ISN Insights – Surveying Turkey’s Electoral Landscape

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The original version of this analysis can be found on the ISN website

After eight years in power, Erdogan’s AKP is almost certain to win the 12 June general elections. Despite the result being a foregone conclusion, this is a critical moment for Turkey. Voters will determine not only who will run the country in the coming years, but also the degree of political tension it will experience.

By Francesco F Milan for ISN Insights


Predicting the winner of Turkey’s 12 June elections is hardly a difficult enterprise. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition, is unlikely to improve on its performance in the 2007 elections, when more than 16 million voters, representing 46 percent of the electorate, opted for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), with the CHP receiving about seven million votes, or 21 percent. A third term for Erdogan, then, seems a certainty.

What is at stake, however, is whether the AKP government will be able to obtain a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and, with it, the opportunity to pass a major constitutional reform that could lead Turkey to adopt a presidential system. A second, critical element is whether the high electoral threshold, fixed at the national level at 10 percent of votes, will prove insurmountable for minor parties, and thus close Parliament’s doors to all but the two or three main parties and a couple dozen independent MPs.

The opposition: A new Republican People’s Party (CHP)

The CHP, the party created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and grounded in his ideology of Kemalism, has undergone substantial changes recently. In May 2010, the economist Kemal Kilicdaroglu became the new head of the party, after its previous leader, Deniz Baykal, had to step down after being implicated in a sex scandal. But the writing had been on the wall. In 1999 the electorate expressed its mixed feelings about Baykal’s old-school nationalist, secularist and anti-Western stance, relegating the CHP to a place outside Parliament, with only nine percent of the vote. Though the party did better in the 2000s, with 21 percent of votes in 2007, it failed to seriously threaten AKP’s hegemony. Since his election last year, Kilicdaroglu’s leadership has brought a breath of fresh air to the party, which now appears more liberal, modern and in touch with the electorate than it did under Baykal. Significantly, Kilicdaroglu has launched his own proposal for constitutional reform, in which he advocates a lower electoral threshold, and, among other democratic reforms, a deeper commitment to freedom of the press – the latter a not-so-subtle attack on Erdogan, who has recently attracted widespread criticism for a speech he gave at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in which he praised the recent arrest of two Turkish journalists (in a country that is already routinely criticized for its lack of press freedom). Despite Kilicdaroglu’s successful efforts at reform within the party, the CHP is still far from challenging the AKP. A credible, growing opposition it may be, and one now transformed by charismatic, modern leadership, but at present it is still no match for Erdogan.

The National Action Party (MHP): Time to sink or swim

The party that might be dealt the harshest blow by the electoral threshold is the National Action Party (MHP). At the moment, it has the fewest seats in Parliament: in 2007 it only managed 14 percent of the vote and 71 seats, and all major polls agree that its current position is fragile. Devlet Bahceli, the party leader, cannot seem to keep up with the electoral appeal of Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu, and, during the current electoral campaign, the party was rocked by a major scandal. In late April, two of the deputy leaders of the MHP resigned from their posts while running for re-election after videos of extramarital relations were leaked by anonymous sources. The scandal had a major impact within the ultraconservative and religiously-oriented MHP, and was exacerbated by subsequent leaks of two similar videos which implicated other high-ranking party members. Most of those caught up in the scandals resigned, and those who refused to resign were expelled from the party. Because of the prestigious positions held by those involved, however, and because the party’s reputation for strict internal discipline means that they were personally picked and trusted by Bahceli, the MHP’s fundamental moral character has been called into question in the eyes of many supporters. Under the current circumstances, the party could fail to reach the 10 percent threshold, and end up leaving its roughly five million voters with no elected representatives, yielding their 71 parliamentary seats to the AKP and CHP.

