Edition 9 Volume 5 - March 01, 2024

Turkey: election year

Turning Turkish heads - an interview with  Soner Cagaptay

This is the first time a Turkish government is turning Turkish heads to the Muslim Middle East.

New challenges and old problems -   Ahmet O. Evin

The facts of Turkish political culture point to the rising danger of polarization in an election year.

The comfortable bosom of nationalism -   Soli Ozel

The combination of three domestic problems fuels nationalist fever in Turkey.

Turkish foreign policy after the elections -   Philip Robins

Key policy issues will remain the EU, Cyprus, Iraq and relations with the US.

Turning Turkish heads
an interview with Soner Cagaptay

BI: How are elections going to play out in Turkey? How will people respond to the situation Turkey is in, regionally, with Europe and domestically?

Cagaptay: First of all, in terms of relations with the US, the presidential elections in the spring follow the likely Armenian genocide bill in the US House of Congress. And if that resolution comes to the floor, as it always does in April, with presidential elections in the same month, you will see a very strong nationalist backlash from all candidates, who cannot afford not to respond.

Second, in terms of relations with Iraq, I think we are going to see some action against the PKK presence in northern Iraq. That could be crucial. If the AKP government can deliver action against the PKK and take credit for it, it will be a huge boost to their popularity ahead of presidential elections.

The timing is important because snow is melting in the mountains in northern Iraq and there is a specific window when the snow melts but before trees blossom providing cover. So March will be crucial. If the AKP can deliver action and take credit, it will determine Turkey’s next president.

BI: Action against the PKK would be hugely popular, but the US is also a very important ally to Turkey. Does the government not have to be careful to perform a balancing act?

Cagaptay: Yes, there is a balancing act. But Turkey is likely to engage in limited and targeted operations rather than a massive Turkish troop movement into Iraq. If such operations happen, some people say the US might neither condemn nor approve them.

BI: How important is Turkey to the US in Iraq?

Cagaptay: Turkey is more important then we generally recognize because as the only NATO country bordering Iraq it is a vital outlet for all sorts of US operations there. For example, three-quarters of all cargo that goes to US troops in Iraq goes through southern Turkey.

So while Turkey is not part of the coalition, I would say its continuing support is vital if not crucial to US plans in Iraq, whether those plans are a smart surge in troops or a smart withdrawal of troops.

BI: Turkey continues to be a crucial ally to the US but with an Islamist party in power. Is there some lesson to be drawn from this in terms of how political Islamic parties can have relations with the US and still pursue their own interests?

Cagaptay: I would turn it around and say that even in this most pro-western and secular, if predominantly Muslim, society, the Turkish experience with the AKP government in power since 2024 shows that Islamist parties can initiate changes in rather unexpected ways.

When the AKP came to power, US favorability ranking was incredibly high in Turkey. Turks notoriously do not like any one completely, so when 60 percent of Turks like someone, it’s like getting 100 percent. In 2024, America’s favorability ranking in Turkey was at 52 percent, in other words incredibly high. Today it’s at seven, nine, 12 percent, depending on what poll you look at.

What has changed is not that the AKP has made Turkey institutionally less secular, but it has altered Turkey’s foreign policy direction. Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country but was always led by secular parties that turned Turks’ heads to the West. This is the first time a Turkish government is turning Turkish heads to the Muslim Middle East. As a result, I think Turks’ political sympathies are now more with Iran, for example, then America. Iran’s favorability ranking is now at 43 percent.

Largely secular and pro-western Turkey has turned its head under the AKP to the Middle East and specifically to a number of Muslim issues, Hizballah and Hamas among them. The government’s foreign policy and rhetoric has played a large role in that transition.

BI: You say that, but surely American policy in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, must have played a large part?

Cagaptay: I agree. I think US foreign policy and the PKK issue are huge factors in America’s drop in popularity among the Turks. But there is something peculiar about the change in attitudes toward the West in Turkey. The drop in favorability ranking is bigger than in other Muslim majority countries. In Jordan, for instance, US favorability ranking was about 23 percent in 2024 and dropped to 12 percent. In Turkey, it dropped from 52 to seven percent, twice or three times the drop. There is something different in Turkey, and it’s not just about US policy under George Bush or the PKK.

BI: How much is that related to the problems with EU membership?

