President Erdoğan sometimes speaks as if lamenting on his own. Other times and often times he is more than defiant. Yet to be sure, all eyes are riveted on him and he is a master at keeping things that way. Very seldom any opposition leader or spokesperson manages to rival Erdoğan to dictate the agenda. Hence the airwaves are dominated by Erdoğan and in my book, this is also what politics is about. In “ceteris paribus” conditions, one may hasten to add, given the lack of rule of law and the shortcomings of freedom of speech in Turkey.
This last time around, Erdoğan took again his opponents by surprise. He heaped praise on the importance of democracy and rule of law. He also added that Turkey’s place without any doubt is in Europe. He further reiterated his will to deepen cooperation with the US especially with a view to do so in the Middle East. Shunned AKP heavyweights of yesteryear who were forcefully relegated to backbenches stepped timidly into the limelight and went through the motions by speaking in vague and ambiguous terms that a sort of a reset is needed to go back to factory settings. Even none other but the Justice Minister himself appealed to judges to take decisions according to law and not having an eye neither at public opinion nor yielding to political pressure.
Some held their breath. Some speculated that symbolic political prisoners (legally speaking there is no such thing in Turkey) like Demirtaş, Kavala and Altan were about to walk out of their cells free by new year’s eve. Others pointed at Biden’s election and his taking over the presidency on the 20th of January. While more European oriented pundits pondered loud about possible back channel messages from Chancellor Merkel and the upcoming EU council meeting where sanctions will be debated, many agreed on the urgent need to pump fresh blood into much deteriorated national economy. Ergo, by default, the need to democratize to attract investors their thinking went.
As in a popular line by the Turkish poet Cahit Sıtkı Tarancı (1910-1956) in which he depicts death, “the spell broke in a huge vacuum” –translation by yours truly, ready apologies. Erdoğan again took the floor on Sunday at a distance via live connection and spoke AKP congress meetings simultaneously being held in different provinces. Reverting abruptly back to his defiant tone, he was not late to lambast those “heavyweights” here-above mentioned for their fickleness, to put it lightly. And, he underlined the good health of the AKP-MHP coalition while underlining the impossibility of changing course.
In the meantime, President Erdoğan found time to speak on the phone with the Saudi king and to take part in the virtual G-20 summit meeting as well. For the foreign observer, he appeared as a regional standard bearer of stability. Ever monetizing the unique position of Turkey on the map, he knows he still firmly holds the refugee card vis-à-vis the EU. With the US, Turkey’s role will remain critical in any Iran policy gambit and its’ relations with Russia raise more than a few eyebrows. In short, both for the EU, even more so for Germany, as well as for the US, Turkey, read Erdoğan, remains “too big to fail” as the saying goes.
In domestic politics, the bright spark of snap elections’ talk gave way back to the long winter of more of the same till 2023. For a short while, it had appeared as if Erdoğan was looking for a way to secure himself for the longer term by taking a step back to a more traditional presidency, that is not in the cards anymore. As for a possible reshuffle in the cabinet, to put wheels under the Interior’s Minister Soylu’s seat turns out to be a non-starter. 101 custodies in a single day in Diyarbakır while the president himself was musing about judicial reform speak for themselves. If Soylu goes, more likely it will be the end of the ruling AKP-MHP coalition.
No political partners to replace the MHP as his sidekick are on the horizon for Erdoğan, therefore he will put the pedal down on the metal in both domestic and foreign politics. This is a game of chicken. Visiting the re-opened Varosha in Northern Cyprus and voicing the “need” for a presidential “pied-a-terre” to be built on five acres’ land, sending the seismic vessel Oruç Reis back to the East Mediterranean and now busting the hopes for a release of symbolic names from jail in the foreseeable future, he made a reset but a full 360 degrees reset so that we found ourselves back we started. Wary eyes may still be on the 10th of December and on the 20th of January but Erdoğan’s eyes are not among those, as it turns out.
One question lingers in the air though: Who is behind the wheel in running Turkey’s ham fisted national security policies? Authoritarian or not, Erdoğan is an astute political survivor. He enjoys to bask in the glory of his personal public support. Even if the per capita GDP is down from USD 12.500 to USD 9.000 in the last five years his popularity rate is still reassuring even if receding. By sacking his own son in law he proved to still muster the power to take painful but necessary decisions. Yet when it comes to change course on the militaristic near abroad policies, free speech, human rights or perhaps Kurds in sum, he seems to check the rear mirror. The coffers of the Central Bank remains empty, we keep scrutinizing the horizons for a glimmer of real democracy.