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What do you expect to happen in the elections? Do you see light at the end of the tunnel, do you predict easier or tougher times, and why?
It’s a great question. I think that there has been so much commentary over the winter and early spring about what’s going to happen in Turkey. And my experience has been that what you say about an election in Turkey three months before it’s going to happen, very often doesn’t actually pan out and that we really need to see things two, three weeks ahead of time.
A number of weeks ago, many of my interlocutors were very enthusiastic about the Nation Alliance and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy and the agreement that the Table of Six had hammered out.
I think as time has gone on, people become much more pessimistic about his chances and what President Erdogan has up his sleeve in order to secure yet another victory, given the fact that it really has become his prime directive to be reelected, once again, and to be the President on the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic.
So I’m going to avoid making any prediction other than to suggest that it is going to be hard going, a very tough election campaign through May 14, and that I have a very hard time, I will maintain this, and this is something I’ve been saying for a long time, I have a very hard time imagining that President Erdogan gives up his office freely and willingly if you were to lose in a free and fair election.
We have a number of cases, Trump who tried to stay on, Bolsanaro who tried to stay on, and then we have Erdogan who people suspect will try to stay on. Of those three, Erdogan has more resources at his disposal in order to make that happen. People need to be very concerned and aware of that.
Let’s say for a second, if the opposition wins and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu becomes the President: I don’t buy the rainbows and a return to democracy and prosperity and NATO alignment argument. I think it’s going to be much, much more difficult for Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
I wonder about the way in which the AKP has bent and twisted Turkey’s institutions and how difficult it will be for even people with good intentions to undo that, and whether politicians will find that those institutions as they are actually serve their interests, even if they made a big deal about returning the country to democracy. So so I’m, as usual, deeply pessimistic about whichever scenario.
Skeptical, I would say…
There’s been a number of flowery pieces about Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and the thinking about what would happen afterwards. I think those are all real best case scenarios. And as we know, best case scenarios rarely, rarely happen.
But what are you specifically concerned about? The election fraud, rigging, or unwillingness to leave power…unleashing all the instruments at hand?
Yes, that’s what I’m most worried about. If you take 2019 local elections as an example, Erdogan did try to fix it in Istanbul, and he was unable to. The good news is that the Turks have truly internalized the many many decades of voting and that they believe that it is very, very important.
I think that it’s entirely possible that Erdogan loses, but refuses to lead and make some cases about how he actually won, Trump like. And then as I said, he has more resources at his disposal than either Trump or Bolsonaro in order to stay on.
He’s done more damage to Turkey’s political institutions, and more people’s power, influence, and wealth are dependent upon continued Erdogan rule in the AKP that it strikes me that he can pull it off.
So I’d say the top of my worry list is Erdogan trying to stay on, even if he loses. The second on my worry list is that if Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu actually wins and Erdogan does leave, again, a scenario I’m skeptical of, is that the opposition and cheerleaders and people just in general’s expectations of what Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and the opposition, that would beat then the government, what they can do will be a mismatch and it will create instability. Of course, you’ll have a vengeful and politically adept opposition in the AKP at that moment also. So those are the two main things that worry me going forward.
You foresee a long time of instability, perhaps, if not chaos in the long term?
I hate to use the word chaos, but I definitely see the possibility of instability in Turkey as a result of these elections. It’s something that I’ve been banging my shoe on the table about for some time in conversations with people from the Biden administration, members of Congress and others, saying: Look, you have to watch out for these things. There are a number of possible outcomes in the elections.
And the best case scenario, again, people are focused on; people are really energized after the “Table of Six” (opposition bloc) repaired the rift with morale action, and came up with an agreement. People were really energized by that. I think there’s been a lot of talk in Washington about this without the proper skepticism, without the proper acknowledgement, that there are a range of outcomes here and that we should pay careful attention to the ones that don’t seem – because we’re caught up in things – don’t seem to be obvious ones. A
Also, I’m not entirely convinced of the democratic credentials of the opposition. Maybe Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu genuinely is a Democrat. Maybe. But I’m not entirely convinced as others are.
Is it because the opposition is so fragmented?