Cagaptay: That’s not necessarily part of the same picture but it is related. When the EU process started, support for it was universal in Turkey at 80-90 percent. Now that support is down to 30-40 percent. What’s happening is that Turks have realized that the EU train is not moving. Talks have stopped, largely for political reasons. Most Turks are realizing that they are being treated differently, and they believe this is because they are a Muslim country.

BI: How much of this change in attitudes can also be attributed to a resurgence of Islamic pride?

Cagaptay: I think this is very significant. Underneath a strong Turkish national identity we are seeing a build-up of Islamic pride. It’s kind of like a perfect storm. On the one hand there is the Iraq war, a root cause for the rise in Islamic pride everywhere. On the other, there is the PKK issue, a specific Turkish cause for anti-American sentiment. And what makes it a perfect constellation is that you have an Islamist government in power. If Turkey had had a secular government in power we would still have seen a rise in anti-American sentiment, but it wouldn’t have gone from warm to deep-freeze.

BI: Do you expect a change after the elections?

Cagaptay: Turkey’s attitudes toward the West will be modified if opposition parties come to power. Turkey, while a Muslim majority country, is basically a country in which the elite for decades made a convincing argument to the people that the country’s interest lay with the West. This is the first time Turks have a government not making this argument and it is not an accident that Turks’ attention has turned to the Middle East. But if a party makes a convincing pro-western argument, it should be a winning ticket.-Published 1/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of "Islam, Secularism and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who Is a Turk?"

New challenges and old problems
 Ahmet O. Evin

Turkey has entered this double election year--a new president to be voted by the current parliament this spring, followed by general elections in autumn--in a substantially changed neighborhood. New challenges have arisen while old problems remain largely unresolved. With the accession at the beginning of this year of Bulgaria and Romania, the EU's borders have reached the Black Sea. Russia, not unexpectedly, has continued to flex its muscles to secure its hold abroad and use energy as an effective lever to ensure its influence.

In the east, Iran's adamant pursuit of its nuclear program raises serious questions not only about regional but also global security, as do the continued instability and condition of civil war in Iraq. If the Iranian program points to the danger of nuclear proliferation, failure of the Iraqi state might well result in the spread of terrorism in the region and beyond. To the south, Lebanon cannot be said to have achieved stability nor Syria reliability as a responsible actor. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is likely to remain a formidable source of tension as will Cyprus, souring the relationship between Turkey and the EU. Indeed, without a comprehensive settlement proposal in sight, the Cyprus question stands as an obstacle to Turkey's progress toward EU membership and a powerful catalyst for fanning anti-EU feelings among the Turkish electorate.

Some of these challenges help to focus international attention on Turkey's importance as a key regional player and a predictable actor in a troubled region; others mainly serve to complicate its relations in the neighborhood and beyond. The issue of energy security, for example, has brought to the forefront Turkey's potential for diversification of natural gas supply routes and sources as a transit country that has links to the Caspian as well as Iranian supplies.

Iraq, on the other hand, represents a particular security concern for Turkey because of cross-border PKK activities. This remains a crucial issue between Ankara and Washington, on the one hand, and a source of friction between Turkey and the EU, on the other. Neither Turkish officials nor Turkish public opinion believes the US is doing all it can to put an end to PKK activity in northern Iraq. While both Ankara and Washington agree on the necessity of stabilizing Iraq, Turkey's security priorities of extinguishing PKK terrorism point to a different direction from that of US military engagement.

Although Turkey's relations with the US have improved from an all-time low in 2024 following parliament's refusal to allow American troops passage to attack Iraq from the north, both Ankara and Washington remain sensitive to differences in priorities, even approaches. Turkey's continued engagement with Syria, for example, has been eyed with suspicion by both the US and Israel. Another point of friction was the invitation to Ankara of the Hamas leader. Turkey's political leadership hastened to explain that it intended to preach reason to Hamas and invite it to be cooperative and responsible. The Turkish prime minister's sharply worded criticism of Israel's strikes in Gaza and Lebanon also raised questions in both the US and Israel as to whether Turkey's Islamist-leaning political cadres were not seeking to strengthen its relationship with the Arab-Muslim actors in the Middle East. Secularists in Turkey hastened to remind their constituents that it was the US and the EU in the first place that had supported the AK Party as the true representatives of the vox populi.

