Turkey has faced one of the toughest economic and political challenges in the recent times. The country, during the past four months, has not only had to steer through the side effects of the financial difficulties, with ever-heightening uncertainties on the Western Front; it has been juggling with the foreign policy issues that have been brewing along its borders in the South and Southeastern parts of the country, too. Equally vital political and economic tests of will and determination have been emerging in the domestic front. During this period, issues related to the ethnic question have taken on a new turn with the advent of demands for self-rule and autonomy amongs the political circles within the Kurdish-oriented community. On the economic front, the uneasy relationship between economic growth and the current account deficit has become more evident. The budget deficit, normally a source of significant pride for the government, has returned to levels that are alarming but, more importantly, unprecedented in the performance of the current administration in many years.
Turkish Government has taken sides with the rebel forces in Syria while completely shutting off all channels of communications with the Esad Administration.
The government, having to address these issues in some meaningful manner has, once again, chosen to respond to them in the usual way it has always done in such crisis periods before; through diverting the focus of the public to superficiality, i.e. to issue areas that invoke momentarily widespread public attention with no real or relevant substance. We have seen this happen in the foreign policy sphere. We have seen it happen in the economic sphere; we have also seen it happen in the political and social spheres. at the present, the administration appears to be juggling with the critical policy needs in the country instead of addressing them directly with clear and cohesive response mechanisms.
The Syrian Policy appears to reflect a dire judgement error in the many respects. The political arm of the current administration in Turkey has dramatically altered the long-standing foreign policy strategy of the Republic regarding the principle of non-intervention in domestic affairs of its neighbours. The government has taken sides with the rebel forces in Syria while completely shutting off all channels of communications with the Esad Administration. This has been a failed bet on the part of the Turkish government as the government officially committed itself to the unseating of the Syrian regime within “two months” in a statement that was made over a year ago. This was clearly a misreading of the indigenious dynamics of the conflict in Syria. The secular nature was Arab nationalism as manifested in the Baas system in Syria has been fundamentally different than those cases in Iraq, Libya or Egypt.
The belligerent position of Turkey and its overt support for the rebel forces may have prolonged the conflict in Syria, has definitely made it more costly for all parties involved to resolve it and has engraved such deep suspicions between two neighbouring peoples that shall last several years to come before anybody can overcome them in any real meaningful way in the future. As such, Turkey, instead of assuming a leadership role in intermediating a certain political strife in Syria in its early stages, has now seemed to have lost any chance of serving the role of a facilitator for peace. The superficial reading of the conflict in Syria along simple religious secterian lines by the Turkish government and the expectation that the West would be quick to engage in this conflict along with its ally in the East seems to have failed at the moment. Moreover, such superficiality seems to have set Turkey on course to becoming a spectator to the “Balkanization” of the region and, worse; even getting drawn into this dangerous process itself.
The government has always been fully of the trade-off between economic growth and the current account deficit. It has also been adamantly in favor of economic growth as the insurance policy for its grip of political power against all other factors.
Another policy area that the government has faced a critical test of sincerity in the recent months has been related to the question of the ethnic question in Turkey, namely the Kurdish issue. The political pressures on this issue have heightened at the parliamentary level. Social strife, especially in Eastern provinces, has also deepened in the recent weeks. Finally the news of several detainees with relation to ethnic and political acts of unlawful nature, reportedly going on hunder strikes in several prisons in the country altered the political scene dramatically. Hunger strikes of this magnitute and of this political context have aroused significant public concern on both negative and positive sides of this already politically very divisive issue. Social polarization started to increase and took on a very grave characteristic. The response of the government? Prime Minister Erdoğan and some of the government ministers went public and opened the possibility of re-instituting capital punishment in the Turkish penal code.
Assuming capital punishment is re-instituted, this would have no effect on the past cases, especially on the position of the PKK leader who is in prison for life.
