After Erdogan’s victory, Turkey unlikely to make up with the West

The AKP’s dependence on the MHP in parliament could mean that Erdogan will have to tread carefully in policy areas that have poisoned Turkey’s ties with the West.
Sunday 01/07/2018
Darkening clouds. A billboard with the image of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on display in Istanbul, on June 25. (AP)
Darkening clouds. A billboard with the image of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on display in Istanbul, on June 25. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Turkey is unlikely to repair its strained ties to the West following an election victory by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that gives a smaller nationalist partner an important say about the direction of Ankara’s policies.

As cars filled with jubilant Erdogan supporters honking horns in the streets of Istanbul late June 24, Turkey marked the end of its traditional parliamentary system. With the election, Erdogan, 64, became the country’s first head of state with wide-ranging executive powers under a new constitutional order, ushered in with a referendum last year, that transfers key functions from parliament to the president.

Erdogan said the result placed a “great responsibility” on his shoulders. He called on his political rivals to bury the hatchet and work for the country’s future.

“We will continue to fight for Turkey’s progress in all areas,” he said during a victory speech in Istanbul, adding that his government would “strengthen democracy.”

Critics say Erdogan has used a coup attempt in 2016 to clamp down on dissidents, putting tens of thousands of people behind bars. One presidential hopeful had to conduct his election campaign from behind bars because he has been in pretrial detention for one-and-a-half years.

Unofficial results said Erdogan won 52.6% of the vote, thus avoiding a run-off against  Muharrem Ince, who led an aggressive campaign but ended up with 30.6%.

In parliamentary elections the same day, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority in the chamber, shedding more than 7 percentage points, compared to the parliamentary poll in November 2015, and finished with 42.6%. The AKP was expected to get 295 of the 600 seats in parliament and has to rely on its partner, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and its 49 members of parliament to produce laws.

MHP leader Devlet Bahceli hinted his party does not intend to act on Erdogan’s behalf in parliament. “Our party has become the key party [in parliament] and has taken on the task of providing checks and balances,” Bahceli said. Erdogan admitted that the AKP failed to reach goals it set for itself in the parliamentary race.

“Erdogan’s AKP will have to rely on the far-right MHP’s support,” Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Washington think-tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said via e-mail. “This will result in further concessions to ultranationalist policies at home and abroad. MHP’s chokehold on Erdogan would rule out the possibility of a return to the Kurdish peace process. Cross-border military action against Kurdish militants in Syria and Iraq might intensify.”

Rebecca Harms, a member of the European Parliament for Germany’s Green Party, said Turkey’s switch to a presidential system meant that Ankara’s long-running efforts to join the European Union were, in effect, over. “The presidential system pulls the carpet from under the accession process,” she said.

Kerem Oktem, a Turkey specialist at the University of Graz in Austria, said Erdogan’s victory was an example of an international trend towards “strong man” systems of government. “There is a global movement away from liberal democracy,” he said.

That trend could show itself in Erdogan’s foreign policy. “Turkey’s posture in Europe and the Middle East will be defined by an even more nationalist stance,” Halil Karaveli, an analyst at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, said. Under the MHP’s influence, “Turkey is likely to push the United States to make more concessions in Syria.” Karaveli, however, said he does not expect that Ankara will start a headlong rush into cross-border adventure. “Turkey will not become a rogue state,” he said.

Under the new system, the president needs parliament’s cooperation in enacting laws and passing the budget, even though the government will no longer need parliamentary approval but will be answerable to the president, with the post of prime minister being abolished. Erdogan says he intends to rule with a stripped-down cabinet and a set of vice-presidents.

The AKP’s dependence on the MHP in parliament could mean that Erdogan will have to tread carefully in policy areas that have poisoned Turkey’s ties with the West. Erdogan promised to lift the state of emergency in the country, in force since the coup attempt two years ago, but the MHP wants to keep it in place, even though ending the state of emergency is a key demand by the European Union.

The MHP’s influence could complicate efforts to end Turkey’s disagreements with the United States over Syria, where Washington has been supporting a Kurdish militia seen as a terrorist organisation by Ankara. The MHP is strictly opposed to any moves that could be considered a compromise with Kurdish players.

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