Turkey: Polarized At Home, Fraught Ties Abroad

man putting ballot in a box during elections in turkey in front of flag
man putting ballot in a box during elections in turkey in front of flag

The historic election victory by Turkey's AK party clearly defied expectations and represents a personal vindication for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It effectively restores single-party rule after five months of political limbo. However, initial calls for national unity by AK party leaders will likely prove short-lived and largely amount to empty rhetoric. Overall, Turkey will remain a deeply polarized society unless Erdogan manages to rise above the political fray, place national interest above personal and partisan interest, and engage in real substantive outreach and inclusion.

The electoral outcome presents Erdogan with an historic opportunity to change tack and secure his legacy as a statesman. However, his political track record provides little, if any, hope of this materializing. Furthermore, fraught ties with western allies will continue.

In an electoral environment marred by violence and deep anxiety, Erdogan once again proved a master populist who thrives on the politics of fear and confrontation. His core theme of "restoring stability" with strong single-party rule proved compelling. His snap election gamble paid off. In a society evenly split, Erdogan's encroaching authoritarianism is likely to continue fostering social division and fanning the flames of civil unrest.

In addition, serious questions arise over the fairness of the actual election process. After the October 10 Ankara terrorist attack claimed over 100 lives at a rally, the remainder of the electoral campaign process was conducted under a war cloud. No major rallies were held and critical political activity severely hampered. This inevitably impacted the final result.

However, the November 1 poll is also a testament to the vibrancy of Turkey's democratic system. It marked the second election in five months and fourth contest in the last two years. Whereas voter fatigue would likely prevail in many other democracies, electoral participation in Turkey increased to over 85 per cent.

Contrary to predictions, the November 1 election did not prove a re-run of the June 5 contest. The inconclusive June result threatened to herald a new era of coalition governments. A new Kurdish party, the HDP, entered parliament and upended Turkish politics, while the AK party was deprived party of single-party rule. A key reason was Erdogan's provocative insistence on transforming the presidency from a largely ceremonial position to a strong executive post. It even triggered some opposition within his own party.

Despite his overwhelming November 1 victory, Erdogan still failed to achieve the necessary legislative majority to change the constitution. His autocratic tendencies in pursuit of new presidential powers has been neutered, at least for now. However, his ability to exert influence over government is arguably stronger than ever.

Erdogan's AK party has dominated Turkish politics since coming to power in 2002. It was largely a period marked by political stability and economic growth. Many voters continue to identify and credit Erdogan for this era, despite the economic downturn of recent years.

Despite the unraveling of his aura of invincibility in the inconclusive June 5 election, Erdogan indisputably remains Turkey's strongest leader since Kemal Ataturk founded the modern Turkish republic in 1923. For Erdogan, coalition government and power-sharing remains anathema. It is a concept he does not understand, grasp or accept. According to Erdogan's world view, politics remains a zero-sum game of winner-takes-all.

Turkey's conflict with the militant Kurdish PKK will continue for the immediate future. However, it remains critical for Erdogan to reach out in earnest to the broader Kurdish community, attempt the resumption of dialogue and gradually de-escalate hostilities. The ultimate aim should be restoring the cease-fire with the PKK which ended in July 2015, immediately after the Suruc terrorist attack claiming over 30 lives, and resuming serious negotiations to end the conflict. Erdogan's overwhelming surprise electoral victory provides him with considerable leverage which he should employ skillfully over time.

For Turkey's western allies in Europe and the U.S., Erdogan's victory presents a mixed blessing. On one hand, it ensures continuity and stability for a crucial ally in an increasingly turbulent region. Erdogan remains a known quantity but prevailing frictions and differing priorities exist, particularly over Syria.

For Erdogan, the removal of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and preventing a Kurdish state in Syria's north remain paramount. The defeat of ISIS tops the U.S. agenda and the most effective fighting force and reliable partner remains the Syrian Kurdish YPG. Increasing cooperation and collaboration between the U.S. and the YPG, and other affiliated groups, remain key in the battle against ISIS. For Erdogan, the YPG and PKK, are one and the same. Strengthening one means strengthening the other. However, a fragile but fraught understanding between the U.S. and Turkey on this issue prevails for now but is always subject to dispute at any given moment.

Overwhelmed by spillover, Turkey desperately needs some form of cease-fire in Syria. A perfect regional storm is brewing and needs to be defused. The recent start of diplomatic negotiations in Vienna involving all the major powers aimed at settling the Syria conflict may provide some hope. However, Erdogan will have to show greater flexibility on political transition, as will other allies including the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Gulf states. They may have to settle for Assad's gradual phase-out over a fixed period of time. However, this will not mean regime change. Any Assad replacement will simply provide a new face for the same old regime.

For Europe, the migration crisis presently overrides all other concerns with Turkey. Thousands of migrants, primarily Syrian war refugees, flooding into Europe via Turkey are shaking the foundations of Europe and threatening to tear the union asunder. With limited resources and infrastructure, the smaller states of central and eastern Europe and the Balkans have openly sparred with larger neighbors over burden-sharing and border access. By year's end, close to one million migrants, if not more, may have entered Europe.

Recent emergency high-level discussions between Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have forged the parameters of an agreement. It would require European funding for Turkey to stem the migrant flow, the easing of travel restrictions for Turks in Europe and reopening Turkey's E.U. accession talks. All along, Erdogan will keep using his leverage to extract maximum concessions from Europe. At this stage, Turkey is potentially hosting more than two million Syrian war refugees. For now, other European concerns about Turkey have largely taken a back seat, particularly in the human rights realm such as the imprisonment of journalists, regular crackdowns on free speech and silencing critics.

Turkey is an ethnically diverse society of over 75 million people. Its diversity should serve as a strength and not a liability. Unless responsible leadership emanates from the top, outstanding grievances will continue to hinder Turkey's stability and national development. With a new mandate, President Erdogan and AK party leaders must decide whether it will be politics-as-usual or time for real change.