Election results do not augur well for Turkey’s strained relations with the West

Russia now has a better opportunity to 'play' Turkey against the West, says former EU Ambassador to Ankara Marc Pierini.
Monday 25/06/2018
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses supporters outside his official residence in Istanbul, Sunday, June 24. (AP)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses supporters outside his official residence in Istanbul, Sunday, June 24. (AP)

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

As cars filled with jubilant Erdogan supporters honked their horns in the streets of Istanbul late on 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” upon 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 52.5% of the vote, thus avoiding a run-off against his rival Muharrem Ince, who led an aggressive campaign but ended up with 30.7% and failed to force Erdogan into a second round. But in parliamentary elections held on the same day, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority in the chamber, shedding more than seven percentage points as compared to the last parliamentary poll held in November 2015 to finish with 42.5%. The AKP is expected to get 293 of the 600 seats in parliament and has to rely on its partner, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and its 50 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 the goals it set 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 in an email in response to questions. “This will result in further concessions to ultranationalist policies at home and abroad. MHP’s choke hold 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.”

Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a former EU ambassador to Ankara, tweeted that the election result meant a “more Turkey-centered and nationalist foreign policy.” Russia now had a better opportunity to “play” Turkey against the West, Pierini added.

Under the new Turkish 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. It remained unclear who would fill the posts.

The AKP’s dependence on the MHP in parliament could mean that Erdogan will have to tread carefully in several policy areas that have poisoned Turkey’s ties with the West. Erdogan has 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 also 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 seen as a compromise with Kurdish players.

Erdogan’s victory was disputed by the opposition. Ince’s secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) said its own numbers from its election observers throughout Turkey indicated that Erdogan had failed to win more than 50% of the vote, the number necessary to win the presidency outright, but later relented. 

"I accept these election results," Ince said on Monday, telling Erdogan: "You are the president for us all."

Opposition activists reported suspected efforts to manipulate the vote throughout election day. In Suruc in south-eastern Turkey police stopped a car with three people who apparently tried to smuggle four bags of already filled-in ballot papers to a voting station. Turnout reached 87% of the more than 56 million registered voters, a new record for Turkey.