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A Looming Crisis for Turkey’s President

Turkey’s Looming Crisis

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 18, 2017

 

Viewed one way, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks unassailable: He weathered last year’s coup attempt, jailed more than 50,000 opponents, fired more than 100,000 civil servants, beheaded the once powerful Turkish military, eviscerated much of his parliamentary opposition, dismissed almost half of the county’s elected officials, and rammed through a constitutional referendum that will make him an all-powerful executive following the 2019 election. In the meantime, a seemingly never-ending state of emergency allows him to rule by decree.

 

So why is the man running scared?

 

Because the very tools that Erdogan has used to make himself into a sort of modern day Ottoman sultan are backfiring. The state of emergency is scaring off foreign investment, which is central to the way the Turkish economy functions. The loss of experienced government workers has put an enormous strain on the functioning of the bureaucracy. And the promises he made to the electorate in order to get his referendum passed are coming due with very little in the till to fulfill them.

 

Part of the problem is Erdogan himself. In that sense he is a bit like US President Donald Trump, who has also alienated allies with a combination of bombast and cluelessness. The Turkish President is in a war with Washington over a corruption trial, at loggerheads with Germany (and most of the European Union) over his growing authoritarianism and, with the exception of Russia, China, Qatar and Iran, seems to be quarreling with everyone these days. It is certainly a far cry from a decade ago when the foreign policy of Ankara was “Zero problems with the neighbors.” As one Turkish commentator put it, it’s now “No neighbors without problems.”

 

What has thrown a scare into Erdogan, however, is not so much the country’s growing diplomatic isolation, but the economy and how that might affect the outcome of presidential elections in 2019.

 

In the run up to the constitutional referendum last year, the government handed out loans and goodies to the average Turk. Growth accelerated, unemployment fell, and the poverty rate was reduced. But the cost of priming that pump has come due at the very moment that international energy prices are on the rise. Turkey imports virtually all of its energy, but when the price of oil was down to a little more than $30 a barrel, the budget could handle it.

 

The price of oil in December, however, was close to $60 a barrel, and a recent agreement between the two largest producers—Saudi Arabia and Russia—to curb production will drive that price even higher in the future. Rate hikes for gasoline and heating will be up sharply in the coming months

 

Turkish unemployment is over 13 percent, inflation is close to 12 percent, and the Turkish lira has fallen 12 percent against the dollar. With energy costs rising and currency value declining, Turkey is struggling through an economic double whammy.

 

Economist Timur Kuran of Duke University says the Turkish economy is in serious trouble. “The AKP (Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party) is doing massive long-term damage to the Turkish economy. Corruption is up, the quality of education has fallen, the courts are massively politicized, and the people are afraid to speak honestly.” Kuran argues that any growth is based on short-term investments, so–called “hot money,” drawn in by high interest rates. “This is not a sustainable strategy. It makes Turkey highly vulnerable to a shock that might cause an outflow of resources.”

 

Under Erdogan Corruption does seem to be increasing. In 2013 Transparency International ranked Turkey 53ed out of 175 countries on its Corruption Perception Index. By 2016 the country had risen to 75th out of 176 countries.

 

Turkey’s economy is highly dependent on foreign money, but the continuing state of emergency and rule by decree is scaring off investors. Figures by the Central Bank show that Turkey is losing $1 billion a week in foreign investments. Britain, a major investor in Turkey, has reduced its investments by 20% since the declaration of the state of emergency.

 

The uncertainly has spread as well to Turkish citizens, who are putting their money into foreign investments in order to preserve their savings. From the end of 2016 to this November, Turks moved $17.2 billion to foreign firms.

 

Erdogan is blaming Turkish banks—in particular the Central Bank—for rising interest rates and the downturn in the economy. But Kemel Kilicdaroglu, leader of the centrist and secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) argues that “The real reason why foreign investments other than real estate purchases are decreasing is that [foreign investors] feel insecure in a country where law, justice and press freedom are non-existent.”

 

The state of emergency allows the government to suppress trade union strikes, but it has been less successful in damping down what was once a AKP strong suit: rural farmers.

 

One of Erdogan’s economic “reforms” was to open Turkish markets to foreign competition, which has resulted in losses for the country’s live stock and agricultural growers. Meat producers are up in arms over an agreement with Serbia to import 5,000 tons of red meat, and tea, grape, tobacco and apricot growers have been hard hit by falling prices and foreign competition. Hazelnut growers were so incensed at the government’s base price for their produce that they organized a large march under the banner of “Justice for Hazelnuts.”

 

A study found that foreign imports had reduced the number of families involved in growing tobacco from 405,882 families in 2002 to 56,000 in 2015.

 

It is not so much the marches that worry Erdogan, but the fact that some 20 million rural Turks are up in arms against the government, anger that might translate into votes in 2019. In the April 2017 referendum, rural votes solidly supported the AKP, while urban centers—particularly their youth—voted no. Losing cities like Ankara and Istanbul—the city where Erdogan began his political career—was a shock for the AKP, but losses in rural areas would be a political train wreck.

