Is it the same Erdoğan for Europe?
Turkish President Erdoğan’s short tour of Europe seems be serving two main purposes.
One is to attract more votes for the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) for the Nov. 1 re-election in Turkey. Erdoğan’s constitutional non-partisan status does not let him campaign openly, so he does it in the form of “standing against terrorism” rallies, (like the one in Strasbourg on Oct. 4), and asking Turks in Europe to vote for “stability” - hinting at his AK Parti, which first came to power in 2002.
Another goal is to try to soften the content of the EU’s 2015 progress report on Turkey’s membership campaign, which is about to be announced. Last year’s report, which warned Turkey of the deteriorating situation in judicial and media freedom and the quality of democracy in the country, was “returned” to the European Commission by the Turkish government with a protest.
Since last year there have been a number of important developments regarding Turkey its application for EU membership (still in the waiting room after first applying in 1987, being accepted as a candidate in 1999, and starting its negotiation process in 2004).
Despite criticism that upset President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the progress reports have included some praise of Ankara, especially over the Kurdish peace process since 2012, which had stopped the bloodshed spilled in clashes between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the state security forces.
However, since the June 7 election, which saw the AK Parti lose its parliamentary majority, the PKK resumed its acts of terror and the government responded with massive military and police operations in Turkey and Iraq, practically ending the peace process. The bloodshed has returned and tension is high in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish-populated east and southeast. The increase in human rights violations has led a number of commentators to recall the terrible 1990s.
Erdoğan actually wants a constitutional shift from the current parliamentary system to a presidential system “alla Turca,” in which he would be able to exercise extensive executive powers with weakened checks and balances. But in June 7 election Turkish voters did not permit that. Erdoğan then discouraged Davutoğlu from forming a coalition with the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) and later announced a re-election, hoping that the AK Parti could regain its majority, form a single-party government again, and allow him to rule the country single-handedly de facto, without bothering to make any constitutional changes.
It is highly questionable whether European politicians see Erdoğan with the same eyes as in 2002-2003, when he came to power as a “conservative democrat” coming from Islamist roots but promising a European-standard democracy. Now the political appetite and enthusiasm of Turkey’s military - which used to be seen as the only block to further democratization - is well-curbed, but the problems with the quality of democracy have not evaporated. The situation in the country is further complicated by the rise of brutal, radical Islamist groups with their spill-over effects from neighboring Syria’s four-year-old civil war.
Syrian immigrants are now a burning problem for Europe due to the recent wave of people at the gates of EU countries. Will Erdoğan suggest that only a stable Turkey under his rule could stop a further flow, so he should not be weakened by further criticism from Europe?
Such an attempt is not very likely: All three people Erdoğan is expected to meet regarding EU relations, namely Donald Tusk of the European Council, Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Commission, and Martin Schulz of the European Parliament, were recently informed about the other side of the Turkey story (including increasing attacks on the media) by CHP head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş.
Either way, it is clear that in previous years Europe misinterpreted Turkey with a simplistic, orientalist perspective. It should have seen that a strong Turkey would be good for a stronger Europe, but a strong Turkey does not mean a country ruled by a strongman, but rather a pluralistic, secular democracy under the rule of law and respecting basic rights like media freedom and independent courts.