December 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
This is starting to feel like Groundhog Day. In March 2013, I wrote an article for Foreign Affairs explaining the timing behind Israel and Turkey agreeing to reconcile, and here I am again nearly three years later explaining the timing behind Israel and Turkey agreeing to reconcile. That the two countries have had a number of false starts is instructive and provides the first lesson of the day, which is that despite yesterday’s announcement, expectations should be tempered until there is an actual signed agreement. That is not to say that this is a feint, but that there are still a lot of obstacles ahead, including President Erdoğan’s desire to use this as a domestic political win bumping against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire not to be used for Erdoğan’s political gain; a recent history of extremely difficult relations between the two governments that cannot be papered over at the drop of a hat; the Gaza blockade remaining as an extra large sticking point; and the big elephant – or more accurately, bear – in the room that is looming over this entire thing and that I’ll get to in a minute. In other words, this won’t be entirely easy so no champagne corks should be popping yet.
But assuming that this does indeed go through, it’s not terribly difficult to see why. What I wrote in March 2013 was that the two sides were being pushed together by energy needs and Syria, and that remains true today but even more acutely. Dan Arbell on Monday (exhibiting impeccable timing!) wrote about thawing relations between Turkey and Israel focusing on Turkey’s ongoing quest for energy security and Israel’s complementary ongoing quest to find an export destination for its natural gas, with the Syria situation being a factor as well. Turkey is in a serious bind now that its relationship with Russia has deteriorated in such a big way, and Israeli gas provides a way out. If Russia cancels the Turkish Stream project or even takes things one step further and halts natural gas shipments to Turkey entirely, Israeli gas won’t solve things in the short term but will provide a long term hedge against relying on Russia as a primary energy supplier. On the Israeli side, the simple truth is that no energy company is going to invest the resources to develop the Leviathan field without a viable export destination, and the two best large market options were always Egypt and Turkey. The first one is far less attractive now due to the recent Egyptian gas discoveries mitigating how much Israeli gas Egypt will want to buy over the long haul, leaving Turkey as the best destination remaining. There are still political hurdles to be overcome on both sides, and the technical hurdle of constructing a deepwater pipeline is nothing to sneeze at either, but the formal approval granted yesterday to Noble to develop Leviathan likely resulted directly from the reconciliation agreement with Turkey.
On Syria, Turkey is always desperate for more intelligence and coordination given how much it has been affected by the civil war, and Israel can benefit as well since it does not want spillover across its northern border. The Russian intervention has made this more stark for both sides, since where Israeli opinion has been divided from the start on whether it is better for Assad to stay or go, there has emerged a slightly dominant view that it is better for Assad to be deposed given his role as the linchpin of the Iran-Hizbollah axis, and Russian intervention now makes that harder (if you’re interested in the subject, I participated on a Wilson Center panel yesterday with Tamara Wittes and Yoram Peri on the subject of the Syrian crisis and Israeli security, and you can watch it here). For Turkey, which has set Assad’s downfall as its top foreign policy priority for over four years, Russia’s involvement in Syria is a disaster and so to the extent that Israeli priorities are slowly lining up on the same side, any joint cooperation is a net positive.
All of this is why the timing of rapprochement makes sense, maybe even urgently so on the Turkish side. So why do I think that in some ways it is odd? The same way that the Russia variable is driving Turkey to find alternative solutions to some of its problems and reestablish close links with its Western allies – and certainly making up with Israel is a factor in pulling the U.S. closer – the mirror image is true for Israel. Whereas in the past Israel could reconcile with Turkey and it would be cost-free in the larger geopolitical context, now it’s not quite so simple. Israel and Russia have gotten along remarkably well despite Israeli and Russian military planes both flying along the same corridor in southern Syria, and up until now Russia has respected and tolerated Israeli freedom of action to attack weapons convoys on their way to Hizballah in Lebanon. This shouldn’t be taken for granted, however, and a closer Israeli relationship with Turkey has the potential to alter this equation. Russia is undoubtedly annoyed by yesterday’s news as it has been trying to isolate Turkey as best it can, and that in itself may lead to frostier relations with Israel. But even if you take Russian pettiness out of the equation, closer coordination between the Israeli and Turkish militaries has real potential to encroach on Russian priorities in Syria, which mainly consist of ensuring Assad’s rule over at least part of the country. Should Israel be drawn into Turkey’s fight and end up striking Syrian army positions that do not directly impact Hizballah advanced weaponry, Israeli leeway in Syria will be quickly narrowed by Russia.
