On March 31 Turkey had municipal elections. The result was a yellow card for the government. However, the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) immediately asked for recounts in Ankara and İstanbul where, according to initial figures, they lost the mayoralties after more than two decades. Is asking for recounts within the law? Yes, it is. But then the government started saying that elected mayors who don’t command the majority in municipal councils, İstanbul being a case in point, would have a hard time governing. Thus, what should be a technical process has now turned into a political controversy whereby the government challenges more than the ballot box and that is pushing it too far. Turkey desperately needs to put this episode behind and turn to its heavily-loaded agenda.
Our number one problem is Turkey’s economic downturn. At present, our economy looks no different than the Ethiopian Airlines’ Boeing 737 MAX soon after take-off. There at least the pilots did their very best to avoid disaster. Here in Turkey, we are also nosediving and our pilots appear to have other priorities.
Secondly, the reckless foreign policy launched in 2009 is now at a dead end. Ankara’s involvement in the regime change project in Syria has greatly harmed Turkey’s foreign and security policy interests. It has trapped us in Syria.
Turkey no longer has any friends. The argument, “because, we stand by our noble principles” doesn’t convince anyone.
Our relations with Washington are at their lowest point in decades. Statements made following the talks between Secretary Pompeo and Minister Çavuşoğlu on the margins of the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in Washington only show that this wasn’t an auspicious occasion, to say the least.
Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missile systems from Russia has upset the Trump administration and NATO allies. Turkey repeatedly says that “this is a done deal”. For obvious reasons, Russia is likely to push for their deployment and failure to do so will exact a price beyond the figure in the deal. What the people of Turkey still don’t know is the underlying threat assessment which led to the S-400 dispute. (*)
In response to a question during his interview with Fox & Friends, Secretary Pompeo, referring to Turkey’s purchase of S-400s and Italy’s becoming part of China’s giant “Silk Road” project, said “… at the end of the day, these countries will have to make their decisions and then the United States will make ours.”
Turkey’s procurement of an advanced Russian surface-to-air missile defence system is a “national decision,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week. “We see that this is an issue which has created disagreement between allies, and NATO provides a platform for allies to address issues like this,” he added. His statement was presented as understanding if not support by Turkey’s state media. It is neither. Mr Stoltenberg is simply trying to avert a conflict within the Alliance.
Our relations with the EU are hardly any better.
And, there is the overarching problem of Turkey’s diminishing international appeal. Fifteen years ago, having launched democratic reforms and the accession process with the EU, Turkey’s and JDP’s star was rising. We were being referred to as an example for the Middle East. Fifteen years later we are on an authoritarian path and our aggressive rhetoric irritates countries across the globe.
In brief, Turkey either puts this election behind in respectable fashion or suffers further loss of face on the global stage.
The government has been critical of the visit to the Atatürk’s Mausoleum by Mr. İmamoğlu, the candidate of the opposition who according to the first count became the next mayor of İstanbul. He is targeted not only for having signed the book of honour which they say was a “breach of protocol” but also using the title “Mayor of İstanbul”. If this was a mistake, it pales when compared to those made by the government during the campaign during which it totally denied the opposition fair and equal opportunity. And what about the questionable role the state-run Anatolian News Agency tried to play in reporting election results? In the final analysis, Mr. İmamoğlu went the Mausoleum to pay his respects to the founder of the Republic.
Beyond the issue of protocol and title, the government needs to remember that Ataturk was our hero at Gallipoli and when decades and decades of decadent Ottoman rule came to an end with total surrender to the victors of the First World War. He was the one to raise the flag, lead the War of Independence, laid the foundations of the Republic and launch far-reaching reforms. Sadly, with the upsurge of jihadism in the broad Middle East, his ungrateful critics became more vocal in recent years. They attacked his legacy, his statutes and even more sadly the government which constantly glorifies Ottoman sultans looked the other way. They just couldn’t name İstanbul’s new airport “Atatürk” like the old one.
Perhaps it is high time for the JDP to digest the fact that for the vast majority of the Turkish people Atatürk remains our national hero. And, failure to properly utter his name doesn’t guarantee success at the ballot box.
It’s now a week since the election. Polling officials are still recounting the votes in İstanbul. And the people are counting the days hoping that this ordeal would soon come to an end and the government would for a change make an effort to reunite our polarized country.
(**) Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog.