Turkish Opposition Fails to Coalesce Around a Message and a Leader

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s widely-expected election to the presidency of Turkey won’t herald major changes in Turkey’s domestic or foreign policies, or in US-Turkish relations – at least in the short term.

Polarization, an increasingly predominant characteristic of Turkey’s politics for at least seven years, continues. A presidential campaign that could have been uniting but seemed more divisive than anything else, contributed greatly to this. Indeed, Erdoğan seemed to relish the politics of division; it certainly was a political winner for him.

Another factor in this polarization was how the opposition parties lacked an effective effort to challenge Erdoğan. They never really embraced the little-known, elderly Islamic scholar — Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu — whom they put forward as a challenger. Instead, they demonstrated an inability to operate anywhere but at the relative margins of Turkish politics. This source of the country’s polarization won’t end until the anti-Erdoğan political forces modernize themselves and find a way to coalesce larger elements among the country’s urban working class around an effective message and new leaders.

Turkish policy will not change significantly because of Erdoğan’s move to the presidential palace. That’s not what Turkish voters showed they want. Despite the country’s polarization, at least 52 percent, and probably significantly more, want to see continuity of economic and social policies that, in their eyes, have brought unprecedented prosperity and a sense of political belonging to millions of Turkish citizens. Erdoğan’s political domination and even boorishness will remain the country’s leitmotif. If many worry about freedoms in Turkey, they will continue to worry – but matters do not seem likely to get worse (or better) any time soon either.

Turkey’s international role will not change either. It will be marked by the yin and yang of actions that seem to be alternatively constructive and statesmanlike on some days and inflammatory or worse on others. Conflicting national and personal factors pertaining, for example, to the Israel-Palestinian and Kurdish regional issues will likely continue to deprive Turkey of opportunities effectively to shape events and trends in ways advantageous to its interests and regional stability. This will be unfortunate.

So will be the chill in US-Turkish relations – continued and unfortunate. Erdoğan clearly underestimates how much his policies, actions, and rhetoric have harmed his country’s standing in Washington. If President Obama appreciates Turkey’s importance for US interests in the region, he clearly seems more or less fed up now with its leader and will continue to deal with him only when he has to; the presidency for Erdoğan won’t change that.

If continuity, for better or worse, seems to be the main result of Erdoğan’s election to Turkey’s presidency, the longer term picture is less clear.

Several items bear watching:

How will Erdoğan’s outsized vision for his political role as president mesh with the country’s parliamentary system? The ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party will follow its leader, of course, but institutional roles and personal ambitions will become more important determinants of political events than has been the case since the early days of the party’s rule.

Whom does Erdoğan pick to become prime minister and can that figure, bolstered now by an overtly political president, lead the government effectively toward the next parliamentary election? The AK Party has always been a coalition, and the uniters (other than Erdoğan) are now few and far between. Here, too, personal rivalries and the unexpected will be important. The parliamentary vote that is scheduled for July 2015 may be moved up to minimize uncertainty and any sense of political drift that Erdoğan’s move to the presidential palace might engender.

What will happen to the Turkish economy? After a difficult period following the mid-2013 Gezi Park disturbances and the corruption allegations at the end of the year, investment, business activity, and growth all resumed the largely stellar performance that has marked the last decade. But inflation is rising again, regional and global developments could again put Turkey’s foreign capital-dependent economy under scrutiny, and an interruption of the country’s rising prosperity could have significant political circumstances. Continuity of economic policy may not be enough to keep Turkey’s economic engine in gear.

Turkey will remain important to the United States. Erdoğan will continue to play a major – sometimes good, sometimes divisive – role in the US-Turkey relationship. Regional events will continue to be dramatic and perhaps threatening.

For better or worse, Washington will have to find ways to deal with Turkey’s new president and make the relationship work.

Ross Wilson is a distinguished senior fellow with the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, and a former US ambassador to Turkey.

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