Bumpy road ahead for Turkey in 2016

Friday 01/01/2016
Violence in the air. A masked and armed Kurdish protester, in Istanbul, last December.

Istanbul - After a turbulent year that featured two elec­tions, the renewal of the Kurdish conflict and a growing fallout from the war in neighbouring Syria, Turkey could be set for another bumpy ride in 2016.

On the face of it, the turn of the year should herald calmer times for the country. The government of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has a solid majority in parliament and no elections to worry about un­til 2019.

In the next 12 months, Ankara will be determined to start work on a comprehensive reform package and will be expecting an increased intensity in European accession talks as well as closer cooperation with Europe in the Syrian crisis. At the same time, there is growing optimism that efforts to solve the long-running Cyprus conflict, a ma­jor stumbling block in Turkey’s EU bid, could bear fruit in 2016.

Davutoglu told foreign reporters in Istanbul in December the gov­ernment’s aim was to transform the economy with structural reforms and to “institutionalise democra­cy” with the help of a new constitu­tion. “There are still many things to be done,” he said.

But issues such as Turkey’s re­cord on press freedom could be­come points of friction between Ankara and Brussels. The detention of prominent journalists sparked criticism both at home and abroad, while the government says there is no need to change course.

“The state of freedom of the me­dia and of expression has already hit bottom, with fears that this pace of deterioration will make things even worse in the future,” column­ist Serkan Demirtas wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News.

The state of media freedom could lead to a new controversy with the European Union at a time when Brussels is preparing to open acces­sion talks with Turkey on funda­mental rights and on the independ­ence of the judiciary by the end of March. Turkey has to comply with EU norms in these fields and oth­ers if it wants to advance its push to join the bloc.

Political analyst Semih Idiz said the European Union was expecting Turkey to take care of the refugee problem, while Turkey was trying to get much more out of the re­newed contacts with Brussels, de­spite the refusal by some EU coun­tries to contemplate the idea of letting Turkey join. “This is where problems will emerge,” Idiz said.

Other issues likely leave their mark on 2016 as well. A year ago, Turkey seemed to be well on its way to solving the Kurdish conflict, with talks between Ankara and jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Oc­alan producing a path for peace. However, an upsurge of violence during the summer dashed hopes for a peaceful resolution and clash­es have continued in Kurdish cities and towns ever since.

Behlul Ozkan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Marmara University said he expects the renewed fight­ing to be among the major issues on Turkey’s agenda. The Kurdish issue was going to be “crucial”, Oz­kan wrote via email in response to questions from The Arab Weekly. “Some cities and neighbourhoods in the south-east of Turkey resem­ble Syria.”

In another political hotspot, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Er­dogan is trying to use the big major­ity of the ruling Justice and Devel­opment Party (AKP) in parliament to push through a switch from the current parliamentary system to a presidential model that would cre­ate greater powers for him as head of state. The AKP lost its parliamen­tary majority in elections in June but rebounded in fresh elections in November, scheduled after parties failed to form a coalition after the June vote.

Now Erdogan wants to tackle the system change in a yet unscheduled referendum on a new constitution to replace the current one, drawn up under military rule in 1982. “I believe the nation will say yes to such a new constitution with an overwhelming majority,” Erdogan said in early December.

But Erdogan and other Turkish leaders are unlikely to have time to concentrate solely on government reform issues in the new year. Slow­er economic growth, expected to be 3.3-4% in 2016, could be too weak to curb unemployment and could make it difficult for the government to raise the minimum wage by 30% to $446 a month, a key AKP election promise.

The Syrian conflict continues to send shock waves over the bor­der. Supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS), which controls parts of Syria and Iraq, killed more than 130 peo­ple in suicide attacks in Turkish cit­ies in 2015.

At the same time, Turkish rela­tions with Russia plunged into crisis after Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian warplane on the Syrian border on November 24th, trigger­ing Russian sanctions against the Turkish economy. Moscow accused Turkey of benefiting from illegal oil exports by ISIS, while Ankara said Russia’s military involvement on the side of Syria’s President Bashar Assad is making the Syrian conflict worse. Davutoglu said that “Rus­sia is trying ethnic cleansing” in an area north of the Syrian port of La­takia, an Assad power base.

The Syrian conflict could also raise tensions in Turkey further as the country has to cope with 2.2 million refugees and is facing calls by the European Union to stop ille­gal migration of Syrians to Europe. In a deal thrashed out between Ankara and Brussels in November, Turkey will be expected to take refugees back from Europe in 2016, potentially increasing their num­bers in Turkey even more.