Francesco F. Milan

The Telegraph – What does Erdogan’s setback at the elections mean for Turkey’s role on the global stage?


The original version of this article can be found on The Telegraph

The results of Turkey’s elections are nothing short of striking. For the first time in more than 12 years, the Turkish president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered a major electoral setback.

It is no longer able to single-handedly rule the country since its first success in the 2002 elections, only a year after it was founded by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, former president Abdullah Gül and others.

Since 2002, the share of votes cast for the AKP has grown from 34.2 per cent in that year to 49.8 per cent in 2011. In Sunday’s elections the party failed to go beyond 40 per cent of votes, falling some twenty seats short of being able to form its own working parliamentary majority.

Perhaps even more striking is the success of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its leader Selahattin Demirtaş, which obtained 13 percent of votes. The party’s progressive electoral agenda managed to bring together Turkey’s Kurdish minority and a large nationwide share of those voters who oppose AKP’s increasingly authoritarian political approach.

Successfully passing Turkey’s electoral threshold of 10 per cent means that for the first time, a pro-Kurdish party has won political representation in the National Assembly.

On the opposite ideological extreme, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) also increased its share of votes, and with 16 per cent of preferences the party might be a fundamental actor in this post-electoral phase.

It remains to be seen whether AKP will take the lead as a minority government, attempt to form an equally fragile coalition government, or it will leave the incumbency to the other parties. There is a chance the Republican People’s Party (CHP) as well as HDP and MHP will try to cooperate and find an almost impossible compromise under the watchful eye of President Erdogan.

While an AKP-MHP alliance seems to be one of the more likely options on the table, this will be uncharted territory for AKP.

The Kurdish issue and Syria

One of the main outcomes of Sunday’s elections is that HDP’s clout in the Turkish parliament will move Turkey’s Kurdish issue higher up in the country’s political agenda. This, in turn, might give a new impulse to the negotiations between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who is currently committed to a ceasefire after a three decade-long conflict in south-east Turkey.

An all-round stronger parliamentary opposition might bring about a more incisive debate over Turkey’s role in Syria. A report by Cumhuriyet newspaper appeared to confirm long-standing allegations about the government’s direct involvement in arming Syrian rebels via the MIT, Turkey’s intelligence agency. This triggered President Erdoğan’s reaction, who accused the journalists behind the report of working to tarnish Turkey’s international reputation and filed a criminal complaint against the newspaper’s editor-in-chief.

On the other hand, a potential coalition government that includes the ultra-nationalist party would definitely compromise the dialogue with the PKK, and might not lead to a less active role in Syria: while the MHP aspires to nurture relations with Turkic peoples across the globe, it is particularly concerned with the status of Syria’s Turkmen minority, and might push for increased support and assistance for Turkmen fighters in the Syrian conflict.

Perhaps paradoxically, Turkey’s already limited willingness to be involved in actively contrasting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) might be even further reduced. Despite MHP’s own firm stance against ISIL, support for Kurdish Syrian fighters woul be out of question, as the party sees them as an extension of the PKK, and claims their ultimate goal is the formation of a Kurdish state that would include the Southeast of Turkey.

Initiatives such as the one that took place last October, when the AKP government eventually agreed to allow Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga to transit through Turkey in order to reinforce Kurdish defences in Kobani, which was under ISIL’s siege, would not receive MHP’s green light.

Turkey and the EU

The EU described Sunday’s elections as a “clear sign of strength of Turkish democracy”, and as an opportunity to “further strengthening the EU-Turkey relationship and to advance in broadening EU-Turkey cooperation”.

Yet, over the past decade, Turkey’s bid to become a member of the EU has made minimal progress towards meeting the requirements for accession, due to a number of long-standing political divergences – the main one being the dispute over Cyprus, and Turkey’s refusal to formally recognise the country, which is itself a member of the EU.

Should the new government include the MHP, there would be no margins for progress.

Over the years, AKP has pushed Turkey further away from hopes of accession, and towards becoming a more Erdogan-centric and compromise-averse system.

If there is a coalition with the AKP, the smaller party will dictate the extent to which the party will follow a more moderate political approach. Whatever the outcome, the EU will closely monitor how HDP’s human rights-centred political agenda will be received in this new phase of Turkish politics.