Is Erdoğan recalibrating towards Biden?

Since the recent U.S. election, there have been some developments in Turkey that could signal a change in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s approach to prepare for the transfer of power from U.S. President Donald Trump to President-elect Joe Biden.

Firstly, Erdoğan waited some 30 hours to accept the resignation of his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, as finance minister. There could be number of reasons behind his resignation, although it should be noted that Albayrak, a good friend of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner who together formed an unofficial bridge between Erdoğan and Trump, resigned on Sunday following Biden’s victory the day earlier.

One of the most repeated narratives in Turkish media has been that Erdoğan’s decision remove the governor of Turkey’s central bank, an Albayrak ally, without consulting the son-in-law led to the resignation. Erdoğan’s palace congratulated Biden a few hours after the lengthy period it took to accept Albayrak’s resignation.

There are several threads to pull on regarding Albayrak’s resignation – or rather, “request to be relieved from duty” – but maybe it is a simple matter of the Erdoğan administration no longer needing such a channel with an outgoing White House senior official.

Albayrak’s father restated the family’s loyalty for Erdoğan following rumours of Albayrak leaving the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) so the family could focus on its role in the energy and media sectors – which is said to involve oil trade with the Islamic State (ISIS) and crackdowns on free press, as detailed in a collection of the minister’s leaked e-mails.

A few days after accepting Albayrak’s resignation, Erdoğan appointed former Interior Minister Efkan Ala to the AKP’s central executive board and as deputy chairman for foreign relations.

Ala had resigned from his position as minister six weeks after the coup attempt in July 2016. Before doing so, he famously said 72 out of Turkey’s 81 provincial police chiefs were revealed to be followers of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist preacher who Ankara holds responsible for the failed putsch.

Ala, a previous governor in two Kurdish-majority provinces, was a key figure in Turkey’s peace process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) between 2013 and 2015. His return to the political scene following several years in hiatus could signal a return to some reforms and democratisation for the country, if not an outright peace process anew.

However, Ala will also likely act as a dam for the AKP against losing more of the Kurdish vote following the party’s alliance with the ultranationalist right and the impact former AKP heavyweight Ahmet Davutoğlu and his breakaway Future Party will have in Turkey’s eastern provinces.

The Kurdish vote was once split fairly evenly between the AKP and the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which the AKP accuses of ties with the PKK, a militant group designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the European Union and the United States.

However, the collapse of the peace process, the subsequent return of heavy clashes in rural and urban areas and the AKP’s Syria policy which appeared to focus on opposing Syrian Kurds seemed to have culminated in a rupture where the Kurds who turned away from the ruling party helped an opposition coalition win the mayoral seats in Istanbul and Ankara after more than two decades of AKP-aligned conservative local governments.

A third development indicating a shift in Turkey’s approach to the U.S. was could be seen in Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül alluding to operations against the HDP on Thursday. Speaking at the Symposium for Alternative Solutions in Penal Law, Gül stressed the importance of the rule of law and, more importantly, said pre-trial detentions should be used as a last resort.

“Justice should never take what it couldn’t give back in case of mistakes,” Gül said. The minister continued to say there was no basis for pre-trial imprisonment in cases where “evidence has been collected, there is no flight risk, (the suspect) has a set address, it has been years since (the crime)”.

Many among Turkey’s opposition have faced arbitrary arrests, perhaps none more than members of the HDP. The pro-Kurdish party has more than ten thousand members behind bars, including former co-chairs, several former parliamentarians and dozens of former mayors – often on trumped up charges.

In a more recent crackdown on the HDP, Turkish authorities ordered the arrest of 82 people, most of whom were party members, in a rehashing of prosecution related to the 2014 Kobani protests.

In October 2014, street protests in Turkey against an ISIS siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani resulted in the death of at least 37 people, mostly at the hands of law enforcement and fundamentalist paramilitary groups. Former HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, as well as former Kurdish deputies Gültan Kışanak, Gülser Yıldırım, Sebahat Tuncel and Aysel Tuğluk, all of whom are imprisoned, have been accused of inciting the protests, a charge they all deny. Demirtaş and Yıldırım had previously been cleared of the charges.

Issues with the judiciary have been on the forefront of Turkey’s relations with its western allies. Council of Europe has repeatedly called for the restoration of the rule of law and judicial independence.

It is still too early to know whether Erdoğan has made these changes to prepare for the start of a new chapter with Biden or if they are just a series of minor coincidences.