual growth in the 6-7 percent range, and a striking increase in foreign investment, the Turkish economy appears headed for a period of marked stress. Many Turks argue that economic trouble


Foreign Policy Program

Policy Brief
of this kind was already on the horizon before the onset of the latest political crisis, but there can be little that the closure case has deepened the economic challenge. The effects of the closure cases will fall disproportionately on Turkey’s Kurdish population. In the southeast of the country, some 90 percent of the vote in the July 2007 elections went to AKP or DTP. Against a background of continued violence emanating from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the collapse of Kurdish political representation will greatly increase the stakes in Turkey’s long-standing struggle with Kurdish discontent. For all of the unresolved dilemmas of cultural and political rights, pressures for autonomy and even separatism, Turkey has not suffered from inter-communal strife between Turks and Kurds in the southeast or the cities of western Turkey. A crisis of political representation in the southeast, accompanied by PKK violence and worsening economic conditions, could heighten the risk of a more general confrontation along ethnic lines—another unlikely but troubling scenario, with obvious links to the unstable situation across the border in northern Iraq. A Clash of Elites? Since the current confrontation has structural origins in Turkish society and changing demographics. These are most unlikely to be resolved as a result of political maneuvering or legal judgments. Many Turkish and foreign analysts have interpreted the rise of AKP as, above all, a class-based phenomenon supported by populist politics and skillful organization at the grass roots level. Urbanization and flourishing small- and medium- sized businesses in Anatolia have all contributed to AKP’s success and funding. More conservative social attitudes and more visible religiosity are also part of the mix. It is almost certainly misleading to portray the current political struggle as a simple clash between Islamists and secularists. Larger social dynamics are also at play, and these underlying forces will not be removed as a result of party closures or the departure of leading politicians. Almost certainly, they will remain as part of the Turkish scene, to be taken up by new movements. Turkey’s embattled secularists are impelled not only by their belief that the struggle for secularism is “existential,” but also by a sense that time is not on their side. The appointment of top judges by an AKP-oriented president would, over time, change the balance in the constitutional court and make it far more difficult to pursue party closures on the grounds of anti-secular intent. AKP in power has facilitated the emergence of a new, parallel elite that is making its presence felt in business, government, and the media. The pending closure case and the prospect of a broad political realignment is compelling Turks at many levels of society to look to their own equities. The commercial dynamism of recent years has not changed the importance of the state—and the importance of political access—in the Turkish economy. AKP in government has proven adept at supporting individuals and firms in their milieu via the party’s influence over civil service appointments, government contracts, and access to favorable financing. None of this is new, of course, and it is arguable that the AKP has been more inclusive and transparent in its behavior than other governments in recent Turkish history. But a prolonged period of paralysis, or divisions within the AKP, could upset economic as well as ideological alignments. Under these conditions, long-standing anxieties about the place of minority groups in the Turkish economy and society have come to the fore, including more frequent allegations of anti-Semitism and pressure on the Alevi community. Foreign Policy Effects and Implications for American Interests Internal and external factors are interwoven in Turkey’s current travails. The indictment against the AKP contains a long list of quotes and anecdotes intended to support the charge of antisecular activity by the party’s leaders. The indictment also makes numerous references to the role of the United States and the European Union as enablers of the AKP’s religious agenda, including the role of the AKP as a vehicle to promote moderate Islam in Turkey and the Muslim world (Turkey’s participation in the G-8’s Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative and the Alliance of Civilizations are mentioned explicitly). The sovereignty conscious, nationalistic tone is very much in line with the xenophobic mood evident in Turkish society over the last few years, and reflected in the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ public-opinion survey Transatlantic Trends and others. Many Turks see the country’s travails as the product of foreign as well as internal pressures. Reform-minded internationalists in business, the media, and intellectual circles are increasingly marginalized and have little voice in political opposition where nationalism of the left (CHP) and right (MHP) prevails. To be sure, the AKP does have a substantial globally-oriented faction, but an embattled government is less able to act on these instincts. AKP closure and the ensuing political realignment would have important implications for Turkey’s foreign policy and role as a strategic actor. First and foremost, the perception of a “judicial coup” is likely to have a severe effect on Turkey’s already troubled EU candidacy. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has already mentioned the probable suspension of accession negotiations.


