international analysis and commentary

The opportunities and dangers of Turkey’s changed domestic picture

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Parliamentary elections in Turkey on June 7th have ended the unconstrained dominance of the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, which has been in power since 2002. The vote reshaped Turkey’s political landscape. For the first time, Turkey’s sizeable ethnic Kurdish minority will have a party representing their interests in parliament. The West, which feared President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s tightening grip on power and growing authoritarian tendencies, will be pleased to see Turkish voters reject the parliamentary majority of Erdoğan’s AKP. Yet the West may find that the price of the AKP’s defeat is renewed political instability within Turkey that imperils many Western priorities in its relations with Ankara.

The final shape of Turkey’s new government is not yet clear. The AKP, which won 40% of the vote, retains the largest block of seats in Turkey’s parliament, but it will be 17 seats short of a majority. The main opposition CHP, a secularist-nationalist party, won only 25% of the vote, but it could form a coalition with the smaller parties, the Kurdish HDP and the far-right nationalist MHP. Alternatively, the AKP could try to form a minority government. If none of these variants succeed, the country would head to new elections in 45 days.

The West will rightly cheer the election as evidence of the vitality of Turkish democracy. Media crackdowns, judicial violations and fears of creeping authoritarianism have dominated debate in recent years. Criticism of Turkey’s democratic record had soured relations and imperiled long-stalled negotiations about Turkish membership in the EU. Turkey’s democracy retains many problems, but the election results show that the threat of a slide into dictatorship is not one of them. Indeed, the new parliament will be one of the most diverse in Turkish history, also including a comparatively large number of women. The parliament will be diverse in ethnic and religious terms, too, including not only many Kurds, but also three Armenians, two Yezidis, one Assyrian and one Roma. All of this bodes well for Turkey’s democracy and its ties with the West.

Many in Europe and in the US will see this election as a victory of secularism and as a defeat for political Islam. That is a deceptive simplification, but it is true in one sense. The end of AKP dominance is likely to lead to a reorientation of Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East away from its previously tight alliance with Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups. In Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya and Yemen, Erdoğan’s AKP has forged close ties with the Brotherhood, taking a principled stand in instances like when the Brotherhood was violently ejected from power in Egypt. Now Turkey is likely to moderate its pro-Brotherhood stance, improving ties with Brotherhood opponents such as Egypt’s junta and the Saudi monarchy. That will be a welcome development for many Western foreign ministries, who want better ties between their allies in the Middle East.

More specifically, the election may lead to changes in Turkey’s Syria policy, which will also be approved of by governments in Europe and the US. The AKP has taken the position that the emergence of ISIS in Syria is essentially a result of the Syrian government’s brutality in the ongoing civil war. End the war, the Turkish government argues, and ISIS will disappear. Based on this logic, Turkey has supported some extreme Islamists groups in Syria on the grounds that if they help defeat the government of Bashar al-Assad they will set better conditions for a negotiated peace. But the Obama Administration in particular is now far more concerned about ISIS than about the Assad government, and has called on the Turks to focus on ISIS first and Assad later. Turkey’s other political parties have criticized the AKP for supporting jihadist groups in Syria. The outcome of the elections will now contribute to a reorientation of Turkish policy toward its southern neighbor. 

Yet the West will find that many other changes in Turkey’s foreign policy after this vote are much less to its liking. For all of the criticism of the AKP, many of its goals – decentralizing power and resolving the Kurdish conflict, restoring ties with Armenia, seeking an agreement to end the division of Cyprus – closely corresponded with the West’s interests. Many of these are now less likely to come to pass.

For one thing, the AKP’s long dominance – it has not had to deal with coalition partners for over a decade – made it more able to take risks than coalitions that depend on agreement from multiple parties can normally afford. That is one reason, for example, why in recent years the AKP could undertake many politically challenging steps toward resolving the Kurdish question, for example, by expanding rights to use the Kurdish language. In a period of coalition governments, political leaders may find it harder to take similar risks.

Additionally, the rise of the far-right MHP, which could play the role of kingmaker in the current parliament, presents a roadblock in attempts to resolve issues at home and abroad. For example, after then Prime Minister Erdoğan signed a deal to normalize relations with Armenia in 2009, it was the MHP that whipped up a nationalist frenzy and forced Erdoğan to backtrack. Similarly, the MHP is a vigorous opponent of compromise that would see both the Greek and Turkish halves of Cyprus united under a single government. The West would like to see both issues resolved, but that is now less likely.

The fate of the Kurdish issue, too, remains unclear. The HDP says it rules out a coalition with the AKP, though its representatives may provide the votes needed to support a minority AKP government. Many in the US and Europe will be hoping for such an alliance, anticipating that such a tie up would lead to constitutional changes to help end the country’s long-running conflict with the Kurdish minority. Yet the MHP may prove a more natural coalition partner for the AKP, an alliance that would freeze progress on Kurdish reforms.

Many Western governments, having grown tired of Erdoğan’s imperious style, got the election result they were hoping for. They may find that the vote has resolved concerns about creeping authoritarianism only to open up new risks in relations between Turkey, its Kurdish minority, and its neighbors.