The Turkish vote as seen from Washington

Friday 19/06/2015
Questions about Turkey

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.