On Sunday, June 7, Turks voted in a general parliamentary election whose results will likely ripple across the greater Middle East. Surprisingly, Turkish President (and longtime Prime Minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s centre-right Justice and Development Party (AKP) was dealt a relative defeat in winning far fewer seats than expected. While the party retained the highest number of seats in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly (258 of 550), this total fell short of its previous seat tally (327) and much lower than the goal President Erdogan had set for his party at the outset of the election (400).
One of the most prominent election issues was President Erdogan himself – after serving as Turkey’s Prime Minister since 2002 and increasingly consolidating power, he assumed the mostly ceremonial presidency last year. With this election, Erdogan and the AKP sought to secure a large enough majority to push through a new constitution that would remake the country’s parliamentary system into a presidential one, granting Erdogan far greater powers with fewer checks and balances. With recent clashes between Turkish citizens and Erdogan, including a crackdown on environmental protestors in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and bans on social media platforms, demonstrating increasingly authoritarian tendencies, many voters switched to opposition parties to voice their opposition to greater presidential powers.
The upshot of this shift is that the AKP will now be forced to search for a coalition partner. The party that won the second-most seats, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has historically been the AKP’s main opponent and seems unlikely to enter into an agreement with its political rival. The two remaining large parties are the Nationalist People’s Party (MHP), a right-wing party that derives its strength from Turkish nationalism, and the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), a coalition of left-wing Turks and nationalist Kurds that have long been at odds with Turkey’s central government. The parties will have 45 days to find a workable governing arrangement, or face the prospect of a new round of elections later this year.
“Turkey’s General Election Deals Blow to Erdogan, Creates Political Uncertainty“, by Ishaan Tharoor (The Washington Post)
“Five Takeaways from the Turkish Election“, by Nigar Goksel and Hugh Pope (Politico)
“Turkey Comes Undone“, by Steven Cook (The American Interest)
Like everything in politics, the solution to a problem in one arena creates problems in another. One of the primary reasons for the AKP’s slide – besides Erdogan’s behavior – was the inability to manage the competing demands of Turkish nationalists and the Kurds… Having gotten little return on his nationalist investment, Erdogan is now confronting [MHP leader Devlet Bahceli] who will likely hold the AKP to its hardline position on the Kurds as a condition for a coalition, continuing the polarization of the political arena and raising the prospects of renewed PKK violence.” – Steven A. Cook, The American Interest
Turkey’s election result may prove to be an important tipping point in the geopolitics of the greater Middle East, regardless of what kind of coalition comes to power. A governing coalition that includes the Kurdish-dominated HDP could provide the best opportunity in decades to resolve the ongoing conflict between the Turkish government and Kurdish separatists, led by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), that has led to tens of thousands of deaths and an estimated 3 million refugees from military conflict over the last 30 years. Indeed, PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan called for a permanent end to hostilities just two months prior to Turkey’s elections, and a governing coalition that includes a Kurdish party could provide the spark needed to finalize the long-delayed peace process.
A rapprochement between the Turkish capital and its Kurdish population would also change the course of Turkey’s relations with its neighbours. If the country is successful in stemming the tide of Kurdish separatism through greater inclusion in the central government, it may feel more secure in supporting neighbouring Kurdish populations in Syria and Iraq against encroaching ISIS forces. (The government’s perceived inaction during a key battle last fall pitting Syrian Kurds against ISIS forces in Kobani fuelled a renewed round of Kurdish wrath aimed at Erdogan.) At a time when ISIS appears to be preparing another campaign against Iraqi Kurds, stronger Turkish intervention (or at minimum, greater control over foreign fighters passing through Turkish borders to join ISIS) could help tip the balance against the Sunni jihadist group. It would also re-shape relations among regional and world powers currently involved in Iraq; by serving as a Sunni ally in the fight against ISIS, Turkey could help neutralize the growing dependence of the Iraqi government on Shiite Iran. In turn, Western countries such as the United States and Canada may feel less pressure to deepen their involvement in the conflict.
On the other hand, an entirely different scenario is possible, and perhaps even more likely. Over the course of his rule, President Erdogan has taken an increasingly nationalist, conservative, and authoritarian path to maintaining power. If he wishes to remain in power, his most likely parliamentary ally is the far-right MHP, which would further marginalize Kurds and leftists opposed to his policies. Such a government could very well inflame Kurdish separatist sentiments, especially if Turkey continues to play a passive role in the conflict between Iraqi Kurds and ISIS, or is even seen to support ISIS. In addition to renewed separatist conflict in Turkey, this hostility could provide a major push for Iraqi Kurds, who are already wary of the Iraqi government, to declare their own independent state. American and Canadian forces that are currently supporting the Kurdish peshmerga forces against ISIS would then be caught between contributing to the dissolution of Iraq or withdrawing from one of their few reliable allies in combating the growth of ISIS. This shift would leave the Iranian government as the major regional power to influence political developments in the country.
At this point, much uncertainty remains regarding whether the Turkish parties can form a government, and if so, what that government will look like. But given the strengthening of competing nationalisms in the region – including Turkish, Kurdish, Sunni, and Iranian/Shiite identities – the outcome of this election is sure to be an important piece that will cause other dominoes to fall, one way or the other, in the near future.