On 10 August 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the first directly elected president of the Turkish Republic, winning slightly more than 51% of all votes cast.
In his victory speech, the long-time prime minister, and now President Erdoğan metaphorically indicated that his arrival in office would signify the beginning of a new era, one which he described as the ‘new Turkey.’ Talip Kucukcan, a political analyst at the government-friendly SETA research institute (Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research), explains the concept of ‘new Turkey’ succinctly. “The ‘New Turkey’ means a more pluralist Turkey. It means a country where reforms are brought in step-by-step in line with the integration process to the EU,” read Euronews, quoting the analyst. “It’s also a Turkey where the impact of the military is minimal and political participation is rising.”
This ‘new era’ seems from the political rhetoric to be characterized by a very ambitious tone; one might then expect that the already demonstrably ambitious Erdoğan will become more active in foreign policy as well, compared to previous presidents.
In fact, during the presidential campaign, he explicitly complained about the parliamentary system on the grounds that it is allegedly inefficient in quickly responding to foreign crises.
Yet, how is President Erdoğan going to obtain the competencies necessary to realize his foreign policy goals in a country where the president is (still) the head of state, enjoying mostly ceremonial powers? Specifically, the competencies of the Turkish president include the power to approve parliamentary legislation, the appointment of judges to the constitutional court, and the selection of university presidents.
At the same time, the president legally serves as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and calls parliamentary meetings. To sum up, Turkey’s polity is a parliamentary regime with a ceremonial president and a prime minister who is the head of the executive. In short, the power of the Turkish president is limited against the executive, and vice versa.
Now that the former Prime Minister Erdoğan has become president, however, he is likely to push for a change in some of the key rules governing the Turkish political system. If Erdoğan insists on realizing his ambitious goals – and it seems reasonable to assume that he will – the question remains as to how such a transformation will take place. Serdar Karagöz, a contributor to the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, argues that “the president to be elected by the people will transform Turkey’s system of government into a semi-presidential system like the one used in France. Even if called by a different name, the people electing the president will cause a transition to a de facto semi-presidential system.”
To be sure, while such projections can only be speculative at this point, it is yet not unreasonable to expect the expansion of the president’s competencies will occur to some extent in the coming period. If so, then the position of the Turkish president will be elevated from a mere symbolic standing to a political post –a sign that Erdoğan will continue to be active in Turkish politics.
The New Prime Minister and his Cabinet, after the Election
As one of the first actions in his new position, Erdoğan nominated Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to succeed him as Turkey’s new prime minister. The nomination of Davutoğlu was surprising for the more established party functionaries because former President Abdullah Gül, a very influential founding member of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), was considered more likely to fill Erdoğan’s previous leadership position.
Davutoğlu is a strong Erdoğan loyalist, so his appointment to the premiership would further imply that the new president wants to keep a strong hold over both party and the cabinet.
After the nomination of Davutoğlu as prime minister and the leader of AKP, he announced his new cabinet. This new cabinet signals in essence the continuation of “Erdoğan’s government,” according to Sabah. Prime Minister Davutoğlu kept previous members of Turkey’s economic management team in place and named Ankara’s point man on Europe, Mevlüt Cavusoglu, as the new foreign minister in his cabinet. This nomination may be suggesting that Turkey’s stalled European Union membership negotiations could now take greater priority.
Turkey’s New Foreign Policy Direction and Upcoming Challenges
The nomination of the Prime Minister and the formation of a new cabinet clearly signal that Turkish foreign policy will continue to be in the hands of Erdoğan and Davutoğlu. To recall, Davutoğlu as a chief advisor to Erdoğan had introduced the so-called “zero problems with neighbors” policy when coming into office in 2003. His policy reached its zenith in 2009 when relationships with Armenia and northern Iraq’s Kurdish regional government (KRG) had been formalized to the extent that official visits were conducted.
However, foreign diplomatic conditions changed for the worse after Israel’s Gaza operation in 2008. First, the meditation talks between Israel and Syria under Turkey’s supervision failed. Then, the Mavi Marmara flotilla disaster in 2010 resulted in a further deterioration of Israel-Turkey relations.
Soon after, the Arab Spring upheaval brought Turkey increased alienation in the Middle East, and open partisanship that seemed to violate the stated foreign policy. Most seriously, Turkey’s active involvement in the Syrian civil war and its confrontations with the new secular Egyptian regime, which came about partly due to a Saudi-backed coup in Egypt that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government), summarized Hurriyet.
Today, Davutoğlu’s eviscerated “zero problems with neighbors” policy effectively manifests itself in terms of a “no friends” policy, according to the influential Foreign Policy journal. Indeed, Turkey has currently no ambassadors in Israel, Egypt, nor Syria. (Only in the Balkans does Turkey’s positive relations remain strong).
In addition, the Turkish consulate in Mosul, Iraq was attacked by the self-proclaimed Islamic State on June 13, with 49 Turkish citizens (including the Turkish consul general) kidnapped and held in captivity ever since. This kidnapping is a sort of trump card held by the ISIS fighters, representing a deterrent against any Turkish military intervention in collaboration with the US. Whether the Turkish public could tolerate the potential murder of these hostages just to conduct a war on ISIS is surely a question that occupies Turkish leaders constantly nowadays.
Moreover, Turkey’s relations with Iraq’s central government also worsened in recent years. The government of the recently-deposed Maliki openly accused Turkey of fomenting sectarian strife, and of doing secret oil deals with the Kurdish Regional Government, indicating sensitive areas that marked the deterioration of Turkish-Iraqi relations.
Relations with the West have been getting worse as well. Especially, the Erdoğan administration’s perceived restrictions on personal freedoms in recent years (including the ongoing jailing of journalists and internet censorship) and violent crackdowns on peaceful protests have increasingly put in question Erdoğan’s democratic credentials. Closely related to these trends, the Erdoğan government never managed to speed up its accession negotiations with the EU.
Ironically, pro-government Turkish media interprets these developments in terms of a “worthwhile loneliness.” Yet this euphemism cannot change the fact of a looming “isolation of Turkey” if things should continue in the present manner.
Perhaps the greatest current challenge facing Erdoğan and the Turkish state is the terrorists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State which not only poses an imminent threat to Turkey territorial integrity but is also a test of the real intentions of the Turkish political cadre. Indeed, while Erdoğan campaigned partly on the idea of reining in the military’s potential for coups (as has happened in the past), he may yet need to demonstrate his mettle as a commander-in-chief in a cross-border conflict, and how the new president perceives his relationship with the generals and their common responsibilities will be a crucial question going forward.
The author would like to thank Alper Baysan, who studies Comparative and International Studies at ETH Zurich for his helpful comments and reviews of this article in pre-publication stages.