“Turkey has always done things its own way: building bridges one moment, bridgeheads the next,” a recent International Crisis Group paper observed. And, true to form, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s autocratic president, has again been sending out mixed messages to his people and international allies.
Last weekend he capped it, Trump-like, with the sacking of his central bank governor, Naci Agbal, the third sacked in two years, over the latter’s economically orthodox interest rate policy – Erdogan sees interest rates as “the mother of all evil” . And then he followed up with the repudiation of an international convention protecting women from domestic violence.
The pushbacks have been swift – thousands of women took to the streets to protest against a move that polls say is widely opposed, and the markets took their revenge on the Turkish lira, driving it down by 15 percentage points in a day, triggering a sell-off of Turkish stock and hitting bond yields. The abrupt shift of monetary policy threatens to undermine the new confidence in the inflation-blighted and heavily indebted Turkish economy that Agbal had begun to inspire in investors.
Observers are bewildered at the president’s actions. He claims to be an ardent defender of women’s rights but the repudiation of the convention on violence against women, notionally “in defence of the family”, will play only to his conservative Islamist base while alienating the many who have strayed from the fold.
Only weeks ago Erdogan was promising a major package of human rights reforms to re-emphasise his commitment to reforms needed to put back on track the country’s stalled bid for EU accession. He was also playing down his theocratic agenda for the country, speaking warmly of its secular traditions, and pledged that Turkey would get what he described – implausibly, if his record is anything to go by – as a new comprehensive, clear, democratic and liberal constitution to guide it into the next century.
Changing the constitution requires a supermajority of 360 in the 600-seat parliament, but Erdogan and his nationalist MHP allies have only 337 seats. Is Erdogan preparing the ground for a snap election that otherwise would not be required for two years?
Polls show combined support for the AK party, in power since 2002, and the MHP has fallen to just 45 per cent and AK lost control of most of Turkey’s big cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, in 2019’s local elections. For the first time, pollsters say, disenchanted supporters who drifted away from AK appear unlikely to be won back. How Erdogan’s measures, which appeal exclusively to his religious base, will win that majority back is not clear.
The mood music from Ankara had recently been more positive, as a new report on the relationship from the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, acknowledges. “Since last December Turkey has shown a calmer, more constructive attitude on various issues … However, this process of de-escalation remains fragile.” But Turkey’s recent withdrawal of a research ship from disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean did allow EU leaders at this week’s summit to defer consideration of sanctions.
Last Friday, however, just ahead of the treaty repudiation, Ankara also announced to wide international condemnation its intention to proscribe a largely Kurdish party (HDP), which it accused of having links to terrorism.
Anxious to de-escalate tensions with a partner whose co-operation on controlling migrant flows remains a key priority, EU leaders were set yesterday to approve a low-key, steady-as-she-goes summit statement on Turkey encouraging dialogue and keeping the door open without providing false hopes that progress on accession would be swift. The Borrell report to leaders made clear, however, that further “backsliding” on key issues such as the rule of law, respect for human rights and the independence of the judiciary “ would bear political and economic consequences”.
EU restraint was not helped by Erdogan’s repudiation of the Istanbul Convention, which Turkey had been the first country to sign up to in 2009. Violence against women has been escalating – a total of 77 women have been killed since the start of the year, according to the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, and some 409 were killed in 2020.
The Council of Europe convention provides legal and social guidelines for governments to curb violence against women and also has language on LGBT rights, which are anathema to AK.
Erdogan has also upset European and Nato allies by unilaterally projecting Turkish military power in a number of regional conflicts, and appears to believe – with some justice – that their realpolitik dependence on Turkish co-operation gives him a free hand. Criticism and even sanctions will be muted by that reality, he believes.
Ultimately, however, his own people may be less indulgent. Burning bridges is not a viable long-term strategy.