Furthermore, Israel has now dramatically reduced Russian leverage over Turkey by mitigating Russia’s energy blackmail strategy. This is not only a matter of economics but geopolitics as well, since Russia uses Gazprom and its energy policy as a tool for foreign policy outcomes, and in the case of Turkey, that has now been significantly undermined. I’m no Russia expert, and I don’t know that there is a Russia expert alive who can predict what Putin will or won’t do, but my casual observation of Russian behavior leads me to believe that it is not outlandish to assume that Putin won’t retaliate against Israel in some manner or another for throwing Turkey a gas lifeline. With relations with Russia as terrible as they are for Turkey, it makes sense for Ankara to risk even more Russian wrath if it means solving the energy security problem. What mystifies me a bit is why Israel, which has so far gotten along with Russia remarkably well despite working somewhat at cross purposes against Russia in Syria, would risk a downturn in relations with Russia in order to make up with Turkey, a country that cannot threaten Israel in any real way and upon whose favor Israel does not depend in order to keep on going after Hizballah in Syria. Helping Turkey out of its morass in order to realize some economic benefits while risking the chance of limiting your range of action in Syria and provoking a much stronger power is penny wise and pound foolish. On top of this, there is also the lesser but not irrelevant factor that Israel has been frantically trying to establish better ties with the “moderate” Sunni bloc that includes Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and there is no love lost for Turkey in that group of countries. When you look at the regional chess board, partnering in a closer way with Turkey brings with it some significant potential downside for Israel.
I’ll reiterate that nothing is done until it’s done, and so this post may prove to be as irrelevant as my last deep dive into this subject. From where I am sitting, this deal is a no-brainer for Turkey, but I don’t think the same can be definitively said for Israel. It will be fascinating to see where all of this leads and whether the benefits of reconciliation that both sides fantasize about end up fully materializing.
November 1, 2015 § 10 Comments
I need some time to absorb today’s election results and think about them more thoroughly, but a few brief points in the immediate aftermath.
I certainly will not pretend to have foreseen this result. Had someone predicted to me yesterday that the AKP would replicate its 2011 parliamentary victory, I would have laughed at the idea and dismissed the person as naive or a Turkey neophyte. I know of no serious Turkey analyst, either Turkish or otherwise, who saw this coming, and the polling whiffed entirely, so both I and everyone else need to figure out where the gap is between the polling/analysis and actual results. I will, however, take credit for writing on the day after the previous election that it was not a loss for the AKP, that Erdoğan was still going to control the direction in which Turkey moved, and doubting the analysis of a liberal wave or new era in Turkish politics. At least I got something right!
Assuming that these results are accurate – and I’ll get to why that may be a question in a minute – Erdoğan and the AKP’s strategy has been vindicated beautifully. After the June 7 election, Erdoğan took the gamble that introducing some instability into the system, linking the HDP to the PKK and Kurdish terrorism, turning even more nationalist and polarizing, and arguing that not handing the AKP a parliamentary majority was a recipe for further chaos, would all result in a second election that would net the AKP a larger vote share. A lot of people, including me, thought that this strategy spun out of the AKP’s grasp and that the AKP would end up either in the same spot or even lose some ground given the violent clashes between the army and the PKK, terrorist attacks inside Turkey that were almost certainly carried out by ISIS, the introduction of Russia into the Syrian civil war in a direct way and on Assad’s side, and an economy that is not improving. As has been the case repeatedly over the last decade and a half, Erdoğan’s political instincts are better than everyone else’s, and while the preliminary results do not have him getting the supermajority he has so craved in order to install his beloved presidential system, the AKP is back to a majority of seats in parliament.
How does something like this happen? After everything that has gone on in Turkey over the past five months, how is it possible that the AKP increased its vote share in every single city? How is it possible that the AKP is only a few seats short of its 2011 victory despite a worse economy, a foreign policy that has blown up, terrorist attacks in Turkey’s streets, renewed fighting with the PKK, and far greater political polarization? Looking at the results that have been released, the AKP has picked up seats from the nationalist MHP and from the Kurdish HDP, and turnout overall is up. That says to me that the nationalist positioning worked exactly as it was supposed to, since nationalist voters figured that they may as well vote for the suddenly ultra-nationalist party that will be the largest party rather than the ultra-nationalist party that will come in third. In terms of the loss of vote share for the HDP, it’s probably a combination of the AKP’s constant allegations tying the HDP to the PKK and some HDP voters getting fed up with the system since the HDP’s historic success in June did not translate into any increased power for the party or an increased voice for Kurds, and some of the voters who cast their ballots for the HDP last time but are historic AKP voters returning to the AKP fold. People who pay attention to Turkish politics spend a lot of time reading the Turkish press online and conversing with each other on social media, but the vast majority of Turkish voters get their information from Turkish television, and last week’s seizure of Koza Ipek television stations reinforces that if you get your news from Turkish television, you are getting a relentless pro-government message. So in hindsight, it is easy to see how the AKP’s message that instability was the result of not giving the AKP a majority in June and that the only way to restore things was to correct course today, and drowning out every alternative argument to the contrary, could have produced the desired result.
