Will Turkey follow Venezuela’s lead?

Very few countries have rallied to the defense of Nicolas Maduro after he refused to step down at the end of his presidential term last month. Maduro claims a second term based on the results of May 20, 2018 elections, but most observers inside and outside Venezuela dismissed those polls as flawed and invalid. After all, Maduro had banned most opposition parties from challenging him and, in turn, most Venezuelans stayed home. Constitutionally, this leaves it to Venezuela’s National Assembly to choose an interim president until a successor is chosen. They chose that body’s president, Juan Guaido.

It is Guaido whom the United States, European states, and an increasing number of Latin American countries now recognize as Venezuela’s rightful ruler. Supporting Maduro? China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and Turkey.

That communist states and anti-Western dictatorships support Maduro does not surprise. Neither Russia nor Iran care that Venezuela may be on the brink of starvation, with millions fleeing into neighboring Colombia; rather, in their zero sum view of the world, they excuse any regime so long as it orients itself against the West. Put another way, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Iranian leader Ali Khamenei embrace Maduro’s regime in Venezuela for much the same reason as they do Bashar Assad’s murderous regime in Syria. Further, any Russian military base is off-the-table if the Venezuelan people are allowed to have their say.

Turkey’s, or rather President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s, support for Maduro was initially ideological. Erdogan and Maduro cultivated their relationship over visits to each others’ capitals, bonding over their mutual antipathy to U.S. influence and Western liberal dominance of the post-World War II global order. Both Maduro and Erdogan also embraced ideologies which sought to change fundamentally their country’s cultures and society. For Maduro, it was fruition of the socialist Bolivarian revolution initiated by late president Hugo Chavez, for whom he served as vice president, and for Erdogan, his stated project is to resurrect the religiosity of Turkish society, albeit not with traditional Anatolian Islam, but rather a Muslim Brotherhood-infused strain. Turkey’s Erdogan-dominated state media promoted the hashtag, #WeAreMaduro.

Today, however, it is fear of precedent that leads Erdogan once again to align himself with the club of the world’s worst dictatorships. He still rails against official Washington’s refusal to call Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi’s assumption of power to be a coup. Erdogan shared ideological affinity with Mohamed Morsi, the ousted president and Muslim Brotherhood acolyte. The spark for the current crisis in Venezuela was domestic and international refusal to recognize a flawed election against a government crackdown on the opposition and polling. This strikes too close to home for Erdogan, because he has drawn from the same toolbox as Chavez and Maduro in terms of election manipulation. The current imprisonment in Turkey of opposition leaders like Selahattin Demirtaş, charismatic leader of the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party is another obvious parallel between the two regimes’ tactics.

Erdogan must also worry about the economy. He has dominated Turkey for 15 years. While he initially enjoyed some economic success (both due to his party’s commonsense economic reforms as well as a demographic dividend) Turkey’s economy now teeters on the brink. The currency has hemorrhaged value, a recent strengthening notwithstanding. Outside investing firms have assigned Turkish bonds junk status. Rule-of-law no longer applies to investments in Turkey, as Erdogan spuriously confiscates or taxes into oblivion holdings owned by political rivals. Private debt has created a banking bubble which has no easy solution. Turkey may be far healthier than Venezuela right now, but a decade more of Erdogan’s rule may set Turkey down an economic path not dissimilar to that Venezuela has experienced.

That said, there are ample reasons why the Venezuelan precedent may not apply to Turkey.

In Guaido, Maduro faces a young, charismatic, and bold challenger. The opposition in Turkey is moribund. Turkish political party laws essentially make each party a dictatorship over which party leaders preside with little fear of accountability should they fail to advance their movements. Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahceli, one of Turkey’s most uncharismatic leaders, has led his party to a string of election defeats. Even his supporters say that a more charismatic leader might double the party’s poll results. To compensate for his failure to achieve anything at the polls, Bahceli has entered into an alliance with Erdogan in which Bahceli gets no power, but can enjoy whatever scraps the Turkish president throws him from his table. Republican Peoples Party leader Kemal Kılıcdaroglu may be more intellectual, but he also now has a string of failures under his belt. At 70-years-old, he is not a youthful face which can rally Turks but, as with Bahceli, he has become too addicted to the trappings of power within his own party and cares little if his fiefdom becomes increasingly irrelevant to broader Turkish society. Meral Aksener dramatically broke with the MHP to form the Good Party, but she also disappointed in the polls, and increasingly plays the role of loyal opposition. It is not simply Demirtas’ imprisonment which handicaps the HDP, but rather that Erdogan managed to imprison him with few consequences. For all their press releases, HDP members did not take to the streets in significant numbers.

If Turkey’s political parties could embrace a new generation of leaders, one whose legacy is not consistent failure at the polls, Erdogan would have reason to fear. If the Turkish public were willing to take to the streets in the face of the abuses they suffer, as they did at Gezi Square in 2013, they might acquire a momentum which might force Erdogan to confront his future. Erdogan can take solace in the opposition’s current weakness, but he is right to worry: If the Turks decided to follow the path paved by Venezuelans in order to restore democracy and rule-of-law, Erdogan like Maduro might find himself suddenly short of international allies willing to pay diplomatic lip service to his legitimacy.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he researches Arab politics, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran, Iraq, the Kurds, terrorism, and Turkey. He concurrently teaches classes on terrorism for the FBI and on security, politics, religion, and history for US and NATO military units.

A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre- and postwar Iraq, and he spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. He is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring Iranian history, American diplomacy, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016), “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Dr. Rubin has a Ph.D. and an M.A. in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a B.S. in biology.

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