Foreign Policy Program

Policy Brief
Opponents of Turkish membership will likely seize on the closure of Turkey’s popular governing party as further rationale for shunting Turkey toward a special relationship with the European Union rather than full membership. Even in the best case, negotiations, once suspended, may be very difficult to restart, especially if accompanied by a hardening of anti-EU sentiment in Turkey. Under these conditions, Turkey’s political and economic reforms would be more difficult to sustain, foreign investors would retreat, and Turkey’s convergence with Europe would be set back across the board. Those Turks who argue for a reorientation of Ankara’s strategy, toward Eurasia or the Middle East, would find their case strengthened regardless of its merits. The net result would likely be a more nationalistic and inward-looking Turkey, and a more difficult partner for Europe and the United States. Second, Turkey’s regional policies will surely be affected by a protracted political crisis and a hollow EU candidacy. Senior Turkish diplomats stress that the country’s foreign policy will not be affected by domestic crises, and this view has been supported by a series of highly visible visits to Damascus and elsewhere. The AKP leadership clearly has a stake in underscoring Turkey’s international credibility and activism, not least to demonstrate the government’s moderate, Western credentials. But over time, political and economic weakness is likely to constrain Ankara’s ability to pursue an active regional policy, including the widely discussed notions of “strategic depth” and “zero problems” with neighbors. Indeed, if the AKP is closed, leading advocates of the new look in Turkish foreign policy may be replaced by figures with a more parsimonious and tougher approach to the country’s international engagements. On key issues, not least policy toward Iraq, Iran, and Cyprus, the military and security establishment are likely to drive Turkish decision-making; a return to more traditional patterns of influence over foreign policy. Dialogue with the Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq, essential to containment of the PKK challenge, will be more elusive. In the Aegean, the détente with Greece is unlikely to be reversed, but movement toward resolution of core issues will be more difficult. Ankara’s international partners should anticipate closer attention to Turkey’s sovereignty and strategic interests more narrowly defined. Finally, Turkey’s travails and their foreign policy effects will have significant implications for U.S. interests and strategy. Without question, it will be far more difficult for Washington to argue Turkey’s case for EU membership in the face of perceived democratic reversals. Access to Incirlik and other aspects of security cooperation could become more contentious, and more closely measured in terms of cooperation against the PKK, at a time when multilateral approaches to Iraq are becoming even more essential to disengagement and the avoidance of regional chaos. Overall, security issues will return to the center, and the goal of a diversified relationship in which economic and civil society ties are enhanced may be even more elusive. A more stressful economic climate on all sides will reinforce this tendency to focus on the bilateral and the geopolitical. Only with regard to Iran, the Palestinian issue, and perhaps Russia, where Turkey’s security establishment and professional diplomats are more likely to share American perceptions, might the absence of AKP in its current configuration serve American interests. In grand strategic terms, setbacks to Turkey’s reform efforts and European aspirations, and even more vigorous Turkish nationalism—all likely if Turkey continues on its current path—will complicate Turkish-American relations and undermine the prospects for stability on Turkey’s borders.
Dr. Ian Lesser, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, GMF
Dr. Lesser is a GMF senior transatlantic fellow in Washington, DC, where he focuses on Mediterranean affairs, Turkey, and international security issues. Prior to joining GMF, he was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Dr. Lesser is also president of Mediterranean Advisors, LLC, a consultancy specializing in geopolitical risk. Previously, he served as vice president and director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy (the western partner of the Council on Foreign Relations) and an adjunct staff member at RAND. From 1994-1995, he was a member of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State, responsible for Turkey, Southern Europe, North Africa, and the multilateral track of the Middle East peace process.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between the United States and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful