Although the Arab Spring gave Turkey the opportunity to market its model of moderate Islam, regional and domestic developments turned these opportunities into challenges.
Government corruption and domestic repercussions must be discussed if the situation is to be understood.
The recent corruption crisis in Turkey affected premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitions as President Abdullah Gul emphasized the importance of punishing anyone convicted of the corruption crimes. Gul’s statements imply that Turkey is trying to sell to the world the idea that Erdogan is not the country’s only voice of authority. It also indicates divisions among the ruling Justice and Development Party.
Also, the dispute between Erdogan and reclusive Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen exposed violations occurring inside Turkish state institutions. It appeared that there was a dispute between the two when Erdogan took measures to diminish Gulen’s political influence due to the latter’s support of last year’s anti-government protests which raged in Taksim Square. Meanwhile, Erdogan resorted to his security forces to deal with the protests.
The dispute escalated until Gulen and his followers withdrew from the Justice and Development Party. This means that Erdogan has lost any chance of a parliamentarian majority which he may have gained in the upcoming elections.
The opposition made use of the corruption scandal to forge political gains. Head of the Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, manipulated the public’s disapproval of Erdogan by attempting to show that his party represents a significant proportion of the Turkish public; those who reject Erdogan’s recent policies.
The corruption scandal did not only affect internal politics, it also directly influenced Turkey’s economy. Commercial trade dropped on the stock market and the Turkish lira dropped by 5 percent in December 2013. Turkey is mainly depending on investments and foreign capital, however this will be directly affected by domestic disturbances.
The crisis’ repercussions on Turkey’s regional role
Erdogan’s policies towards Syria have been criticized by many. There is also criticism linked to the party’s purported green light given to Islamist fighters crossing into Syria via Turkey.
Gulen exposed this and shed light on an arms shipment made by a humanitarian group allied with Erdogan. The opposition exploited this as an MP filed a request to interrogate Erdogan about these allegations.
Regarding relations with Iran, there are possibilities that rapprochement will continue after Iran signed an interim nuclear agreement with the P5+1 countries in November 2013.
The two parties have agreed on how to deal with the Syrian crisis and on the importance of reaching a political solution. Both parties acknowledged the threat of Kurdish activity in Syria, especially after many Islamic groups suffered losses as a result of this group’s activity. Such losses mean the Kurds are influential on ground, and this worries both the Iranians and the Turks. Both parties also agreed on diminishing the power of extremist Islamist parties in Syria because they pose a threat to neighboring countries, particularly to Turkey.
Iran arrested Iranian businessman Babak Zanjani over his involvement in the corruption scandal in Turkey. This decision implies that Hassan Rowhani’s government desires to avoid anything that may negatively affect Turkish-Iranian relations. Rowhani, through this decision, also aims to prove his good intentions to the West.
The Turkish government desires to forge economic gains through its relationship with Iran. This is pushing Turkey to take up the role of Iran’s strategic ally. Therefore, Iranian-Turkish cooperation may serve western economic interests, and it also serves the moderate movement in Iran.
Turkey’s influence in the wider Middle East decreased after the Muslim Brotherhood was toppled from power in Egypt. Erdogan’s ambition to play a dominating role in the region collapsed so he decided to offer up Turkey as the site for the international Muslim Brotherhood to regroup. Turkey hosted several meetings for the group, implying that it will continue championing its cold policy towards Egypt’s new leadership. In addition to that, there are accusations that the Turkish government is involved in smuggling arms to Egypt.
Moving westwards, tension between Ankara and Washington occurred after the exposure of corruption orchestrated since 1999. Erdogan reached the point of threatening to take measures including expelling some Western envoys. Erdogan hinted at expelling the American envoy who accused Turkey’s Central Bank of sponsoring transactions with Iran. American statements officially stated that the scandal was a purely Turkish affair, however the escalation in tension indicates that the U.S. does not give blessings to the idea of Erdogan remaining at the top of the Turkish political system in the long run.
What Turkey is currently going through will help decide Erdogan’s future. The upcoming Istanbul municipality elections and the upcoming local elections will be a real test for the Justice and Development party’s fate.
The year 2013 was full of clear setbacks regarding Turkish foreign policy, considering the tension between Turkey and many Arab countries. In 2014, Turkey may witness many changes in which Erdogan might be the loser, especially if he chooses to adopt a confrontational stance against such opposition figures as Gulen.