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Why care about international prestige?

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There was once a time when the Turkish Prime Minister was hailed for constructing a model country for the Middle East. Today, the picture is very different.

Oguz Alyanak
2 August 2013

On July 24, The Times of London published an advertisement under the heading, “Letter to the Prime Minister of Turkey”. In the ad, which was signed by internationally renowned artists, the same “Turkey’s Man of the People” who was once the object of constant praise was now called a dictator and his relationship to his public, once lauded as “Erdogan’s Way” compared to the infamous Nuremberg Rally. But why should Erdogan care about international prestige, especially when he believes that his party continues to enjoy the support of the 50%?

Simply put, votes change. And the loss of a wider rapport may translate into their loss. In its first two terms, thanks to a healthy international chorus of approval, the AKP successfully undertook some major projects that increased the trust of people in the party and its leader. Economic recovery and accession to the European Union were the two projects that brought the AKP 34.2% of the votes. Turkey became more integrated in the world and a more active player in international economy and politics. It was an important contributor to debates of global impact. In its second term, Turkey (and the AKP) adopted a more thoughtful stance, which helped to build further rapport with the international community and to take leading roles in global charity work such as interfaith dialogue activities and humanitarian aid. And the globally cherished image of Turkey helped the AKP to overcome obstacles. At home, the AKP received a military memorandum in 2007 and faced a party closure challenge in 2008. Abroad, Turkey had a confrontation with Israel over flotillas carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. On both fronts, Turkey had the backing of the international community, and on both, the AKP was successful. 

These successes boosted the party’s and its backers’ faith in undertaking further projects, such as demilitarizing Turkish politics (the “Ergenekon” case) and providing educational opportunity to girls wearing the headscarf (already a promise made during the 2007 campaign). These developments, in addition to promising economic figures and continuing negotiations with the EU brought the AKP to the 2011 election, in which it gained 49.8 percent of the votes… also known as, Erdogan’s 50%.

Moreover, faith in the AKP also gave its supporters the hope that the challenges both in Turkey and outside would be overcome—thus instilling greater confidence in the party and its leader. Today, however, as the AKP attempts to solve Turkey’s longstanding Kurdish problem, there is little faith in Turkey’s future.

The image out there is one of a deserted AKP, with its foreign policy debunked and its leader lonely and enraged. Even those who argue that Erdogan emerged out of the Gezi revolts as a strong leader, would be hard pressed to argue the same about the potential breaking off of the cease-fire by the Kurdish guerilla forces, especially prior to general elections. Having burned bridges with the international community, a more vulnerable AKP has entered its talks with the Kurds. Lacking outside support and not finding friends to collaborate with gives Turkey less leverage as it sits on the same table with the Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. As a knock-on effect, contrary to the attitude displayed towards the Gezi Park protestors, the AKP will have to change its approach by learning to listen to the Kurds in the region and accommodating their requests.

Taking matters into one’s own hands?

Lately, the same people who supported the AKP have started having qualms about the direction in which Prime Minister Erdogan is sailing his party. Particularly with the Arab Spring, and during discussions over Turkey as a “model democracy” for the Middle East, the international community has started focusing on matters previously neglected, such as Turkey’s treatment of its minorities. The Roboski massacre, and the government’s attitude in its aftermath led to a further raising of eyebrows, and pushed many to re-evaluate their somewhat blind faith in Erdogan and the AKP. The discovery that Turkey’s positive image was partially an illusion, a result attained through the suppression of opposing voices (such as imprisoned/detained journalists and academics) has further accelerated Erdogan’s downfall from the international hall of fame.

As for the greatest challenge – the Kurds - although negotiations have taken place between Turkish officials and members of the PKK, and an agreement on withdrawal has been reached, the AKP is currently giving mixed signals in undertaking democratic reforms. Moreover, bombings and misconduct in Roboski and most recently, Lice, put into question the Turkish state’s willingness to drop the guns and adhere by the rules of dialogue. Having agreed to withdrawal, the Kurdish party to the agreement is warning the government that it will end the process if reformist measures are not taken by mid October. The AKP seems to have little space to maneuver.

Erdogan’s struggles with the new project also come at a time when Turkish foreign policy is being challenged in the Middle East. The Turkish state has few strong friends to rely on. Speaking with the Kurdish other requires reaching out to the region, and engaging in multiparty dialogue. This requires the AKP to invent ways of speaking with its relatively unstable Syrian and Iraqi neighbours. Is the AKP ready to communicate with the political branch of Syrian Kurds, the Democratic Union Party (PYD)? Moreover, a change in the AKP policy in Syria, which would mean an outright confrontation with Bashar al-Assad, would also necessitate the overhaul of an already stumbling “zero problems with the neighbors” policy. Previous confrontation between the two states ended up with the car bombings in the district of Reyhanli in early May, accounted as the “worst terror attack Turkey has ever witnessed.” It is uncertain whether the AKP could bear the consequences of yet another escalation of hostilities.

There was once a time when the Turkish Prime Minister was hailed for constructing a model country for the Middle East. Today, the picture is very different, including some new signs of vulnerability in terms of its economic prospects. Whereas the Turkish approach to the Middle East was once widely acclaimed, today, Turkey remains the only country supporting the ex-Morsi regime. Unlike 2011, Turkey 2013 is lonely and fragile. Will the Prime Minister’s hard-earned 50% support continue if the current Kurdish project ends in failure? 

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