The battle for Diyarbakır and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP)

Diyarbakır, the biggest city in southeastern Turkey, is witnessing fierce electoral competition. It is here that party leaders need to make their presence felt if they want to attract votes from the Kurdish minority, which numbers in the millions. Along with other cities in the region, Diyarbakır used to be one of the strongholds of the now-defunct Democratic Society Party (DTP), the pro-Kurdish party from which the BDP originated. As the DTP did in 2007, however, the BDP will not be formally campaigning: because its voters are heavily concentrated ethnically and geographically, it is impossible for the party to reach the 10 percent threshold at the national level. The solution that the BDP members have adopted is to run as independents, since the threshold does not then apply. As such, referring to independent MPs in southeastern constituencies means, in most cases, referring to BDP members. In recent years, the AKP managed to attract a critical mass of votes in the region, mounting a serious challenge to the BDP. However, the recent failure of the so-called ‘democratic opening’, aimed at enhancing the rights of the Kurdish minority, is likely to have had the opposite effect, moving a large part of the local electorate away from the AKP, and re-opening the parties’ quest for the Kurdish minority’s vote. BDP’s independent candidates now have to face multiple adversaries in their natural constituencies: Kilicdaroglu’s rally in Diyarbakır brought his party back to the town for the first time in nine years. In his much-awaited Diyarbakır speech, Erdogan, while trying to underline the common religious ties of all Turks and to underplay ethnic divisions, accused the CHP of using the Kurdish issue as a hollow electoral strategy, and the BDP of exploiting and aggravating the situation. However, five AKP candidates, unimpressed by the party’s new stance on the Kurdish issue, recently resigned and joined the BDP. Even Bahceli, despite the MHP’s ultranationalist stance and the complete absence of a pro-MHP Kurdish constituency, held a historic rally in Diyarbakır, after a 16-year absence. This can be partially explained by the party’s desperation for votes to meet the threshold, but is also seen as a provocative gesture towards Erdogan, aimed at bolstering the party’s profile.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP): Winning may not be enough

By winning this election, Erdogan would be given his third and, according to AKP party rules, final mandate as a member of parliament. Some of the most recent polls claim that electoral support for the AKP should be around 40 percent, which, if confirmed, would mean a six percent decrease compared to previous elections. In 2007, the AKP was allocated 340 out of the 550 seats in Parliament, 27 short of the two-thirds majority. The main objective for the AKP in this election, therefore, is to obtain these 27 seats. This would pave the way for a constitutional reform that would bring the presidential system to Turkey, with Erdogan eligible to run for the post and, if elected, keep running the country. Should the AKP fail to achieve its goal, it would need to negotiate with other political forces to pass the reform. All other parties have already made clear that they are against the adoption of a presidential system, which leaves little room for negotiation; furthermore, inter-party relations are currently quite tense, as the electoral campaign saw party leaders fiercely fighting each other, meaning that the AKP in particular is now more isolated than ever. Another option would be holding a referendum encompassing a range of democratic reforms along with the proposal for the presidential system. Of course, the safest solution for the AKP is to obtain enough seats in parliament. Should Erdogan obtain his coveted two-thirds majority, he would have immense political responsibility in his hands, the opportunity to change Turkey for good, and no excuse in case of failure.

Eyes on smaller parties

If we exclude the CHP, for which elections can not be anything more than a test of Kilicdaroglu’s new leadership, all other parties have something to lose from these elections. The AKP needs its two-thirds majority, and the MHP must reach the electoral threshold. If the MHP fails to obtain its 10 percent of the vote, the Turkish Parliament would be composed of a handful of independent MPs, and only AKP and CHP members. This would mean that the two parties, which are poles apart ideologically, would obtain a disproportionate amount of seats to the share of the votes they actually received. Moreover, the AKP’s strong majority would give the party undisputed control of parliamentary activities. Such a scenario, supported by a system that sacrifices representativeness for governability, would create serious tensions emanating from the smaller parties, especially the MHP and BDP. The latter, in particular, has already given up any hopes of official representation in Parliament anyway, and its candidates have contributed to increasing electoral tensions. The BDP, that has traditionally been accused of being little more than a mouthpiece for the terrorist group PKK and its jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan, has campaigned in an extremely aggressive manner, hardly shying away from veiled threats at the government, and Öcalan himself has imposed a 15 June deadline, after which he claims Turkey will find itself either committed to a reform process on the Kurdish issue or at war. So far, this polarization has favored Erdogan’s AKP, but this time a landslide victory might lead to further tensions in Turkey.

