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Turkey’s Elections: Why Do They Matter?

Turkey’s Elections: Why Do They Matter?

Interview with Henri Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center

What was the outcome of the elections?

The elections turned out to be a surprising victory for the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s ruling Islamist party. Most polls did not even come close to predicting what turned out to be quite a significant shift in voter preferences away from opposition parties.

This shift came less than six months after inconclusive parliamentary elections, when the AKP was defeated at the polls for the first time since 2002. The opposition in Turkey is divided and hapless, but in June voters coalesced around opposition parties. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the AKP, decided not to accept the results. He manipulated the political process so no new government could be formed. As a result, new elections were held on November 1.

Erdogan and the AKP promoted a narrative of stability. They tried to make the argument that voters had two choices: the AKP or chaos. This narrative caught on because the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) - a Kurdish nationalist insurgent group – broke the unilateral ceasefire it had announced two years ago. Additionally, ISIS claimed responsibility for deadly bombings in Turkey. All of this contributed to general uncertainty in the public and supported the ruling party’s narrative.

Why do the results matter?

The AKP now controls both the presidency and the parliament. Usually the parliament and the cabinet run the country, with the prime minister at the helm. But Erdogan is very focused on expanding the role of the president, and he has significant leverage over the party, the cabinet, and the prime minister. So in effect, Erdogan will be the person running Turkey – even though he is not constitutionally entitled to do so. He will be the one making all the important decisions.

In the process, the AKP is also suppressing all dissent, and Turkey is becoming an increasingly authoritarian state. The party came to power through elections, but now it doesn’t allow civil society, NGOs, or the press to function freely. Newspapers have been shut down, and television stations have been taken over. Between 70 and 80 percent of the Turkish press is controlled by the state or people associated with Erdogan. The president has launched at least 67 court cases against people who he thinks insulted him on Twitter. In some cases, people are being charged with quite serious offenses. Insulting the president sometimes carries very long penalties. So these are not frivolous cases where he wants minimal compensation. He wants people to go to jail for insulting him.

This climate is obviously very intimidating. A lot of people are exceedingly careful about what they say, and what they print. There is already heavy self-censorship. People are afraid of writing about the governing party. They don’t think it is worth taking the risk.

What are the AKP’s priorities now that they’ve secured the majority?

Domestically, they want to make sure no opposition can challenge them. They want to avoid what happened in June, when they were defeated by opposition parties. Erdogan will likely take steps to consolidate his regime and its power.

Erdogan also wants to realize his vision for Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, also had a vision for Turkey – one that was secular and Western. But Erdogan envisions a state that he thinks is more reflective of the reality of Turkey, characterized by greater piety, greater devotion to Islam, and greater adherence to the cultural and religious precepts that come with Islam. He has already opened up the public space to people who are conservative and religious. At the same time, although there is a little bit of pressure on alcohol and other social mores, he does not necessarily want to impose rules on the secular elements of society. He just wants to make sure that the pious people who suffered under the Kemalist regime enjoy a more privileged position.

What constitutional changes is Erdogan trying to make, and why are they important?

Erdogan would like to amend the constitution to transform Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. It would be his crowning achievement. By the time he steps down, he will have been in power for many more years than Ataturk. And if he can change the system, he will have made the greatest impact on the system since Ataturk.

The irony is that he has so much power right now, he doesn’t really need to formalize his authority in order to exercise it. He already has the powers he wants to enshrine in the constitution. But he may think that in the future it would be helpful to have the institutional protections and authorities that come with the presidency, in case the AKP loses power in parliament. If opposition parties gain the majority, they could take steps to curtail his abilities. But changing the system would institutionalize them and ensure that no political forces can interfere with his plans.

The shift to a presidential system is possible now, even though Erdogan does not have all the votes necessary to change the constitution. The vote requires a two thirds majority in parliament – or 330 votes – but the AKP currently holds only 317 seats. Erdogan is trying to maneuver to get those 13 extra seats, and he might try to convince individual members of opposition parties to switch sides on this issue.

