Over the past few months, the Turkish public has been inundated with news and propaganda about the sale of Russian S-400 missiles to Turkey. Now that the missile parts are being delivered to the Mürted base in Ankara, President Putin surely sees this as his personal victory. Indeed it is.
It is Putin’s victory for several key reasons: he was effectively able to sell his missiles to a NATO country that hosts the Land Forces Command of NATO on its soil, holds the NATO command in Kabul Afghanistan, and has NATO patriot and other types of missiles covering the whole Syria border against hostile attacks to Turkey. Putin is aware that Turkey operates the Kürecik radar installation collecting intelligence on the region for NATO. Turkey’s military arms infrastructure is irrevocably bound to NATO, including the indispensable spare parts of these arms systems. Moreover, Turkey is a part of the overall command and coordination structure of NATO when confronting external threats: originally and mainly originating from Russia.
These facts are well known to Putin and Erdoğan but have been kept out of public debates in Turkey. Most security and political pundits discuss the S-400 issue in a very narrow and nationalist perspective, presenting it as heroic resistance to Western imperialism and the global ‘establishment’ in the name of an independent Turkey on the world stage.
So while President Putin is boasting about his victory against the US and NATO, it is important to keep in mind this complex backdrop of intertwined relations with regard to Turkey’s commitments to NATO.
It seems, however, that President Erdoğan has managed to convince NATO to re-think the pros and cons of Turkey’s strategic importance independent of short-term policies. Although Turkey’s latest S-400 initiative has been heavily criticized by the West, key allies continue to see Turkey as a strategic ally regardless of who governs it. This is what President Erdoğan is relying on. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to outmaneuver President Trump, the Pentagon, Congress and the bureaucratic establishment in the U.S. as well as the Alliance’s European partners by cunningly using the long-standing geo-strategic importance of Turkey for his own political survival.
One may surmise that one of the very few ammunitions left for President Erdoğan to survive politically after the major defeat in the recent local elections is to continue to play the victim of a grand plot by Western powers, or “Turkey’s external enemies”, against the country, which he sells to his political base as the sole reason of the economic malaise that has befallen on the Turkish people. In case the Alliance decides to take punitive measures, for example, by keeping Turkey at a distance in platforms where the most important military decisions are discussed and decided or if the U.S places additional sanctions which may hurt the Turkish people, he will consolidate his fallback position. He pictures himself as the great leader waging another “war of independence” since Turkey, according to this narrative, faces existential threats. This propaganda did not hold in the municipal elections but he should be expected to do everything in his power to have it hold this time for his political survival. But this seems to be his alternative as a last resort.
The challenge is that there is little that the government can do inside Turkey to overcome the economic crisis short of unprecedented democratic reforms which, one may assume, Erdogan thinks will further shorten his political career. A huge economic reform program backed by Western finance is direly required. He knows very well that no country in the West is willing to come to his rescue this time unless he forces them to do so. So he has double downed on the strategic importance of Turkey by shifting policies towards the East. He may hope that this last ditch effort renders a change of minds, if not hearts, among Turkey’s Western allies. He is playing the gamble of his political life; either the Western partners fall to their knees and give him what he wants; i.e. mostly financial assistance and reopening of investment channels to Turkey or they lose a strategic asset of tremendous proportions in the region. Furthermore, deploying Turkish armed forces to secure areas on the Syrian border would raise the stakes of this mind boggling political survival gamble. If the U.S and the members of the Alliance give in, the Erdogan-led government will win yet again and survive politically as a victor. If they refuse, then his administration will continue to play victim until the AKP collapses under its own doing.
President Putin has created an important dent in Turkey’s partnership with NATO. On top of S-400 sales he has successfully achieved Turkey’s removal from the F-35 investment program. In Turkish we call this a success akin to “çifte kavrulmuş lokum” (a double roasted Turkish delight sort of success) on President Putin’s part.
When we look at the Iranian side, the most important ally of Russia in the Middle East, this double roasted success of Putin must have been a day of delirious rejoicing by the governing mullahs. Turkey has chosen to pursue a process of diverging from being a major regional power with NATO support towards an uncertain direction with no plausible alternative in sight. The Turkish government’s statements denying that the purchase of S-400s has any bearing on Turkey’s NATO commitments is received with a pinch of salt in the West.
President Erdoğan’s move has freed the hands of Iran to continue with its Iraq and Syria policy against the “Sunni President” of Turkey as they see it, although they cover it up with the sauce of belonging to the Islamic community of nations. Iran has secured an additional vintage point to safely continue with its nuclear arms program as well. Iran may reckon Turkey is on the way to forego its most useful tool against its nuclear arms ambitions. Iranian leadership must be yearning for the days to come when NATO backing to Turkey diminishes totally.
So, it is easy to see what Russia, Iran and Bashar Esad gains from this gimmick but what does Turkey gain? The backing of Russia’s security umbrella? Securing membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization? Opening a new page in Turkey’s relationship with Iran and its surrogate Bashar Esad so that we will live together happily ever after? The prospect of financial assistance from China? This is unlikely since China is unhappy with Turkey’s policy of upholding the human rights of the Muslim Uigur community.
