by Ahmet Mehmet (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 9, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1443)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat to expel Western ambassadors and then backtrack on it reflects an identity crisis. It also exposes a political system with a poor strategy.
On October 23, Erdogan announced that he has ordered the expulsion of 10 Western diplomats who appealed for the release of a jailed civil society activist Osman Kavala. When he made his grandiose statement, there was expectation of an evaluation in the Crescent International. Our assessment was that Erdogan would not follow through this threat but we decided to wait and see how the situation develops.
Two days later, the US and other states issued a superficial and identically dry statement saying they respected the UN convention regarding non-interference by diplomats in the host country’s domestic affairs. This led the pro-Erdogan media into chest thumping and declared ‘victory’. The Turkish government immediately started backtracking.
For several years, Erdogan’s policies have been quite erratic. Since he came to power almost 20 years ago, the AKP government has tried to play both sides of the fence.
Erdogan wants to be NATO’s political and economic asset in the Muslim world while simultaneously trying to position himself as the vanguard of Islamic revival. The two goals are mutually exclusive and cannot be fulfilled by the persona-based system in Turkey.
Erdogan’s duplicity is best seen in his approach to Syria and Iraq where Ankara does not hesitate to embark on policies which lead to bloodshed and destabilization of the two neighboring countries. Yet, when it comes to NATO powers which have a long history of destabilizing Turkey, Erdogan and his government are all about diplomacy and timidity.
His latest backtracking will likely be utilized against him domestically.
One selling point of his government domestically has been that it stands up to Western regimes, a message which resonates well not only inside Turkey but also in the wider Muslim world. Nevertheless, the latest embarrassment Erdogan inflicted upon himself and his government clearly shows that his anti-imperialist stance is merely a facade with no substance.
Turkey is currently facing economic problems in addition to tense internal political interactions with opposition groups.
Erdogan’s primary narrative to the domestic Islamic oriented majority is that if he is ousted from power, militant pro-Western secularists will grab it and bring back the conditions of the 1980s and 1990s. His main selling point is essentially fearmongering.
The reality is that Turkey’s secularists have undergone a transformation since the 1980s and 1990s. For instanc, last year, Sevgi Kılıç became the first hijabi woman to be elected to the main opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP) assembly. Such phenomenon would have been unthinkable in the 1990s.
On the foreign policy front, CHP has adopted a much more Muslim and justice-based approach to Palestine. Again, this is quite different from its policy of three decades ago.
Islam is now part of the mainstream political discourse even among secular forces in Turkey. While it is a positive phenomenon for Muslims of Turkey, for Erdogan it signals an end to his political ascendancy. His government no longer has a unique selling proposition in political terms internally and externally.
In fact, the CHP can now claim that it can offer greater internal and external benefits to the people as their aim is to end Turkey’s quagmire in Syria. It will also improve economic relations with Western powers with whom they share an ideological common ground: secularism.
Erdogan has strained relations with Western regimes. It has cost Turkey economically. There appears to be no concrete strategic vision or policy beyond rhetoric and confused regional policies.
While Erdogan’s latest identity fluctuation does not mean imminent collapse of his government, it is unlikely to last beyond his tenure. To remain in power, the AKP as a political party and clan will need to distance itself from Erdogan’s legacy, which will split the party’s constituency and elites.
This process had already begun in relatively low-key fashion when former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former President Abdullah Gul began to challenge Erdogan openly. In fact, after Erdogan embarrassed himself with a grandiose announcement which he was not going to implement, Gul went to meet the ambassador of Finland, whom Erdogan was supposed to expel. This was a small but symbolically significant political diss towards his government.
The ambassadorial saga has also shown that Western regimes still see Erdogan as an acceptable “Islamist.” This partly explains why they offered him a small face-saving exit by issuing a statement that they acknowledge article 41 of the Vienna Convention. While this will extend Erdogan’s political life for while in strategic terms, he can no longer sell himself as an “alternative” politician to his constituency.
Zionist Israel’s May 10-21 war on Gaza war ended Erdogan’s prospects for positioning himself as a regional Muslim stateman. His inaction in the face of Zionist aggression was evident to all. And now the poorly thought-out bluff to expel Western diplomats has sealed his fate domestically as well.