Monday, June 27, 2011

Foreign policy implications of Turkish elections

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Washington, like many other capitals across the world, continued to discuss the impressive victory of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, throughout the week.
“I met [PM Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan twice and I would have also voted for him, if I could,” said Steven Cook, one of the Turkey observers, who recently raised many eyebrows in Ankara by his “Arab Spring, Turkish Fall” catchy article, in which he argued that the enormous change in the Arab countries proved that Ankara has no special insights into the region compared with the West, as the leaders of AKP argued for years.
Fifty percent of the vote, as would have given to any other administration, also gave a clear mandate and confidence to the AKP leadership. While across the Middle East, from Iran to Egypt, Morocco to Saudi Arabia, the regimes are bumping into all kinds of stability troubles, having concluded a fair and free elections, Turkey once more distinguished itself from the bunch and reminded all why Turkey matters so much to the Arab Spring.
Therefore, it can be argued that the June 12 election has not changed enough of the dynamics in Ankara to make us believe that Turkey will withdraw from its pro-active ambitions. Turkish activism has to continue and the static diplomacy of the Cold War is out of the question, most would argue, because of the location it occupies, the history it relates to and the largest economic clout in its region, regardless of any particular administration.
Erdoğan’s “balcony speech” on election night should have erased any doubts on this subject. Bülent Alirıza, the Turkey project director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, told me to pay attention to those victory greetings that were sent from Erdoğan to several cities in the region, and argued that Washington must have caught what all this universalist tone should encompass about Ankara’s future foreign policy desires.
Ankara’s attitude, when it comes to bloody crackdowns in Syria, became unusually aggressive as well. Ankara hosted the Syrian opposition figures, helped them to organize, condemned Damascus for its “savage” actions and opened its borders to thousands of refugees who are fleeing from Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless forces.
As if Ankara, with its outspoken demeanor toward the Assad regime, tries to erase some of the bad memories left behind from the Libya experience, during which Ankara was equally hesitant and unwilling to join to the international consensus to stop Moammar Gadhafi’s ferocious behavior. The U.S. State Department for the whole week has done nothing but praised Turkish open border policy and reiterated its support.
Erdoğan, while urging Assad to reform, has not chosen to isolate him yet. Richard Armitage, chairman of the American-Turkish Council, or ATC, and former deputy to the Secretary of State, while arguing this point over the phone also claimed that “the zero problem policy is now outdated by what is taking place in especially Syria.”
Even though Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu himself, in recent interviews, described the “zero problem policy” as not an absolute goal, but a mere struggle to change the old-state-mindset that considers “all neighbors as enemies,” the policy is widely understood and accepted as mainly as a stabilizer reflection of the Turkish foreign policy, in which Ankara prefers dictators over unstable democratic demands.
Another Turkey observer who argues that the change in the Arab world showed the limits of Turkish policy is Henri Barkey, at the Carnegie Endowment. According to Barkey, Turkey’s Middle East policies hit the wall with the Arab Spring. Barkey concluded in an interview that Turkish election results will not change much in the region because the Arab world itself is undergoing historic change, and Ankara like other capitals has no silver bullets to give any particular direction to a still much-unknown region.
According to the latest Gallup poll conducted in March-April in Egypt, Egyptians, overwhelmingly, want to create their own political path and are not in a mood to borrow from anyone else’s. Mohamed Younis, a senior analyst at the Gallup Center in Washington, argued this sentiment while sharing with me with the unpublished piece of the survey that relates to Turkey. According to this survey, only 2 percent cited Turkey as a political model for Egypt. On a side note, only 15 percent of Egyptians approve of Turkish leadership, 47 percent disapprove following the revolution.
Sunday’s elections proved how efficient and skillful the ruling party is. Erdoğan changed the rules of politics by increasing his party’s share in the votes for the third consecutive time and challenged the many widespread assumptions of old times.
A hundred years ago, the Ottoman Turkish Empire, under attack from Europe’s nationalistic sentiments in the preceding century, was at a breaking point while struggling to pay its foreign debt and to contain self-determinism.
A hundred years later, freedom, democracy and individual empowerment are the new rules of globalization, and Turkey this time around is positioning itself to reap the best long-term strategic advantages against its regional rivals, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, mainly because of its own democratic experience.
Finally, by writing and adapting a liberal, egalitarian and inclusive constitution, Turkey would guarantee to be driving aspirant of the more democratic region for years to come.
It is time Turkey cleaned its own house by setting the democratic standards much higher. If Erdoğan indeed leads such a process, as Cook said, “He can seal his place in history.”

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