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Erdogan will be haunted by local election defeats

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered an important setback in last week’s elections. It lost in three important cities: Istanbul, Ankara and Adana. However, the ruling party objected to the published results, claiming there were irregularities and asking for a recount.

With a view to motivating his supporters, Erdogan repeatedly said during the election campaign: “Who loses Istanbul, loses Turkey.” This is because, economically, politically and culturally, Istanbul is Turkey’s major power.

The main reason for the loss of these major cities is economic. Erdogan declared, therefore, that the AKP will assess the results and take measures accordingly. But this article will focus on the foreign policy implications of the elections.

As a result of successive miscalculations, the ruling party has cast a shadow on its relations with many countries in the region and beyond; relations with the US being one of them. Some of Turkey’s problems with America have been dragging on for years, such as the question of the extradition of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania for more than 20 years. Another issue — Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system — has now become pressing because of the impending delivery of the first batch in July.

The US has repeatedly informed Turkey that, if these missiles are deployed, it will not deliver its state-of-the-art F-35 fighter aircraft to Ankara. However, about 800 of the aircraft’s components are manufactured by Turkish companies and, for some of them, they are the sole manufacturer. US company Lockheed Martin, which is the mother company for the F-35, has already started to look for alternatives to manufacture the components.

The US is sending contradictory messages to Turkey. While US Vice President Mike Pence has been threatening Ankara with not delivering the F-35s, a Pentagon spokesman used a different narrative. He said last week that the delivery and activities regarding the operational capacity of the F-35s have been suspended, but added: “Our dialogue with Turkey is still going on.” Furthermore, the Pentagon last week announced that one more F-35 is being sent to Arizona for the training of Turkish pilots. There are now three F-35s that have been delivered to Turkey and their pilots’ training continues without interruption.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu participated in a NATO meeting in Washington on Thursday and was able to see for himself the degree of resentment against Turkey’s S-400 missiles deal. He did his best to explain the logic of Turkey’s purchase, but to what extent he was able to persuade his interlocutors remains unclear.

Controversy between Turkey and the US continues in Syria too. During talks with his Turkish counterpart, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed support for the ongoing negotiations regarding northeast Syria, but — hinting at Turkey’s intention to carry out a military operation to the east of the Euphrates— warned of the “potentially devastating consequences” of such a move.

Before the March 31 elections, Turkey’s planned military operation was an incentive to boost the votes of the nationalist electorate. If this was the real motive, Turkey may now give up this idea because of its incalculable consequences. The supply of weapons and ammunition to the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) continues unabated, despite Turkey’s strong objection.

To counterbalance Turkey’s shaky relations with NATO — or to add insult to injury —Erdogan will on Monday visit Russia. Together with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he will co-chair a High-Level Cooperation Council meeting and hold a tete-a-tete meeting. Most probably Syria and the “S-400 versus F-35” question will dominate the talks, because they are the stickiest problems and there has been little progress on either.

There are media reports about another visit by Erdogan to Russia on April 21, but this time to Crimea to attend, upon Putin’s invitation, the inauguration of a mosque in Simferopol. If this visit takes place, it will be an important deviation from Turkey’s policy, which does not recognize Crimea’s annexation by the Russian Federation.

With this invitation, Putin may have wished to demonstrate his solidarity with Erdogan on the question of the International Islamic Brigade, composed of Crimean Tartars, which he considers a terrorist organization. The establishment of this organization was supported by Erdogan in August 2015. This visit will definitely contribute to strengthening Turkish-Russian relations, but will antagonize the US and Ukraine, with whom Turkey maintains good relations.

Erdogan will try to reduce the backlog of official visits that he had to postpone because of the elections, but the results of the votes will haunt the minds of his interlocutors for both the strengths and weaknesses of Turkey’s democracy and judiciary.
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