With three consecutive victories at the ballot box — a first in Turkish political history — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ought to be laughing all the way to his mega-mentions in future history books. In reality, he is beset with problems on all sides, both political and economic.
On the domestic front, he had hoped to win a big enough majority to push a new constitution through parliament without the need to consult the opposition. Though his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won five million more votes than it did three years ago, its number of deputies shrank slightly to 326 out of 550.
Due to this quirk of the proportional system, Erdogan finds himself bereft of the two-thirds majority in parliament and therefore needs to consult the opposition parties to reach a consensus on rewriting the constitution last ratified in 1982. Many reforms have been introduced as a result of Turkey’s application to join the European Union but key and divisive issues, such as ethnic discrimination and completing the process of subjecting the military to total political control, will probably delay the vaunted but unconfirmed AKP plan to introduce a presidential-style political system. Removing Kurdish grievances such as making Turkish the official, not the only, recognized language and further empowering local government are more pressing issues.
Fears that he intends to install a radical Islamist form of governance are absurd. Critics tend to exaggerate the significance of his opposition to tobacco, alcohol and the ban on wearing a veil in certain places. The occasional Churchillian-sized cigar and a post-prandial glass of cognac would instantly dissolve such notions (as well as much of his electoral support).
On the international stage, he needs to repair Turkey’s longstanding close relations with Israel without losing credibility in the Arab world. Despite the loud condemnation of Israel’s tyrannical behavior toward the Palestinians and its slaughter of nine Turkish members of the Gaza aid flotilla in May 2010, commercial relations between the two countries continue to flourish.
The Turkish flotilla organizers have decided to pull out of this year’s aid effort. All that is needed now is an agreement between the two countries on a form of words that Turkey can prove to be an apology from Israel, but one that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government can claim admits no legal responsibility. That should test the versatility of their advisers and lawyers, but it can reasonably be expected to happen this year
The other big issue in the region lies just across the border. It’s not easy living next door to Syria. Ankara’s “no problems with the neighbors” foreign policy becomes untenable when the people next door are too preoccupied with killing their own citizens to listen. Erdogan’s accusation of “savagery” is sincere but Turkey, like Israel, feels stability is better served if President Bashar al-Assad survives. Despite Erdogan’s best efforts to convince Assad of the need to reform, success seems unlikely. Hence a meeting of what passes for the Syrian “opposition” was allowed on Turkish soil.
Relations with Cyprus, Armenia and Greece will also occupy Erdogan’s time, but even more important will be preventing dents in the economic “miracle” the AKP has wrought over the past nine years.
Lending is out of control in Turkey. Loan growth has risen 40 percent in recent months and consumers have enthusiastically spent much of the newfound money on imported goods. This pushed up the trade deficit to 17 percent of gross domestic product. In short, Turkey is headed for a “correction” at best and a temporary recession at worst.
The remedies are simple if not particularly pleasant — raise taxes to curb spending, raise interest rates to make borrowing less attractive and raise bank reserve ratios to bring down the amount of money they have to lend.
These measures would not have been vote winners if enacted before the elections on June 12. Now there is little doubt some or all of them will be enacted. Erdogan has another four years for any grumbling to subside before he wipes the floor with the opposition for a fourth time.
Peter Grimsditch is EXECUTIVE’s Istanbul correspondent