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Turkish voters punished their ruling party in municipal elections over the weekend. That could be a good omen for America — unless the strategically crucial country has already drifted too far from Washington.
For the first time in a quarter-century, parties opposing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan scored major victories in local elections. Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP, lost eight major cities to secularist candidates. Especially stinging for the AKP were losses in the capital, Ankara, and in Istanbul, the country’s economic nerve center.
The Istanbul mayoralty was where Erdogan in 1994 launched his meteoric political career, one that has brought middle-class prosperity to millions of Turks — but at the price of the country’s democratic institutions and Western alliances.
“The people have spoken, and now they must be punished,” former New York Mayor Ed Koch bitterly quipped after losing an election. But in Turkey, things no longer work that way.
Erdogan has jailed journalists and packed independent institutions with cronies. An election defeat? Not so fast.
The government has yet to certify results in Ankara, where the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, bested Erdogan’s AKP by 2 points. Same in Istanbul, where the CHP’s victory was razor thin — but still a win.
Instead, a recount has been ordered, perhaps to be followed by another re-recount and another — until the desired results are in.
Reversing century-old secularist traditions that created an imperfect but working democracy, Erdogan presides over a system in which the number of votes counts for much less than who counts the ballots.
The question for America and its allies: Provided he accepts the results, will the shellacking force Erdogan to reassess his dreams of restoring Turkey’s lost Ottoman glory, with himself reigning as sultan? And will he rethink his ever-growing ties with ultra-nationalists at home and anti-Western forces in the region?
Erdogan has spurned former Mideast allies while extending a hand to Russia, Iran and unsavory Sunni-Muslim groups.
Early on, his foreign-policy slogan was “zero problems with neighbors.” But his affection for the Muslim Brotherhood irked Egypt and the Persian Gulf countries. And his persistent feuds with Israel (often accented by venomous anti-Semitism) strained once-tight relations with the Jewish state.
Erdogan has been at odds with pretty much all his neighbors, Iran included, though he also helped the mullahs evade sanctions at various points. Worse, his Turkey, a NATO member and once one of America’s most important allies, is now at best a frenemy.
When Ankara was trusted, America made Turkey a major partner in developing the F-35 fighter jet. Now Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu, who will attend a two-day NATO session at the State Department starting Wednesday, is struggling to finalize a delivery of these top-of-the-line aircraft.
Why? Erdogan has purchased Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft systems — a threat and an affront to the Atlantic Alliance, not least because the system could make the F-35’s advanced evasion technologies vulnerable to Russian theft.
Last week, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, head of the US European Command, advised the Senate Armed Services Committee not to “follow through” with F-35 sales to “allies that are working with Russian systems, particularly air-defense systems.” Don’t even train with such “allies,” he warned.
As Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian, now with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says, “Erdogan has realized for some time that his authoritarian regime is only welcome among other authoritarian regimes, such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela.” Turkey, he adds, “will have to wait until the post-Erdogan era to rebuild a trusting relationship with its NATO allies.”
The next presidential election is still nearly five years away. Erdogan’s hubris, which has ballooned during too many years of almost absolute power, may well prevent a foreign-policy course change. Will the weekend’s political blow give Washington some leverage over him? Will he even accept the loss?
For now, the would-be sultan seems more likely to tighten alliances with fellow anti-Western dictators.