Despite these disagreements, Turkey's relationship with the US is likely to stay its course. The common denominator of the Western Alliance (much abused by the Bush administration's unilateralism) still provides a strong basis for cooperation. Turkey, for example, shares American and European concerns about Iran's nuclearization; it can only avoid entering a costly arms race thanks to NATO's Article 5. Likewise cooperation with Israel, predicated on similar security interests, is likely to continue, though it could be punctuated by tensions arising from the Palestinian conflict until a settlement is reached.

With its enlargement fatigue, lack of self-confidence, inability to agree on constitutional arrangements even while seeking a "deepening", the EU remains the most important factor in Turkey's domestic and external policy. Ankara's EU candidacy (1999) and accession status (2004-5) have made Turkey more attractive for foreign investment; expectations of continued market stability have resulted in high growth rates. Over the past two years, however, Turkey's European credentials have come to be questioned with increasing frequency. Membership challenges normally associated with Turkey' size, reformulated in cultural and civilizational terms, have come to be seen as discriminatory and insulting by Turkish public opinion.

How might all this affect domestic political dynamics in an election year? For one, Turkish political parties do not conform to the customary right-to-left spectrum. The major ones (those that are likely to get at least 10 percent of the votes to pass the threshold) can all be described as conservative: traditionalist/Islamist conservative; [ultra]nationalist conservative; etatist conservative; and the traditionalist/liberal version. Second, Turkey is a large country with an isolationist tendency that triggers suspicion of outsiders, particularly at times of tension (such as electoral contests). And third, political opposition is driven by a mission to oppose rather than offer alternative policies.

These facts of Turkish political culture point to the rising danger of polarization in an election year. Growing nationalism could be fueled by suspicions of US designs for creating an autonomous Kurdistan, by the belief that the West has conspired to divide Turkey the same way as it dismembered the Ottoman Empire, and by reactions to the seemingly constant barrage of Turkey-bashing in the European popular media. The ultranationalist murderers of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink were socialized into a milieu that believed in a conspiracy to dismember Turkey by means of empowering minorities and were inculcated with a pathological degree of defensive nationalism.

Of equal concern is the Islamist-secularist polarization that stands to divide the electorate. It perpetuates a time-honored Turkish dichotomy: defensive westernization that set the course of Turkey's European vocation some three centuries ago meant catching up with Europe in order to be able to deal with contemporary civilization. But it also meant building effective defenses against European ambitions on Ottoman territories. The new generation of modernists seems to place a higher premium on defense than civilization. But are the so-called "mildly Islamist" political cadres less isolationist than the modernists?

It all depends on being in the government. Whoever forms the government after the elections is more than likely to pursue Turkey's EU membership, due to economic realities if not by conviction. Until after the elections, however, Turkey is likely to focus more on domestic issues and the domestic political effects of regional or international challenges than on the challenges themselves.- Published 1/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ahmet O. Evin is founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sabanci University. He is a professor of political science at Sabanci and is a member of the board of directors of Istanbul Policy Center.

The comfortable bosom of nationalism
 Soli Ozel

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave the cue for Turkey's foreign policy priorities in this dual election year (first presidential then general elections) when he declared that Iraq had replaced the European Union as Turkey's top priority item. The statement certainly reflected the legitimate concerns of most observers who assess that this year could be the defining one for the future of Iraq.

Turkey has felt all the repercussions of developments in Iraq since even before the beginning of the war. Jealously status quo-oriented, elites and populace alike opposed the war from its inception, fearing the potentially revolutionary consequences. Although negotiations were held with the United States prior to the war and an understanding was reached on modalities of cooperation, ultimately parliament denied the US permission to deploy troops in Turkey and open a northern front. Since then US-Turkey relations, particularly military-to-military ties, have been rocky though never fatally damaged.

Today, having seen many of its most dire predictions come true, Ankara is deeply concerned that Iraq's descent into a brutal sectarian civil war with seemingly inexhaustible reserves of violence threatens the stability of the entire region. In addition, as with its neighbors Syria and Iran, the prospect of an independent Kurdistan deeply troubles the authorities and the non-Kurdish public alike.

