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Earthquake, refugees, Assad may be keys to Turkey's election

Also, new era of Iran-Gulf cooperation could spill over into energy (PRO).
Turkey election

Turkey's elections:  the economy, Assad, and the earthquake

The race between incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his opponent, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is too close to call, according to an Al-Monitor/Premise poll released this week

The economy, corruption, and refugees are top voter concerns, and it’s hard to imagine Erdogan winning hearts and minds on the first two. Mustafa Sonmez has tracked the economic crisis, including breakneck inflation, skyrocketing food and energy prices, and high unemployment, which has dominated the campaign. 

A former senior diplomat with experience in Turkey observed to Al-Monitor that "what is now a current account problem will morph into a balance of payments crisis, if there is no change in fiscal or monetary policy," meaning a shift away from Erdogan's economic program.

While the economy has tanked on Erdogan’s watch, it’s also not clear that Kilicdaroglu has captivated voters with his advocacy of a return to orthodox economics. 

“Kilicdaroglu is seen as inexperienced and at least by some as weak, and his six-party right-left coalition unlikely to provide a strong government,” said James Jeffrey, who served as special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, in remarks to Al-Monitor after recently returning from Turkey. 

Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu both agree, in principle, that it could be in Turkey's interest to bury the hatchet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to facilitate the return home of 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been pushing for Assad and Erdogan to mend fences for years, and the meetings among Russian, Turkish, and Syrian officials have recently gotten some traction. Syrian Kurds, not wanting to left behind, have offered their own peace initiative to Damascus, as Amberin Zaman reports.

Assad, for his part, is in no rush, enjoying the parade of suitors championing his readmittance to the Arab League, and insisting that Erdogan make the first move by ending Turkish and Turkish proxy forces' occupation of northern Syria.  

"Assad is unlikely to change his position, even after the election,” said Jeffrey, who also served as US Ambassador to Turkey. “I don’t think there’s any there there. He’s happy to rule on the rubble.” 

For now at least, Erdogan's interest in the issue seems mostly driven by the election.  He hopes his star turn in global diplomacy, including helping broker the Russia-Ukraine Black Sea grain initiative last year, will convince voters he is the one to negotiate a return of Syrian refugees, which have been a drag on the Turkish economy.

The prospects of a Syria-Turkey deal are slim and would be loaded with risk for Ankara, whoever wins the election. Assad and Putin aren't the preferred guarantors of any arrangement with such high stakes.  But if the pieces were eventually to come together, it would be a game changer in the Middle East, effectively closing the chapter that began with the popular demonstrations against Assad in 2011.

If Erdogan loses what appears to be a close election, the take here is that it will be because he couldn’t dig out from the devastating earthquakes which hit Turkey and Syria in February. 

As we wrote then, natural disasters are more costly, by far, for democracies than dictatorships. 

“That Turkey is reasonably democratic puts Erdogan and the AKP at high risk,” said Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, co-author with Alistair Smith, of the best-selling The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

The timing of the earthquake, just three months before a close election, could not have been worse for Erdogan. Some in his inner circle even considered delaying the elections. Moreover, the quake hit home with Erdogan’s core constituency. Among the 10 Turkish provinces most affected, seven (Adiyaman, Malatya, Kilis, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaras, Osmaniye, Sanliurfa) are controlled by mayors from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP); Diyarbakir is controlled by a government-appointed trustee; and only two (Adana and Hatay) are administered by the opposition party.  

Erdogan’s earthquake dilemma stands in contrast to Assad, with no pending election or accountability to his people. For the Syrian dictator, the earthquake was a windfall, catalyzing the government’s rehabilitation in Arab circles. 

Erdogan has pledged to set up a multi-billion-dollar fund to rebuild earthquake-affected areas, but the task is daunting, as Sonmez reports. The UN estimates the damage at over $100 billion. More than 50,000 people were killed in the quakes; 1.5 million are housed in temporary shelter; and 2 million displaced. 

The fund, writes Sonmez, is “a message that Ankara is now prioritizing the country’s earthquake problem and devoting special resources to recovery efforts. Yet many sense an added objective in the run-up to the elections: to showcase the money for reconstruction and relevant spending on the campaign trail in a bid to win over disenchanted quake victims.” 

The Al-Monitor/Premise poll reveals that about half of prospective voters lost faith in the government after the earthquake. If Erdogan wins on May 14, he will have withstood one of the greatest shocks to his or any campaign.   

Improved Iran-GCC ties signal cooperation on energy 

The Iran-Saudi rapprochement could spill over into a new era of cooperation in the energy sector, writes Bijan Khajehpour for Al-Monitor Pro this week.

Much has been written about the impact of the agreement on regional files, such as Syria and Yemen, and what it means for both the US and Chinese roles in the region. 

But there is more to the story.

“Shifting political wills and increasing commercial rationales will shape the new patterns of interaction between the petroleum sectors of Iran and the GCC, but it will be a slow process,” writes Khajehpour. 

Five of the Gulf countries — Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, the UAE and Kuwait — are members of OPEC and have cooperated within the cartel in the past, despite political differences. While crude offered limited opportunities for cooperation, the shift toward more refined petroleum and petrochemical products increases the potential for trade and investment. 

Iran looks to expand collaboration in the gas sector. Iran has proven to be a valuable gas and energy exporter to Iraq, and under an improved political climate, Iranian gas could also flow to other regional markets, writes Khajehpour. In addition to the shared gas field with Qatar, Iran is seeking to build on export opportunities in Oman, for example. 

The process will be gradual, writes Khajephour, as the Gulf states will initially look for trade and product swaps, and then consider more sophisticated joint projects and co-investments. 

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