Of course, there is also another possibility, which is that what seems to be impossible actually is. As of this writing, the AKP has received an additional 4.3 million votes over what it received in June. Also as of this writing, the Turkish Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) has not released any official results and the YSK website is down, and it has been ever since voting ended. I’m an Occam’s Razor kind of guy, and quite frankly, the prospect of the AKP doing so much better five months later despite things being so much worse seems like it should be statistically impossible. The central elections website is down, votes were counted hours faster than they were last time, the ban on broadcasting results was lifted before it was supposed to…I’m not in a position to make accusations of fraud, but there is definitely some unusual stuff going on. The bottom line, however, is that even if there turns out to be nothing irregular at all about the actual vote tally, the facts are that the AKP spent five months harassing opposition politicians, arresting opposition journalists, shutting down television stations and newspapers, accusing the HDP of supporting terrorism, and warning the entire country that the instability that has wracked the country would look like child’s play if the AKP were not handed a majority this time. Whatever you want to call the sum total of those tactics, they do not make for a free and fair election. Welcome to the era of competitive authoritarianism, Turkey.
More to come…
October 16, 2015 § 2 Comments
Turkey has been the scene of terrorism and street violence off and on for decades, but the suicide bombings at a peace rally last Saturday that killed 97 people and wounded scores more is a new low, and has been rightly described as Turkey’s 9/11. As all who have been following Turkey’s descent into chaos know, the bombings came after months of political polarization between the government and everyone else but particularly the Kurds, fighting between the Turkish military and the PKK, Turkish airstrikes against ISIS, and a tightening crackdown on voices of dissent in Turkey of any sort. In the aftermath of the bombing, the government has issued a blanket media blackout, which is unlikely to help matters and will only sow more distrust and confusion. While no group has taken credit for the bombings, they were almost certainly the work of ISIS and deliberately targeted Kurdish political parties at the rally, so this is the latest in the never-ending fallout from the fight for Kobani earlier this year.
Steven Cook wrote a good post on Monday summing up the various conflicts tearing Turkish society apart, and they range from the political to the ethnic. While sometimes tragedy can bring a country together, as it certainly did in the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks, in Turkey that dynamic does not seem to be emerging. The government is still practicing the demagoguery that has become its hallmark, and its rhetorical flourishes are reaching new heights of absurdity. Yesterday, Prime Minister Davutoğlu claimed that there is a secret agreement between Assad, ISIS, and the PKK to eliminate all anti-Assad forces and share the Syrian border with Turkey. I’ll leave it to you to ponder for a moment how anyone can seriously think that ISIS is in league with the regime that it is trying to replace, or even more fantastically how ISIS and the PKK sat down in a room together and agreed to live and let live despite the raging war going on between ISIS and the Kurds in Kobani and other places. Given that Davutoğlu, in trying to demonstrate Turkey’s distance from ISIS in response to theories that the Turkish government was complicit in the rally bombings, said on Wednesday that the difference between ISIS and Turkey is 360 degrees, perhaps we should just assume that nothing he says is to be taken at face value.
Ribbing of the prime minister aside, the question facing Turkey is what comes next? This would be a challenge for any country that had just experienced a tragedy and was already riven by political and sectarian strife, but in Turkey’s case there is the added variable of the November 1 redo of June’s election. A combination of President Erdoğan’s refusal to let go of his dream of a super-empowered presidency and bad blood between the AKP and the other parties combined to prevent a government from being formed after the AKP failed to win an outright majority last time. If the polls are to be believed, Turkey is headed for the exact same result in November, and this time it will come with the added pressure of more bad blood between the AKP and HDP, more pressure from the government on journalists, a reinvigoration of the government’s war against the Gülenists, and conspiracy theories about the bombing flying fast and furious. One cannot discount either that there will be more terrorism in Turkey in the next two weeks, which would only add to the pressure building. It was obvious after June what Erdoğan’s strategy was for November, namely to ramp up the fight with the PKK and foster a sense of insecurity so that AKP politicians could then rail against what happens when voters do not hand the AKP a majority. The problem is that the tiger of violence and uncertainty is beyond the AKP’s control, and if anything discontent with the AKP has only deepened.
Should the AKP again fail to win a majority – the outcome that nearly everyone is expecting – there are two ways this can go. One is that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu will accept that the era of coalition government has returned, inject some humility into their pronouncements and actions both public and private, and figure out how best to work with some combination of the CHP, MHP, and HDP (if the latter is still even a possibility given the demonization of Kurds and HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş that has occurred) to get the country back on track. This can involve a step up or a step down in the battle against Kurdish nationalism depending on whom the AKP partners with, although I find the latter to be increasingly unlikely. The second way this can go is that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu can take the same path they took following the June vote, which is to blame all sorts of enemies foreign and domestic for their troubles, crack down further on internal dissent, continue to threaten the PYD – and the U.S. and Russia for allegedly supporting the PYD – and refuse to see the writing on the wall about Kurdish autonomy in Syria, and ally with the MHP in order to form a government and push an extremely narrow nationalist agenda.
