Hüseyin Çiçek in Neue Zürcher Zeitung: Will Erdogan remain master of the house? Turkey faces decisive days

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Hüseyin Çiçek, political scientist and associate member of EZIRE, writes in a guest commentary in Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 20 June 2019 about the upcoming re-election in Istanbul and the future of Turkey.

For Turkey, the next few days will be trend-setting – the repetition of the elections in Istanbul could show that internal repression no longer works. The AKP’s supremacy was based on the economic boom; now that the debt economy is collapsing, Erdogan’s foreign policy adventures are not helping either. Even if the Turkish president doesn’t have to worry about being voted out, he currently has to fight on three fronts – with no prospect of success. The problems arose at the military, political and economic levels. The AKP and the media that have submitted to it can only distract to a limited extent from the economic mess to which Erdogan has steered Turkey.

Next weekend’s re-election in Istanbul could lead to a second defeat. In addition, the Gezi process would begin a day later, and it could be assumed that the AKP would once again reinforce its authoritarian course with exemplary harsh punishments, regardless of the outcome of the elections. At the same time, the crisis with Washington regarding the purchase of S-400 missiles continued to escalate – with the choice of Russian armament technology, Ankara continued to push itself to the sidelines. All these developments triggered a negative political spiral and led to a continuous loss of trust and credibility for Turkey internationally.

The years in which the AKP was economically successful are over. This is mainly due to the fact that the AKP deliberately opted for an economic policy based on low interest rates. The private sector was booming, and cheap money could be used to finance huge public investment projects, albeit at the price of growing and almost impossible to repay public debt, which depressed the Lira’s exchange rate. The AKP deliberately accepted the weakening of the Turkish currency in order not to jeopardise its own popularity based on general growth. At the moment, only the International Monetary Fund could help Turkey with massive financial injections from the self-inflicted economic crisis. However, the money will only flow if Erdogan revises the authoritarian course he has taken, for which he does not make any preparations. The country must not only return to a solid economy, but also return to the path of democracy and the rule of law in order to become attractive for foreign capital again. The intensification of political relations with Russia and the internal turning away from the West testified to the fact that Erdogan hardly took the economic concerns of the Turks into account.

Not only the upcoming re-election in Istanbul on 23 June is of eminent importance for Turkey’s political future, but also and above all 24 June will be a signal. Then the trial will begin against the alleged “foreign agents” held responsible for the Gezi protests of 2013. The successful peaceful protests against the levelling of a park and the construction of a shopping centre have remained in Erdogan’s memory as a grievous defeat. All the more he will now set an example with draconian punishments and want to show who is the master of the house in Istanbul. Already the cancellation of the regular city president elections had been a clear signal to the opposition that the ballots in Turkey would only be accepted as free and secret as long as the AKP did not lose power.

As if the problems were not enough, Erdogan had deliberately sought the crisis in relation to Washington. The Americans had clearly stated in a letter on 6 June that the USA would end its cooperation with Turkey on the ultra-modern F-35 fighter jet by 31 July. No deliveries would be made from Washington to Ankara due to concerns that secret data might reach the Russians. This would further weaken the domestic economy, as the Turkish defence and aviation industries were involved in the joint project. The letter also points out that the USA reserves the right to take further political steps against Turkey. This concerns the future cooperation between Turkey and NATO. In view of precarious geostrategic developments and the still unstable situation in neighbouring Syria and Iraq, the loss of protection by the Western alliance system could have devastating consequences for Ankara.

The Turkish leadership was aware of the fragility of the alliance with Russia. They could not expect financial aid from Moscow to stabilize the economy. With his authoritarian-repressive course, Erdogan always wanted to prove to the Turks that the country’s ability to act and its success would be made possible by the neglect of democracy, freedom and human rights. The limits of this policy are now becoming ever clearer. The coming days would show how much confidence the Turks still have in the president’s policies – and whether the “Ottoman” AKP air castle is about to collapse.