In the final analysis it is hard to expect the Turkish people to be fooled to opt for this implausible episode of shifting towards the East which could never replace the gains accruing from our NATO membership or our Customs Union with the EU or our membership in the Council of Europe or OSCE. The majority of Turkish people know that they are in need of democratic reforms embodied in these institutions so that the economy starts to run normally again.
This new direction of President Erdoğan also strips Turkey of its remaining leverage in developments in Syria and Iraq.
Attempts to change course in defense policies is risky for all sides. Even the victorious Putin in this game has been warned by his own defense establishment as to what would happen if Turkey chooses to share the S-400 technology with NATO sometime in the future. Whether Russia would resort to another round of sanctions on our agricultural exports or to imposing visas to our citizens in such an eventuality or take the risk of going for other hard core measures is unclear.
But today is the era of visual reality right? Under the one-man rules of whimsical Trump, Putin and Erdoğan who enjoy clinging to post-truth policies, every wrong turn should be expected. Strategic alliances are a product of long term strategic interests. Not short term political maneuvering. Nations do not forsake their existential preferences to grant short term political gains for their leaders.
The West has seen the victory of the National Alliance in Turkey comprised of the Republican Party and İyi Party being supported by HDP and Saadet Party in the run up to the local elections. So our allies have started to see an alternative political discourse in Ekrem İmamoğlu. But they will watch closely to gauge for themselves if this discourse represents a change of identity policies of the Republican Party or not. İmamoğlu’s future success in governing Istanbul will certainly be a litmus test for his personal political future. The West will certainly watch if hurdles are being erected by the President to ensure İmamoğlu’s failure. But it is a fact that Turkey’s problems far outreach the successful performance in local administrations given the reformed but still limited authority of the Turkish municipalities.
Governing a complex country like Turkey needs much more than a charismatic leader. It needs a democratic pluralistic administrative system. İmamoğlu made a fresh start by conducting an election campaign promising to open his arms and services to all the peoples of Istanbul, amounting to a welcome egalitarian approach. A good start that needs to be fleshed out not only by a mayor but the political structure supporting him, mainly the Republican People’s Party.
So let’s turn to the CHP.
Much criticism has been hurled at the leader of the main opposition party Kemal Kilıçdaroğlu, including within his own support base, for lacking the charisma and strong will to challenge the government effectively in a bid to rule the country. I have also been a critic at times. However, criticism where it is due does not mean that the easy going, low profile leader who has attempted to play politics according to basic principles of fairness, respectability and co-existence should be dismissed completely.
Kilıçdaroğlu has shown that a non-abrasive style of political engagement, performed with integrity, modesty and perseverance, is not only possible but also desirable in the high-stakes Turkish political theatre. His supporters have come to admire these qualities of character and believe that a new outlook is necessary to achieve the party’s social democratic politics. His decision to back the electoral campaign of Ekrem Imamoğlu vindicated his conviction that secularism—the backbone of the party’s identity—does not have to be a divisive force in local or national politics. Imamoğlu’s campaign reflected the party’s message that democratic secularism does not mean demonizing the faith and choices of social conservative voters in Turkey. This fresh take encouraged pious voters in Istanbul to vote for Imamoğlu under a wider coalition. As the new mayor, Imamoğlu has pledged to work in the service of all citizens equally regardless of diverse social identities. After decades of getting secularism wrong, the party finally has a chance to show through practice what a democratic interpretation of secular governance can look like. This conviction has brought about a success story and affirmed the fact that a change in the outlook of CHP is slowly taking shape.
Most importantly, Kilıçdaroğlu has been behind forging a strong coalition with the leaders of the National Coalition and garnered the support of the pro-Kurdis HDP and Saadet Party, leading to the overwhelming victory of İmamoğlu. This represents a major shift in the social democratic policies of CHP in line with contemporary ideas of redefining social democratic principles in the West. Some of our party members certainly know Chantal Mouffe, who argues, among others, that “the left must disrupt the neoliberal consensus by “repoliticising” politics – accepting that strife and conflict between opposing groups are fundamental to political life.” Mouffe also argues this conflict should not unfold along traditional class fault lines – or any specific fault lines at all. She further argues that the left must unite around a deliberately vague anti-establishment programme, designed to accommodate the broadest possible coalition of progressive causes and grievances.
Despite fierce opposition from diehard secularists within the party apparatchik, who have long since equated secularism with refusing to grant recognition to different identities, Kılıçdaroğlu has relentlessly sought to form a wider coalition with parties in the center right or left who share similar grievances and long to achieve democratic and economic reforms to reduce social inequalities. This has been finally proven right with the successful election of İmamoğlu in Istanbul.