One can look at Turkey’s history of democratic institutions and the recent kneecapping of the military in order to prevent its intervention into the political system and assume that Turkey’s history demonstrates that it will emerge from the darkness into the sunlight, that logic will prevail following the horrific Ankara bombings, and that Erdoğan and company will realize a losing hand they see one. Alternatively, one can look at Erdoğan and the AKP’s history, see what they have done once unencumbered by significant checks on their power, and observe their behavior in the last few months alone, and then come to the opposite conclusion about Turkey’s future.
After my assessment following the June election that it did not mean the end of Erdoğan’s domination of Turkish politics and that Turkish politics was not about to immediately change for the better, Cengiz Çandar took me to task in Al-Monitor for my prediction that Erdoğan had not been made irrelevant, writing, “The summer of 2015 may be messy and full of uncertainty, but Turkey will not be at the mercy of one man and one party.” As it turns out, Turkey in fact was at the mercy of one man and one party, and that one man and one party prevented a coalition government from forming, actively aggravated tensions with Turkey’s Kurdish minority through constant incitement against the HDP and its politicians, and has left Turkey in a much more dangerous position than it was four months ago. Turkish society is on the brink of eruption, and the specter of further ISIS terrorism, further PKK targeting of Turkish military and police, and the occasional leftist DHKP-C attack mean that the pressure is only going to increase. The aftermath of this election is going to recreate the precise environment as existed the day after the last election, and the open question is what Erdoğan – and Erdoğan alone – is going to decide to do, since much like last time, this hinges on whether he accepts the death of his presidential system and an AKP victory without AKP dominance with grace, or whether he continues to wield his authority in the service of himself and his party rather than his country. Given what we have seen so far, I am pretty sure I know which option he will choose.
September 24, 2015 § 4 Comments
I know that I have been neglecting the blog lately in a serious way (some of which was for good reasons such as the birth of my daughter, and some of which was for not so good reasons such as having a lazy summer), but that is soon to be remedied due to some news on the professional front. As of last week, I am the new policy director for the Israel Policy Forum, an organization that will be familiar to regular readers as I have mentioned it before as one whose goals and motivations track very closely with my own. In IPF’s own words, “Israel Policy Forum is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that provides resources and advocacy for a strong, Jewish and democratic state at peace with its neighbors. IPF convenes forums and publishes commentary and analysis that promote pragmatic strategies for achieving regional peace and security. IPF mobilizes policy experts and community leaders to build support for those ideas in the U.S. and Israel.” It’s a unique organization in many ways and difficult to pigeonhole, but think of it as a think tank with a dedicated policy mission that combines objective analysis with advocacy for its goals. I will be doing many things as policy director, but since IPF asked me to come on board to provide the organization with a clear voice and message, my primary task will be to establish IPF as (hopefully) an unparalleled source for analysis and commentary on Israeli politics and society, the internal politics of American Jewry, and the ways in which regional dynamics in the Middle East affect Israel. I will be writing a weekly column for IPF along with starting up a collaborative blog on IPF’s website, and so if you have enjoyed my writing in the past, there will now be lots more of it and more regularly than it has been for the past few months. For those of you who have been readers from the beginning and remember when I used to write a post every day, I shall be returning to a pace much closer to than than what it has been over the past year. So I hope that I still have some dedicated readers left after my months of neglect, and if you promise to keep coming back, I promise to have a lot more writing ahead.
What does this mean for O&Z? Good question. Any column I write for IPF about Israel will be cross-posted to this blog, so you need not worry about ever missing anything substantial I write on the subject if you are a regular O&Z reader or subscriber. Since the IPF blog is not my own proprietary piece of Internet realty and will feature other writers as well, however, I encourage everyone to check it out once it is up and running in the next month.