 

While Erdogan strains to keep the economic lid on long enough to get through 2019, there are fissures opening within his own party. A wing of the AKP is not happy with Erdogan’s foreign policy disputes and the impact that they are having on the economy.

 

On his right, former interior minister Meral Aksener has formed the Iyi Parti or “Good Party” and says she plans to challenge Erdogan for the presidency. Aksener appeals to the more nationalist currents in the AKP and hopes to attract support from the extreme right wing National Action Party (MHP). She is currently polling around 16 percent.

 

Polls indicate that the “Good Party” is cutting into the AKP’s support, which has dropped to 38 percent. Erdogan needs at least 51 percent, the figure that he claims he got in the referendum (outside observers called the election deeply flawed, however). Aksener could split Erdogan’s support within the AKP and the MHP, thus denying him a majority.

 

Nor has the CHP thrown in the towel, Besides organizing marches by angry rural residents, Party leader Kilicdaroglu pulled off a 25-day, 280-mile “Justice March” last summer that may have involved as many as a million people.

 

The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey’s leftist party closely tied to its Kurdish population, has been decimated by arrests and seizure of its assets, but it is still the third largest party in parliament. “It may appear that injustice has won, but this will not last,” HDP parliament member Meral Danis Bestas told Al-Monitor. “Turkey’s future truly lies in democracy, rights and freedom.”

 

Erdogan has enormous power and has out muscled and out maneuvered his opponents for the past 20 years. But Turks are growing weary of his rule and, if the economy stumbles, he may be vulnerable.

 

That’s why he is running scared.

 

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Turkey’s Coup: Winners and Losers

Turkey’s Coup: Winners & Losers

Conn Hallinan

Aug. 30, 2016

 

As the dust begins to settle from the failed Turkish coup, there appear to be some winners and losers, although predicting things in the Middle East these days is a tricky business. What is clear is that several alignments have shifted, shifts that may have an impact on the two regional running sores: the civil wars in Syria and Yemen.

 

The most obvious winner to emerge from the abortive military putsch is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogen and his campaign to transform Turkey from a parliamentary democracy to a powerful, centralized executive with himself in charge. The most obvious losers are Erdogan’s internal opposition and the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

 

Post-coup Turkish unity has conspicuously excluded the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP), even though the party condemned the July 15 coup. A recent solidarity rally in Istanbul called by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) included the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), but the HDP—the third-largest political organization in the country—was not invited.

 

The deliberate snub is part of Erdogan’s campaign to disenfranchise the HDP and force new elections that could give him the votes he needs to call a referendum on the presidency. This past June, Erdogen pushed through a bill lifting immunity for 152 parliament members, making them liable for prosecution on charges of supporting terrorism. Out of the HDP’s 59 deputies, 55 are now subject to the new law. If the HDP deputies are convicted of terrorism charges, they will be forced to resign and by elections will be held to replace them.

 

While Erdogan’s push for a powerful executive is not overwhelmingly popular with most Turks—polls show that only 38.4 percent support it –the President’s popularity jumped from 47 percent before the coup to 68 percent today. With the power of state behind him, and the nationalism generated by the ongoing war against the Kurds in Turkey’s southeast, Erdogan can probably pick up the 14 seats he needs to get the referendum.

 

The recent Turkish invasion of Syria is another front in Erdogan’s war on the Kurds. While the surge of Turkish armor and troops across the border was billed as an attack on the Islamic State’s (IS) occupation of the town of Jarablus near the Turkish border, it was in fact aimed at the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

 

According to Al Monitor, the IS had been withdrawing from the town for weeks in the face of a YPG offensive, and the Turks invaded to preempt the Kurds from taking the town. The question now will be how far south the Turks go, and whether they will get in a full-scale battle with America’s Kurdish allies? The Turkish military has already supported the Free Syrian Army in several clashes with the Kurds. Since the invasion included a substantial amount of heavy engineering equipment, the Turks may be planning to stay awhile.

 

While the YPG serves as the U.S.’s ground force in the fight against the IS, the Americans strongly backed the Turkish invasion and sharply warned the Kurds to withdraw from the west bank of the Euphrates or lose Washington’s support.

 

The Kurds in Syria are now directly threatened by Turkey, were attacked in Hasaka Province by the Syrian government, and have been sharply reprimanded by their major ally, the U.S. The Turkish Kurds are under siege from the Turkish army, and their parliamentary deputies are facing terrorism charges at the hands of the Erdogan government. The Turkish air force is also pounding the Kurds in Iraq. All in all, it was a bad couple of weeks to be Kurdish.

 

There are others winners and losers as well.

 

Erdogan has been strengthened, but most observers think Turkey has been weakened regionally and internationally. It looks as if an agreement with the European Union (EU) for money and visa free travel if Ankara blocks the waves of immigrants headed toward Europe is falling apart. The German parliament is up in arms over Erdogan’s heavy-handed repression of his internal opposition and his support for extremist groups in Syria.

 

Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian bomber last Nov. 24 has badly backfired. Russian sanctions dented the Turkish economy and Moscow poured sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons into Syria, effectively preventing any possibility of the Turks or the U.S. establishing a “no fly zone.”

