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GTE Question of the Month, June 2015


What are the implications of the 7 June election results for Turkey's domestic reforms and regional role?

Nathalie Tocci

The 7 June elections demonstrated, once again, the resilience of Turkey's democracy. Just like in 2002, when Turkey's citizens wiped out an old political system by voting for the newly-founded AKP, and like in 2011, when they entrusted the AKP with a majority short of the threshold necessary to change the constitution singlehandedly, in 2015 they put a decisive brake on the hubristic authoritarian bent of President Erdogan. Much like several Western European countries or indeed like Russia, Turkey has no shortage of political leaders displaying undeniable authoritarian inclinations. But ‎like the former and unlike the latter, Turkey boasts a society that has experienced and internalized multiparty democracy for half a century and can be relied upon to exercise its democratic rights. In one shot, Turkey's citizens put a brake on the AKP's rise, invalidated the logic underpinning the undemocratic 10% threshold and brought to parliament a pro-Kurdish party which is determined to reach out beyond its traditional Kurdish constituency. As in most moments of inflection, the period ahead, both domestically and in terms of foreign policy, brings with it uncertainty, risks and even potential dangers. But one thing we now know, and that is that Turkey's society can be counted upon to protect and foster its internal democracy, an important reminder for the EU, the US and the broader neighbourhood.

(Nathalie Tocci is Deputy Director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali)

Eduard Soler i Lecha

In Turkey, foreign and domestic policies converge on one point: the Kurdish issue. Two of the main features of the June 2015 elections are the emergence of the HDP, a party with Kurdish roots but which has connected with other segments of the Turkish society, as well as the changing voting patterns of some of the Kurdish voters who in the past supported the AKP. These two elements, along with a very high turnout, have deprived the AKP of its absolute majority. In March 2015 President Erdogan said that in Turkey there has never been a problem called the Kurdish issue. And yet, this issue will be on the agenda in the months and years to come. But we should not take for granted a more inclusive and forward-looking policy. While the presence of the HDP in the parliament may help to move Kurdish demands from the streets (and the mountains) to the political arena and the negotiation table, the strategic position of the MHP, a right-wing Turkish nationalist force that could become the kingmaker, could push Turkey to more nationalist policies, at home and abroad.

(Eduard Soler i Lecha is Research Coordinator at Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB))

Emiliano Alessandri

The June 7 elections testified to the resilience of Turkish society, which, by denying the ruling party a majority in the parliament, put a brake on developments that would have sealed Turkey's transformation into a one-party regime. However, the resilience of Turkish democracy—and of its political system in particular—is yet to be proved and will indeed be put to a critical test in the weeks to come. The risk of protracted political instability, possibly compounded with the return of violence on a significant scale, cannot be forgotten as the country awakens to the reality of a changed balance of power but is notably unprepared to deal with the implications of the new course. The ruling party's newly discovered vulnerability may lead to more advanced and more inclusive political alliances. But it may just as well further exacerbate the divisions of an already deeply polarized political system and reinforce centrifugal forces that are a reflection of Turkey's segmented polity, complex history and multifaceted identity. The most important test about whether the system will hold together is, of course, the Kurdish issue. The end of the one-party era would not have materialised had it not been for the success of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP). The HDP was able to translate long-standing claims into acceptable and fully peaceful requests for more rights and greater autonomy for Turkey's sizeable Kurdish minority without the threat of secession. In the process, the HDP attracted a larger constituency with a platform that connected Kurdish-relevant objectives with broader demands about a pluralistic democracy. Without the HDP, any coalition or power-sharing arrangement that may be negotiated in the following weeks will not be sustainable.
Indeed, this is the time for the Turkish President to take the initiative, despite the blow he and his party have suffered at the polls. His plans for an unbound 'executive presidency' shattered, Erdogan could turn the ongoing crisis into the opportunity to become a 'constitutional president.' By reaching out to the HDP to initiate a serious discussion on how to finally reform the Turkish Constitution in a comprehensive as well as inclusive way, he could thus show that the so-called 'solution process' spearheaded by the AKP governments in order to put an end to decades of violence involving Kurdish groups was a strategic, not an opportunistic, move. A bold initiative in the direction of constitutional reform would signal that the President remains, after all, the kingmaker at the center of Turkey's tested political system. Erdogan's new leadership would be defined by forward-looking compromise in the interest of the nation instead of by personal ambition.
This course is by far the most sensible, but it may not be the most likely. It may simply be too long a shot for Turkey to shift from power concentration to historical compromise at this highly tense and disorientating time. One can only hope that the humility, restraint and foresight of political leaders who have long lost all these qualities will reappear and prevail in the face of the bleak alternative scenarios that would be ushered in by inconclusive and self-harming confrontation in the months to come.

(Emiliano Alessandri is a non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund)>

Dimitar Bechev

The general elections have proven that Turkey remains a democracy, albeit an imperfect one. Voters have checked President Erdogan’s ambitions to take over the political system. However, the next chapter might well prove much more challenging. In a positive scenario, Turkey would restore at least some of its democratic credentials, with more freedom in the media, greater power for the Central Bank and a host of regulatory agencies, a more vocal civil society, and less pressure on judges and prosecutors. A negative path would entail a return to the 1990s: fractious coalitions, a wobbly economy marred by cycles of boom and bust, and a failure to resolve the Kurdish issue. Which path Turkey takes depends on the leaders of the four main parties and their decisions concerning the makeup of the next cabinet. Turbulence in domestic politics would also sap Ankara’s capacity to act externally. By contrast, a democratic turn, especially if championed by groups within the AKP, would both improve Turkey’s ties with Western partners and add to its leverage vis-à-vis its neighbours. There are some encouraging signs: the agreement to update the customs union with the EU and the improved cooperation in fighting the Islamic State.

(Dimitar Bechev is visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE))