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“The Genie is out of Bottle” – Lessons from Turkish Elections 0

“Erdogan will have to learn to share power.” – Burak Bekdil



“Ironically, not lowering the election threshold from 10 percent has also played against the AKP, since it motivated more votes to swing to the Pro-Kurdish HDP” – Nigar Goksel

 nigar goksel

“Pollsters have found that “Let’s vote against Erdogan” thinking among both Turks and Kurds was the main reason why the pro-Kurdish party, HDP, was able to pass the national threshold of 10 percent.” – Burak Bekdil

“Depending on which parties form the government and what their stance on democratization and EU relations is, Turkey’s EU accession process could pick up. But the basic obstacles in front of accession will still exist: reluctance of various EU member states, the Cyprus problem and so on.” – Nigar Goksel

It’s been almost a month since Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) lost its parliamentary majority in the June 7 election after reigning supreme for 13 years. Despite holding onto its number one position, the AKP, together with at least one of the opposition forces, is due to create a government coalition – a thing many thought unthinkable before.

Among many things, it means President Erdogan would face difficulties in consolidating his presence at the helm of the government through the introduction of an executive presidential system, a move Western opinion-makers lauded as “Putinesque.” However, there is a catch: if the 45 day period expires without the parties agreeing over forming a coalition, the President will most likely call for early elections.

The Georgian Journal  was privileged to discuss the implications of Turkish elections with Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (A major Turkish magazinededicated to political analysis) editor-in-chief and a senior analyst at International Crisis Group Ms. Nigar Goksel and Hurriyet Daily News’ leading correspondent on international affairs, Mr. Burak Bekdil.

– After a 13-year-long dominance, the AKP finally lets itself slip. In a nutshell, why did it fail this time?

Burak Bekdil: It’s a combination of factors that led to this relative downfall: Deep polarization within society, economic slowdown, rising unemployment, Erdogan’s political arrogance and extreme extravaganza (a new palace and a private jet, costing the taxpayer a combined $1.1 billion), power fatigue, embarrassing corruption dossiers involving four ministers, Erdogan’s own family and their business cronies, a crackdown on civil liberties and an increasingly Putinesque one-man rule.

Nigar Goksel: I would like to add that the AKP lost support of conservative Kurds because of its inconsistency in the approach to the Kurdish problem – both in terms of democratic rights and talks with the PKK. But AKP also failed to win enough Turkish nationalist votes to make up for this loss.  Ironically, not lowering the election threshold from 10 percent has also played against the AKP, since it motivated more votes to swing to the Pro-Kurdish HDP.

– What would you say was Erdogan’s part in all this? How much was it a “Let’s vote against Erdogan” election, rather than genuinely rooting for former opposition parties?

Burak Bekdil: It is difficult to measure how much of the decline can be attributed directly to Erdogan, although various polling and research companies claim Erdogan was the main reason why the AKP lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002. Pollsters have found that “Let’s vote against Erdogan” thinking among both Turks and Kurds was the main reason why the pro-Kurdish party, HDP, was able to pass the national threshold of 10 percent. That alone cost the AKP about 50 to 60 seats. With the same percentage of votes AKP got, it could comfortably form a single-party government and come close to 330 seats necessary to submit any constitutional amendment to a referendum, had the HDP scored less than 10 percent.

Nigar Goksel: Steady restriction of space for the opposition, tightened control of the executive branch over the judiciary and abandonment of the political neutrality of the presidency has played a role in turning the tide against Mr. Erdogan. This set the stage for activism that persuaded more voters to vote against AKP in order to ensure that a presidential system is not introduced.

– It is obvious that Erdogan’s plans to strengthen and further consolidate his place in Turkishpolitics, this time through constitutional reform have come to a halt. Will he accept his limited role?

Burak Bekdil: He must accept it. I am sure he has his own contingency plans. The possibility of him successfully reversing the situation in the future is under one big question mark. But I think the genie has been let out of the bottle and the odds are against the possibility of any one-man show in Turkish politics. He will have to learn to share power.

– What changes are to be expected for Turkish Kurds?

Burak Bekdil: They have played a very smart game and established themselves within legitimate Turkish politics. If they are smart enough they will gradually cut their past links with what a majority of Turks view as a terrorist organization and boost their popularity. Demographics will help them. Kurds have the youngest population in Turkey, and the highest fertility rate. It should not be surprising if the HDP wins nearly 20 percent of the vote in two elections’ time. Meanwhile, HDP will do its best to win broader autonomy for the Kurdish areas from any coalition government.

Nigar Goksel: Theoretically speaking, the expansion of political space for the Kurdish national movement should be expected to reduce the grounds for militaristic approaches. However, whether it plays out as anticipated will depend on a few factors. One is the willingness of the newly formed government to carry out political advances and reforms that address the long-standing Kurdish concerns, such as a non-discriminatory constitution, further decentralization and reform of the penal code and anti-terrorism law. Another factor is the form in which engagement between the Turkish state and the PKK will be resumed, and how regional dynamics – regarding PKK affiliates in Syria for example – will come into the picture. Ultimately, the PKK needs to be persuaded to disarm in Turkey, to turn the ceasefire that has largely held since 2013 into a long-lasting peace settlement. This will make putting negotiations back on track a necessity.

– The EU has opened a new chapter in accession talks with Turkey – suddenly, if you will. Was it a “reward” for elections, and if this trend goes on (for example, in case of an AKP-less majority and government), are there further “rewards” to be expected?

Nigar Goksel: Depending on which parties form the government and what their stance on democratization and EU relations is, Turkey’s EU accession process could pick up. But the basic obstacles in front of accession will still exist: reluctance of various EU member states, the Cyprus problem and so on. Ultimately, most so-called rewards Turkey can be offered by the EU also require unanimous vote by the member states (with the exception of the visa liberalization process, which can proceed with a qualified majority in the Council, and would be very important in injecting momentum to the EU aspirations of the Turkish society).
Regarding Cyprus, optimism for a settlement has risen since the elections in the Turkish north. For the first time, there is a “pro-solution duo” in power on the Island (Greek Cypriot Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot Mustafa Akinci). However, while meetings between the recently elected leader of Turkish Cypriots and the Greek Cypriot leader have been deemed positive, there is little indication that the two sides are closer to agreeing on particular schemes related to sharing sovereignty and jointly administering the island. Without some sort of negotiated agreement on this front, Turkey’s EU path is inevitably stifled.

– What do the Turkish elections change in the regional sense? How much will their results affect its neighbors, such as Transcaucasian countries?

Nigar Goksel: The current Turkish President has taken the lead on certain issues and relations with particular countries, in a sense of de-institutionalizing Turkish foreign policy making. If and when a coalition government is formed, the president’s role will be more limited. A re-empowerment of the foreign ministry in certain areas may be expected. This may lead to more pragmatic relations with countries in the Middle East coming to replace Ankara’s rather confrontational approach to them in recent years. Also, leaderships that have largely considered Mr. Erdogan and his team to be their main counterparts, such as those in Moscow and Baku, may need to make adjustments and diversify their engagement with official Ankara. Turkish policy on Transcaucasia will also depend on which parties end up forming the government. In any case, the strategic importance of Georgia and Azerbaijan for Turkey is not likely to change. But for example, if the nationalist MHP comes to power, it could increase strains, at least in the rhetoric, between Turkey and Armenia.

– Was there a foreign influence factor in the elections? There exists speculation that the U.S. is more inclined than ever to create a stabilizing factor in the form of a Kurdish state in the region and the results of Turkish elections are yet another proof of this. What’s your take on this?

Burak Bekdil: Americans made a point of meticulously staying away from any involvement in Turkish elections – publicly, at least. The speculation about the U.S. wishing to form an independent Kurdish state dates back to 1990s, so it is not new. I personally have not observed any evidence of U.S. support for a Kurdish state, but common sense says a Kurdish state, in the future if not now, would not be against American geopolitical interests in this region.

Nigar Goksel: There are probably at least as many people in Turkey who think the U.S. played a role in the 2002 elections that brought the AKP to power, as there are people who think the U.S. played a role in the June 2015 elections that dealt AKP a blow in terms of not being able to form a single-party government. There is, however, no evidence of election manipulation by foreign factors in any of these elections.
As for foreign policy, the fact stands that during the past decade Ankara has increasingly been viewed as an unpredictable partner by its Western allies, which in certain cases may have played into a search – by Washington, for instance – for alternative players in the region to collaborate with.


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