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ISN Insights – Turkey’s Booming Defense Industry

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The original version of this analysis can be found on the ISN website

In recent years, Turkey’s defense industry has dramatically increased its exports, supported by a proactive foreign policy. The country is also planning to increase reliance on local industries for internal needs – putting the country well on its way to becoming a globally established actor in military procurement.

By Francesco F Milan for ISN Insights


In four years, Turkey has managed to double its defense exports. As calculated by the Turkish Defense Industry Manufacturers Association (SaSad), defense companies exported $669 million worth of products in 2009 – up from $337 million in 2005. Although this represents an important leap forward in absolute terms, Turkey is still far from being a top-level defense exporter on a global scale. For example, according to data provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Italy closed the top-ten list for arms transfers in 2009, with exports 11 times higher than Turkey’s.

However, Turkey is investing heavily in the sector, trying to strengthen exports through its diplomatic network. During President Abdullah Gül’s recent visit to Indonesia, Turkey signed a $400 million deal for the provision of communications and weapons systems – just one example of how Turkish diplomacy is promoting its defense industry abroad.

The government is also intervening at a domestic level; the Undersecretariat for the Defense Industry (SSM) is planning to develop an initiative which will consist of a system of low-interest credit to cover the export costs sustained by defense industries. Similarly, the creation of the Ostim Defense & Aviation Cluster, an organization that includes more than 60 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) operating in the defense sector, is designed to enhance coordination of SMEs based in the industrial area of Ostim, Ankara. Since its founding in 2007, the cluster has been supported by institutions and associations such as SaSad, SSM, and the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

Indigenous projects, foreign problems: Turkish UAVs, jet fighters and helicopters

According to SIPRI, Turkey was the world’s 16th largest arms importer in 2010. It nevertheless managed to spend 30 percent less acquiring foreign arms than it did in 2009. At the moment, Turkey remains an importer of defense equipment, but its long-term strategy is to reverse this trend and it has already launched a few projects to help decrease reliance on imported defense systems. In 2010, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) presented the first medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) produced by a Turkish company. It is likely to be acquired not only by the Turkish Air Force but also by the Army and Navy, which altogether currently employ more than 200 MALE and Mini-UAVs.

A second, more ambitious, project aims to reduce Turkish dependence on US-produced fighter jets. Earlier this year, SSM provided TAI with $20 million, and gave it two years to design a new fighter aircraft, which TAI might then develop and produce in partnership with a foreign company by 2020. As this project enters its preliminary phase, Turkey is experiencing problems in its negotiations with the US over the acquisition of around 100 F-35 jet fighters – with Turkey also being informed that an extra $4 billion will be required to finance the deal. This high price tag is coupled with US-imposed limitations on the supply of components and on information sharing: the main problem seems to be the refusal to share the source codes for the jet fighters’ software. Previously, Turkey managed to partially circumvent the problem by relying on Israel’s cooperation; current relations between the two countries have, however, hindered this partnership. These issues, then, seem to be the main drivers for the government’s push to develop an indigenous jet fighter.

Another important deal has just been signed: Over the last two years, the Defense Industry Executive Committee was charged with deciding whether Turkey should join forces with US company Sikorsky, or the Italian-British company, AgustaWestland, for the production of more than 100 utility helicopters. The Committee – chaired by the prime minister and comprised of the minister of defense, the chief of general staff and the head of SSM – met several times over this matter, but it only reached its final decision this week. The government justified the delay by saying that it deemed both proposals too costly; in response, Sikorsky and AgustaWestland tried to make their offers more attractive. Despite the fact that Turkey had already signed two deals with AgustaWestland in 2009 for the co-production of more than 50 attack helicopters, the Committee ultimately decided to sign the contract offered by Sikorsky, which will bring 109 helicopters for $3.5 billion.

Enhancing strategic partnerships

President Gül’s recent visit to Indonesia was aimed at strengthening diplomatic and economic relations. With a population of 246 million, 86 percent of whom are Muslim, Indonesia is likely to become one of Turkey’s main strategic partners in Asia. Three of the largest Turkish defense companies – FNSSAselsan and Roketsan – have signed a deal with Indonesia to deliver armored vehicles, wireless devices and rockets worth around $400 million, and there might be a second agreement with TAI on the horizon, for the joint production of naval vessels and the modernization of Indonesia’s F-16s.

