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The European Union and the New Turkey

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The final numbers aren’t in yet and not much is known about fraud at the ballot box or during counting, but one thing is clear: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now the all-powerful president of Turkey. During his five-year mandate, he will face virtually no checks and balances, reported Carnegie Europe.

EU leaders cannot avoid issuing a position on Turkey’s elections when they meet in Brussels on June 28-29. When forging a collective opinion (if any), four elements will be considered.

First, Turkey’s election campaign was as unfair as one could possibly imagine. It was conducted under a state of emergency and a new electoral law, which gave extended powers at both the provincial and the local level to influence campaigning, voting, and counting. Erdoğan used the means of the state, and he ended up being on television networks for a total of 181 hours compared with some 22 hours of airtime for his opponents combined. Opposition rallies were almost never broadcasted by mainstream channels, which are all in AKP-friendly hands.

Second, voting and vote counting operations did not escape a similar fate. This included ballot stuffing, batches of envelopes being substituted in the last minute and opposition observers being kicked out of voting stations. It is quite remarkable that voter turnout was 87 percent.

Then, when victory was quickly proclaimed, a dual message was issued by the president: let’s forget about the campaign and move on with the “new” Turkey. In short, don’t think of challenging the legitimacy of the vote. For the rest of the world, the message was even blunter: Turkey has given a lesson on democracy.

Third, Turkey is now an institutionalized autocracy, without any real checks and balances. The president will have no prime minister and will appoint one or several vice presidents and ministers without the parliament being involved. He will also have important powers in appointing judges. The country is on a different orbit than the EU. There is no way to reconcile its new style of governance with EU standards. There is no intention in Ankara to return to a system that is anywhere near these standards.

Fourth, Ankara will run a more Turkey-centered and nationalist foreign policy, all the more so that the nationalist party MHP secured an important number of seats in parliament and is even more indispensable to the AKP. It is obvious that a number of those AKP followers who voted for Erdoğan as president switched to the nationalist party MHP in the parliamentary elections. Nationalism made a solid advance. Consider the implications.

The United States will probably hear more acrimonious statements on the many issues where serious divergences already existed. The EU will continue to be criticized about Islamophobia and unfair dealings with refugees, visas, and the Customs Union.

In addition, Erdoğan’s reelection occurs at the very moment when the EU is grappling with yet another internal crisis—migration and asylum—where, short of a comprehensive agreement among the EU-28, the EU-Turkey deal is seen as a “model.”

The first EU reaction to Turkey’s elections was a prudent acknowledgement of the results and an expression of the need to urgently address key shortcomings regarding the rule of law and fundamental rights. The interesting aspect will be the tone that EU leaders use in acknowledging Erdoğan’s victory. The sorry experiences in of Berlin and The Hague last year and Paris in January will perhaps not induce much enthusiasm. They will express a clear will to continue working with Turkey, but effusive embraces are not in the mood as Turkish interferences in domestic EU politics are still on everyone’s mind.

In the short term, Turkey will organize its new power structure. Indications will come when those in charge of economic and monetary affairs are identified. The situation is dire: double-digit inflation, massive debt, a currency crisis, and—more importantly—an incomprehensible zero-interest rate policy very high on the president’s mind.

One of Erdoğan’s first major trips abroad under his new mandate will be to the NATO summit on July 11-12 in Brussels. There, important topics will surface, in particular the procurement of S400 missiles from Russia and the possible countermeasure from the U.S. Congress, which could block the delivery of F35 aircraft to the Turkish Air Force. Though not a NATO operation, the fight against ISIL in Northern Syria could also remain a bone of contention between Washington and Ankara.

It is unclear whether many bilateral meetings will be held in Brussels with EU leaders, but they are bound to be uneasy encounters between a triumphant Turkish leader and unhappy-cum-transactional EU leaders. The latter will have on their mind not only refugees and economic interests, but more importantly—at least for Belgium, France, and Germany—counterterrorism cooperation. After all, anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 returning jihadists with EU passports are currently on Turkish soil, and the declared ISIL strategy is to send them back to Europe as operatives in their countries of origin. Cooperation with Turkey is therefore a must.

In the longer run, the EU will have to make a judgement on the best policy-mix with Turkey. Given the total impossibility of going back to accession talks—a no-go for Berlin, Paris, The Hague, and Vienna—the options are the same few as before the elections: visa liberalization, Customs Union modernization, refugees, and counterterrorism. They are all difficult subjects. Despite that, the EU should continue to increase its support to human rights defenders, independent media, and civil society. This is probably an even more arduous task than before the election. If the EU believes in soft power, Turkey is the place. This country matters.

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To the utter despair of stoic defenders of “Western values,” Europe is now condemned to suffer two populist autocracies on its eastern borders: Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey, reported Asia Times (Thailand).

For the EU’s political leaders, the only accepted narrative is blanket, hysterical condemnation of “illiberal democracies” distorted by personal rule, xenophobia and suppression of free speech. And that also applies to the strongmen in Hungary, Austria, Serbia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

These EU leaders and the institutions that support them – political parties, academia, mainstream media – simply can’t understand how and why their bubble does not reflect what voters really think and feel.

