Turkey’s president faced his Justice and Development Party (AKP) congress last week for the first time in three years and claimed a new vision for the next two years. Turkey would “increase the number of our friends and resolve hostilities in the region,” he told a crowd of thousands. Because of Turkey’s geographic position, he said, “We do not have the luxury of turning our backs” on either the East or West.
If this sounded like Recep Tayyip Erdogan winding back the clock a decade to the era of “zero problems with neighbors,” then his behavior in the days before and since should have put paid to that notion.
This new drive for friendship wasn’t there the weekend before when Erdogan called Joe Biden’s comments on Vladimir Putin “not befitting of a president.” It wasn’t there two days before when, shortly after midnight, Erdogan fired the central bank governor (the third time in three years he has done so, despite international investors disliking such interference) and at the same time pulled out of a treaty against the wishes of the European Union.
And it wasn’t there later that same day, when Turkey’s foreign minister, meeting his American counterpart for the first time, called the purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system “a done deal.” American concern over Turkey, a Nato member, using the Russian system is at the very heart of strained relations between the two, with the US urging Turkey to get rid of the system.
What Erdogan was offering was an adjustment of tone, not a change in substance. If Turkey does indeed want more friends, it shows no willingness to change the combative policies that led to the loss of those friends in the first place.
In just a matter of years, Erdogan has adopted a truly independent foreign policy, one neither aligned with the European Union nor the United States. Turkey, the Nato member with the largest European army, has forged an understanding with Russia; involved itself militarily in the affairs of Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan; provoked its neighbor, Greece; personally attacked the leaders of the EU’s two most important states, Germany and France; and achieved chilly, even sub-zero, relations with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The price of those policies has been independence, yes, but also disappointment among former allies, alienation from powerful countries and anger from communities at home and abroad.
Yet reversing them is not an option. For one thing, it appears to be in Erdogan’s personal nature to be pugnacious, reveling in political feuds. Also, fighting talk is good politics. It is the combative, argumentative, unilateralist Erdogan that the AKP party faithful want. His briefly conciliatory remarks last week came in what was, after all, his victory speech to his own party, after he was re-elected as chairman of the AKP. And not merely by a majority, but by a near-unanimous 1,428 votes. Only three ballots were cast against him.
In the years since the last AKP congress, two major figures have departed: Ali Babacan, a former deputy prime minister who championed the independence of the central bank (the cause of the crisis last week that sent the Turkish lira tumbling), and Ahmet Davutoglu, a former chairman of the AKP, foreign minister and the architect of the “zero problems with neighbors” doctrine. Both have set up rival political parties, which shows just a how comprehensively the AKP has turned against those political stances.
Whether the wider Turkish public agrees remains to be seen. By the time of the next parliamentary and presidential elections in 2023, the AKP will have been in power for 21 years. Erdogan will have been prime minister or president almost as long. But already, the aura of victory that has long surrounded Erdogan is dimming. Municipal elections two years ago this week saw the AKP lose control of both Istanbul and Ankara. More recent polls confirm the slide: at the start of March, polls suggested support for the AKP had fallen to 36 percent.
Therein lies the political dilemma. The pugnacious Sultan act is, truth be told, still working, after a fashion. Two days after Erdogan addressed the AKP faithful, the European Union stopped short of imposing sanctions on Turkey for its controversial gas exploration in waters claimed by Cyprus. It even agreed to offer more money to Turkey for hosting refugees. Causing problems with neighbors is paying off.
But it also carries real risks. The fall of the lira against the dollar as a result of Erdogan’s interference in firing the central bank governor has made the weekly food shop much more expensive for many millions of Turks. In politics, this is usually an unforgivable sin. If Erdogan genuinely seeks friends he will have to shift from such combative policies, which could cost him support from those in the hall last week and voters like them.
To win power again, he will have to appeal beyond the AKP, to a Turkey that appears more reluctant to accept a regime that is endlessly argumentative. There’s a fine line to be trod between the faithful and the undecided. Seeking friends may mean losing his former comrades.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.