Are Erdoğan’s reform plans, EU embrace a shedding of his political skin?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in recent weeks has softened his discourse by announcing far-reaching reforms in the fields of economy, democracy and the state of law, as well as an embrace of the West as he underlines Turkey’s future in the EU.

But is this new seeming change of direction an effective shedding of his political skin or is Turkey’s strongman playing the survival game amid an economic downturn and foreign misadventures during his ruling party’s 18th year in power?

It is evident that the victory of U.S president elect Joe Biden and the approaching EU Summit in December provides has provided a fruitful arena for Erdoğan to demonstrate the new “vision”that he would like to take on.

A look at the AKP’s foundation and history provides us with enough information to analyse the current discourse of Turkey’s strongman.

His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power alone following the general elections of Nov. 3, 2002 and with the sole authority it has maintained for almost two decades, the AKP has transformed from a parliamentary into a one-man regime.

During this period, the country has moved backwards rather than forward, in almost all of the promises made by the AKP.

Most of the founding members of then AKP are now distanced from both Erdoğan and also AKP. Abdüllatif Şener, a founding member of the party and also a former minister of economy, is today a lawmaker with the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Şener was one of the first to have left AKP and start his own party.

Mehmet Bekaroğlu, a former right-wing politician, is also with the CHP. Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoğlu, both founding members of AKP, have started their own parties. Abdullah Gül, the first Prime Minister and then President under the AKP rule, is now an outcast. It should be noted here that Erdoğan and Gül were then so close that Erdoğan would call him “my own brother.’’ The list includes, but is not limited to the aforementioned names.

The current situation has been disappointing for the cadre, who, alongside with Erdoğan, used to represent the “soul’’ of the Islamist Milli Görüş (National Outlook) movement, during the foundation and coming to power of the AKP.

Democratic backsliding has gained traction following the failed coup attempt of 2016. A two-year state of emergency rule was declared in the aftermath of the coup attempt in the country and decree laws were introduced, making it possible to bypass legislative and judicial procedures, which exacerbated democratic backsliding even further.

Moreover, constitutional amendment of 2017, which led to the recognition of a one-man regime in the country and the general elections of 2018, the first executive presidential election that resulted in the victory of Erdoğan, reinforced the new one-man regime, giving him sweeping powers. All of these political developments put Turkey under an even more severe political-economical and judicial burden.

Fast forward to Nov. 11, when Erdoğan stated at the party’s caucus on that the government had gone full force on reforms and are now going into a new phase, characterized by the consolidation of economy, democracy and the state of law. Later on November the 21st, he attended via video calls a number of party congresses taking place in different cities and took his remarks one step further, by signalling a new vision.

Erdoğan’s remarks arrive ahead of the EU Summit on Dec.10-11,  when the bloc may impose possible sanctions on Turkey .

Erdoğan over the weekend also said he sees Turkey’s future in Europe, which could be perceived as a signal to a westward policy, in sharp contrast with his previous remarks of “EU goes in their own way, we go in ours”.

Voicing his expectation that there shall not be sanctions against Turkey, following the summit in Brussels, Erdoğan went on to say the following:

“We do not believe that there is a problem between us and any country or institution, which is not solvable through politics, diplomacy and dialogue… We have always kept these channels open, and we will always do so.”

Meanwhile, Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın, instead of Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, visited Brussels ahead of the summit and established a number of contacts with the members of the EU Commission and certain other officials.

It is believed that Kalın has gained power against Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun, especially following the resignation of Berat Albayrak, former Minister of Economy, who also happens to be the son-in-law of Erdoğan. It is also noted within the political circles that the Albayrak-Altun-Pelican Group – an influential wing in the AKP - connection was damaged following the resignation and Kalın now has the upper hand in the highly underpinned contention between Kalın and Altun.

Kalın confirmed the European and EU implications in Erdoğan’s messages, during TV program he attended after the negotiations in Brussels.

“We need to adopt to the changes, we need to introduce new laws. The EU perspective is still crucial, is not lost. New legislations will be introduced, which would enhance the democratic rights and freedoms of our citizens,’’ Kalın said.

Biden’s victory was accompanied by the resignation of Albayrak and the change in the governor of Turkish Central Bank. Albayrak was crucial in managing the channels of diplomacy with the Donald Trump administration through Jared Kushner, former U.S. President Donald Trump's own son-in-law. Murat Uysal, the former governor of the Central Bank, had state-run Halkbank -indicted last year for its role in circumventing U.S. sanctions against Iran between 2010 and 2016 -on his resume.

Looking abroad, even though Turkey’s relations with Russia is portrayed to be going smoothly, it is obvious that the results envisaged by the governing party are not being achieved in Libya, Syria or Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey has become an outcast in the conflict with the Azerbaijan-Russia-Armenia agreement, where Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to halt fighting over the disputed region early in November in a pact signed with Russia. Now Turkey is trying to win a token presence by sending soldiers to jointly Turkish-Russian operated observation centre in Azerbaijan, presenting it as a “big victory” to the domestic public opinion.

In war-torn Libya, there is an ongoing ceasefire and peace process with Cairo and Tunisia, which will culminate in an election in the December of 2021. Turkey does not play an active role there, either. In contrast, Russia, France and Egypt play highly active roles in the process.

Both Turkey’s foreign policy and economy has becoming increasingly dire and the aim of the government is to defuse the recent tension in the society and to narrow the space of the opposition.

But the biggest dilemma of Erdoğan is that he is parliament bound to junior coalition partner, National Movement Party (MHP), and its leader Devlet Bahçeli, who has been in an alliance with the ruling party for the last years. This alliance hinders Erdoğan from materializing what he has preached and from taking on his new “outlook”. Bahçeli and MHP imply that they are not really in favour of those steps, by the threat letters they convey through the mafia.

However, it seems that Erdoğan has decided to take a step back following the threats from MHP. Last Sunday, Erdoğan slammed Presidential High Advisory Board member and former deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç over his remarks criticising the jailing of philanthropist Osman Kavala and Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş.Earlier this May, Cemil Çiçek, former Justice Minister and a member of the High Advisory Council of the Presidency, criticized beating of the journalist, Barış Pehlivan, by the prison guards.

Erdoğan expressed, in a party congress he attended via video call on November 22, that the comments by Arınç and Çiçek, without addressing to them explicitly, are their personal opinion and not his concern.

All of the latest developments signal that nothing will essentially change for the Turkish government and Erdoğan has no intention of realizing the uttered promises, despite his softened discourse.

Both the hesitation and uncertainty regarding the materialization of those steps and the so-called reform intentions appear to only be for show and any steps that Erdoğan might take apart from this would come as a complete surprise.