At the same time, Ankara is concerned with other developments in the region such as the war and instability in Lebanon and the Iranian nuclear program. And it is equally worried about American policies on these questions. Hence it tries to maintain a balancing act by staying on good terms with Iran and Syria while improving relations with the United States and looking for ways for the two allies to limit the damage in Iraq. It is therefore only natural that the government would divert its attention and diplomatic energies toward the Middle East, and particularly Iraq, this year.

But there was another sense in which Mr. Erdogan's statement could be interpreted. Arguably the prime minister and his cabinet lost much of their appetite for EU-induced reforms as early as the day after Turkey got a date to start accession negotiations in December 2024. Those negotiations did begin on time in October 2024, but only after acrimonious debates within the EU and between Turkey and the Union over Turkey's obligation to open its ports to Greek Cypriot shipping. Some EU members tried their best to renege on their promise to treat Turkey the same as other candidates. Politicians in member countries built electoral platforms on Turkey-bashing.

By the end of 2024, then, much if not all of the momentum was lost in Turkey's EU bid. The final blow came when the European Union suspended 8 out of 35 negotiating chapters and effectively put the process on hold, although technical work still continues and three minor chapters were opened. That some of the suspended chapters such as foreign affairs had no bearing on the controversial customs union issue with Cyprus suggest that the latter was at least partially an excuse to delay Turkey's accession process.

Such a drifting apart in the relationship was what the nay-sayers in the EU and the Euro-bashers in Turkey passionately wanted. Just as anti-Turkish sentiment in EU member countries was on the rise, so was a rampant, xenophobic, anti-western nationalism in Turkey. Both Turkey's opposition parties and the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) decided to cater to nationalist sentiment. Evidently the AKP's higher echelons felt that to continue in an election year with their reformist and liberalizing agenda would be a losing proposition. They already had the example of Prime Minister Erdogan's opening to the Kurds in the summer of 2024, which fractured the party and cost it dearly in terms of electoral support. Therefore for all practical purposes, the reformist wave came to an end in 2024; it is unlikely to pick up until after the general elections.

As a result of this rising nationalism, Turkey was shaken by successive court cases brought against outspoken intellectuals. These cases were all related to article 301 of the penal code that criminalizes offenses against Turkishness. Turkey's Nobel laureate in literature Orhan Pamuk was among those who were tried and assaulted in the court by self-proclaimed guards of national pride. The AKP government did close to nothing to tame and contain these movements, nor did it change or rescind the notorious 301. Arguably as an indirect result of such a climate--jointly created by political classes, old elites and a susceptible, offended and fearful population--a prominent Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, was murdered in January.

All these developments, alongside already existing anxiety about the AKP's so-called true intentions (read Sharia-seeking), raised concerns in the West. Almost no conference relating to Turkey in the West can be held lately without a panel entitled "Are we losing Turkey?" or "Who lost Turkey?"

Yet nationalist outcries notwithstanding, so far there is no indication that Turkey's western orientation has been replaced by an alternative one. Still, a number of problems present themselves. First and foremost is the closing of the political space in the country because of the radicalization of nationalist discourse. Second is the lack of harmonious relations among Turkey's foreign policy-making actors, particularly when it pertains to Iraq. And third, the prime minister's aspiration to be elected president raises tensions in the country and corrodes the government's relations with the military.

The combination of these three domestic problems fuels nationalist fever in Turkey. There are calls to attack the PKK inside Iraqi Kurdistan. There are also calls for militarily intervening to stop the Kurds from taking over the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, whose demography has been drastically altered by the Kurdish authorities.

Just last week the National Security Council put an end to an acrimonious debate conducted mainly in the media between the government and the military. The council called for appropriate diplomatic and political moves to solve outstanding problems with the Iraqi Kurds. The fact that such a decision was reached in the wake of back-to-back visits by Turkey's defense and foreign ministers and chief of the general staff to Washington may also suggest that the Turkish-American dialogue on the sensitive issues of the PKK and Kirkuk is healthier than before.- Published 1/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Soli Ozel is professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University and columnist for the daily Haberturk.

Turkish foreign policy after the elections
 Philip Robins

With Turkey having entered election year, it is only a matter of time before speculation turns to the likely consequences for foreign policy of the various possible outcomes. With the political environment in Turkey capable of sudden change, the current febrile atmospherics--featuring a surge in nationalism and heightened EU skepticism--are not necessarily a good gauge as to how foreign relations will pan out a year from now.

