Turkey’s opposition and the need for a paradigm shift  

In the political thinking and practice of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) regime, Western norms, standards, principles and values are increasingly considered to be impediments to political action. 

This is the mark of a major shift for Turkey, which is divided between at least two poles: the “official Turkey”, that is, the pro-regime bloc and several opposition parties, looks openly and proudly anti-Western. 

The remaining opposition has stayed more or less committed to Western norms, standards, principles and values. However, it lacks strength and room to manoeuvre in the face of a hegemonic power centre.   

The Turkish opposition is not a unified entity, but a dispersed and utterly disunited group of factions. The so-called “Istanbul Coalition” of opposition parties against the ruling regime became a hope for the future after winning the elections.

However, those in the international community committed to supporting this diverse opposition must still create new channels of communication and new ways to interact with it, both in Turkey and abroad. 

There is an urgent need to acknowledge this “other Turkey” next to the official one, as was seen in the past with anti-Francoist, anti-Fascist, anti-Nazi and anti-Stalinist oppositions in their respective countries.

For that purpose, Turkey’s opposition should set up and develop solidarity networks – “Friends of Democratic Turkey” – in every country and in every field of expertise to become the privileged interlocutors of the Western institutions and their implementing partners. 

It goes without saying that solidarity networks would encompass already existing structures in various countries and fields. 

In parallel, a recognised and empowered new diaspora could in turn become a channel for reaching out to pro-Western civil society within Turkey thanks to existing bonds, thereby realising a three-way interaction amongst the Western institutions and their implementing partners, the worldwide solidarity networks, and Turkey’s hibernating civil society.

Westerners and especially Europeans have sizeable investments in Turkish industry. Of the reported 180 billion euros of foreign direct investment stock in Turkey, some 75 percent is of EU origin. There are 22,000 foreign companies entirely or partially controlled by EU capital operating in Turkey, of which circa 7,000 are German, 3,000 British and 2,800 Dutch. 

The 2018 volume of trade in goods between Turkey and the EU is also high and was worth 154 billion euros, an amount corresponding to 3.9 percent of the EU’s total trade, whereas the U.S.-Turkey trade volume hovers at around 20 billion dollars.

European Investment Bank loans to Turkey exceed 30 billion euros, those of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development hover at around 11 billion euros. The World Bank, as well as the Council of Europe’s Development Bank, is fully involved in extending cheap credit to Turkey thanks to its status as a country negotiating for EU membership. 

National lending institutions have also loaned billions to Turkey, including France’s AfD and Germany’s KfW. Europeans are keen to preserve their assets, to keep business going and to avoid the wrath of Erdoğan, which might jeopardise their holdings. 

But the Western policy of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” at a time when the rule of law is constantly being eroded in Turkey could put their assets at risk anyway, as we have recently witnessed with the swap trading scandal in late March. 

And besides, it is Western economic largesse that has in large part ensured the Turkish regime’s longevity. European and international investment or development banks, particularly through the financing of big infrastructural projects and arms sales, are lending a precious helping hand to Erdoğan, whose long series of environmentally unfriendly and inhumane have buttressed his regime by creating jobs and fuelling nationalism.

Overall, the West’s wariness and spinelessness have stopped producing results when it comes to Turkey, which now appears heedless of its NATO membership obligations, is working at cross-purposes with its Western partners in the Middle East, and is determined to go its own way in the hunt for fossil fuels in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

The recent spat with the United States over the Erdoğan regime’s planned purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems is a glaring example of how far Ankara’s axis has shifted to Russia’s pole. 

Western policy makers should acknowledge that the status of “negotiating candidate country with the EU” has provided Turkey with the opportunity to borrow vast sums from EU bodies and international financial institutions. 

To pretend that negotiations are proceeding when they are not keeps the credit lines open to Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime. It is obvious that such brinkmanship is unsustainable, and we need a paradigm shift to reflect upon the post-candidacy era of Turkey-EU relations as well as Turkey’s overall relations with the West. 

Likewise, we must not succumb to the temptation to look on electoral setbacks to the ruling party as a sign of Turkey’s democratic resilience. There was an almost co-ordinated outcry among Turkey observers in the West (many of whom are of Turkish origin) to point at this resilience after the March 31 local elections, in which opposition parties scored significant victories in most of the country’s big cities.

But March 31 was not a fair election, and nor were its recent predecessors. In the April 2017 constitutional referendum, the Supreme Election Council ruled as votes were being counted that it would count ballots that did not include the official security stamp, unless these could be proven fraudulent. The outcome of the referendum is understood to have been tipped in favour of the ruling party by the millions of votes this decision rendered as valid.  

By overlooking a grossly unfair and non-free campaign and ignoring the near-total ban of Kurdish politicians and the way results were challenged by the regime, these apologists are distorting reality. 

They should be countered with concrete data and facts, including the non-binding recommendations of the Council of Europe observer mission as well as OSCE ODIHR reports on past elections.

Even if opposition politicians are elected, this does not ensure they are able to carry out their role as representatives. The Turkish government appointed nearly 100 trustees to replace Kurdish mayors in Turkey’s southeastern region after previous local elections in 2014. 

In light of this, I was lucky to host about a half dozen experts, journalists, activists and opinion makers in April to take the pulse of Washington and discuss a way to break the current deadlock. 

In Washington, during meetings with Congressional offices, some of the leading Congressional commissions, think tank scholars and officials, we remarked that the Erdoğan government’s human rights violations are well documented. 

The Magnitsky Act, which was already applied against two Turkish ministers last summer due to the imprisonment of American Pastor Andrew Brunson, appears to be one tool with the potential to deter the Turkish regime’s cronies and partners-in-crime. 

As “Friends of Democratic Turkey,” it is high time to organise activities to spread awareness about the Magnitsky Act and how these sanctions can be applicable for Turkish officials who engage in corruption or abuse of human rights.

The opposition diaspora also needs to increase its networks and relations with Washington and other Western capitals to robustly engage with Western governments and explain the Turkish regime’s behaviour in a detailed fashion. 

Awards should be established for journalists who unearth crime, corruption and human rights abuses at considerable risk to themselves, as should non-governmental organisations and think tanks to document abuses.

Submitting and making a case for sanctioning a certain person or organisation which helped the Turkish government perpetrate human rights violations does not need to meet the high criminal case thresholds. The opposition needs to create a narrative explaining why a certain person or organisation needs to be punished.

That would be the first step towards placing the rightful pressure on Turkish officials who have abused their positions, and the Trump administration has been using the Magnitsky Act much more forcefully than its predecessor did. 

This does not by any means indicate that it would rush to sanction Turks, given that it has tended to reserve the Act as leverage against its opponents. However, the sooner the groundwork is laid to expose the corruption and abuses, the more quickly Turkey’s opposition can start gathering momentum for sanctions.