03 November 2015

What's Next for Turkey?

A couple of months ago, I confessed to be puzzled by what is know as Erdogan's gamble, a strategy to polarize the country and to attack Kurds and their political representatives. It didn't make any sense to me and I asked if somebody could explain it to me.

Well, last Sunday's electoral results provided a clear explanation, thank you very much.

Clearly, Erdogan and his lieutenants know the Turkish and Kurdish voters better than me. The ruling AKP got one of every two votes cast and increased its support by an astounding 20 percent across the board. Even in Kurdish regions, AKP got respectable results proving that polarization and voter suppression constitute a viable solution.

This is the electoral map.

These results are also a partial answer to my other question regarding the governability of Turkey. With such a mandate, AKP will be able to implement its platform without any foot dragging from a coalition partner. In that limited sense, the results should be seen a positive development.

You see, a hung Parliament would have led to a political impasse or a civil war. As I stressed before, Erdogan would never have allowed an AKP-CHP coalition. There were already talks of a third election and probably serious carnage in the interim.

The only other option was an AKP-MHP government. Given their collective nationalistic tendencies and MHP's hatred of anything Kurdish, such a partnership would have led to large scale violence and potentially a civil war.

Having said that, there is a flip side to the governability issue. If AKP simply continues to goad the PKK and bomb Syrian Kurds, that is, act as if an ultranationalistic government was in place, Turkey will quickly become a ticking time bomb.

And the signs are not very good.

A day after the elections, Turkish fighter jets bombed many PKK positions in Northern Iraq. Security forces fatally shot three people in the predominantly Kurdish region of Turkey and in some towns like Silvan a curfew was imposed.

Clearly, the aim is not to destroy PKK. It this was possible, it would have been achieved in the last 40 years. The aim is to punish and terrorize the local populations. And to hope to weaken PKK to eventually negotiate with them from a position of strength, something I called the Netanyahu tactic in the past.

Unfortunately, this will not end well. PKK will retaliate and the whole thing will escalate rapidly with no clear winners.

Besides obstinately trying to vanquish the PKK, a very capable and experienced guerrilla outfit, Turkey seems to also want to attack its Syrian offshoot, the PYD. The problem is that the US is siding with PYD as they are the only "boots on the ground" that can help the Administration achieve its goals. They even sent Special Forces troops to coordinate these activities.

Bombing PYD, as Turkey did recently, will put them on a collision course with the US. And the State Department already announced that it would not allow Turkey to do that.

That is on top of the obvious threat posed by the massive Russian presence in Syria. PYD co-leader Salih Muslim recently stated that Russia will prevent Turkey from intervening in Syria.

If you are counting, that makes two superpowers willing to stop Turkey's Kurdish adventures.

As for Turkey's influence as a regional superpower, well, Iran was invited to Syria talks and Turkey was not.

Besides the Kurdish issue and the risk of escalating violence, there is the fundamental question of what to do with the economy. To put it simply, if the economy tanks, so will Erdogan's reputation as a comeback kid.

There two difficulties with the economy. One is the lack of qualified personnel among the AKP faithful to provide a coherent economic vision and to implement complex strategies. Ali Babacan, widely credited for AKP's past economic success, was a Gulen sympathizer and is likely to be sidelined. And there are no obvious replacements. As I mentioned previously, the graduates of Imam Hatip schools, like Erdogan himself, are not equipped to manage large bureaucracies or tackle tough issues.

The second problem is Turkey's growing isolation and its economic implications.

When Erdogan recently threatened Russia with economic sanctions, something interesting happened. Russia stopped issuing transit visas to Turkish trucks going to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Mongolia. That is a 2 billion dollar market gone overnight.

Then Gazprom rejected a Turkish request for an additional 3 billion cubic meters of natural gas for 2016. And announced that the capacity of the planned Turkish Stream gas pipeline will be reduced and its implementation postponed.

Russia continued to exert pressure by stiffening its inspections of Turkish foodstuffs and making border crossings more tedious. By rejecting tons of Turkish fruits and vegetables, Russia has been warning that it is capable of inflicting severe damage to Turkey’s exports.
Exports to the Commonwealth of Independent States (including Russia) are down 27.2 percent and to Russia alone the drop was 34.6 percent.

Besides Russia, Erdogan alienated many regional players and this has adversely affected Turkey's exports. For instance, Egypt refusal to renew its Ro-Ro deal with Turkey is a direct result of the animosity between Al-Sis and Erdogan and it is something that will hurt Turkey's exports..
Signed in March 2012, the agreement allows the use of Egyptian seaports for the transport of Turkish foodstuffs, electrical appliances and textile products to markets in the Gulf.
Turkish exports to the Middle East decreased by 7.22 percent in the first half of the year.

In fact, despite a weak currency, Turkey's exports plunged significantly this year.
Turkey’s foreign trade is navigating troubled waters. Despite a significantly weakened Turkish lira, exports have kept dropping over the past six months. According to the Turkish Exporters’ Assembly (TIM), exports stood at $73.26 billion in the first half of 2015, down 8.1% from the same period last year.
Actually, the decline was a staggering 19 percent in May. Overall, until October, exports shrunk by 8.6 percent.

Given this overall picture, the results are somewhat positive if they convince Erdogan to reduce his polarizing rhetoric, curb some of his authoritarian tendencies and return to the Kurdish peace process.

If, on the other hand, he continues his previous trajectory and feel emboldened by the results to do even more, Turkey will quickly find itself facing political violence and economic ruin.

And that, by definition, is an ungovernable country.

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