What next for Turkish foreign policy?

Alex Dismore

Are President Erdoğan's hopes for an executive presidency over? Photo Source: Government of Chile via Wikimedia Commons

Are President Erdoğan’s hopes for an executive presidency over? Photo Source: Government of Chile via Wikimedia Commons

On the 7th of June, the people of Turkey stopped their President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in his tracks. The message was clear: we will not tolerate an all-powerful president. As Marina Petrova has outlined for Future Foreign Policy, the elections represented a victory for the smaller parties, the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in particular, and a victory for democracy over creeping authoritarianism. The result however is political uncertainty. Coalition talks only began on the 13th July. There have been suggestions that Erdoğan hopes that a delay will trigger another election, and that he will be able to convince the electorate that a coalition would be unstable and to restore the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) majority. The makeup of the government, coalition or otherwise, will have a significant impact on the country’s foreign policy – a foreign policy that is pivotal in the crises in Iraq and Syria and in the response to a resurgent Iran. Not to mention Turkey’s EU membership ambitions. Those who wish to see Turkey become a more constructive partner for its neighbours once again should hope for a coalition between the AKP and the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP).

President Erdoğan giving a sign of solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Egypt, 2013. Photo Source: RWBIA.com via Wikimedia Commons

President Erdoğan giving a sign of solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Egypt, 2013. Photo Source: RWBIA.com via Wikimedia Commons

President Erdoğan’s foreign policy was once admired. Its policy of ‘zero-problems with neighbours’ had enabled it to play a mediating role in the Middle East whilst striding toward EU membership. In recent years however, the waters have been muddied. The Arab Spring, of course out of Erdoğan’s control, has led to policy responses that have significantly diminished Turkey’s popularity and political capital in the region. Turkey’s response to the deposition of Mohammed Morsi, former Muslim Brotherhood President of Egypt, has been vocal, bordering on belligerent. Condemnation of Morsi’s death sentence is one thing; stirring up anti al-Sisi violence in Egypt through propaganda, as it has been accused, is quite another. Despite the protests of the CHP opposition, amongst others, formal diplomatic ties between the two countries have yet to be restored, leaving an important regional relationship in tatters and Turkey at odds with the Arab world.

Its response to the crisis in Syria and Iraq has also been heavily criticised, in particular, the perceived abandonment of the Syrian Kurds in Kobane to their fate in the hands of Islamic State. This is despite Erdoğan’s earlier progress on Turkey’s own Kurdish issue, for which he won credit. Its prioritising of the removal of Assad has led some to wonder whether Turkey’s heart is in dealing with Islamic State.

Creeping authoritarianism alongside unhelpful anti-Western remarks have soured relations with Europe. The heavy-handed put down of the Gezi Park protests of 2013 was a hammer blow to already stalling EU accession talks. The 2014 EU progress report on Turkey confirms a growing concern that a decline in the rule of law, separation of powers and the freedom of the media have left the country out of step with Western values and have seriously set back negotiations. The President’s response has been to declare that he would turn his back on EU membership in favour of signing up to the “more powerful”, Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which boasts Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as its members. According to Mr Erdoğan, these countries share more common values with Turkey. Turkey’s membership chances look slimmer than ever if the current regime is left to its own devices.

What next?

There are two scenarios that would see broad continuation or, in some ways, an amplification of Erdoğan’s recent behaviour. The first would be the AKP continuing alone in government, either by governing as a minority or by pressuring the AKP’s leader and chief negotiator, Ahmet Davutoğlu, to delay coalition negotiations long enough to justify having fresh elections. Mr Davutoğlu will be crucial. It is said that he does not want new elections – another point of friction in an increasingly fractious relationship with his President. It is unclear what the result of fresh elections would be. However, a recent AKP-commissioned poll suggests that the party would be well-placed to win enough votes to get the 280 it needs for a majority, with 5% of non-AKP voters saying that they would not back the opposition parties again. This would give Erdoğan the mandate and personal authority to continue in the same foreign policy vein.

The other scenario would, in some respects, see a hardening of Mr Erdoğan’s current line. A coalition with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) would effectively see an end to the Kurdish peace process. In the run up to the elections, MHP leader, Develt Bahçeli, went as far as to accuse the AKP government of treason over the next step of the Kurdish peace process, which would involve constitutional changes that would give Kurds more autonomy and cultural recognition. More concerning for the international community would be the MHP’s desire to create a buffer zone in northern Syria in order to close the so-called ‘Kurdish corridor’ that been created there. It seems that the AKP would be open to the idea, having previously made the humanitarian case. This could drag Turkey into the conflict, disrupt the Kurd’s well-respected efforts in its fight against IS and would contradict the coalition’s strategy, widening the gap between Turkey and the West. As I write however, reports have broken that the MHP’s leadership has announced that it will not enter coalition with the AKP. For Turkey’s relations with Europe and its neighbours, this is for the best.

The only other workable option would be a ‘grand coalition’ with the main opposition party, the centre-left CHP. The CHP have been heavily critical of Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions and the erosion of civil rights. Commanding 25% of the votes and 132 seats, they would make up about a third of the coalition, giving them sufficient weight in a coalition to stop this slide. This would help put the country back on the road to accession, one of their key priorities. As naturally more liberal and Western-leaning than their AKP counterparts, we could expect a less hostile tone from a CHP coalition government. Leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has condemned plans for buffer zone in Syria and has committed to repairing diplomatic ties with neighbours such as Egypt. A more constructive Turkey could re-emerge. Early indications are that talks are progressing well between the rival parties. Of course we cannot know at this stage how much of an influence the junior partner will have on foreign policy. This will become clearer as details emerge.

The West must be ready to welcome any change in tone from the next government. There are difficulties of course. On EU accession, the UK remains its most influential advocate but its voice will lack weight whilst it talks about leaving. The EU Commission still aims for accession in the long-term but Germany and France’s opposition will be difficult to overcome. But if the AKP is allowed to continue down the same path, this opposition will only harden and Turkey and the West’s interests will grow apart. The outcome of these elections is still far from certain, but the best hope for a return to a constructive and coherent Turkish foreign policy, lies in an AKP – CHP coalition.

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