Jun 03 2018

The upcoming elections might surprise all of us, says Turkey expert

Senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think tank, Dr. Aykan Erdemir holds that the upcoming presidential elections might have a big surprise in store for Turkey.

During a video talk with Ahval's Yavuz Baydar and Ilhan Tanir on the newly released FDD report entitled "Erdogan's hostage diplomacy," Erdemir said, "Turkey's opposition will gain a majority in June 24, and the second round will be a close one. This is an educated guess based on polls."

Erdemir also said there is an "unpronounced skepticism" in Washington over "whether Turkey can have fair and free elections,’’ with many Turkey watchers claiming that Erdoğan will find a way to rig the ballot boxes.

The senior fellow at FDD said he belongs to a small minority that sees "a transformation in electoral psyche in Turkey. We might be all surprised on the night of July 8th. We might be seeing the beginning of a new Turkey which is back on track to becoming a liberal democracy with checks and balances and rule of law."

When asked whether Erdogan would consider serving as a main opposition party leader if he loses the election, Erdemir said, "He has burned bridges not just with the whole of the opposition, but also with many within the [AKP] party. This desperation makes him committed to extra democratic means to sustain his iron grasp on the Turkish political system."

Erdemir co-authored the report with former United States ambassador to Turkey, Eric Edelman and listed 40 foreign nationals, who were either arrested in the past or still remain behind bars in Turkey, under what the report calls "Erdogan's hostage diplomacy.’’

Erdemir said that as the United States gets closer to the November congressional elections, "the pressure from the American public and the U.S. Congress on the U.S. administration to take an action against the Turkish government's unjust detentions of US nationals will increase."

The case of Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for over 20 years and was arrested more than 18 months ago on charges of espionage and terrorism, has gained international attention. However, there are also other lesser known U.S. nationals or dual nationals that are living behind bars.

"When look at the details of these cases you see that there is not a shred of evidence even though they are waiting for months to see their indictments. They often have to defend themselves against secret witnesses who cannot be effectively cross examined or are not at all credible. All of these developments have led to increased calls for a range of sanctions on Turkey," Erdemir noted.

Erdemir argued that there is a close connection between Erdoğan's hostage diplomacy and the various methods being pushed for sanctioning Ankara, such as potential halt of the transfer of F-35 new generation U.S. jets to Turkey.

There seems to be a "delicate balance" before the U.S. congressional races in November, according to Erdemir. On the one hand, there will be louder calls for sanctioning Ankara, but the U.S. administration's "bureaucrats have to walk a tightrope; they know the legitimacy of these complaints" about the Turkish administration. However, "they want to maintain minimum level of cordial relations with NATO member, Turkey." Therefore there are two sides on the issue of Turkey: "those who want immediate tough actions" against Turkey and those "who want to continue silent diplomacy behind closed doors."

Erdemir foresees that if no action or progress is made with regards to the U.S. nationals being detained in Turkey, then "the U.S. electorate ve congressmen might view this failure as opportunity to punish congressmen and put pressure on Congress as well as the U.S. administration."

"Erdogan is lucky that the world is going through an isolationist phase. Left and right populism are on the rise at the same time. Erdogan likes to divide and conquer and he wants to move these issues via bilateral relations in European countries," Erdemir opines and "this allows Erdogan to extract concessions from his counterparts. Though he hasn't been successful so far."

Erdogan's hostage diplomacy is tarring Turkey's global image, the FDD senior fellow notes. ‘’It has been extremely costly for Turkey. It is an ill-designed, ill-executed and self-defeating policy."

When talks about a coordination of a transatlantic alliance between the European countries and the U.S. administration against the Erdogan policies, Erdemir thinks Erdogan's "reluctance to release these individuals might unintentionally bring the parties together."

Erdemir points out that we are already witnessing harsher discourse  in Berlin and Washington and Erdogan's strong anti-Western stance "might push the transatlantic community to move together" against his government.

In reference to the new U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it is "safe to assume that there are greater risks and opportunities in bilateral relations. Pompeo will be more about action and less about talk. U.S-Turkish relations have mostly revolved around rhetorical issues until now. We are entering a new phase where we can see a greater opportunity for cooperation but at the same time greater 'push back from the U.S. not only because Pompeo has strong views on Syria and the Middle East, but also has strong convictions on religious freedom issues," Erdemir said.

Pompeo belongs to the very same church as imprisoned Brunson which is the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Erdemir noted. "It would be extremely difficult for Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to argue" that Brunson "is a spy, or a coup plotter. No single piece of evidence the 62-page of indictment indicates that."

The "release of indictment" on Brunson "made bilateral relations even worse, according to Erdemir. Until then, there was a tiny bit of probability that Brunson might have crossed the line. As soon as the indictment was released, the mumbled collection of outrageous conspiracy theories became unveiled.

‘’It is Impossible for any U.S. official to take this seriously," Erdemir noted.

Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu, who will be in the United States on Monday, has a tough challenge ahead of him.