The AKP was once viewed as a model Islamic political party. How have regional attitudes towards the AKP changed since 2011?

 Image removed.

Turkey’s popularity in the region has declined in recent years. Part of the reason it used to be viewed more favorably among its Arab neighbors was Erdogan’s public confrontation with Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2009. Turkey was also a successful country with a strong economy and well-functioning infrastructure, which was viewed as a model. Another factor that helped Turkey’s image was its “zero problems” policy with its neighbors. Turkey took steps to improve its relations with every country in the region, except for Israel. And it succeeded in doing that. But all that came crumbling down in the past few years, partially because of the Arab Spring. People in the Arab world also began to notice the lack of evenhandedness in Turkish domestic politics and increasing authoritarian tendencies. They also started to perceive Erdogan as someone who wanted to rejuvenate the Ottoman Empire, restoring Turkish influence and dominance in the region. They began to view the “zero problems” policy as nothing more than a disguised attempt to revive Turkish power.

All of these factors contributed to the fact that Turkey is no longer seen as a model. In fact, the “zero problems” policy with its neighbors has essentially become “zero friends,” or “many problems” with the neighbors. Turkey is at odds with Syria, Iraq, and Iran. It collaborates with some of the Gulf countries, but the relationship is characterized by mutual resentment. So all of this has undermined Turkey’s image.

What is Turkey's policy in Syria, and who does Erdogan support in the conflict?

Syria used to be the single most important country in the “zero problems” policy. Turkey and Syria established a strong relationship. They held joint cabinet meetings, and Turkish officials invested a lot in Bashar al Assad. In 2005, Turkey tried to protect Assad from U.N. sanctions. Erdogan and Assad had a personal relationship; they even went on vacation together a few times.

The relationship became troubled when the Arab Spring began in 2011. Erdogan tried to influence Assad’s behavior, encouraging him to introduce a few reforms to defuse the crisis. But Assad would hear none of it, and eventually it was clear that Assad was prepared to use extreme violence against his own population. Turkey not only severed ties with Assad, but essentially became his number one public enemy. Erdogan has been adamant about the removal of Assad. He has agreed reluctantly that there might be an acceptable scenario where Assad can stay in power for a short period of time before a transition. But Erdogan’s antipathy for Assad is not going to diminish anytime soon.

Turkey and the United States are on the same side of the Syria conflict, but they have different priorities. Turkey wants to remove Assad and curtail advances by Kurdish groups. And the United States prioritizes defeating ISIS. At first, Turkey supported the Free Syrian Army, the moderate rebels also backed by the United States. After determining that its fighters were incapable of overthrowing Assad, Turkey began supporting the Nusra Front, an Islamist extremist organization linked to al Qaeda. That decision created friction with the United States. Turkey allegedly withdrew support from the Nusra Front because of American pressure.

Another source of friction is support for the Syrian Kurds. The United States helps the Kurds by providing ammunition and intelligence cooperation, but Erdogan has taken a very anti-Kurdish position. He is afraid that empowering the Syrian Kurds could have a force multiplier effect, since the Syrian Kurds are very close to the Turkish Kurds. It could give confidence to the PKK. And Erdogan is worried that once Assad is ousted, the Kurds are going to insist on having their own autonomous region in northern Syria, which might also empower the Turkish Kurds to seek autonomy.

Dr. Henri J. Barkey is the Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the former Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor at Lehigh University. Barkey is also a former public policy scholar at the Wilson Center. His most recent works include Turkey's Syria Predicament (Survival, 2014) and Iraq, Its Neighbors and the United States, co-edited with Phebe Marr and Scott Lasensky (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2011). He served as a member of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff working primarily on issues related to the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, and intelligence from 1998 to 2000. 

Photo credits: Erdogan via Flickr (Creative Commons license 3.0); AKP logo by AK Parti via Flickr (CC01.0); AKP meeting by Randam via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]; AKP rally by Nub Cake via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 3.0]

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