ISTANBUL BLOG: What’s with the silence President Erdogan?

ISTANBUL BLOG: What’s with the silence President Erdogan?
Billboards featuring Erdogan close to Taksim Square, Istanbul, reading “You won't be able to subjugate him, you won't be able to bring him to his knees, you will not succeed.”
By Editorial March 6, 2019

It sometimes seems that hardly a day goes by without Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacting to a perceived slight against his nation or authority. But that’s not been the case lately. Despite being on the campaign trail for the upcoming local elections, the populist strongman has fallen uncharacteristically silent on issues you would normally expect him to snap at like an angry crocodile.

Erdogan, as noted by a March 6 Bloomberg report, had nothing to say at four campaign stops about President Donald Trump’s decision to strip some Turkish exporters of their preferential trade status, while he also kept mum about US pressure for Turkey to halt its planned purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system and install a multinational force in a planned Syria safe zone, over Ankara’s objections.

So what’s with the silence Mr President? The consensus seems to be that with the March 31 elections now being seen as a referendum on his long rule—given the economic turmoil Turkey has slipped into since halfway through last year—the very last thing Erdogan wants is a new political crisis that would send markets crashing.

Even whispers are problematic
So fragile is Turkey’s attempt at an economic rebound that ahead of March 6’s Turkish rate-setters’ meeting, analysts were saying that even whispers of monetary loosening might send the markets into a tizzy. As it happened, there were no surprises with the central bank opting to hold the benchmark rate at 24%, but there are such jitters on the market over the S-400 row and other difficulties that the Turkish lira still weakened by around 0.8% by the end of the March 7 trading day. By around 16:30 local time on March 8, it had lost another 0.25% against the dollar, taking it to 5.44.

True to say, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu did issue a retort to the US over its S-400 cancellation demand, saying: “If we are Nato allies and if we are supposed to deepen our solidarity, then you will sell it [alternative American military hardware which the Turks claim they have been denied] when Turkey asks for it. If you don’t want to give it, then don’t interfere with Turkey’s purchase from another country outside Nato.”

But there was no word from the big man.

P.S. With great timing, shortly after this piece was written reports popped up of Erdogan breaking his silence on the S-400 beef with the US. You might think he didn’t mince his words—stating that Turkey would not go back on the missile system deal with the Kremlin and adding that it might also explore buying the S-500, he told broadcaster Kanal 24 that “it’s done. There can never be a turning back. This would not be ethical, it would be immoral. Nobody should ask us to lick up what we spat”—but this was not the Erdogan we know. It was essentially a passive response given in reaction to questions posed in an interview, unlike the usual delivery of his rhetoric made on the front foot. Erdoganologists might still conclude that the man is subdued.

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