IntelBrief: Turkey’s Uncertain Path
May 7, 2019
Bottom Line Up Front
• On May 5 the Turkish Foreign Minister said his country would accept delivery of Russian S-400 missiles.
• The prospect of a NATO member purchasing advanced Russian missile systems, specifically designed to shoot down NATO planes, is creating serious tensions within the decades-long alliance.
• There is a broader issue at stake: whether Turkey should remain in NATO given Ankara’s drift toward Moscow’s orbit and adoption of Russian-style authoritarianism in its own domestic politics.
• Things in Turkey remain uncertain, as credible challenges to Erdogan’s grip on power exist, with opposition figures notching important victories in local elections in March.
Turkish President Erdogan has always sought to outwardly present himself as a strong leader, especially in matters of foreign and security policy, as he continues to edge Turkey further away from the West. Domestically, however, his image has been increasingly sullied over the past year. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have consolidated power, especially over the last decade, centralizing authority to a degree previously unseen in modern Turkey. Restrictions on the press, and the widespread jailing of journalists, political opponents, and academics—especially in the years since the failed 2016 coup—are now a quotidian tool of Erdogan and the AKP. Criticizing Erdogan comes with considerable risk, which was a tradeoff some seemed willing to accept with a booming Turkish economy. But a deeply struggling economy has fueled the credible political opposition to Erdogan that had been stifled for years.
Geopolitically, Ankara continues to move towards Russia and away from NATO. On May 5, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay flatly stated that Turkey was going to take delivery of the Russian S-400 missile systems it had purchased from Moscow. This follows statements from Erdogan declaring that despite U.S. objections, Ankara was not reversing its decision. American concerns are rather straightforward: Turkey is a NATO member, and if it wants to participate in the deployment of the F-35 fighter jet, it simply cannot buy Russian air defense systems designed to shoot down NATO aircraft. Turkey sees no issue with having access to both systems. Turkey’s continued membership in NATO, particularly as a member so openly hostile to other members as well as NATO core values, is a major tension in the alliance and could prove enough to fray the relationship once and for all, reversing decades of progress from the Cold War.
For Erdogan, the tensions with the U.S. might seem a welcome reprieve from the domestic pressure he and the AKP are facing; the ruling party suffered significant losses in the March 31, 2019 elections. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) won the mayor’s seat in Istanbul – where Erdogan was once a popular mayor – as well as in Ankara. The AKP has denounced the opposition as ‘terrorists’ and launched accusations of widespread election fraud. On May 6, citing ‘voting irregularities,’ Turkey’s High Election Board (YSK), accepted the AKP’s challenge to the Istanbul election, ushering in a period of uncertainty and dealing a crushing blow to the increasingly fragile institution of democracy in Turkey. As expected, the Turkish lira plummeted and markets more broadly are expected to take a serious hit. The move is not without risks for the AKP, which is now widely perceived as interfering in a democratic election to manipulate its results. The fallout could be significant.
The fact that a credible political opposition still exists in Turkey, despite recent purges and imprisonments of those deemed disloyal to Erdogan and the AKP, reveals Turkey’s vibrant democratic movement; one that has proven resistant to relentless undermining for more than a decade. Even as he has accumulated immense power—changing the office of the presidency to suit his intentions—Erdogan still faces political and social opposition. If the economy continues to sputter, the internal pressures will increase. At a more strategic level, there are serious concerns for the future of democracy in Turkey. Given restrictions on freedom of speech and Turkey’s increasingly less independent judiciary, the recent election meddling is a clear signal to the Turkish people, and the world, that Erdogan is willing to pursue absolute power at any cost.
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