Carnegie held a media call on Turkey’s election that will take place on August 10. Listen to the call here.
Nick Parrott: Hi, good afternoon to those of you in Turkey and Brussels and good morning to those of you in the U.S. I’m Nick Parrott, deputy director of communications at Carnegie. I’m very pleased to introduce Sinan Ülgen and Marc Pierini today.
Sinan and Marc are both visiting scholars at Carnegie Europe and they’re joining us from Istanbul and France respectively today. Before we get started, please can I ask you when you’re not speaking to mute your lines, either using star 6 or the mute button on your phone, and this conversation is on the record.
So I will kick off with a couple of questions and then then open the floor to others. So Sinan, could you start us off by talking about how you see the state of the race today and what you expect for a likely Erdogan presidency and how that will unfold domestically after the election?
Sinan Ülgen: Sure, welcome everybody on this call. The interesting thing about the presidential race in Turkey is that there really is no uncertainty about this outcome. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Erdogan will win. He will, according to the latest polls, most likely win on Sunday where he is expected to receive more than 50 percent of the vote.
So really the big question about this is what happens next in terms of who is going to replace Erdogan as the prime minister and also as the head of the party. This is really the big question that will determine the short-term evolution of Turkey’s politics. Now it’s not that easy to answer this question because here Erdogan is in a quandary in the sense that what he wants to do, he has certainly made no secrets that he is not going to be a laid back president.
He will make use of every competence and even more. So he wants to continue to be involved in the running of the country, so that in a way he wants to be both president and prime minister at the same time. So for him to be able to do that, however, he will need a loyal and malleable prime minister after him. However, that is at odds with his second ambition which is to create a large enough majority parliament after the 2015 parliamentary elections so that he can push for a constitutional change, conforming to this presidential system in Turkey.
In order for him to be able to reach this objective we need somebody at the head of the party who is an astute, charismatic politician in his own right, because that’s the only way that he can get a successful outcome in the 2015 election. And these two objectives aren’t really compatible with each other because if his running mate is somebody who has his own political personality, let’s take the example of Gül, for instance as the former – or the current President, then that person will gradually try to stave off Erdogan’s influence and expand his own authority of the party, and therefore that would in a way – it would not allow Erdogan to continue to rule the way that he wants. So that’s essentially Erdogan’s quandary and that’s really what we’re trying to understand here in order to be able to estimate, forecast the near future of Turkish politics.
So it’s clear that Erdogan is going to win. It’s much less clear who is going to replace him because the person that will replace him will have actually a very challenging path ahead of him, which is they need to establish a good working relationship with Erdogan, who is going to be the president, two, to have a degree of control over AK PARTI, which is much easier said than done, and three, lead a successful election campaign, given that the parliamentary elections are just nine months away.
Parrott: Sure, thank you, Sinan, and turning to Marc, perhaps you can start with just giving a sense of how you see the international importance and its likely international implications of the election results?
Marc Pierini: Yes, welcome everybody. Well yes, first of all this election will illustrate a very different reading of Turkish politics whether you’re in Turkey or outside. If you take a Western perspective on the election, of course you will recognize at once the full charisma, the AKP social economic achievement, but also you have to conclude that a majority of people don’t care too much about corruption allegations. People buy conspiracy theories and the opposition doesn’t want really to fight.
So that is, in itself, even before you start having a new president and a new government, a somewhat strange conclusion that Western countries will take. Now of course in the assumption that Erdogan wins what we’re going to have is the beginning of a new era. Turkey will be the uncomfortable bedfellow of its traditional Western partners; one, because it has a fluctuating foreign policy. You’ve seen that on Syria for the past five, six years, you’ve seen that recently with Israel and Gaza.
Secondly, it has a Turkey-centered foreign policy with a lot of religious ingredients and a tendency to forget formidable elements, mistakes made with Egypt, for example, and other countries. Third, you have EU values now turning into an impediment towards Erdogan’s objectives. An almighty presidency implies providing this clause, implies keeping the rule of the role back as it has been for the past few months. So all of this is of course – and of course media restraints—so all of this is not EU compatible.
And finally, despite all this, you have a Turkey which is heavily relying on NATO for its security umbrella. So it is going to be a very difficult relationship in my view.
Parrott: Thanks, Marc. Thank you both. Sinan, you touched on how you see Erdogan likely to use the full authority that he has in the position of the presidency. Could you just talk a bit more about how you see this more powerful presidency being used?
Ülgen: Yes, sure. There is a short-term and a long-term plan. The long-term plan is, depending on the outcome of the 2015 elections, getting enough support in parliament so as to change the constitution and formally introduce the presidential system. That’s the long-term plan.
The short-term – well now if you like, it’s gonna be quite difficult to do this because the constitutional purity is a potential hurdle and – and I don’t think that likely the AK PARTI will get that sort of support in the next election. The short-term platform really is to operate as a de facto executive president until both elections which potentially means that Erdogan will use some arcane, and never-used provisions of the constitution to really stretch the limits of his – of his competence.
One example is a provision which was introduced by the military elections in [static noise] the constitution which allows the president, seeing how it was to be militarily-run initially, for the president to have a meeting of the cabinet. That provision has never been used. It hasn’t even been used by the first – when the military candidate ran who headed the first – or became the president.
Now Erdogan says he will use probably this, so he has the intention to chair cabinet meetings, at those meetings, the head of the executive. Now that’s really, again, a provision that – within the constitution, but he was saying was put there for very exceptional circumstances. He was going to make it a regular happening. So these are the things that he will be in the meantime, to extract his influence over the executive until the outcome of the 2015 election, and that’s also why we need somebody because of the policy which will block the June 4 for Erdogan, to allow him to do these type of politics. And that’s the reason why there is Gül, which has been noted as the next prime minister, is not Erdogan’s first choice because with Gül at the head of the government, Erdogan knows that he will not be able to operate the way that he wants.
Parrott: Sure, thank you. Please, questions?
Reporter: Could you please elaborate on the role of Turkey under Erdogan at the regional level because then they’re gonna be fighting ISIS for example, and let us talk about Turkey supporting ISIS in the region; particularly elaborate on that.
Parrott: Marc, do you want to take that first?
Pierini: Yes, yes, indeed. Well, we are in a strange situation now because Turkey’s foreign policy in the past few years under the title of zero problems neighbors in fact produced no real friends, except in the Kurdish regional government. But in Western perception the problem is that there has been an open-door policy for Jihadists to work here and Iraq, and this is now backlashing. So we still have a – and there is backlashing also on Turkey because you have at least 1,000 Turkish fighters in this Islamic state.
You have now renewed fighting between the_____ and the Islamic state, and of course you have the spillover on Lebanon. I think Erdogan’s luck in all of this, despite these huge speculations in policy and this lack of consistency if you want is that the region is on fire, and Turkey appears in relative terms as an island of peace and prosperity. Therefore, there is still, although there is a lot less confidence in Turkey as compared as let’s say four or five years ago, there will still be a sort of heavy reliance on Turkey. We’ll see that probably during the NATO summit in a few weeks’ time but probably with a lot of precautions because considering the situation and the policy of Turkey in Syria and Iraq, there has been a lot of discomfort in Western countries with what has been done.
There is now at least one positive element which is fighting Jihadists with anti-Jihadists. We saw there some tiny, tiny results appearing in counter-terrorism terms but at the same time what has been done has been done, and as you know some of the people in the Islamic state are claiming that they wouldn’t be where they are without Turkey’s support. So there are a lot of misgivings in Western terms. There will be cooperation with Turkey but I would say starting with a long haul.
Reporter: Thank you.
Parrott: Thank you. Other questions?
Reporter: Yeah. I was wondering if I could continue on the foreign policy theme and ask if you see any change or warming regarding Turkey’s relationship with Israel.
Pierini: Well as we speak it’s very difficult to see any of this. As you know for the past three years or so Turkey’s diplomacy has worked very hard to get to the point that there will be an apology and reconciliation, compensation, and so on and so forth, but of course for the sake, at least of the electoral campaign now there has been on the part of Erdogan very heavy Israel bashing.
How do you – I mean with terms that you’ve seen yourself, so very difficult to see how a normalization -- I’m not saying a reconciliation, but a normalization of diplomatic relations to – up to a kind of regular level would be possible, and certainly the point at which the Erdogan narrative has gone implies that it’s not going to happen any time soon.
Parrott: So, Sinan, do you want to add anything to either of those last questions?
Ülgen: Yes, perhaps just a few additional comments on what Marc has said. In relation to the Islamic state there certainly has been a policy reversal on the Turkish side. The policymakers of course initially having supported a call of action in Syria in order to accelerate regime change. Now there is a reassessment and increased awareness of the risks that these actions represent in Turkish interests, and especially after the ISIS attacked the Turkish and took 45 Turkish diplomats that are hostage in Mosul.
