On November 1, 2015, Turkey held a critical general election. It allowed valuable insights into President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s “New Turkey” concept and the role it will play for the region and the globe under a new AK Party government. Exceeding even its own projections, the AK Party secured 49 percent of the votes. Hence winning, with an almost 90 percent voter turnout, a resounding victory and mandate to govern Turkey for the next four years, if not longer.
Provided that no elections take place in the next four years, the AK Party faces a rare opportunity to govern Turkey effectively and pull it out of the election fatigue and governance vacuum. Yet, the challenges the new government faces are equally immense. Within a month after the elections, Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jetfighter in its airspace has brought the diplomatic relations between the two countries to the brink of rupture. Furthermore, the recent arrests of two journalists and the assassination of a well-known human rights lawyer and peace activist while delivering a speech on non-violence and peaceful resolution of Turkey’s Kurdish question demonstrate the urgency of reengaging governance. In this regard, the 1 November elections have multiple domestic and external implications.
Dominant Party in the New Turkey
With 49.5 percent of popular support and 317 seats in the 550-member parliament secured, the AK Party not only received a mandate to govern Turkey as a “strong majority government,” but it has also reinforced its “dominant party” position in Turkish politics. In the same vein, the party is projected to win the 2019 election. Coupled with the continued weak opposition problem, AK Party will not only be the dominant political actor in Turkey, but will set the discourse in areas from lifestyle to the new middle classes under their “New Turkey” concept. It embodies rapid urbanization and the shifting axes to a new center conceived of a new entrepreneurial class, a new civil society rooted in Anatolia, a new media, opinion leaders and public intellectuals with more visibility for religious expression in public domain, as well as strong identity politics.
In fact, the election results helped President Erdoğan and the AK Party to regain the much needed confidence that will rekindle debates on a new constitution, and push for changing the political regime from parliamentary democracy to presidentialism. This process is facilitated by Turkey’s return to the era of a strong government versus a weak opposition. It is already apparent that the opposition parties will be taken hostage by their own internal politics, leaving close to no room for a serious debate on opposing the AK Party’s plans.
However, because of the fluid yet decisive nature of the Kurdish problem, the pro-Kurdish HDP (Democratic Party of the Peoples) remains the pivotal opposition actor. Despite its poor performance, HDP emerged from the recent elections as a viable member of the opposition, being the third biggest group in parliament. The Kurdish question in general, and the future of peace negotiations in particular, remain key challenges for the new AK Party government. Certainly, the decision of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to escalate violence and conflict after the 7th of June elections was a profound mistake. Whether the PKK has drawn any lessons from its mistakes will also determine the effectiveness and position of HDP in the new parliament. Now that the elections lie in the past, the AK Party government has the political capital to pick up the peace process where it was left off several months ago. The reconciliation with Kurds is indispensable for political and social stability, enduring peace, and a robust increase in Turkish economic growth.
Governing or Ruling; Leadership or Hegemony?
Based on this dominance it will be interesting to see on which side of the ‘grey zone’ between autocracy and democracy the AK Party will stand. Will it choose leadership over hegemony that dominates a particular segment of the society? Or will we observe an AK Party that is keen on ruling rather than governing? The answers to these questions are more important than the debate on presidentialism versus parliamentary democracy for the future of Turkey.
The Role of Post-Election Turkey in Responding to Global Challenges
Turkey’s post-election stability, growth, and security will be key in its effective response to some of the regional challenges which will lead to greater global repercussions. Recently, these challenges have proliferated: The refugee crisis, the so called “Islamic State”, failed states, regional power games and absence of leadership, as well as the lack of institutions and capacity, and sectarianism in the region. Turkey’s ability to effectively tackle these problems is linked closely to its domestic stability, economic growth, status as an EU candidate and as a transatlantic partner. Effective coupling of these characteristics with Turkey’s humanitarian diplomacy and soft power amplifies Turkey’s transformative power in the region.
The Refugee Crisis
In a span of five years, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on protestors in favor of a democratic regime has turned into the bloodiest civil war of this millennium. According to UNHCR estimates, 4.5 million refugees left their country to escape the atrocities caused by the Assad regime, the infighting between regime forces and armed opposition groups, and more important, the ISIL menace. Turkey hosts the largest group of the refugees outside Syria that are mainly dispersed in neighboring countries. The official numbers estimated at 2.2 million—with an additional 1 million expected to arrive sometime next year. While nearly 300,000 refugees are registered in camps more than 1.7 million are migrating within the country, seeking either better economic conditions, job opportunities, or a “safe” passage to Europe. Turkey stretches its resources to the limit to provide education, health, and housing services for the Syrian refugees. For example, Turkish Red Crescent officials have confirmed that more than 450,000 Syrian students are enrolled in elementary and higher education schools in the 2015-2016 school term. As Turkey’s economic forecasts signal caution, a growing concern precipitates over the sustainability of Turkey’s aid to Syrian refugees.
To support Turkey’s efforts to alleviate the refugee crisis, the EU, through the German leadership, comprised an action plan to establish cooperation areas, which include cost-sharing, information sharing, and strengthening Turkey’s capacity to fight people smuggling and protection of its borders. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Ankara—shortly after the suicide attack by ISIL supporters that claimed 100 lives at a peace rally—has provided the much needed political clout for the action plan.