I think that these coalitions that are put together that are based on opposition to a single person tend to fragment over time. If you read that platform from the national lines, it’s just a grab bag of stuff for everyone. There’s no real coherent vision for the future: It’s just what the party wants. It’s what this party wants. It’s not coherent.
So, what happens is you get rid of the boogeyman and then everything deteriorates into internal fighting. We saw that in Israel. Why should Turkey be any different? Then again, there is the question is how can the opposition overcome these differences? It’s very, very difficult to imagine that they will.
Do you predict or are you suspicious of any potential intervention by Moscow into the elections?
Well, certainly it makes sense that the Russians would want to intervene. They’ve been very successful in sort of stretching Turkey and pulling it in a way that creates tension within NATO. Because it seems that they’ve invested in President Erdogan, they’d like to see an Erdogan win.
I have heard Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu say that he firmly wants to place Turkey within NATO and the West. But even, of course, when the “non -AKP parties” were in charge in Turkey, there was always often a difficult relationship between Turkey and NATO.
Still, I think that from the Russian perspective, and I’m not an expert on Russia, just observing these things, President Putin and President Erdogan have established a good working relationship. And why would Moscow want to undermine that? So, intervention seems entirely plausible.
You have just given me some hints about what the mindset in Washington, DC about the upcoming elections are. Can you elaborate a little bit more on that?
I think the Biden administration has been very, very quiet. They have not wanted to hand anybody anything that they can use for electoral advantage. Members of Congress, particularly after recent events in which there was a Turkish drone strike on the airport in Sulaimaniyah, an attempt, apparently, to kill General Mazloum of SDF, in which there are Americans present, is going to create lots of tension between Congress and Turkey. You’re going to see a lot of discussion about it, and this will play into the elections.
For a long time, Congress has been in a punitive mood with regard to the Justice and Development Party. What concerns me is that, particularly in Congress, there is this view that if Kılıçdaroğlu and the Nation Alliance were to win, that things would go back to the way they were. And there is no going back to the way they were because the way they were never really existed! Turkey was never a consolidated democracy. It was never prosperous in the way that people imagined it was. It was never as aligned with NATO as people make it out to be. The administration probably has a much more sober view of what is happening, which is why it’s been so quiet and wanting to avoid doing anything that anybody could use for their electoral advantage.
The issues between Turkey and the United States, such as the F 16s and also the headaches created with Sweden and Finland, their bid to enter NATO. The Finland part is resolved, but not Sweden, which seems to be dragging on, etc. On another level, we see also certain moves in Turkish foreign policy; attempts to soften relations with Egypt and particularly, post-earthquake era, there seems to be a softening of relations between Turkey and Greece. There’s talk about a months long moratorium over the Aegean, regarding overflights and certain signs of softening with Armenia, etc. How should we read into that? Aren’t they some positive signs? Even if they are, what do they mean? How seriously should they be taken?
It’s part of a broader effort on the part of Ankara to break out of the regional isolation that it put itself in as a result of pursuing a kind of needlessly aggressive foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the Middle East, in the Caucuses. It really was an investment that had very little returns for Turkey.
And then, layer onto that, Turkey’s ongoing economic crisis. First, the Turks found that they needed the wealthy Gulf states to invest in them, to engage in currency swaps, to bring an end to isolation from Gulf partners who can be investors. Then bringing the isolation, warming relations between Israel and Turkey.
I think the calculation there was very clear, that if relations with Israel improved, relations between Ankara and Washington would improve. I don’t think that that actually is really the case. That was a misreading of the situation. It comes from a world view that unfortunately sees Jews as being more influential than they really are in Washington policy making circles.
Whereas relations between Israel and Turkey have warmed, you do have remaining problems with the United States. And then, of course, the outreach to Egypt is really an effort to actually create differences between Egypt and Greece, and Egypt and Cyprus. Those relationships have flowered and the Egyptians have held tight on a number of demands that they’ve had.