Instead, we have irrelevant intellectuals mourning the erosion of the lofty Western mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission), investing in a philosophical maelstrom of historical and even biblical references to catalog their angst.

They are terrified by so many Darth Vaders – from Putin and Erdogan to Xi and Khamenei. Instead of understanding the new remix to Arnold Toynbee’s original intuition – History is again on the move – they wallow in the mire of The West against The Rest.

They cannot possibly understand the mighty process of Eurasia reconfiguration. And that includes not being able to understand why Recep Tayipp Erdogan is so popular in Turkey.

Sultan and CEO
Profiting from a large turnout of up to 85% and fresh from obtaining 52.5% of the popular vote – thus preventing a run-off – Erdogan is now ready to rule Turkey as a fascinating mix of Sultan and CEO.

Under Turkey’s new presidential arrangement – an Erdogan brainchild – a prime minister is no more, a job Erdogan himself held for three terms before he was elected as president for the first time in 2014.

Erdogan may be able to rule the executive and the judiciary, but that’s far from a given in the legislature.

With 42.5% of the votes and holding 295 seats, Erdogan’s AKP, for the first time in 16 years, lost its parliamentary majority and must now establish a coalition with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP).

The doomsday interpretation spells out a toxic alliance between intolerant political Islam and fascistic extreme-right – both, of course, hardcore nationalist. Reality though is slightly more nuanced.

Considering that the MHP is even more anti-Western than the AKP, the roadmap ahead, geopolitically, may point to only one direction: Eurasian integration. After all, Turkey’s perennially plagued EU accession process is bound to go nowhere; for Brussels, Erdogan is little else than an unwelcomed, illiberal, faux democrat.

In parallel, Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism has been given a reality check with the failure of his – and former Prime Minister Davutoglu’s – Syria strategy.

The Kurdish obsession though won’t go away, especially after the success of operations ‘Euphrates Shield’ and ‘Olive Branch’ against the US-backed YPG – which Erdogan brands as an extension of the dreaded PKK. Ankara now holds the previously Kurdish-dominated Afrin, and now, under a US-Turkey deal, the YPG must also leave Manbij. Even after giving up on “Assad must go”, Ankara for all practical purposes will keep a foothold in Syria, and is invested in the Astana peace process alongside Russia and Iran.

Take it to the bridge
Turkish politics used to be a yo-yo between the center-right and the center-left, but always with the secular military as puppet masters. The religious right was always contained – as the military were terrified of its popular appeal across Anatolia.

When the AKP started its political winning streak in 2002, they were frankly pro-Europe (there was no subsequent reciprocity). The AKP also courted the Kurds, who in their absolute, rural, majority were religiously conservative. The AKP and Erdogan even allied themselves with the Gulenists. But once they solidified their electoral hold, the going got much tougher.

The turning point may have been the repression of the Gezi Park movement in 2013. And then, in 2015, the pro-Kurdish – and left-wing – Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) started to emerge and capture votes from the AKP. Erdogan’s response was to fashion a strategy of mingling the Democratic Peoples’ Party with the PKK – as in “terrorists,” which is absurd.

Party leaders were routinely thrown in jail. For these latest elections, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş actually campaigned from jail, warning: “What we are going through nowadays is only the trailer of the one-man regime. The actual scary part is yet to begin.” Even facing myriad constraints, the HDP managed to get a significant 11.7% of the vote, or 67 seats.

“One-man regime” was actually solidified a good two years ago, after Gulenists in the military ended up launching the (failed) military coup. Erdogan and the AKP leadership are convinced the Gulenists received crucial help from NATO. The subsequent purge was devastating – hitting tens of thousands of people. Anybody, anywhere, from academia to journalism, criticizing Erdogan or the ongoing dirty war in eastern Anatolia, was silenced.

Turkish historian Cam Erimtan stresses how Erdogan defended the necessity of anticipated elections by invoking “historic developments in Iraq and Syria” that have made it “paramount for Turkey to overcome uncertainty.”

Erimtan characterizes the so-called “People’s Alliance” of the AKP with the MHP as the “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis” of the 21st century, pointing how “the AKP base is large and fully convinced of the fact that the current systemic change is on the right track and that the return of Islam to Turkish public life was long overdue.”

So, “illiberal” or otherwise, the fact is a majority of Turkish voters prefer Erdogan. The European dream may be over – for good. Relations with NATO are fractious. Neo-Ottomanism is a minefield. So Eurasian integration seems the sensible way to go.

Relations with Iran are stable. Energy and military relations with Russia are paramount. Turkey can invest in economic projection across Central Asia. Russia and China are luring it into joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Erdogan may finally be able to position Turkey as the essential bridge between the New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the West.

That’s a much better deal than trying to join a club that doesn’t want you as a member. “Illiberal democracy”? Who cares?

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