Turkey tops the list of countries to watch in the Middle East. Surprising shifts in domestic and foreign Turkish policy will have an important influence on the web of complex developments in the entire region.
Domestically, Turkey will be shaped by the campaign and aftermath of proposed constitutional changes being put to a referendum in April. The changes propose an executive presidency that in effect removes separation of powers and installs presidential top-down control mechanisms without any checks and balances.
The reality is that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is looking at legalising and perpetuating the emergency powers he is already enjoying while blocking avenues for credible opposition.
The result is not in the bag for Erdogan, as the “no” vote appears to lead in opinion polls. Accordingly, with more than 150 prominent journalists behind bars and independent media almost completely shut down, Erdogan-sponsored media will likely trump up the “yes” vote over the 50% mark.
Significantly, although fear politics and a plea for political stability won Erdogan elections in the past, the same tactics are likely to push voters to “no” rather than risk an uncertain systemic change.
If the proposed changes are rejected, Erdogan will hardly abandon his ambition for absolute power. Turkey will increasingly become a police state. The same changes, worded differently, will likely be put to another vote at the end of the year.
If the changes pass, Erdogan will claim it as the victory of democracy and use this as a pretext to end all political opposition, close down what remains of independent media and seize the properties of big businesses that sponsor political opponents. He will also take steps towards claiming leadership of the Muslim world.
Regardless of the referendum result, the Turkish economy will continue to decline as the inevitable outcome of authoritarianism. Erdogan will blame the decline on an international conspiracy of credit agencies, which have already dropped Turkey’s credit rating to “junk” status.
As Turkey continues to drift away from the Western block, its foreign policy will largely hinge on new US President Donald Trump. Interestingly, Erdogan was silent on Trump’s ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries to the US. Erdogan is wary of Trump’s unpredictability, especially when the US court case of businessman Reza Zarrab has the potential to take corruption allegations about his government to the international stage.
Erdogan quickly orchestrated mass arrests of Islamic State (IS) supporters in Turkey days before the new CIA director’s first foreign visit to Turkey. By positioning himself as a staunch enemy of IS, Erdogan aims to win Trump as a key ally to support his plans for leadership of the Muslim world.