But there have been improvements in Turkey’s situation in the region. That’s to the benefit of everyone. But I don’t think it figures so much at this point into what’s going to happen in mid-May. The policy ran its course. And at some point, President Erdogan just decided to terminate. All the evidence before him would suggest that whoever he was listening to about this needlessly aggressive foreign policy, or even if he was keeping his own counsel, that it really did not serve Turkey’s interest.
There’s, though, another part of that story, developing story, is the confirmed attack on Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, reportedly in a convoy where there were US officers as well. This is the second time he was subjected to an assassination attempt. The event followed the visit by Mike Milley, top commander of the U.S.A. – and also the CENTCOM commander. What do we read into this? Can it be said that the Erdogan government has chosen Syria as the soft spot to instrumentalize that part for the elections?
I think that there is very little electoral downside to killing General Mazloum or trying to kill General Mazloum. I also think that there’s very little downside to Americans being in the way and potentially getting hurt or even killed in the process from the perspective of electoral politics in Turkey. There’s a deep reservoir of anti-Americanism in Turkey, particularly related to, of course, it predates it, but particularly related to the American relationship with the SDF or the YPG, the People’s Protection Unit. Turks feel this very, very strongly.
This is not one of these things that is manufactured by the AKP. So, it strikes me that if they were to… That yes, you’re right. I think Syria is the soft spot. Had it not been for the earthquake, you would see increasing tension in the Aegean. It was obvious that Greece and Cyprus and Syria were going to be targets in the run-up to the election.
But the earthquake happened and so the Turks have backed off, given the extensive help that the Greeks offered to Turkey. So now the focus is on Syria. The (U.S.A) administration has been so far very, very quiet about what happened. But like I said, now that Easter is over, powerful members of Congress are going to have something to say about this.
So, it’s one of these short-term gain things for, potentially for the Turkish government against the long term pain of having more difficulties with Congress, more roadblocks to F-16 sales, more roadblocks to getting back into the F-35 program, which is every Turkish official who has come through Washington in the last six months has said, it’s unfair: “The punishment does not fit the crime. We need to get back in the F-35 program”.
All these things really set back relations between Congress and Turkey. I suspect had there not been an election looming in Turkey, the administration would have something to say very strongly about what has happened. But again, I think the administration, quite correctly, has decided that anything they say may be used for one party or another’s electoral advantage. So, it’s better to just be quiet.
In a month or so, there will be 10th anniversary of Gezi protests, landmark event, of course, and it’s been a decade since then. And also it’s, the centennial of the Turkish Republic. How do you think Turkey has stumbled and tumbled into this massive crisis in its centennial?
I think that Turkey has fallen into this crisis of autocracy or elected authoritarianism for a variety of complex reasons. I think that some of the kind of central dramas of Turkish politics have never been resolved.
When you go back to the early period of the AKP, and you see how the Turkish establishment tried to prevent the Justice and Development Party from governing the country.
This is a tremendous source of debate amongst Turkish observers. Was this the plan all along that Erdoğan was never a democrat, he was always going to do this? And I think advocates of that position have a lot of evidence to support that argument. And there are others like myself who look it and saw that history is being too contingent and that the Justice and Development Party had undertaken serious reforms, they didn’t complete the reforms but they had done enough to get into the European Union to begin negotiations to join the European Union.
Then there were a series of events: the Ergenekon, the closure case, the attempt to prevent Abdullah Gül from becoming president because his wife wears a headscarf. I think that convinced Erdogan and others within the AKP that the traditional elite in Turkey was never going to allow them to govern, and the answer to that was to apply force and coercion and bend and hollow out institutions to the AKP’s advantage, and what you have essentially is an authoritarian state with procedural elections.
It is political and societal issues that have never been resolved and Erdogan pursuing a policy of polarization, divide and conquer, is where you have Turkey a few months shy of its 100th anniversary.
What is your most likely scenario for the elections, whats on the top of your list? What do you expect?
I never count Erdogan out. There are a number of countervailing things. Never count Erdogan out. He could win. I think it’s entirely possible that they can recover and dig out a victory. They can rig it enough, or I think the possibility that it’s clear that he loses and doesn’t leave, and claims a victory. I think those two things are quite possible. A clean Kılıçdaroğlu opposition victory is the least likely scenario.