Those hoping for a more Western-oriented Turkey were deeply disappointed to see Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan succeeding to get re-elected in Spring, even if the opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu made it to the second round.
Erdogan has been playing both the West and its geostrategic rivals, while Turkey is at the same time a member of NATO. Following his re-election, Erdogan seems to be keen on rapprochement with the West, which may even land him a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden.
Still, skepticism is warranted. European diplomats reportedly want Turkey to first end locking up members of the opposition and counter corruption more effectively. Still, it should be welcomed that Erdogan is no longer talking up his “special relationship” with Russia, something which he did only three months ago, while he also agreed with Sweden’s entry into NATO after blocking this for one year, even if Turkey’s Parliament still needs to approve this. Some more Turkish foot-dragging is a possibility.
For Turkish savers, it is also welcome news to see Erdogan abandoning his failing policy of lowering interest rates in order to combat sky-high inflation, if this policy turn lasts. Also here, however, there still is a long way to go, and losing the financial firepower loose monetary policy provides the government is not going to be a walk in the park for Erdogan if he wants to maintain his already diminished popularity.
All of this is evidence that the efforts of the opposition have not been in vain, despite the fact that they have failed to boot out Erdogan.
In any case, it was always wrong to describe Turkey as a full-fledged dictatorship, as some Western analysts have done. Important to keep in mind here is that the mayors of the two biggest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, are opponents of the Turkish President. Something similar is unfortunately unthinkable in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Fundamentally, a key problem for Turkey, whoever is in charge, is the deep-seated corruption. In the most recent corruption perceptions index of Transparency International, Turkey is ranked only at the 101th spot, out of 180 countries. For a major economy, which is part of NATO and enjoys tariff-free access to the European Union, this is a very low score.
Only last month, anti-corruption authorities in the United States and Sweden were reviewing a complaint alleging that the Swedish affiliate of a U.S. company pledged to pay tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks if a son of Erdogan helped it secure a dominant market position in the country.
A lot of the corruption allegations are linked with the real estate sector, also because Erdogan’s seal of approval is required to approve the transfer of state companies’ real estate holdings.
Already in 2003, the Turkish president promised to clean up the construction sector, but in reality, years of graft have contributed to the poor quality of buildings, something which played a major role in the human toll of the terrible earthquakes the country experienced in February of this year.
Not just a Turkish problem
There’s more. The consequences of Turkey’s deep-seated corruption may well extend beyond Turkey.
In Vietnam, allegations of irregularities surrounding the largest construction project ever have surfaced, with a Turkish company and Erdogan in the spotlight.
The problem revolves around $1.5bn plans to the construction of a new terminal for Long Thanh International Airport, to serve Ho Chi Minh City. The project is one of the first opportunities for foreign companies to compete for large-scale Vietnamese government tenders, and is widely seen as a test of Vietnam’s commitment to transparency.
However, the project has so far raised serious questions about the government’s ability to make good on its promises. The uproar started after Vietnamese consortium Hoa Lu Consortium, a consortium of eight contractors, led by Vietnamese construction giant Coteccons, and Chinese consortium CHEC-BCEG-Vietnam Contractors were disqualified from bidding, while also a Chinese consortium was banned from proceeding further. That’s not only strange given how the Vietnamese consortium cooperates with Siemens, a household name, but how also as the Chinese consortium has managed to constructed big parts of Beijing and undertaken projects around the world in Sri Lanka, Colombia and Qatar.
Afterwards, Hoa Lu communicated that it had evidence that its competitor which had not been disqualified was not capable of building large projects, as for example the terminal in question.
That competitor happens to be Vietur, a consortium composed of 10 companies including Ricons, Newtecons, Sol E&C and Turkey’s IC Holdings.
To see IC Holdings mentioned reminds of allegations made by well-known Turkish journalist Abdullah Bozkurt, who wrote in June that “a revelation by a regime insider has shed light on how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has amassed billions of dollars in family wealth during his two-decade rule, which has been marked by rampant corruption in his administration.” Bozkurt thereby specified that some of “the money was given to Erdogan by Turkish businessman İbrahim Çeçen, who fraudulently won the government tender for the operating rights of Antalya Airport for his company İçtaş, part of İbrahim Çeçen Yatırım Holding (IC Holding), which participated in the tender with its German partner Fraport AG.”
In May, pro-Kurdish opposition party HKP also filed a criminal complaint against Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his close associates over this precise tender process.
A rematch for the opposition or for Erdogan?
In March 2024, local elections are coming up in Turkey. Will the opposition turn this into a rerun of the lost Presidential election? Or will it rather be a rematch for Erdogan, to take revenge for losses in the 2019 local elections, when the opposition secured important gains?
Carnegie Council’s Alper Coşkun isn’t very optimistic for the opposition this time around, as he points out that “Türkiye’s nearly institutionalized uneven playing field makes regaining power immensely difficult once it is lost.”
In a post-election analysis of the opposition’s failures, its strategy was described by the likes of academics Burak Kadercan as an “incoherent and chaotic alternative to Erdoğan, who could present himself as a vote for stability”.
One thing is for sure: the opposition be tter get its act together. They deserve some credit for having steered Erdogan slightly away from his authoritarian course, but that is by no means guaranteed.
[Photo by President.az, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Pieter Cleppe is a Brussels-based Policy Analyst, dealing with EU affairs, Brexit, and the Eurozone. He’s the Editor-in-Chief of brusselsreport.eu, an International Research Fellow at U.S. think tank Property Rights Alliance, a columnist for U.S. National Review Online, The Daily Telegraph, The Spectator and a frequent commentator in European and international media.