Turkey’s president to endorse a double-track approach toward EU

Turkey’s president to endorse a double-track approach toward EU

“From Beirut to Tripoli, in many areas in the Middle East, Arabs have been campaigning on social media for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,” Janna Jabbour told France 24. 

“Why? Because for many in the Middle East, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan represents a hope to balance relations between the East and West. He is the leader to stand up to the West to say that the Middle East and Muslims are not subjugated by imperialist Westerners,” she added. 

The polling companies’ research in the coming days will show us whether the conservative/nationalist/pious bloc in Turkey’s rural areas have voted for Erdoğan for the same reasons that Arabs have been campaigning for him. Whether they have voted for this or that reason, there is no question that Erdoğan’s Europe-bashing politics has appealed to that bloc’s sentiments. After all, those regions do not suffer directly from deteriorating relations with Europe; neither when there is a drop in economic activity nor when there is a drop in the number of incoming tourists. 

At any rate, it appears that Erdoğan personally enjoys around 40 percent of his core support base. In the absence of any other charismatic leader to challenge him, this core is ready to support him in a blindfolded way, whether he adopts a pro- or anti-EU rhetoric.

Yet, by pushing for a change from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency, Erdoğan might have complicated his political life. In the past, 30 percent of the votes were enough to land him as prime minister. In fact, it was with 25.9 percent of the votes that Erdoğan became the mayor of Istanbul in 1994, which became a major turning point in his political career. Now, he needs 50 percent plus one vote to be elected in the next presidential elections, which are expected to take place in 2019. 

The slight margin of “yes” votes must have shown Erdoğan that while he can count on the votes of the conservative/nationalist/pious block in rural areas, the same does not apply for part of the same bloc residing in urban areas. It is clear that the defection is not limited to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). There is a significant defection from traditional AKP voters, otherwise how could the low “yes” votes in AKP strongholds like Istanbul’s Eyüp, Üsküdar and Fatih neighborhoods be explained. Why have traditional AKP voters said no? Was it the rejection of the presidential system, or resentment toward the way Erdoğan has been ruling the country; or both?

In order to keep the 40 percent support base intact, Erdoğan might opt to keep his anti-West rhetoric. But how about the shaky floating 10 percent he needs to secure to get elected?

Can he say in confidence that “Those who were sceptic about the merits of the presidential system will come back and vote for me now that this debate is over?” He can’t take the risk considering he needs 50 percent plus one vote. 

According to İbrahim Uslu, the head of ANAR polling company in close contact with AKP circles, the 60 to 40 percent conservative/secular ideological divide was not valid in this referendum. “A certain segment of the society did not vote in accordance with their ideology, but voted on evaluations based on the economic situation, integration to the world, lifestyles, the rule of law and freedoms. Those preparing for presidential elections need to read this reality carefully,” he said yesterday on CNN Türk.

If there is an important segment of the urban conservatives shifting away from Erdoğan, he needs to lure them, at least by keeping the economy stable and keeping Turkey integrated with the world. And the only way he can deliver that economy is by keeping Turkey’s relations with Europe active.

Some 75 percent of foreign direct investment, more than two thirds of trade and more than two thirds of the financing of Turkish banks are from Europe, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek said April 17. Although accession talks are on hold, even the frozen state of the membership process is still symbolically important in regards to investor confidence. 

Erdoğan would love the EU to take the decision to break up; then he can turn around and play the “Muslim victim” against the Christian club. Yet if Turkey were to reinstate the capital punishment, the EU would have a legitimate reason for a break up; Erdoğan would be unable to play the blame game. He might talk about reinstating the capital punishment to lure rural votes but will fail to quell the slide in urban votes. 

So just like Middle Eastern leaders, he will have a double-track policy; an anti-West rhetoric despite cooperation on the ground. The difference with Erdoğan and the rest of the Arab leaders is that he enjoys popularity in the region simply because Turkey is in the same playing field with the EU. If it were to get out of the Western economic and political system, it would become any other Middle Eastern country. As the grand strategist that he is, it is impossible to think he is not aware of that.