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9 July 2016

Olive branches and bombs: President Erdogan and Turkey’s precarious politics

With relations to Moscow and the Middle East fraught, Turkey's president faces a multitude of challenges.

By Laura Pitel

Ergenekon Sungec, a young Turkish travel agent, finally had reason to smile again last week. For months, the gaudy hotels across the road from his office in the Turkish resort town of Kundu have been half empty. The big-spending Russians who used to sign up for his rafting trips and jeep safaris have stayed away since November, when President Vladimir Putin punished Turkey for shooting down a Russian warplane by banning package holidays to the country.

On Monday 27 June, in a rare show of humility, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, extended an olive branch to Moscow, expressing regret for the debacle and clearing the way for a wider thawing of relations. He also formally restored diplomatic ties with Israel following a six-year freeze. After a period of growing isolation, Turkey seemed to be turning over a new leaf. “It is good news for our industry,” said Sungec. “This year has been rubbish but it will make a difference in 2017. We are trying to look forward with hope.”

A day later much of that hope evaporated. Suspected Isis operatives launched a triple suicide bombing at Atatürk Airport in Istanbul, killing 44 people. The attack – the eighth in Turkey attributed to Isis in just over a year – served to highlight the country’s myriad domestic problems. Political and social tensions are running high, especially since the return to violence in the mainly Kurdish south-east. Isis, having initially largely left Turkey alone, now appears intent on adding to the turmoil – and the challenges facing Erdogan.

For all the criticism he attracts, the Turkish president’s latest diplomatic manoeuvring is a reminder that he is willing to compromise when he has to. Before the Arab uprisings swept across the Middle East in 2011, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) pursued a pragmatic foreign policy, working to strengthen ties with old foes such as Syria, Greece and Armenia.

However, Erdogan’s attempt to become the champion of the Sunni Muslim world by launching tirades against Israel and supporting Islamist movements as they rose up against old Arab dictators left Turkey isolated as history turned against him.

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The civil war in neighbouring Syria increasingly spilled over the border. The US’s co-operation with Kurdish forces in the Syrian conflict fuelled fears in Turkey that it would embolden separatists at home. And when Russia intervened in support of President Assad, Turkish-backed rebels took a beating.

Realising that his lack of friends was risking the health of Turkey’s remarkably resilient economy – one of the most buoyant in the G20, with 4.8 per cent growth in the first quarter of 2016 – and fomenting instability, Erdogan decided to try rebuild relations with Russia and Israel. Putin is likely to insist that Turkey soften its hostility to Assad. Further shifts may follow.

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There are few signs, though, that Erdogan is willing to compromise at home, where
he is trying to extend his powers by making himself an executive president – a controversial move within his party and beyond. In theory, the presidency, which he assumed in 2014 after 11 years as prime minister, is a ceremonial office.

“The reset mode in foreign policy doesn’t have its equivalent in domestic politics,” said Galip Dalay, research director of al-Sharq Forum, an Istanbul-based think tank. “Turkey’s number-one item on the agenda is changing the political system.”

The AKP won a fourth term in office last year with 49 per cent of the vote, its support built on bringing unprecedented prosperity to Turkey. Acolytes argue that the party is correcting the aggressive secularism imposed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, that excluded women in headscarves from university.

Liberals, however, believe their freedoms are under assault from a president who deliberately riles the half of the country that didn’t back his party, tightening alcohol laws and telling childless women that they are “deficient”. The media face ever tighter restrictions and there have been purges of the judiciary.

Most significantly of all, the long-running conflict between the state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) erupted again last year, reopening deep wounds in society. That Erdogan had taken greater steps than any other leader before him to reach out to the sidelined Kurdish minority makes the return to violence all the more alarming. Whole districts in Turkey’s south-east have been flattened with bulldozers after operations to clear them of armed groups purporting to defend their inhabitants from a hostile state. Kurdish militants have retaliated with a series of bombings that killed both security forces and civilians. Hundreds have died.

Much of the population has been raised to harbour a deep-seated fear of Kurdish separatism and the campaign against the PKK seems to have boosted Erdogan politically.

Isis has played on the divisions and suspicions. Its first wave of bombings hit Kurdish targets – directly contributing to the collapse of the two-year ceasefire last summer. The group never claims responsibility for attacks in Turkey, a tactic that seems designed to stoke mistrust.

The government’s critics see the bombings as blowback for turning a blind eye to jihadists piling over the border into Syria. Meanwhile, some of Turkey’s pro-government newspapers blamed the attack at Atatürk Airport on US or British agents supposedly intent on thwarting the country’s success.

What is certain is that the bombs scare away the tourists. The White Garden Pension, a small hotel with a shady courtyard in the old district of Antalya, on Turkey’s south coast, had ten cancellations after the latest attack. The area’s old winding streets are most popular with western Europeans, so the thaws with Russia and Israel will make little difference. “We tell each other, perhaps next month will be better,” said the manager, Hasan Erkan. “But maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, there will be another bomb. We just don’t know.” 

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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers