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Turkey Analysis: Erdogan's "One Leader, One Nation, One Market" --- Will It Succeed?

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoganIt is a busy and tricky time for the Erdogan Government : relations stuck with the European Union, a possible peace process to solve the Kurdish question, the long-awaited new Constitution, prospects of switching to a Presidential system, and next year's elections.

>The combination requires finely-adjusted diplomatic steps with opposition parties. For instance, the support of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) takes on importance in the Constitution-making process, while the main opposition faction, the Republican People's Party (CHP), has a role in the consensus over counter-terrorism.

So how to hold all this together? Despite some inconsistencies by the Government in its approach, there are three notions that are immutable: "One Leader, One Nation, One Market".

One Leader

With few objections, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sits atop the Justice and Development Party (AKP).  One day, Minister for the European Union, Egemen Bagis, calls Erdogan "the most successful Prime Minister of Turkey". The next, Vice Premier Bekir Bozdag says, "Only one Erdogan comes in 79 years."

It was Erdogan who said, following his controversial remarks equating abortion with murder, "As the Prime Minister of this country, I am responsible for every issue". It was Erdogan who described the monument of freedom in the eastern province of Kars as a "freak" and instructed officials to remove it. It was Erdogan who intervened over a TV series, "Magnificient Century",  about the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificient in the 16th century --- since "it was not reflecting the true history", Erdogan said, "We are expecting the juducuary to give the decision required." It can be only Erdogan who "instructed" his Vice Premier to start working on legalizing the right to a legal defence in a mother language. 

The Prime Minister projects his leadership over a unified country even when he puts out comments of division. Speaking last month about the assassination of three Kurdish activists, Erdogan chided, “Did we have to make funeral ceremonies for those killed in Paris in Diyarbakir?" The judiciary stepped in to conduct an investigation of the funerals.

One Nation

At a time when hopes are high for a solution to the Kurdish problem, using the European Union as a target --- even as Turkey applies to join it --- can keep criticisms by nationalist party at bay.

Two weeks ago, Erdogan was clear, "Turkey does not need the EU; the EU needs Turkey." But at the same time, in official visits to Prague and Budapest, Erdogan said that Ankara's recent flirtation with the Shangai Cooperation Organization does not alter its path to EU membership.

Then the Prime Minister slapped down the Europeans. He said countries in economic crisis had "failed", while Turkey with its "5% average growth for 10 years" could contribute not only in economic terms but also in "struggling against racism":

We have been listening to this EU adventure within the very same equation's boundaries. The reforms are supposedly important and they are good for us, even though there are some obstacles. This is what we are told.

The Minister for the EU, Egemen Bagis, has taken a more conciliatory line with talk of “Europe-modernisation” and Ankara's progress to match the EU, rather than leading it:  "Income, human rights standard, hygiene standard, education quality, health quality, transportation quality, freedom of speech, freedom of press... The EU standards are the highest.” 

However, Bagis was not so conciliatory on the issue of Cyprus, and Erdogan was even tougher in a speech in Bratislava: “There is no such state as Cyprus.”

Beyond the rhetoric, Turkish leaders know that it is the EU that holds the ultimate power when it comes to negotiations. These statements, however, are not primarily designed for Europe; they are planned to maintain authority at home. 

That authority extends to a complicated, difficult peace process over the Kurdish issue. The hope is that Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish insurgency PKK, will issue a decree to his militia to retreat outside Turkish territory, with Prime Minister Erdogan guaranteeing that they will not be targeted.

This will have to come through mutual confidence-building measures, however. That is why Ankara's language is so important: Ocalan must be recognised, as the PKK leader, as having his own authority --- but not enough to pose a lasting challenge to Erdogan and his One Nation. The same goes for opposition parties, across the spectrum from Nationalists to the pro-Kurdish BDP.

One Market

For Erdogan, the path to his "One Nation" authority comes through "One Market" in Turkey. Recently, he linked the Kurdish issue --- "terrorism" will only set you back --- to his call for neo-liberal economics for all: without this, the Kurdish centre of "Diyarbakir could not become a Gaziantep", a "more advanced" industrial  area.

Economics also provides a lever for the State's --- and thus Erdogan's --- power. The draft bill on “Prevention of Terrorism’s Finance” allows the Government to freeze the assets of firms if the committee linked to the Prime Minister's offices decides that the companies are associated with terrorist activities.

The Prime Minister has a looming problem, however. Economic indicators point to a future for the world’s 18th-biggest economy that does not fit the Prime Minister's narrative of unchecked progress.

Ankara's foreign trade deficit was almost $6 billion in September and its net foreign debt is more $203 billion. While the "One Market" booms with privatisation --- more than $30 billion in the last 10 years --- the minimum wage for millions of Turks creeps up only slightly. In the 2011 Human Development Report, Turkey was 92th out of 187 countries, while it fell to 154th out of 197 countries in the 2013 Press Freedom Index. 

That economic and social position --- more than the opposition parties, more than the Kurdish issue, more than Syria's complication for Turkish foreign policy --- is the biggest challenge to Erdogan's "One Leader, One Nation, One Market".

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