Can Erdoğan reinvent himself?

Can Erdoğan reinvent himself?

Shortly after being appointed prime minister by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Binali Yıldırım said one of his prime objectives would be to increase the number of Turkey’s friends and reduce the number its enemies. The agreement to reconcile with Israel and Russia show, contrary to initial expectations, that these were not just empty words. 

I argued here at the time that Yıldırım could only achieve this lofty aim of his if Erdoğan changed, because it is Erdoğan who is calling the shots in Turkey. I maintained that that he was unlikely to change his harsh and ideological approach to foreign policy and that Yıldırım was whistling in the wind. 

My caveat, however, was that I would not be upset if proven wrong. It is still not clear if Erdoğan is changing or not. Rather than signifying a change in Erdoğan, the positive developments in foreign policy represent a realization by him that his ability to change the world is far more limited than he assumed. 

If Erdoğan can go the full mile and improve ties with Egypt now, to take a key example, then there would be more grounds for believing that he is changing.  Whether he can afford to give the impression of deserting Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s former Islamist president who was incarcerated after being toppled by the military, remains to be seen, however. 

At first glance, this looks like a step to far for him given that he is already having a hard time explaining the need for a reconciliation with Israel to his Islamist supporters.

The most significant proof of whether Erdoğan is changing will come from the domain of domestic politics, rather than foreign policy. Remarks by Cemil Çiçek – a Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy from Ankara who is a founding member of the party, a former justice minister, and a former parliamentary speaker – are worth noting.

Talking to a group of journalists on Tuesday, Çiçek said he agreed with the policy of increasing the number of Turkey’s friends and reducing the number of its enemies. “If you look at this from the reverse angle, it means the number of your enemies is larger than that of your friends,” Çiçek admitted.

“As we take these steps abroad, we also have to increase the number of our friends at home. It is evident that we have tensions in Turkey,” Çiçek added, indicating that there was a need to “build bridges of the heart” to overcome this.  

He went on to complain that politicians in this country were exhorting unity at the very moment that they were sowing the seeds of discord and said Ramadan had provided a good climate for domestic reconciliation but that this was squandered.

Indicating that self-criticism was essential in Turkey, Çiçek said: “If we fail to do this, then you will remain at the point where you feel you are correct and others are mistaken.”  

These are wise words from someone who has clout in his party. The question, however, is who was he thinking of when uttering these words. One assumes that since he did not name anyone in particular, he was also referring to Erdoğan, who heads the list of those who are stoking divisions in this country with furious attacks against political opponents. 

Erdoğan will be loath to change and proceed the way Çiçek is exhorting, because he has a domestic agenda that may be at odds with what half the country wants, but which he is clearly not prepared to abandon for the sake of democratic considerations and the need for peace at home.

What Çiçek is saying is therefore no more than an expression of a desire. It is very unlikely that Erdoğan will heed his words. But if we prove to be wrong in this regard too, and Erdoğan manages to reinvent himself politically, we will have no regrets, since that will point to a Turkey that is returning to a normal state of affairs.

From our current perspective, though, that appears to be a long shot.