Regional impact of the Turkish elections

Regional impact of the Turkish elections

The regional implications of the forthcoming Turkish elections could be enormous, writes Salah Nasrawi

When Turks go to the polls on 1 November to choose a new parliament, the elections will be watched by regional players as never before. The outcome of the vote will impact on Turkey’s relationship with its neighbours in a variety of areas.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the snap elections to end the political stalemate that followed the June 2015 parliamentary elections. For the first time since 2002, voters denied Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) a parliamentary majority and gave the country’s large Kurdish minority its biggest ever voice in national politics.

Even before the current political deadlock, Turkey was sinking deep into political uncertainty. The country is grappling with escalating instability and economic turmoil. Turkish opposition parties have accused Erdogan of forcing snap elections in a bid to return the AKP to the majority in parliament it lost in the June elections.

Analysts say the call for the elections amid mounting turmoil in the country has increased the polarisation between the pro- and anti-AKP camps. Much of the polarisation is blamed on Erdogan himself, who has grown more authoritarian in office. He has built up a cult of personality and antagonised secularists, the Kurds, the military, the judiciary and the media.

Erdogan earlier blocked a coalition government, hoping that a new parliamentary vote would give the AKP a majority and form a government alone. A large majority would also allow him to rewrite the constitution to concentrate powers in the presidency.

For many observers, the 1 November elections are the most important in the country’s recent history, and not just for Turkey. The outcome could change the country drastically for better or for worse, and could also certainly affect the immediate region, which is already fraught with political uncertainty.

During its 13-year tenure, the AKP has used foreign policy to advance its domestic drive for power. It has favoured an ambitious approach that promotes its popularity at home while fundamentally reshaping Turkish foreign policy and making Turkey a key regional player.

One of the main issues that will decide the future of Turkey’s relationship with the region is Ankara’s attitude towards its Kurdish population. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) picked up about 13 per cent of the vote and 80 seats in the last elections, breaking the 10 per cent threshold required for a party to take its seats for the first time and raising hopes for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem in Turkey.

But a recent crackdown on the Kurds ended a ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that had held since 2013. The government is also trying to strike at the popularity of pro-Kurdish opposition groups in order to secure an absolute majority in the elections.

In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), labelled by Ankara as the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, is making significant gains on the ground. A collapse of the peace process and the resumption of fighting with the PKK will certainly ignite turbulence along Turkey’s southern border with Syria and even with Iraq, which has a Kurdish-controlled territory.

Since the civil war in Syria started following the popular uprising in 2011, the AKP has insisted that President Bashar Al-Assad should have no role in a UN-backed proposal for a transitional government in Syria.

Ankara has also called for a safe zone to be set up in northern Syria to keep the Islamic State (IS) terror group and Kurdish militants away from its borders, and help stem the tide of displaced civilians trying to cross into the country.

There has been no international support for either idea. Russia’s military intervention in Syria has further complicated Erdogan’s plans for the future of the war-torn country. It has also left him facing the stark reality of Turkey’s limits when challenged by an international power.

There are increasing fears that after the elections an AKP-led government will be more involved in the war in Syria and will drag the country further into the country’s quagmire.

Iraq is another regional policy hurdle for Turkey. The Shia government in Baghdad has accused Ankara of siding with Iraq’s Sunnis in the country’s sectarian conflict.

It also accuses Turkey of supporting jihadists, including IS, in parts of Iraq. Iraq has criticised Turkey for its continuous bombings of what it claims to be PKK targets in northern Iraq, calling these an “assault on Iraqi sovereignty.”

Last month, an Iraqi Shia group calling itself “The Death Squads” briefly abducted 18 Turkish construction workers and engineers in Baghdad. The gunmen demanded that Ankara cut the Kurdistan region’s oil pipeline to Turkey and stop Sunni extremists from entering Iraq through Turkish territory.

In both Iraq and Syria, Turkey finds itself in confrontation with Shia Iran. Erdogan has accused Iran of trying to dominate the Middle East and said its efforts have begun to irritate Ankara.

Turkey also has serious diplomatic problems in its relations with Egypt. Relations between Ankara and Cairo soured after the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Erdogan, a vocal supporter of the Brotherhood, labelled Morsi’s overthrow “a coup” and said that he does not view President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as the president of Egypt.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry has said that bilateral ties with Egypt could “normalise if the country returns to democracy and if the Egyptian people’s will is reflected in politics and social life.”

Erdogan also supports Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist resistance movement, which controls Gaza. Egypt considers the group to be a security threat because it is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Opposition leaders in Turkey, meanwhile, have said that Ankara should repair its relations with Cairo if the AKP wants to form a coalition government after the elections.

Turkey’s new approach towards the Syrian refugee problem and the deal it is negotiating with the European Union (EU) poses another challenge to its regional strategy.

The draft agreement on migrants, which is expected to give Ankara incentives including visa liberalisation, financial support and invitations to Turkish leaders to EU summits, will be in return for Turkey policing its borders and stopping refugees from sneaking into Greece and Bulgaria, and from there into other EU countries.

If finalised, the deal will allow the EU to return some hundreds of thousands of refugees to Turkey, where they will be housed in camps financed by the EU. Such a move will expose the selfish foreign policy of Ankara and its disregard for the plight of the refugees, who are mostly Syrians and Iraqis.

In another sign that it wants to use its resources to play a regional role, Turkey started supplying water through an undersea pipeline to Turks in Northern Cyprus on Saturday. The Peace Water Project will transport a total of 75 million cubic metres of water annually to the island.

In his inauguration speech, Erdogan said Turkey is ready to extend water supplies to Cyprus, the clearest indication yet that Turkey intends to use its huge water resources, generated by the South-Eastern Anatolia Project (GAP), in the region’s power game.

Turkey is also seeking to secure a role in several regional energy projects that involve Russian, Iranian and Qatari gas pipelines to Europe through the Mediterranean. Such a role would help ensure Turkey’s decisive role in the new world energy order.

No one knows what will happen in the upcoming elections in Turkey. If the AKP regains a majority and forms a government on its own, it will likely resort to its proactive regional policy. If a coalition government is formed, Turkey is expected to adopt a less confrontational foreign policy and probably return to its traditionally neutral and secular role in the region.

But whether the AKP is able to form a government on its own or through a coalition with other parties, Erdogan will still be there for the next three years. There are increasing concerns that he will continue to pursue his adventurism in regional policy in an attempt to maintain his vision of Turkey and keep advancing the AKP’s domestic push for power.

This article first published in Al Ahram Weekly on Oct. 22, 2015

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