The same diehard secularist and nationalist faction within the party might now better understand why Kilıçdaroğlu has been adamantly trying to reach out to HDP voters. Kılıçdaroğlu refrained from openly talking about the party’s progressive attitude toward the Kurdish issue, but this has been mainly due to President Erdoğan’s labeling of the CHP as a ‘terrorist organization’ alongside the outlawed PKK and HDP. Now that local elections have been a success for the National Coalition, it can be expected that the CHP can have a much freer hand in enunciating CHP’s pro-peace steps on the Kurdish question in Turkey and the wider Middle East. This would require protecting Turkey’s legitimate national security interests while ensuring inclusion, representation and rights for all citizens.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s determined efforts to forge an inclusive coalition of interests and identities has finally borne fruit. Without the support of the National Coalition, the HDP and Saadet Party, Imamoğlu’s efforts would have likely resulted in vain despite his captivating personal performance running his campaign. Furthermore, had the party base not been prepared earlier for the new inclusive discourse that was leveraged by İmamoğlu, he would have struggled to challenge the party’s status quoist stance. Instead, he was able to touch the hearts of a large majority of voters.
The dynamics of this transformation shed light on the trajectory of the CHP’s policies in the run up to the next elections. Maintaining—even expanding—this coalition or some form of cooperation with prospective new parties (there has long been speculation that a new party may be established by AKP Economy Minister Ali Babacan or former AKP PM Davutoğlu) could ensure a peaceful change of power through elections. The CHP seems to have proven that reconciliation and partnership across party lines in the service of all citizens is necessary if pluralistic democracy can work in our country.
The CHP leadership is mindful that winning a local election does not guarantee success in the next general elections and are considering how Imamoğlu’s success can be a building block for a similar success in the next elections.
There are still too many questions, however, that are expected to be answered by the main opposition party. Our citizens and Turkey’s allies as well as our diaspora are eagerly waiting for the next moves from the main opposition.
How will the economic crisis and dire unemployment, especially among the youth, be resolved? What are the democratic reforms that can go hand in hand with economic policies so that income inequalities are addressed before they become chronic handicaps? What will be the social democratic economic policy in the face of the discrepancies of the wrongly defined free market economy in Turkey which helps to fill the coffers of a few selected elite? What roles will the state and private sector play in a revamped economic model? What steps must the CHP take to convince low income conservative AKP voters that it is actually the party to represent them and support their social rights? What steps is the CHP ready to take to finally achieve a peaceful social contract with our Kurdish citizens under a democratic political process? How can we achieve a real peaceful political unity in our country? What will be done to uphold the human rights of our citizens to strengthen our unity in deeds not in words? How will the justice system be reformed? What will be the principles of our foreign and defense policies vis-a-vis Syria, Iraq and the wider Middle East? How will the CHP end the long-standing danger of PKK terrorism? Will the CHP introduce a democratic political approach for the Kurdish question so that Kurdish citizens can also stand up to PKK terrorism or will it continue with the proven failed policies through solely using security measures? What should be done to the Syrian refugees? What does CHP mean by saying the refugees have to go back to their country? What plans does CHP have to achieve this goal? Is it supporting the idea of forcefully establishing a security zone inside Syria by fighting against the Kurds? If not what is the formula to send the Syrians safely to their homes at their own free will? Where does CHP stand on our NATO relations? Has the CHP replaced its Cold War era dogmatic repulsion of American imperialism with a new approach to limit any US imperial moves in the region by contemporary methods of diplomatic cooperation, namely through re-establishing good relations with the US as well as EU members through bilateral and multilateral diplomacy? CHP is known to harbor genuine good feelings towards Russia keeping in mind the Soviet support to our war of independence. So how is CHP planning to resolve the present S-400 conundrum and how will our Russia relations be put on a right track if CHP chooses to enhance its position in NATO? These are questions occupying the minds of all the policy makers both in Turkey and abroad and the list is certainly not exhaustive.
In view of the above, the selection of the next Presidential candidate for the Party is secondary to preparing a well planned programme that will back up the hope Imamoğlu’s victory has aroused among the majority of the Turkish public.This programme should be carefully coordinated with the National Coalition partner and HDP as well as Saadet Party to make sure that this togetherness continues in the coming elections to ensure the well being of Turkey.
The former Economy Minister Ali Babacan’s party has been announced to be established this autumn and similar efforts are reported to be underway by Davutoğlu. If their projects come to existence, this will surely divide the votes of Erdoğan’s AK party. These personalities have been tested in the past. Majority citizens will question the merits of electing the same political figures whose policies have caused to bring Turkey to this difficult situation. So regardless of what effect these developments will have on AKP CHP should mind its own business and give priority to work on a post presidential election program that will ensure for our citizens to enjoy a normal civilized life. The members of the party council should explain this programme firstly to its party organization, then Kılıçdaroğlu should do the same to its prospective coalition partners including the new comers and then to the Turkish public, step by step and subject by subject without waiting until the next election. CHP’s success in forging a wider alliance would open the way to laying the strong foundations for irrevocable democratic and economic progress in Turkey. A new era for pursuing happiness by our citizens.
A western diplomat friend told me how happy he was to serve in our country. I remember him saying “ not a day passes without a breaking news not worthy of reporting to my capital. It is fascinating”. He had no doubts whatsoever about the democratic progress of our country despite the well known ups and downs. The latest elections proved him right.
The Turkish people is indeed fascinating.