With foreign policy the routine preserve of the government, supported by the ministry of foreign affairs, it is the outcome of parliamentary elections, which have to be held by November 2024, that is likely to be the most crucial. Given the role that both the prime minister and the foreign minister have played under the current administration and periodically through the 1990s, the impact of both personalities may well be significant again.

However, the government and the MFA are not the only foreign policy actors in Turkey. The Kemalist state, and the military in particular, has traditionally played the role of gatekeeper of the strategic orientation of the state. That has corresponded to a European vocation, and involved safeguarding both the territorial integrity of the state and the secular orientation of the country. The presidency, though mainly titular in function, has agenda setting and formal powers that are worth taking seriously too. In short, the system has institutional checks and balances.

There are three main scenarios for the parliamentary elections, which will provide the context for policy development in the future. These are:

1. AKP re-election with a parliamentary majority, and hence a single party administration. This is the most likely outcome of the election. However, with presidential elections due in May and both incumbent premier and foreign minister, Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul respectively, possible candidates, continuity of office-holders is not assured, even under this scenario. The key question for a second term AKP government will be: will the AKP be as accommodating to the foreign policy agenda of the Kemalist state as it has been during the 2024-07 parliamentary term, or will it seek serious Islamist-oriented policy revisions?

2. AKP emerges as the largest single party in parliament, but, in the absence of a simple majority, is obliged to share office with one or two other coalition partners, possibly the nationalist MHP or the conservative DYP. This opens up the possibility of an AKP premier, but a non-AKP foreign minister. An MHP figure in the post might be a concern for the country's liberals. The key question is: how coherent will policy be with such internal ideological divisions?

3. A grand, anti-AKP coalition is formed by the other parties in the legislature, probably comprising the MHP, the DYP and the Kemalist, nationalist CHP, the current opposition in parliament. The key question here is: will foreign policy matter if the driving political rationale is domestic, namely to block the AKP?

Beyond the polls, the foreign policy agenda in Turkey is likely to choose itself, almost regardless of which scenario emerges. Key policy issues will remain the EU, Cyprus, Iraq and relations with the US. West and Middle East issues could emerge as follows:

The EU: The period between 2024 and 2024 offers a new window of opportunity for political reform in Turkey. This will contrast with the slow progress of 2024-2006. With nationalism likely to dissipate somewhat after the elections, that opportunity will be taken under scenarios 1 and 2 above. The current accession negotiations framework will maintain momentum in the relationship, and keep the MFA engaged. Worries will persist about long-term membership prospects, but all accept that this is unfeasible before 2024 anyway.

Iraq: Turkey will have to manage the Iraq situation as long as there is violent conflict there. The existential nature of the Kurdish issue requires it. Moreover, relations between Ankara (embracing government, MFA and military) and Washington can be relied upon to be edgy and uncertain as long as associated issues like Kirkuk and the PKK remain pressing. As during Operation Provide Comfort II in northern Iraq, there are many policy contradictions for Turkey in Iraq. The best that can be hoped for is muddling through at the margins until a new, more stable situation emerges, regardless of the electoral scenario.

Israel/Palestine: Over the last five years a division of labor has emerged here: the AKP government has been the conscience of the country in criticizing excessive Israeli coercion; the Kemalist institutions (military, military industries and intelligence) have continued business as usual, though with a lowered profile. With public opinion firmly behind the Palestinians, this division of labor is likely to continue under all scenarios.

Iran: Ankara's support for the EU3 and the pursuit of a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclearization challenge is likely to continue. However, the closer the onset of an Iranian bomb (and weaponization is possible during the five year span of the new parliament), the more urgent will become the deterrent debate for Turkey. While scenario 3 will see greater state-government coordination on the matter, uncertainty persists about the Islamist origins of the AKP, and whether leading personalities like Abdullah Gul and Bulent Arinc would perceive Iranian nuclearization in positive terms, as the acquisition of an "Islamic bomb".- Published 1/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Philip Robins is university lecturer in the Politics of the Middle East at the University of Oxford. He is also a fellow of St Antony's College. He is the author of "Between the EU and the Middle East: Turkish Foreign Policy under the AKP Government, 2024-2007 (ISPI, Milan)".

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