Why the world should worry about Turkey

Friday 06/11/2015

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have beaten down his opponents and returned his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) to a fourth term of single-party rule over the country.

In doing so, he has cemented his own already-firm control over the country and is a large step closer to becoming the most influential figure in Turkish politics since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The consequences of the AKP’s victory are likely to be enormous, for Turkey, the region and possibly for Europe, Russia and the United States as well.

After the November 1st parlia­mentary election, it is possible that the secular Turkish republic — as it has been established since 1923 — will eventually become something unrecognisable to its founders.

In his early years in power, Er­dogan and the AKP were hailed by Western governments as pragmat­ic reformers and proof that politi­cal Islam could be democratic and pluralistic. Turkey was moving closer to serious consideration for EU membership, opening up to foreign investment and growing economically.

But since the 2008 financial crisis, and especially since the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istan­bul during which Ankara cracked down on perceived opponents in full view of the world, Erdogan has become increasingly auto­cratic. Indeed, Erdogan called for the November 1st elections after the AKP failed to gain the major­ity of votes in June elections and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was unable to form a coalition with the three opposition parties in parliament.

Many Turkey analysts say Er­dogan had no intention of letting the talks succeed in the first place and may have pressured Davuto­glu to allow them to fail.

Erdogan’s unwillingness to ac­cept a legitimate, democratic elec­tion result and his desire to po­liticise an office — the presidency — that is nominally non-partisan are just two of many signs that he is tightening his grip on power.

The election results will likely make Erdogan more autocratic, as the former prime minister has been vocal about his desire to con­vert the parliamentary republic into one headed by a president, which, conveniently for him, is the office he holds. And while the results do not give the AKP sufficient power to amend the constitution on its own, Erdogan’s party has a history of following his orders regardless of what the constitution says.

Erdogan’s relationship with the liberal and secular Turkish Kurds, damaged by his divisive rhetoric and political tactics, is likely to deteriorate further under the new AKP government. Indeed, it was because of the Kurds’ success in the June elections that Erdogan’s AKP was denied a majority, which led to the November 1st balloting.

The Kurds were successful enough in the most recent vote to deny Erdogan his longed-for super-majority. And Erdogan is unlikely to forget. The possibility that the Kurds and the Turkish government will resume conflict in the Kurdish regions is no longer that far-fetched.

All of this, of course, comes amid a rapidly worsening security situation in Turkey’s backyard, much of which involves Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Additional instabil­ity in this very unstable region worries Europe and the United States, as well as other Middle Eastern countries.

But the same instability that troubles these countries also pre­vents them from being able to do much about Turkey’s commitment to democracy in the near term. Turkey’s location, combined with its NATO membership, makes it an indispensable partner in deal­ing with Russian activity in the region, the Islamic State (ISIS), the Syrian civil war and the unfolding migrant crisis.

Dealing with Erdogan is now, for his Western partners, much like holding a wolf by the ears: risky, but the alternative seems much worse.

The November 1st election results do not end the political and social divides that threaten Tur­key. They merely reset the stage for continued struggle: the AKP against the secular cosmopolitan elite; Erdogan against the Kurds; ISIS against Turkey and the region; and Europe, the United States and even Russia standing by nervously, assessing the potential effects on their regional interests.

Erdogan has the means, mo­tive and opportunity to exploit this moment of authority, and his recent political behaviour suggests he will.