Indonesia is not the only Southeast Asian country that Turkey is eyeing; the country has also recently cemented a strategic relationship with Malaysia. A few months ago, the two countries signed a $600 million defense deal stipulating that FNSS will manufacture 257 armored vehicles in partnership with Malaysian DefTech – the biggest deal ever signed by a Turkish defense company. Turkey is likely to cooperate closely, given that Malaysia was the world’s sixth largest arms importer from 2009-2010.

Closer to home, Azerbaijan is a trusted ally of Turkey and a long-time partner in defense procurement. While Turkish Otokar has secured a deal to supply an undisclosed number of armored personnel carriers to Azerbaijan, Roketsan, in cooperation with an Azeri company, has started test production on a range of different rockets. Should tests prove successful, a contract for full-scale production will follow.

Pakistan is another strategic partner. The world’s second largest defense importer, Pakistan has a well-established relationship with Turkey. TAI is modernizing the Pakistani air force’s F-16, and Aselsan is providing wireless equipment to the Pakistani army. Moreover, Pakistan is among the countries that have shown interest in buying Turkey’s new UAV.

From importer to exporter?

Turkey’s strategy of relying on long-time partners, while strengthening relationships with new ones, is aimed at making long-term strides. Trading with major importers such as Pakistan and Malaysia will increasingly net a clear payoff, and collaborations with Azerbaijan and Indonesia are likely to be highly profitable. Furthermore, the Turkish defense sector is likely to receive a rejuvenating boost in the coming decade from this renewed engagement. As a result, Turkey may finally be able to start relying on domestic production for its defense needs – and perhaps even be in a position to present their defense companies’ products abroad. Focusing on exports is going to be an important turning point for companies operating in the sector, as a great deal of Turkish defense procurement is currently employed in internal security operations in the Southeastern region of the country. Should the threat posed by domestic terrorism diminish, the country’s need for weapons systems would shrink accordingly. In a scenario with a reduced internal demand, closing deals with foreign countries would become fundamental for the survival of Turkish defense companies.


ISN Insights – Turkey Battles Resurgent PKK

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The original version of this analysis can be found on the ISN website 

2010 was an annus horribilis for Turkey’s domestic security, with PKK attacks reaching levels thought to have long since subsided in the 26-year long conflict that has dogged southeastern Turkey. Last year highlighted PKK’s ability to improve its tactical skills, while Turkish military forces struggled to keep pace.

By Francesco F Milan for ISN Insights


Last year, about 90 Turkish soldiers and dozens of civilians died in attacks carried out by the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), a separatist group labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and EU. Currently based in the Qandil mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, and estimated to number around 2,000, PKK militants have used a variety of tactics to attack Turkish forces: After re-entering Turkey from Iraqi Kurdistan, they have engaged Turkish troops deployed to the southeastern region of the country with attacks on military outposts and barracks or ambushes on patrol units. The single deadliest PKK attack on the military took place in the Hakkari province in June, killing 10 Turkish soldiers. But PKK also hit more central areas, especially Istanbul, which suffered three bombings last year: In one June attack, a roadside bomb killed four soldiers and a civilian traveling on a bus.

Tactical evolution: PKK changes it up 

Indeed, PKK performed dreadfully well in 2010. The group’s tactical successes were on display during a late May attack against the Iskenderun naval base: located on the Mediterranean Sea, about 50 kilometers from the Syrian border, the base is hundreds of kilometers away from traditional PKK insertion and extraction routes. Both the tactics (a rocket assault) and target (a naval base) were unexpected and new.

PKK also demonstrated a growing familiarity with the preparation and use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs): At least a dozen IED attacks, carried out mainly in the border provinces of Hakkari and Şırnak, killed 10 soldiers; given the diffusion of IEDs in the Iraqi conflict, PKK’s increased knowledge about, and reliance on, them come as no surprise. PKK leadership denied responsibility for an IED attack in the Hakkari province that killed nine civilians in September, claiming they were committed to a unilateral ceasefire in place at the time: Nevertheless, the incident led tospeculation that those responsible for the attack were members of the Teyrêbazên Azadiya Kurdistan (TAK), a parallel militia group opposing any ceasefire or dialogue with Turkish authorities.