You’ve covered the Zionists; how about the Ottomans? Rest assured that I have no intention of neglecting my writing on Turkey. As even casual observers of the news are aware, Turkey is going through serious political and social upheaval, with another election coming on November 1 and constant developments related to the Syrian civil war. I will continue to opine on Turkey as I always have, and for those who doubt my commitment, I have a new piece in the American Interest – at 6000 words the longest piece I have published to date, I believe – on the past, present, and future of U.S.-Turkey relations, and how the U.S. should best view Turkey going forward if it is to maintain any type of productive strategic and tactical bilateral relationship. Please go over to the American Interest and check it out, and as usual, here is a taste to whet your appetite:
On June 7, Turkish voters went to the polls to decide the makeup of their next government. When Turkey last held legislative elections in 2011, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was riding high on a decade of record economic growth, newfound influence in the Middle East, and an international consensus that Turkey was more democratic than it had been at any time since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Four years later, that narrative had soured on nearly every front. The economy had slowed considerably, Turkish foreign policy had become bogged down in a Syrian quagmire partially of Ankara’s own making, and the government had launched any number of assaults on Turkish liberties and Turkish citizens in response to threats real and imagined. On top of this, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had turned an election in which he ostensibly was not participating into a referendum on his ambition to transform Turkey’s political system into one with a super-empowered presidency. The AKP entered the election with its past record in question and its future plans—including its very hold on a majority of the seats in the Grand National Assembly—in flux for the first time since coming to power 13 years before.
The relationship between Turkey’s ruling party and its citizens is not the only one that is highly volatile these days. Much as the AKP has suffered a bumpy ride domestically over the past few years, so has Turkey’s relationship with the United States. The “model partnership” that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu used to wax so eloquently about—established during the heyday of relations between President Obama and Erdoğan, when Obama listed the Turkish leader as one of his five closest foreign confidantes—has given way to a far different reality. Erdoğan and other Turkish officials now regularly take potshots at the United States, accusing President Obama of not caring about his own Muslim citizens and American news organizations of inappropriately meddling in Turkish affairs and seeking to “bring down” the “New Turkey.” On the U.S. side, former ambassadors to Ankara have called for the U.S. government to take a tougher approach toward Turkey rather than treat the government with kid gloves, and it has become accepted wisdom in Washington that the U.S.-Turkey relationship is so broken and dysfunctional as to be nearly unsalvageable.Despite the unpleasantness on both sides, U.S.-Turkey ties are far from dead and buried. While the Obama Administration has become disappointed with the limits of what Turkey can and will do to further American interests in the region, it continues to hope for greater Turkish buy-in on a range of policy issues. This delicate tightrope walk has entailed abandoning grand plans that involve an over-reliance on Turkey while avoiding too much public criticism of Ankara so as not to drive the Turks away. Rather than assume that Turkey is a consistent partner, the White House has adopted more of an a la carte approach, working with the Turkish government on issues that are of mutual interest and papering over any clashes on issues that aren’t.
August 3, 2015 § Leave a comment
I have a new piece in Foreign Affairs on Turkey’s recent agreement to engage in the fight against ISIS, and what Ankara is really hoping to accomplish, namely an assault against Kurdish nationalism both at home and abroad. While it is evident that Turkey’s airstrikes have so far been directed primarily at the PKK rather than at ISIS, Ankara is at the same time directing a political assault against the HDP, Turkey’s Kurdish political party, in the hopes of killing two birds with one stone. Here is my argument in Foreign Affairs:
On July 23, Turkey finally joined the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and it did so with much fanfare. It began with a series of air and artillery strikes to push back ISIS forces in Syria and seal what has been a porous southern border. The Turkish government also gave the United States access to its Incirlik and Diyarbakir airbases, opening them up to support combat missions, not just surveillance operations.
This was a major win for the Obama administration, which, for months, had been negotiating with a reluctant Turkey to get it to recognize the ISIS threat. U.S. officials are now hopeful that ISIS can be set back on its heels, since Ankara will be able to wage a more robust bombing campaign given its proximity to the conflict. The U.S.–Turkish agreement about the Incirlik and Diyarbakir airbases apparently also involved the establishment of a safe zone in northwest Syria just north of Aleppo, something the Turkish government has long demanded, although Washington has refused to commit to it. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has argued that a safe zone would naturally emerge after removing ISIS forces from that part of Syria.
Yet all is not as it seems. Although Washington trumpeted the agreement as a potential game changer in the fight against ISIS, Ankara’s recent behavior suggests that its primary mission is to use the opportunity to simultaneously fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group that the government has been fighting for decades. The group, however, has also been on the frontlines battling ISIS.
As Washington celebrated Turkey’s new commitment, Ankara’s initial airstrikes last week targeted both ISIS and PKK positions, and, as some have noted, the United States has essentially enabled Turkey to cloak its primary objective—striking the PKK and its Syrian cousin, the People’s Protection Units (also known as the YPG)—in the general fight against ISIS. Turkey would also be able to ensure that U.S. strikes against ISIS positions do not benefit Kurdish fighters in the process by coordinating joint missions and moving Turkish troops into areas immediately following U.S. sorties. By conceding to Washington’s requests to do more against ISIS, Turkey is actually hoping to achieve its true goal, which is to prevent the autonomous Syrian Rojava canton currently controlled by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) from turning into a truly independent Kurdish state and additionally, using the Kurdish issue to bolster its political standing at home.