The self-proclaimed “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) continues to extend and consolidate its influence in the region. ISIL’s physical and psychological warfare now turns it into a non-state actor with an effective media campaign of its atrocities and the control over oil fields as a major revenue source. As such, ISIL not only operates as a terrorist organization; its goal is to build an Islamic state and control territory mainly in Iraq and Syria. Although Russia has seemingly entered the anti-ISIS coalition, its recent indiscriminate bombing of the anti-Assad coalition casts doubt over its real intentions. Similarly, Turkey’s intentions over granting American jets access to launch attacks on ISIL from the Incirlik Airbase have been questioned. Although these two developments may be interpreted as short-term measures to incapacitate ISIL, their long-term efficiency in eliminating the terrorist organization once and for all is still dubious.
Failed States, Regional Power Games, and the Lack of Leadership in the Region
The “failed state” problem of Syria and Iraq, as well as Libya, Sudan and Somalia constitutes a critical stability challenge that both the international community and Turkey need to address collectively and on a state-by-state level. Although Turkey continues its humanitarian engagement with the latter, the ongoing violence and conflict requires a more integrated cooperative approach between global and regional partners. In addition, the war in Yemen, the normalization of relations between Iran and the international community via a breakthrough in nuclear talks, as well as the proxy wars between Tehran and Riyadh in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen exacerbate the fierce regional competition between the Shia and Sunni axes and further complicate Turkey’s approach to the region.
In the same vein, the reluctance of the United States and EU to get involved in Syria, Yemen and other entrenched conflicts in the region manifest a leadership crisis. Without a commitment from hegemonic actors, key regional actors like Turkey are equally deterred from shouldering the entire burden of these conflicts. Especially in light of Russia’s entry to the Syrian war theater, impressing both sides of the Atlantic with the scope and efficiency of its airstrikes, all actors are headed back to the drawing board to deliberate new strategies.
The Lack of Institutions and the Problem of Sectarianism in Troubled Regions
In the meantime, these problems apparently will not vanish any time soon. The requisites for a stable Middle East and Levant are still missing. In all of these fragile and broken states, civil society is still weak and powerless. A strong idea or concept of citizenship does not exist as a common language among identities. The rentier state mentality, and corruption as a derivative of this sort of thinking, is still entrenched. Furthermore, poverty and economic instability still linger, while the resurgence of sectarianism and clientelism makes all of these problems worse.
What Lies Ahead for Turkey and the World
The 1 November 2015 elections produced two winners in Turkey: President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Both leaders are the central figures in the AK Party’s impressive performance at the polls. However, the eyes are now fixed on the two leaders to see how their relationship is going to evolve in light of this shared victory. Will it be one of harmony or rivalry? As the prime minister, Davutoğlu won a clear victory and consolidated his position in the party and in Turkish politics, the most interesting deliberations and bargain with respect to the debate on presidentialim will take place between these two victors. Given the “dominant party-weak opposition equation”, the interaction and relationship between the President and the Prime Minister will be given heightened attention.
More important, both domestic stakeholders and the international community will watch closely how the AK Party is going to pull Turkey out of the election fatigue, the instability and insecurity caused by the resurgence of terrorism and the governance vacuum. The uninterrupted four years ahead give the AK Party government a rare and precious opening to fill this void. To achieve this, on the inside, the government should reinvigorate the frozen “peace process” for the peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue. Furthermore it needs to address uncertainties that stifled the firm Turkish economic growth during the past two years.
Constructive steps taken domestically will also bolster the government’s capacity to effectively address the threats radiating from the failed states of Iraq and Syria. Recovering from the election fatigue, Turkey is now well positioned to exert its leadership in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State and its violent extremism in the neighborhood and on its borders. Furthermore, with AK Party’s commitment to the plight of Syrian refugees, Turkey’s primacy in offering safety and support for the victims of the Syrian civil war is well on track.
In this respect, the recent Turkey-EU summit, which was held in Brussels in late November, presents Turkey with another window of opportunity. The summit has not only provided Turkey with substantive EU support in defusing and burden-sharing with respect to the refugee crisis, but it should also be seen as constructive step towards resuscitating Turkey’s EU accession process. When considered from the perspectives of the potentially escalating skirmishes with Russia and escalating security threats in the region, Turkey’s EU and NATO anchors are potent enablers for Turkey to focus on good governance, to facilitate stability and normalcy, and to upgrade its democracy. This is of utmost importance to stop human tragedy not only within its borders, but also in its immediate neighborhood.
Fuat Keyman is member of the Dahrendorf Working Group “Europe-Turkey Relations”. He is the Director of Istanbul Policy Center and Professor of International Relations at Sabancı University. Keyman is a leading Turkish political scientist and an expert on democratization, globalization, international relations, Turkey – EU relations, Turkish foreign policy, and civil society development.
Onur Sazak is Research and Academic Affairs Manager at Istanbul Policy Center. Sazak joined IPC in 2010 as Research and Academic Affairs Coordinator. Before, he worked as Research Associate at Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. At Hudson, he was part of Center for Eurasian Policy, where he focused on a wide array of research, from energy security to the trends of political Islam in Central Asia and Europe.