The Turkish vote as seen from Washington
Washington - Turkey’s political landscape is being redrawn after elections that saw the ruling party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lose its parliamentary majority. Washington and the region are watching to see how the new Turkish government will change Turkey and its foreign policy, especially towards Syria.
Although the US State Department hailed the elections as a sign of the “strength of Turkish democracy”, there is a concern in Washington about possible political instability for Turkey.
The election produced the most diverse parliament in Turkish history: The Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) captured 13% of the vote; women won 97 seats in parliament, the same percentage of women as in the US Congress; Armenians won three seats; Yazidis two; and Assyrians and the Roma one seat each.
The elections were a blow to Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), but the party still won 41% of the Turkish vote and, with 258 seats, is the largest single bloc in parliament. Nevertheless, the outcome was a clear rejection of Erdogan’s goal of changing the constitution to increase the powers of the presidency.
Other factors contributing to the AKP’s losses include the slowdown in economic growth. The Turkish economic miracle ushered in by AKP 13 years ago has grown stagnant. Gonul Tol, a Turkish specialist at Washington’s Middle East Institute, pointed to “fragile growth”, “political instability” following popular unrest, and the “dip in foreign direct investment due to concerns about the general investment environment in Turkey” as important factors in the elections.
A close look at the election results reveals that Turkish foreign policy cost the AKP precious political capital and none of the regional problems proved more damaging to Erdogan and the AKP than the Syrian crisis.
For example, when the battle for Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border — an area mainly populated with Kurds — started, Erdogan was reluctant to intervene because of differences with Washington over Syria strategy. Tol says: “After Kobani there was a sense that the AKP does not represent the Kurdish interests”. After Kobani, many Kurds switched support to the HDP.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted the alliance between Kurds and non-Kurdish liberals in HDP. “The future of the Kurdish movement,” he said, “is tied to the future of liberal democratic Turkey.
“This is the beginning of a liberal tide in Turkey.”
This alliance of the Kurds and liberals is expected to insist on a foreign policy closer to that of the United States, especially on Syria. Alan Makovsky of the Center for American Progress said that the HDP, like the United States, views the Islamic State (ISIS) and not Assad as the bigger problem.
Soner agrees that while Turkish policy under Erdogan has been “obsessed by ousting Assad”, any new government will face “closer scrutiny by the parliament and the media”. In Soner’s opinion, this scrutiny will push Turkish policy closer to US policy on Syria.
Not everyone agrees. Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations says he does not expect major changes in foreign policy. Cook says that Turkey will be occupied with internal affairs and predicts that Turkey is moving from a “stable single party to something more unstable”.
Turkey’s relations with Washington have been tense, and the two capitals have been at odds on regional issues as well as on domestic policy.
Recently, Erdogan was involved in a public war of words with The New York Times after it published an editorial criticising what it saw as his crackdown on press freedoms. There was a move in the US Congress to introduce a bill critical of Erdogan and the Turkish government over freedom of the press, but the Obama administration and others in Congress were able to stop the measure because of its potential negative effect on the strained relationship between the countries.
There is a consensus in policy circles that a more “realistic Turkish policy” will prevail in Ankara and the “aggressive Turkish policy on Syria” will change. But Tol envisions no change in Turkey’s cooperation with regional powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
This might be a flawed reading of Erdogan and his Syria policy. The problem in Syria has become a personal issue for the Turkish president, and it is unlikely he will abandon his support for the Syrian opposition.
The constitution gives parliament 45 days to form a government. If there is no new government within that time, Erdogan has said “a snap election would be inevitable”.
Also, if Turkish history is any guide, there is little reason to believe that any coalition government will last long. This means the political stability that drove the Turkish economy during the last decade might be a thing of the past. New elections could produce another surprise. And while Erdogan took a beating at the polls, he is not out of the ring.