Turkey has also targeted its own Kurdish population through heightened policing after the July 20 terrorist bombing in the border town of Suruc. Linked to ISIS, the attack was directed at pro-Kurdish activists and left 23 dead. Since then, Turkey has been conducting an anti-terror sweep that as of July 29 has resulted in the arrest of 137 suspected ISIS sympathizers and 847 suspected PKK members. Writing in the pro-government paper, Daily Sabah, the influential presidential foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin explicitly linked ISIS and the PKK . He essentially argued that the PKK and ISIS are two sides of the same coin because both groups use terrorism to achieve their political goals, and that PKK attacks are just as big a threat to Turkey as those carried out by ISIS.
Fighting the PKK and thwarting Kurdish ambitions in Syria are not the only dynamics driving Turkish actions. In addition to all of this, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is head of the current caretaker government that will rule the country until a new coalition is formed (or, if one fails to form, until new elections are held in the fall), is attempting to reverse the political consequences of its Kurdish Opening policy, which granted Turkish Kurds greater rights in using the Kurdish language and expressing their Kurdish culture. It brought momentary peace, but appears now to have weakened the AKP’s hold on power.
To read the rest, please head over to Foreign Affairs.
June 8, 2015 § 1 Comment
If you read any of the coverage of yesterday’s Turkish election, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the AKP suffered a crushing defeat. Tayyip Erdoğan’s dreams of an imperial presidency appear to be dead, the AKP no longer has a majority of seats in the Grand National Assembly and will be forced into either a coalition or a minority government for the first time since coming to power in 2002 (and go read Aaron Stein for a great breakdown of the various possibilities), and the party performed far below nearly everyone’s expectations (including my own). At the same time, calling this a defeat seems bizarre given that the AKP beat the second place CHP by 15 points and 126 seats and will still control the government, albeit from a weakened position. I wrote about the election today for Foreign Affairs and argued that the election results should not give cause for instant jubilation to the AKP’s opponents:
Imagine a country in which the ruling party—having won three consecutive national elections over the past decade-plus—wins its fourth in a row, beating the second-place party by over fifteen percentage points, and yet nearly every outside observer declares the result to be a disastrous loss for that party. This is the situation in which Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) now finds itself following Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Prime Minister turned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still ensconced in his thousand-room palace, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will remain at his post, and the AKP is going to continue dominating the government as either a minority ruling party or as the lead party in an extremely lopsided coalition. Wherever you look, though, the AKP’s political obituary is being written.
It is easy to understand why schadenfreude reigns supreme among the 60 percent of Turks who voted for a party other than the AKP. In the span of one election, the AKP has gone from 49.8 of the vote and just three seats short of a coveted supermajority in the Grand National Assembly to having to rely on the backing of another party for the first time since it came to power in 2002. Six in every ten Turkish voters cast their ballots for an opposition party, and when taking into account Erdogan’s very public drive for the AKP to win 400 seats in order to give him the increased presidential powers that he so desperately covets, it is in many ways a devastating blow. The path to a formal presidential system—one that many feared would put Turkey on the fast track to full-blown democratic breakdown—has petered out. This in itself is plenty cause for celebration. However, the exuberance that reigns supreme in many quarters should be tempered; although the results of this election will prove good in the long run, the short-term aftermath may prove decidedly unpleasant.
To read the rest, including why I think the AKP’s disappointing performance may counterintuitively empower Erdoğan, please head over to Foreign Affairs.
June 4, 2015 § 6 Comments
When Turkish voters go to the polls this Sunday, it will mark the end of what has been an interminable 15 month long election cycle in Turkey encompassing municipal elections, a presidential election, and finally parliamentary elections. This would be have been taxing under the best of circumstances, but given the factors involved – including but not limited to the transition of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from prime minister to president, the fate of Erdoğan’s desired constitutional overhaul and prospective presidential system, the pending forced retirement of term-limited AKP legislators, the ongoing fallout from the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish peace process hanging on by a thread, the increasingly nationalist tone of the government following the 2013 Gezi protests, the war between the AKP and its former Gülenist allies, worsening assaults on freedom of speech and expression, and allegations of rampant AKP corruption – the last 15 months have been rough on Turkish society and Turkey’s political system, to say the least. Many of my Turkish friends are eager for Sunday’s election to be behind them and hope that this will mark a turning point of some sort that puts an end to what has been a volatile time by any measure.