Also there have been pressure on the side of Turkey partners in the West to ensure that their control of the border, there is and there ae steps taken to do exactly that with the numbers of foreign nationals who will not be able to cross Turkish borders now, having increased to more than 5,000. So there certainly are a number of measures being taken. Turkey is very much aware of the risks posed by ISIS but one reason why the rhetoric is not as critical is essentially because of the hostages.
That situation remains unresolved. It’s now been almost two months. The government imposed a media ban on this issue essentially because they viewed it as an issue that could have undermined their popularity in Turkey, so their being able to be able to discuss more and more. So that – it’s that particular aspect of it is under in any event, but that certainly doesn’t make the problem go away. There was an expectation that these hostages might have been released before the election, but they would not in all likelihood. ISIS will use them as a strategic leverage against Turkey and there is no reason why they should let them go anytime soon, and that would gradually start to hurt the government, as long as they are not being able to gain the release of those hostages.
On Israel, as Marc said, there really has been an effort to negotiate this new level to permit the normalization of the relationship. That deal was at the diplomatic level and it was awaiting the approval of the heads of governments, but now of course, at the minute, it is totally off the table after Gaza and it probably will take some quite dramatic changes in Israel’s posture after the ceasefire for any sort of normalization to happen.
Pierini: I would like to add one element here to both what Rita asked and Michael. The implication of the current situation in Iraq is also that, by a strange turn of events, Turkey’s interest seems to be to have a more and more autonomous Kurdistan regional government, if not an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, which would have been only a few years back and entire taboo in Turkish political terms, but now it turns out that an independent Kurdistan might be the best ever buffer zone for Turkey, if any state is going to stay.
Reporter: Thank you.
Parrott: Thanks, other questions?
Reporter: Going back to domestic policy and going back to the presidential election with Erdogan. We say that he is a much powerful person in Turkey and he, in his remarks, made it very clear that he infinitely intends to remain so, and Sinan talked about provisions that the other presidents preferred not to exercise but Erdogan, again, sounded keen to. But do you think that would be enough to maintain his image as the most powerful person in Turkey? Because when he takes the presidential oath, he would also made clear that he will not have any political affiliation with any party and will not be, you know, part of the active politics. So how do you think that’s coming to light, especially for the constituents – for his constituency before 2015 elections?
Parrott: Sinan, do you want to take that first?
Sinan: Yeah, I’ll handle that. We – what we have seen in Turkey in recent political history is that time is against Erdogan. Previously we have two examples where leaders, very strong leaders: one is Sezer and the other one is Demirel who went on to become presidents, and as much as they wanted to keep their influence over the party, they lost it because essentially as you likely said the current constitution stipulates that the president has to be, with all of the political party game he has to be impartial, so he has to resign from his party and so on. And that, in a way gradually tends to undermine the political influence that the new president has in his relationship with his party.
Now I don’t know if they’re much aware of this certainly, so what he will do is he will be able to stretch the limits of the constitution and trying to conserve, maintain his influence over the party. One interesting question, for instance, is what he will do to help out the election campaign during the parliamentary elections in 2015.
Now under the current constitution he is not supposed to do anything because he cannot be seen to be favoring one political party over the other, but if that’s how Erdogan will behave, I have my doubts. He probably won’t be able to go up the way that he was doing as head of the party and make all the election features. But he will also not stay as impartial as the constitution stipulates. So in that sense he will stretch the limits of the constitution and with a degree of almost impunity. Nick Parrott: Sure. Other questions?
Reporter: Yes, I just want to know if you could elaborate more on the Turkish who are supporting ISIS. You said that you have thousands of Turkish fighting within ISIS. Is there any other Turkish support?
Pierini: Well it’s difficult to assess them but there are – I mean there has been quite a number of stories and strong evidence. The evidence is that the border with Syria wasn’t controlled for a long time and, if you remember, Foreign Minister Davutoglu said, “How do you want me to control tourists on the border?” But if you ask any journalists who have been traveling to Hatay or Gaziantep from Istanbul they will say this is the Jihad express, and you can recognize actions from Tunisia, from other places in the Arab world, or from Chechnya, and so on, and so forth.
So it’s been a constant flow back and forth of Jihadists for a very long time, and despite Western complaints about it, Turkey hasn’t done anything. This is not actually support in itself but still it is something that Western counties have been worrying about for quite some time, and cooperation has only started about that a few months ago, a few weeks ago, with some results for example, last week, with a French worker and Jihadist who was expelled from Istanbul by the Turkish authorities and arrested on arrival in Paris.