However, the debate on capital punishment has extended all the way to Indonesia where the Prime Minister addressed the Conference of Islamic States in Bali, making reference to the penal codes in the U.S., Russia, China and Japan and arguing that the discussions on this topic were well justified and relevant. The debate, as superficial as it was from the beginning, ended up with the statement by the Ministery of Justice that they had no preparations to propose the reinstatement of capital punishment. Heanwhile, the imprisoned leader of PKK had asked the hunger strikers to terminate their actions which they promptly adhered, positioning him as the “counterparty” to the Government to negotiate the political demands of the Kurdish movement. At the present, the superficial response mechanism against a politically determined and disciplined organization appears to have provided an even-handed position for a terror-driven movement whose legitimacy for the democratic representation of the people in Eastern provinces itself remains a question that is yet to be cleared.
A third area of vital developments for the country involves the state of the economy and the direction it is taking into the months ahead. The most critical question in the economic front has been the question of current account deficit in the recent years. Turkey, in the last decade, has persistently run a current deficit whereby imports of goods and services well exceeded that of export steadily and consistently. Turkey, on the other hand, has successfully financed its current account deficit, though not through FDI at the desired extent, but through portfolio invesments and borrowings at increasingly better terms. The ability of the country to finance its current account deficit comfortably has resulted in high rates of economic growth while appreciating the value of its national currency. Several domestic and international observers of the Turkish economy have pointed insistently that the current account deficit of the country constituted the main fault-line of the economy and that growth became dependent on the ability of the government to sustain outside financing at a certain steady level.
The government has always been fully of the trade-off between economic growth and the current account deficit. It has also been adamantly in favor of economic growth as the insurance policy for its grip of political power against all other factors. So what is the response mechanism to the need to grapple with the current account deficit? Exports of imported gold to Iran and to the Gulf much as a flow management operation over foreign exchange transactions to report acceptable levels of current account deficits. As superficial as this response mechanism is, we expect the import bill to hike with the increase in energy related imports in the winter and the real effects of slow-down in economic growth start surfacing in the first and second quarters of the coming year.
On a more apprensive note, one can also characterize this development as the “jamming up” of Turkish politics where policy-makers, politics are rapidly running out of alternatives.
AKP and MHP held their party congresses in the past months where the leadership positions did not change but the leadership teams changed considerably. We have seen in both congresses that the rhetoric that was displayed by both leaders indicated that both parties would refrain from taking dramatically new positions on the fundamental issues of the country in the coming months. We see that both would prefer to recede back to their traditional policy positions regarding concrete issues of the ethnic question and the liberalization of religious orientation of the population at large. Hence we see the first examples of introduction of direct religious education in the school system at all level from pre-school to the military schools. Hence is the talk of some of the government ministers for the re-openning of private centers of religious training and education which were banned with the declaration of the Republic. On the other front, hence is the ultra-nationalist demands and declarations by the MHP in support of reinstatement of capital punishment, expanded military operations in Eastern provinces and in Northern Iraq to eradicate terrorist activity. Finally, hence is the opposition of the MHP against the administrative reform package to strengthen the policy making and execution mandate of the local governments.
As such, we see that the country has been polarizing along the axis of a more religiously oriented society and a more ethnically divided and defined social landscape. On a more apprensive note, one can also characterize this development as the “jamming up” of Turkish politics where policy-makers, politics are rapidly running out of alternatives. As a result, the country may be sliding towards potentially the most destructive and costly political show-down in the history of the Republic. Meanwhile, engaging in a military conflict along the southern borders remains as a real possibility, exacerbating the challenges ahead. Financial, political, human and social costs of these challenges stand at such critically high levels at the moment and increasing by the day that they not only threaten the very foundations of the Republic but posing a threat to peace and stability in the region. We argue that deployment of superficial response mechanisms, public relations ploys, to tackle the mounting political, economic, social and security related issues in the country should be abonded immediately.
Furthermore, we argue that such personalized approaches be replaced by sound and structural response models, knowledge-based, realistic mechanisms that ensure stable and sustainable outcomes in line with the merits of the problems faced and to be faced in the future in the region.