Despite this fervent wish, not only are the parliamentary elections unlikely to bring much stability, but there is a significant likelihood that the immediate and medium-term aftermath will be even stormier than the past couple of years. There are too many variables in play that hinge on the election’s results, and many of them will create chaos irrespective of the outcome. Rather than do a deep dive into what the actual outcome of the elections themselves will be – for that you can read excellent previews from Carnegie Europe, the Center for American Progress, and my friend Aaron Stein, and your first and last source for polling and polling analysis should be the indispensable James in Turkey blog – I thought I’d highlight some issues to watch out for that are main drivers of Turkish political volatility and that will be magnified in the election’s aftermath.
The most immediately pressing issue is the role of Turkish Kurds going forward. The outcome of the election will primarily hinge on the success or failure of the Kurdish HDP in passing the 10% vote threshold – the world’s highest such threshold – that is required for a party to sit in the Grand National Assembly, and nearly everything that happens is going to follow from this result. When the last legal polls were published last week (publishing polls is prohibited within ten days of the election), the HDP was hovering between 10.2% and 10.6%. For comparison’s sake, the HDP’s candidate in the presidential election, Selahattin Demirtaş, received 9.76%, which surprised most observers as he was not expected to do so well, and most analysts attributed his success to his personal appeal rather than to the party’s. Demirtaş is the party leader and is thus the public face of the HDP for this election as well, but he needs to improve his party’s performance by pulling off two difficult maneuvers that are diametrically opposed. He has to simultaneously attract disaffected liberals who voted for the AKP or CHP in past elections and attract religiously conservative Kurds who voted for the AKP in 2002, 2007, and 2011. Without siphoning off voters in both of these groups, the 10% threshold is going to be hard to crack as there is not a large enough base for the party to rely on its traditional Kurdish supporters alone. While I hope that the HDP makes it into the Assembly since it represents a new and important voice, my gut tells me that it will not. Aside from having a tough uphill climb, it is operating in an environment in which the AKP has an enormous incentive to ensure that the HDP does not make it in (more on that below) and is close enough to the 10% line that some well placed election fraud – such as occurred in last year’s municipal elections – will guarantee that it falls short.
If this happens, Turkey is going to experience protests and unrest on a scale that equals and likely surpasses those that rocked the country during the Gezi protests of June 2013. The southeast of the country, where the majority of Turkey’s Kurds reside, is going to be a disaster zone, since it will be impossible to convince Kurds that the HDP lost fair and square. Turkish Kurds are highly distrustful of the government and believe that the government has been supporting ISIS in an effort to stamp out Kurdish nationalism. Kurds blame the government for not actively aiding Kurdish fighters in the fight against ISIS for the Syrian town of Kobane and for preventing the fighters from being resupplied, and this resentment is not one that will merely linger and eventually dissipate. Kurds also see the handwriting on the wall of a potential coalition between the AKP and the ultra-nationalist MHP if the AKP does not receive enough seats to form a government outright, and such a result will mean the cessation of any conciliatory moves in the name of the Kurdish peace process. In short, Turkish Kurds believe that the government has sold them out and will continue to do so in the future, and if the HDP does not receive a high enough vote share on Sunday, there is going to be unrest on a mass scale. It will also raise the question of how Kurds fit into Turkey’s political system, since the decision by the HDP to run as a party rather than as independents signals a Kurdish desire to renounce violence and separatism, and to work within the confines of Turkish politics. If this gesture is rebuffed in a way that convinces Kurds that the government is fraudulently trying to keep them out, it will be a terrible squandering of a historic moment in relations between Kurds and the Turkish state. It will tell Kurds that their grievances will never be redressed through politics, and it will empower the PKK and those who are inclined toward terrorism and separatism, unleashing a new round of violence similar to that which racked Turkey in the 1990s.
If the HDP does not crack the threshold, Kurds are not the only ones who will be upset. HDP votes will be reapportioned, with the AKP receiving most of them as the largest overall vote getter and the only other party that receives votes in the HDP’s stronghold of southeastern Turkey, and this could boost the AKP’s share to a 3/5 supermajority of 330 seats (the party currently has 311). This matters because Erdoğan’s single-minded focus since becoming president last summer has been on remaking Turkey’s political system into a presidential one, and 330 seats is the number he needs in order to submit a new constitution to a referendum. It is for this reason that he needs the HDP to fall short of the magic 10% number, and without that happening, not only is his dream of an empowered presidency dead in the water, the AKP is not guaranteed to reach the 276 seats it needs to form a government outright and may be forced to form a coalition for the first time since coming to power in 2002. The incentive for the party and for Erdoğan personally is to suppress the HDP’s vote, which is why both Erdoğan – who is constitutionally not allowed to campaign for any party and is prohibited from being a party member, but who in reality is still the de facto leader of the AKP – and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have been striking hard at the HDP and Demirtaş every chance they get. The prospect of an even more powerful President Erdoğan terrifies many non-AKP supporters, which is why if the HDP does not make it into the parliament, protests and unrest will not be limited to Kurds and southeastern Turkey. Anecdotally, there are a not insignificant number of erstwhile CHP supporters who are planning to vote for the HDP, and Istanbul and Izmir are likely to erupt should the AKP receive a supermajority on the back of a failed HDP bid. If I am right about the HDP ultimately falling short, Turkey is going to be in for a long and contentious summer, with all of the now-familiar scenes that have accompanied recent summers – tear gas, TOMA water cannons, police beating protestors, and mass arrests on vague and undefined terrorism charges.