 

Erdogan was also forced to write a letter of apology for the downing and trot off to St. Petersburg for a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. All were smiles and hand shakes at the Aug. 9 get-together, but the Russians have used the tension generated by the incident to advance their plans for constructing gas pipelines that would bypass Ukraine. Indeed, the EU and Turkey are now in a bidding war over whether the pipeline will go south—Turkish Stream— through Turkey and the Black Sea, or north—Nord Stream—through the Baltic Sea and into Germany.

 

Erdogan apparently has concluded that Russia and Iran have effectively blocked a military solution to the Syrian civil war, and Ankara has backed off its demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has to go before there can be any resolution of the conflict. Turkey now says Assad can be part of a transition government, pretty much the same position as the Russians take. Iran—at least for now—is more invested in keeping Assad in power.

 

Iran has also come out of this affair in a stronger position. Its strategic alliance with Russia has blocked the overthrow of Assad, Teheran’s major ally in the region, and its potential markets have the Turks wanting to play nice.

 

Any Moscow-Ankara-Tehran alliance will be a fractious one, however.

 

Turkey is still a member of NATO—it has the second largest army in the alliance—and its military is largely reliant on the U.S. for its equipment. NATO needs Turkey, although the Turks have mixed feelings about the alliance. A poll taken a year ago found only 30 percent of Turks trusted NATO. The post coup polls may be worse, because it was the pro-NATO sections of the military that were most closely tied to the putsch.

 

Iran’s Shiite government is wary of Erdogan’s ties to the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and Ankara’s close relations with Iran’s major regional nemesis, Saudi Arabia. The Russians also have a tense relationship with Iran, although Moscow played a key role in the nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Teheran, and Iran calls its ties with Russia “strategic.”

 

The Saudis look like losers in all this. They—along with Turkey, France, Britain, and most the Gulf monarchies—thought Assad would be a push over. He wasn’t, and five years later some 400,000 Syrians are dead, three million have been turned into refugees, and the war has spread into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

 

The Yemen war has predictably turned into a quagmire, and even Saudi Arabia’s allies are beginning to edge away from the human catastrophe that the conflict has inflicted on Yemen’s civilian population. The United Arab Emirates, which provided ground forces for the Saudis, is withdrawing troops, and even the U.S. has cut back on the advisors assigned to aid the kingdom’s unrestricted air war on the rebel Houthis. U.S. Defense Department spokesman Adam Stump said aid to Riyadh was not a “blank check,” and several U.S. Congress members and peace groups are trying to halt a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

 

In military terms, the Yemen war—like the Syrian war—is unwinnable, and Washington is beginning to realize that. In fact, were it not for the U.S. and British aid to the Saudis, including weapons resupply, in-air refueling of war planes, and intelligence gathering, the war would grind to a halt.

 

The Saudis are in trouble on the home front as well. Their push to overthrow Assad and the Houthis has turned into expensive stalemates at a time when oil prices are at an all-time low. The Kingdom has been forced to borrow money and curb programs aimed at dealing with widespread unemployment among young Saudis. And the Islamic State has targeted the kingdom with more than 25 attacks over the past year.

 

Ending the Yemen war would not be that difficult, starting with an end to aid for the Saudi air war. Then the UN could organize a conference of all Yemeni parties—excluding the IS and al-Qaeda—to schedule elections and create a national unity government.

 

Syria will be considerably more challenging. The Independent’s long-time Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn calls the conflict a three-dimensional chess game with nine players and no rules. But a solution is possible.

 

The outside powers—the U.S., Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Gulf monarchies—will have to stop fueling their allies with weapons and money and step back from direct involvement in the war. They will also have to accept the fact that no one can dictate to the Syrians who will rule them. That is an internal affair that will be up to the parties engaged in the civil war ( minus the IS and the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front.)

 

The Kurdish question will be central to this. The Syrian Kurds must have a place at the table regardless of Turkish opposition. The Iranians are also hostile to the Kurds because of problems with their own Kurdish population. If there is to be eventual peace in the region, Ankara will also have to end its war against the Kurds in southeast Turkey. Turkish army attacks have killed more than 700 civilians, generated 100,000 refugees, and smashed up several cities. The Kurds have been asking for negotiations and Ankara should take them up on that.

 

Erdogan has made peace with the Kurds before—even though part of the reason was a cynical ploy to snare conservative Kurdish voters for the AKP. It was also Erdogan who rekindled the war as a strategy to weaken the Kurdish-based HDP and regain the majority that the AKP lost in the June 2015 elections. The ploy largely worked, and a snap election four months later saw the HDP lose seats and the AKP win back its majority. The Turkish president, however, did not get the two-thirds he needs to schedule a referendum.

 

Erdogan is a stubborn man, and a popular one in the aftermath of the failed coup. But Turkey is vulnerable regionally and internationally, two arenas where the U.S., the EU, and the Russians can apply pressure. The hardheaded Turkish president has already backed off in his confrontation with the Russians and climbed down from his demand that Assad had to go before any serious negotiations could start.

 

If the chess masters agree to some rules they could bring these two tragic wars to a close.

 

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