by James M. Dorsey*
What explains Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish election? After all, the country’s economic performance under his leadership suggested that Turks would choose change. Inflation hovers at around 44%, the Turkish lira has lost 90% of its value over the last decade (and hit a new low a day after Erdogan’s electoral victory).
The scourge of corruption
In addition, many blame corruption and a failure to enforce building standards for the degree of devastation caused by earthquakes in February in eastern Turkey, parts of which are predominantly Kurdish. As stunning as those statistics and allegations of poor economic management may be, they tell only part of the story.
Counterintuitively, Erdogan likely benefited not only from his personal political skills that come to the fore when he is in a political fight for survival. He also benefited from his religiosity, the religious lacing of politics and his promotion of greater freedom for public expressions of piety in a country that long sought to restrict them to the private sphere.
Conservative religious women were one major constituency that benefited economically and socially from Erdogan’s rollback of Kemalist restrictions that had barred women from wearing headscarves in government offices and universities.
“Erdogan is loved that much because he changed people’s lives,” said Ozlem Zengin, a female member of parliament for the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Similarly, religion may have been one reason why voters even in earthquake-hit areas favored the AKP.
Economist Jeanet Sinding Bentzen notes that “individuals become more religious if an earthquake recently hit close by. Even though the effect decreases after a while, data on children of immigrants reveal a persistent effect across generations.”
Reintegrating Turkey into the Western fold?
Economics in mind, some voters questioned whether opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu would be able to deliver on his pledge to reintegrate Turkey into the Western fold, as well as being able to secure badly needed support from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
After years of strained relations, Saudi and Emirati support for Erdogan was displayed within days of the Turkish leader’s electoral success.
The UAE ratified a five-year, $40 billion trade deal with Turkey three days after the vote. ‘This deal marks a new era of cooperation in our long-standing friendship,” said UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani al-Zeyoudi.
Meanwhile, representatives of Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s national oil company, met in Ankara with some 80 Turkish contractors to discuss $50 billion worth of potential projects.
“Aramco wants to see as many Turkish contractors as possible in its projects. They are planning refinery, pipeline, management buildings and other infrastructure construction that will be worth $50 billion in investment,” said Erdal Eren, head of the Turkish Contractors Association.
In a bow to foreign investors, including Gulf states that increasingly tie aid to recipients’ economic reform policies, Erdogan named Mehmet Simsek, a widely respected former banker and deputy prime minister and finance minister, as his new treasury and finance minister.
Foreign investors and analysts saw the appointment of Simsek, an advocate of conventional economic policies, as a sign that Erdogan may shift away from his unorthodox refusal to raise interest rates that fueled inflation and an exodus of foreign money.
In addition to stabilizing the economy, Erdogan faces challenges funding reconstruction in earthquake-hit areas as well as northern Syria as part of an effort to facilitate the return of refugees.
With 3.7 million registered refugees, Turkey is home to the largest Syrian exile community. Anti-migrant sentiment and pledges to return refugees were important in last month’s election campaigns. Refugee return is also part of the Gulf states’ renewed engagement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
What about the U.S.?
At a time when the UAE and Saudi Arabia adopt positions at odds with the policies of the United States, the region’s longtime security guarantor, they may see Erdogan as an increasingly important partner. This is true irrespective of whether the Gulf states’ moves constitute a genuine policy shift or merely a pressure tactic to persuade the United States to be more attentive to their concerns.
Like the two Gulf states, Erdogan (notwithstanding Turkey’s NATO membership) has pursued an independent foreign policy, including close ties to Russia and a military intervention in Syria that impacts Gulf efforts to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran.
“If the current trend of U.S. detachment from the region continues and Turkey’s rising regional posture keeps moving in a forward direction, Ankara may have an opportunity to fortify its position in the Gulf,” said Middle East scholar Ali Bakir.
*Senior fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
**first published in: Theglobalist.com