By Dimitar Bechev
BY TURKEY’S standards of high drama and bombast, the presidential elections due August 10 and 24 come across as a rather dull affair. However, one thing we can be pretty certain about is that the incoming head of state who will be chosen directly for the first time will be Tayyip Erdoǧan. What’s still unclear is whether he wins outright or has to go forward to the second round on August 24. Either way, once Erdoǧan sets foot in Ankara’s Çankaya Palace, the questions will start piling up. Here are the main ones:
Is Turkey about to turn into a presidential republic with a quasi-imperial figure at the helm? Erdoǧan has never hidden his enthusiasm for the idea; he actually tabled proposals to that effect back in 2012. But a root-and-branch reform of the constitution is currently impossible in a parliament as deeply polarised as Turkey’s. Until a new Grand National Assembly is elected in the summer of 2015, Erdoǧan’s best bet would be to use his informal influence over the Justice and Development (AK) party to steer policies from the President’s office.
Who will replace Erdoǧan as prime minister? Abdullah Gül, whose presidential term is ending, has repeatedly said he’s not interested in a Putin-Medvedev type job swap. But perhaps it is not too late for him to reconsider – the price for his taking over the premiership could be Erdoǧan also handing him the chairmanship of the AKP. While it would cause friction in party ranks, it’s might be more risky to choose a low-key figurehead as prime minister who’s not a vote winner and who fails to deliver at the subsequent parliamentary election.
Whither the peace negotiations with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)? Erdoǧan has kept the process afloat through piecemeal concessions but if the presidential election goes to a second round he will badly need Kurdish votes. Anyway, support from Kurdish MPs will be necessary to alter the constitution. So the price tag for a switch to a presidential regime could be community status for the Kurds and perhaps devolution for the southeastern provinces.
How is President Erdoǧan going to handle Turkey’s already complicated relations with the outside world? He squandered much of his political capital in the West with the heavy-handed crackdown on last summer’s Gezi protests. What’s worse, he has developed a habit of casually blaming domestic crises on foreign interference. Both Gezi and the corruption scandal implicating top AKP officials were put down to a foreign-led conspiracy. Things don’t look good in Turkey’s neighbourhood either: from the downfall of Morsi in Egypt to the rise of ISIS next door in Syria and Iraq, Ankara has suffered setbacks. Yet, as the latest Israeli campaign against Gaza shows, the president-in-waiting is adept at using external challenges to score political points at home.
So is there anything the EU could – or should – do? EU accession negotiations have all but ground to a halt due to lack of support in key European capitals, the issues with Cyprus, and Ankara’s loss of interest. The once popular notion that Turkey and Europe could be partners in shared neighbourhoods from North Africa to the Caucasus has not fared much better. Yes, the EU does retain some of leverage. The prospect of Turkish citizens traveling visa-free to the Union, extended back in December, is a case it point but in truth both Brussels and Ankara now have little time for each other. Turkey is busy with its elections and its constitution while EU enlargement is at the bottom of the list for the new President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and most member states.
Both sides need to acknowledge the importance of their mutual ties: it’s in their interest to co-operate in key areas from finance to energy. Europe remains Turkey’s most significant trade partner and the source of up to 80 per cent of its foreign direct investment while Turkey is an alternative source of gas to the EU.
The reshuffle at the top in Turkish politics might be an opportunity as well as a threat. If Erdoǧan’s election to the presidency leaves more room for manoeuvre for technocrats and pragmatists in Ankara’s cabinet, Brussels will have an interlocutor. But if he chooses to concentrate even more power in his own hands and micromanage every issue – such as the Central Bank’s interest rates – there will be trouble ahead. It is up to both Turkey and the EU to nurture their relationship and, hopefully improve it one step at a time.
Dimitar Bechev is a former Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) specialising in EU enlargement, the politics of the Balkans, Greece and Turkey as well as EU-Russia and Euro-Mediterranean relations