As for targets, PKK raised the stakes by attacking strategic infrastructures such as gas and oil pipelines. The first attack of this kind was carried out in July in the southeastern province of Mardin, causing minor damages to the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which carries crude oil from Iraq to Turkey. A few weeks later, the Tabriz-Ankara pipeline, which transports natural gas from Iran to Turkey, was attacked by PKK in the Ağrı province, shutting it down for a week. The same pipelines were attacked for a second time in August: The second-round sabotage in Mardin province killed two people, while the attack on the gas pipeline in Ağrı province forced authorities to shut it down for a few days.

PKK’s objectives may have been to cast a shadow on Turkish efforts to become an energy hub within the EU-funded Nabucco project. Moreover, these attacks are likely to raise serious security concerns, given Turkey’s plan to develop nuclear technology and run nuclear plants on its own soil.

Turkish military response: More cooperation, more operations

In response to increased PKK attacks, Turkey has sought to enhance security cooperation with other countries, and to obtain as many Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets as possible from the US. In several bi- and multi-lateralmeetings, top-level US government representatives showed their support for Turkish efforts against PKK, and advocated for a higher degree of diplomatic engagement between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.

In the meantime, police cooperation with EU countries led to several major operations against PKK members operating in European countries: in March, Belgian police arrested 30 members of the group; in July the Italian police arrested a group of Turkish citizens accused of being PKK recruiters; in August, Danish prosecutors accused Roj TV, a Kurdish-language television channel broadcasting in several European countries, of being a megaphone for PKK propaganda; while in December six more members were arrested in France.

Enhanced security cooperation is essential to ongoing military operations against PKK: In a well-established pattern, retaliatory air strikes on PKK facilities in Iraqi Kurdistan come after major attacks on Turkish troops, and in the last few years, the period between March and October has witnessed joint land-air military operations in southeastern Turkey. However, military operations carried out by the Turkish military in previous years did not keep PKK from conducting an extensive number of ambushes and attacks in 2010, calling the effectiveness of these military operations into question.

The debate about whether or not to employ professional soldiers instead of relying mainly on conscripts also re-emerged: As of 2010, four commando brigades of the Turkish army were part of a project aimed at transforming them into all-volunteer, professional units, while in July the government announced the launch of a newproject conceived to train and equip professional units to patrol borders.

But the year also highlighted a persistent and fundamental gap in defense procurement: While in previous years, Turkey mainly focused on the modernization of its Air Force, 2010’s increased clashes with PKK highlighted the lack of land forces-based military assets. The effectiveness of PKK attacks led the politico-military establishment to urgently close a second, new contract for the purchase of nine T-129 attack helicopters from AgustaWestland, to be delivered in 2012: The fact that Turkey will have to wait more than one year to have its helicopters delivered shows the short-sightedness of defense procurement, especially when considering that the previous contract with AgustaWestland, signed in 2007 and still being implemented, agreed to bring 50 new helicopters – but only by 2014.

PKK resilience and strategic initiative

PKK launched its first attacks in 1984: the 26-year conflict has caused about 45,000 casualties. A major blow to the group was dealt in 1999, when its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was captured while on the run, after being forced to flee his safe haven in Syria. However, the turmoil caused by Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 provided a safe environment for PKK to re-group and re-organize: since then, it has gained new strength and power – extending its network on European soil; creating broadcasting platforms for propaganda purposes; and securing new means of funding.

In 2010, it launched an impressive number of effective attacks against Turkish troops, infrastructures and cities: At the peak of its eight month-long campaign, PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire at the beginning of Ramadan, subsequently extending it until 2011’s Turkish general elections. The ceasefire has been mainly respected by PKK, although a few attacks were carried out, and it did not refrain TAK from attacking a police post in Istanbul in October.

The winter period has traditionally produced a lull in PKK attacks, and this winter is no exception. In the coming months, however, the solidity of the ceasefire will be tested again. Turkish military operations continue, but the momentum is still on PKK’s side.