The devil you know

The devil you know

Turkey went to the polls on Nov. 1, and we found out that the desire for change, which was obvious in the results of the June elections, had turned into a fear of change. Voters who had been slipping away from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rushed back, giving it a landslide victory. 

This marked the most votes the AKP has ever received. The party garnered about 21 million votes in 2011. That declined to 18 million in June of this year. Now the number is close to 24 million. Why did that happen? “Better the devil you know,” they say, and it is obvious to most that fear played a part. But where did it come from? Let’s look at what happened between June and November. 

First of all, the Kurdish reconciliation process was cut short. Many Kurdish provinces were put under curfew, extinguishing the hope that had been starting to take hold in the region. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) threat became visible when at least 134 people were killed in two suicide bombings, one of which happened on the Syrian border, and another in the center of Ankara. In October, more than 80 percent of Turks thought the country was going through a period of political crisis and more than 70 percent of Turks were expecting an economic crisis in the coming months. That was right before the elections, mind you. According to public opinion polls, for the first time in years, more than 50 percent of prospective AKP voters were themselves expecting an economic crisis right after the elections. 

Think about what all this means. There was a feeling of being surrounded on all sides, that the country’s defenses were being overrun. It also helped that unlike the June election campaign, nobody was talking about the presidential system. The message here was directly addressed to the electorate’s sympathetic nervous system: It was all about survival. Voters were dangled, head first, down the precipice of war and they were reminded of what they didn’t want to happen.

As someone concerned with policy, I find it useful to think about this within the context of recent history. In 2002, it was hope that got the AKP votes. That decision opened a new vista for Turkey. The country made a policy jump with EU reforms and began to talk more openly about its problems. Now, on Nov. 1, it was fear that mobilized the voters. 

Does that make a difference? It is a “yes or no” question. If fear does make a difference, and transformation can only happen when a country is genuine about it, then restarting the EU process will be difficult. If we believe that fear as a motivator doesn’t matter much, than it shouldn’t make a difference what our intentions are, and we should focus on doing our EU homework. But keep in mind that Turkey cannot do this unilaterally. Restarting the EU process requires a European partner who will tango. Here, the Syrian refugee crisis provides a solid agenda item between Turkey and the EU, which, if used wisely, can serve as a springboard for constructive dialogue. 

Let me explain why. There are around 2.2 million refugees in Turkey. The country needs to do something substantial, something beyond taking temporary measures. Compared to 2012-2014, illegal refugee crossings from Turkey to the EU through Greece have increased eight-fold in the first eight months of 2015, reaching 250,000. Those numbers may unfortunately continue to rise and neither our physical nor institutional infrastructure is ready for that influx.

On the other hand, the EU also needs to do something substantial on the flood of Syrian refugees. Its activity on the Greek border is not nearly enough. “To get an idea, it would be useful to see the Finland-Russia border control system,” said Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative at a meeting at TEPAV last week.

Turkey therefore needs the EU and the EU needs Turkey. If this doesn’t constitute a solid basis for a constructive dialogue, I don’t know what does. Ollie Rehn, the former enlargement commissioner, was once desperately searching for a positive agenda. Now, we have it. 

Turkey’s government, like its voters, needs to go back to the devil it knows. In this age of uncertainty, the EU is again the sole viable anchor for Turkey’s transformation, and without transformation, there is no future.