Even if the HDP does garner 10%, another prevailing source of instability will be the continuing unraveling and unpredictability of Erdoğan, whose behavior has become nuttier as time goes on. If he does not get his presidential system, he is not going to react well to what will be his first real loss in over a decade, and for a guy used to getting what he wants – thousand room palaces, gilded drinking glasses, having his spy chief remain in his post despite said spy chief resigning and announcing a run for parliament – this will be a new reality for him. Erdoğan has built an independent power base of advisers and sycophants that make up a parallel government and that Turks now refer to in shorthand as “the Palace” and he intends to use it. If his presidential dreams are dashed, there is no telling what he will do and to what lengths he will go to try and get what he wants, but one can guarantee that whatever he does will be divisive and damaging to Turkish democracy, which as Erik Meyersson points out, is hanging on by a thread as it is even in the context of the very elections that purportedly legitimate Turkey as democratic. The perpetuation of Turkey’s current parliamentary system also means that the maneuvering between Erdoğan and the Palace on the one hand and Davutoğlu and the prime minister’s office on the other will continue, with jockeying between the dueling power bases. The AKP is already divided between the two camps, as personified by the spat between deputy prime minister and co-AKP founder Bülent Arınç and Ankara mayor “Mad” Melih Gökçek, and a setback for the prospective presidential system is not going to end this fight. It will continue to divide the AKP and prolong the Twilight Zone aspect of nobody knowing who is actually in charge and whether Erdoğan or Davutoğlu is running the country and the party. So long as the party controlling the government is unstable – and the AKP is as unstable as it has ever been – it is going to filter down into every aspect of governance, and while it may lead to the AKP’s downfall, which many will welcome, it may also lead to chaos for Turkey itself.
If the HDP does not get enough votes and the AKP does get to 330, this does not guarantee stability either. While Erdoğan has cowed dissident party members for years, there is significant dissension in the ranks. There is no guarantee that the AKP will march forward in lockstep toward unlimited Erdoğan despotism, and certainly the other parties are not going to lay down quietly without a fight. There will be nastiness ahead during the struggle over the terms of the new constitution within the Assembly, and then the real fighting will take place in the run-up to the referendum. As bad as things have been during the perpetual campaign of the past year and a half, it will be that much worse during the campaigning over the very future of Turkey’s political system. The talk of lobbies – Jewish, Armenian, interest rate, Greek, robot, preacher’s, blood, chaos, gay, atheist, and Alevi are among Erdoğan’s greatest hits – and foreign conspiracies will only intensify as Erdoğan seeks to paint all of his opponents as enemies not of him but of the “New Turkey” and of Turkish progress. If you think what has come up until now has been bad, just wait for what comes once Erdoğan really turns on the afterburners.
Finally, there is the question of whether the end of this seemingly perpetual election season will restore some stability to Turkey’s foreign policy and its relations with its once and future allies. There is certainly an argument to be made that if Turkey has some space to strategically reorient itself with regard to the U.S. and to the Middle East, it will undo some of the damage that has been done. Unfortunately, while Turkish domestic politics and the over-the-top rhetoric that has served the government’s domestic political needs have contributed to its foreign policy disarray, I don’t think that the end of Erdoğan and the AKP’s permanent campaign mode is going to be enough. Jon Schanzer and Merve Tahiroğlu take a quick glance around the region and convincingly argue that Ankara’s isolation is a permanent feature rather than a bug of its quest for regional dominance given the constraints under which it operates. I myself argued in World Politics Review earlier this week that Turkey’s relationship with Israel is doomed to the status quo for the indefinite future, and despite the nascent cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey on training and arming a subset of Syrian rebels, there is too much dividing the two countries for the relationship to be as robust as it appeared during President Obama’s first term. As much as Turkey is trying to create a new normal for itself in its neighborhood, its efforts can only go so far.
In sum, whatever happens on Sunday, Turkey is not about to enter a newly stable period. Turkish politics are in flux in ways that haven’t been seen in decades, Turkish society is reaching a boiling point, alarm bells are going off all over the economy, and Turkey is involving itself in proxy wars all over the Middle East. While it would be nice to chalk up the last couple of years to the constant electioneering, the fact is that Turkey is in a bad place, and nobody can confidently predict that it will get better with the advent of a new government.