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Can Pakistan save Erdogan?

Facing a widening crisis at home, Erdogan goes on a charm offensive in Pakistan.

Last updated: 03 Jan 2014 09:51
Malik Ayub Sumbal

Malik Ayub Sumbal is an award-winning journalist currently based in Islamabad.
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While Erdogan was in Pakistan, calls for him to resign grew [Reuters]

The time seemed right to most observers, the place not entirely thought out. Why would the sitting, though troubled, prime minister of a country visit another sitting, but less troubled, premier of another country at a city other than the capital?

Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan landed at Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore, Pakistan, in late December for a two-day official visit. But the question going forward was: why Turkey? Why Erdogan? Why this sudden shift in the Turkish foreign policy now? The answers are not easy to find since relations between Turkey and Pakistan have never been anything out of the ordinary.

Can Turkey offer a boost to Pakistan's struggling economy? There are two views on the issue. The first which reflected the official narrative was represented in the Pak-Turkey Business Forum that lured in the Turkish PM in the first place. Turkey can offer cooperation and coordination to Pakistan in infrastructure and transport. This was translated into the MOUs signed between the two countries in sports, railway, quality control and disaster management.

There were also talks of implementing a Pakistan-Turkey Preferential Trade Agreement. It is interesting to note that the MOUs do not contain any hints on Pakistan's leading crisis sector of energy and power. The major issues at hand for the present government is the energy crisis and unemployment. The Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recognises this. Recently, his government made schemes to provide small loans to unemployed youth who have good business plans. The move, as the government declared, aimed at the development of small and medium enterprises in Pakistan. But can Turkey be of any help in Pakistan's hour of need?

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According to the World Bank, Turkey has the 17th largest nominal GDP in the world. The strength of the European Union economies, that Turkey brings in, is probably the best solution for the government at the moment.

Sharif's government has always been identified as pro-trade and pro-agriculture. For an agricultural country like Pakistan, it is always good to have relations with a country that develops agricultural machinery. Turkey is among the world's largest producers of agricultural machinery with a rapidly growing private sector. The fact that Turkey can help Pakistan in larger economic terms might be a bit exaggerated. But Erdogan does have the potential to support Sharif in implementing his populist economic model.

Turkey remains probably the only country during the global recession to maintain its economic growth. It remained at 9.2 percent in 2010, and stumbled down to 8.5 percent in 2011, but is this rosy economic picture real? Facts speak a different story. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Turkish lira plunged a record low in 17 months due to the current political turmoil in the country.

Erdogan's surprising visit to Pakistan came at the background of a political crisis at home. This turmoil, or the corruption scandal as the prosecutors and police call it, has taken a strange turn as the sons of four of Erdogan cabinet members have been arrested on charges of bribery. The prime minister reacted strongly in a speech blaming what he described as "foreign elements" involvement behind the scandal. He said that he and his government want to make Turkey one of the top 10 countries in the world but these people do not want to let that happen.

Such a crisis cast doubt over what exactly Turkey can have in the bag for Pakistan other than the entertainment industry. Turkish dramas have taken Pakistan by storm but that definitely does not feel like a good reason for the prime minister to drop in for an official visit.

Another possibility could be the fact that the visit comes at a time when the US and NATO plan to pull out their forces from Afghanistan. The only safe and reliable route for troops pullout  is through Pakistan. But this is problematic for a number of reasons most important of which is that this government - allegedly - has a soft spot for Taliban elements in the country. Policies adopted by the present government and viewed as reflecting a right-wing approach could prove harmful for the US and NATO at this critical time. This is when Turkey steps in, as it could put in a good word for NATO and the US and help Pakistan get closer to the European Union and the US. Additionally, there is the additional benefit of increased trade volume with Pakistan.

What Erdogan possibly plans to get out of the visit is the confidence to have his many allies from the Islamic states on his side, as he faces critical time at home. With that in hand and the additional assurances from his allies in Europe, he can plan on another ten years of rule for his party. The corruption crisis might not be easy for him to get out of, but Sharif can give him a piece of advice on precisely that issue. With the number of corruption charges brought against Sharif and his government for the past couple of decades, it is very possible that Pakistan's chief politician might have a trick up his sleeve to share with the one in trouble.

Malik Ayub Sumbal is an award-winning journalist currently based in Islamabad.

Follow him on Twitter: @ayubsumbal

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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