Now the United States’ allegation, providing arms and so on, and so forth, what is worrying now is that because, as you know, the Islamic state has adopted a very media-oriented attitude; web sites and Twitter, and this and that as well, then are claiming that they wouldn’t be where they are without active Turkish support, which of course is completely denied by the Turkish foreign ministry. So all of this leaves a trail of, you know, discomfort on the Western side and I think the alarm bell is that now you have regionally Jihadists in Turkey, as you have in Belgium or France, or the U.K. or the U.S., and that is a very, very – potentially a very disparaging factor for the Turkish authority.
So I think, despite all affinities or enmities with Assad and so on, and so forth, Turkey is bound to be much more careful in what happens along the border. Nick Parrott: Thanks, we’ve only got time for one or two more quick questions.
Reporter: Hi, can I ask a question? I was just curious as to where you guys see the next challenge coming to Erdogan so far. You know, it has – it has come up from unexpected places like Gezi in the December 17 corruption scandal. Do you think we’ll see something more traditional like a political split in AKP or is there anything you anticipate from the constitutional accord, or any other players or economical offerings that you think could further challenge for him as he goes up to the presidency?
Pierini: Well I would say the first challenge is the composition of the interim government after August 28 because there, whether you have Ali Babacan in the new government or not, and a few other figures will give a signal that can be positive or immensely negative to the international markets, and as we all know, Turkey relies on short-term money, relies on mostly European and foreign direct investment, relies on foreign trade, and Turkey has a very fragile economy because of the structural deficit.
So the signals that will be given on the day after the inauguration in the composition of the government is clearly, for me, the biggest danger in Turkey. Some would even say that Babacan not being in the government would result in an immediate drop of the currency. We shall see but certainly the fight we have seen about the independence of the central bank and things like that pointing to sort of populist economic policy are not boding very well for the immediate future. We shall see.
Ülgen: Yes, I think the – to Henry’s point the economy will be the area where Erdogan will find – or will be faced with increased difficulties, and also when you look at the type of people that he’s likely to enter the cabinet, especially if Babacan is gone, more secure economics but also the debt future of ¬¬____ and ____, are not the type of people that we feel confident in markets. And therefore it’s gonna be increasingly difficult for the new cabinet, especially if it’s also influenced by Edrogan’s thinking around their -- on the economy to control any sort of downward spiral in the economy.
This is where I feel we may try to keep stability because the ability of the new government, especially people like Babacan and Shishek are not part of the new government, to be able to manage any sort of external shock to the economy. Their instincts are in the wrong places.
Pierini: Yeah, I agree.
Parrott: Thanks both. One last question from somebody?
Reporter: I just want to push a little bit further and ask, regarding Iraqi Kurdistan and what sort of relationship, Erdogan ultimately does desire with the region, and is it that an autonomous – largely autonomous as it is now or totally independent, and what motivates this beyond the desire for a buffer zone with ISIS?
Marc: Well I think the policy on the shelf is still, one, Iraq policy, much like the United States or the European Union, but at the same time we have signals coming out of AKP that, after all, we have not broken Iraq. Iraq is disintegrating by itself. So we will have, at one point, to accept this new reality, et cetera, et cetera.
I think so far what you see is some sort of discreet or not so discreet maybe help from Turkey to KRG, to export oil. We have by now I think it is six tankers that have gone out; some to Israel, some to the U.S., but with acrobatic methods, but still it’s helping KRG, and you still have trade, construction and so on, going on. I think Turkey is more or less a spectator here. It’s not going to be Turkey to decide whether there is still a united Iraq or not. Turkey will just have to adjust to the reality probably, much as the U.S. and the EU will have to. In that context if Iraq continues to disintegrate, and I see a trend here, quite clearly it will be in Turkey’s interest and probably in the West’s interest to have an Iraqi Kurdistan that can stand no its own feed and defend itself against the Israeli state.
And the past few days, you know, have not been really reassuring about it. The Islamic state has made progress, the ____ have been fighting back. The Syrian Kurds have been uniting forces with Tashnagers but all of that is still very uncertain. So it may turn out that Turkey has no choice in the end than supporting an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, but again, it will not be Turkey’s choice. It will be Iraq’s choice as a whole, and then probably Turkey will follow what the U.S. and the Europeans will do.
Parrott: Thanks, Marc.
Pierini: I think these situations show that the sort of dream of an autonomous Turkish leadership in the region are gone. That is not in the realm of possibilities anymore.
Parrott: Thank you very much both. Thank you everybody for joining, and if you have further questions either before the election or after please reach out to my colleague, Clara Hogan, who can link you up with Marc and Sinan who are both around and happy to continue talking. So thank you very much and have a good day.