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Uncertainty Reigns: Turkey's Political Impasse

Michael Stephens
RUSI Newsbrief, 25 September 2015
International Security Studies, Middle East and North Africa
Turkey’s upcoming election is unlikely to enhance the prospects for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or to bring about an improvement in the country’s troubling security situation

It has not been a good few months for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority and some 9 per cent of the vote in crucial elections in early June. Since then, Turkish politics have rapidly slid into chaos. Attempts to form a coalition government have proven unsuccessful and Turks will head to the polls once again in November. Meanwhile, the country faces an uncertain security situation, exacerbated by ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria, and the collapse of Ankara’s ceasefire agreement with the Kurdish militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in July.

The source of Erdogan’s and the AKP’s recent political losses lies with the rise of the Kurdish nationalist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) as a major force on Turkey’s domestic scene. In the previous election, in 2011, and before, the HDP had been unable to pass the 10 per cent threshold required to secure representation in the country’s parliament. In this June’s poll, the story was very different: the party, led by the charismatic Selahattin Demirtas, received 13 per cent of the vote, drawing in an ad hoc coalition of disaffected Turkish leftists and Kurdish nationalists. This served to deeply dent Erdogan’s and his party’s reach into southern and eastern districts of the country, denying the AKP its majority. More importantly, this has all but thwarted Erdogan’s ambitions to pursue a constitutional-reform programme – which would see his presidency imbued with executive authority – owing to the need for a two-thirds parliamentary majority to secure its passage.

Meanwhile, the sudden, but sadly all-too-predictable collapse of the peace process with the PKK (to which the HDP maintains substantial ties) is an especially troubling development. The recent outbreak of violence, following a bombing inspired by Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) of a pro-Kurdish rally in the town of Suruc on 20 July, has killed hundreds on both sides, in the latest outbreak of a war that has seen more than 40,000 deaths since 1984.

Rumours abound amongst Erdogan’s opponents that the president, bereft of answers to his political problems, is deliberately pursuing a hard-line militaristic strategy against the PKK in an attempt to win over nationalist voters. By sabotaging the 2012 peace process and March 2013 ceasefire that he worked so hard to build, Erdogan’s hope appears to be that once again provoking the PKK to embrace violence will push left-wing and liberal Turks towards the AKP’s sphere, and away from Demirtas and the HDP. If this works out as planned, the HDP would once more fall below the 10 per cent threshold, returning its allotment of seats to the AKP and other parties.

If Erdogan has indeed opted to stoke the fires of Kurdish nationalism for his own political gain, it is a risky strategy that is unlikely to succeed. Mainstream Turkish society cannot be said to be pro-PKK, with recent attacks on HDP offices across the country by angry mobs showing building anti- Kurdish sentiment. Yet outside of the AKP’s traditional mouthpieces and traditionalist Turkish nationalists, there also appears to be a pervasive sense that the government is just as much to blame for the collapse of security as the PKK.

Indeed, despite the bloodiness of recent weeks, the HDP is still polling well above the 10 per cent threshold. Given that the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and socialdemocratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) are avowedly anti-Erdogan – and will unlikely see a significant drop in their levels of support – the AKP therefore faces a post-election scenario in which the distribution of votes roughly matches that seen at present, with a minority or coalition government likely to endure.

In the short-term, a weakened AKP and a president whose naked ambitions for power have been exposed will unlikely fully recover from this tumultuous year. The party’s decision to court the nationalist voter camp in pursuit of a means to alter the constitution is a strategy destined to fail. Indeed, the two policy tracks are ultimately irreconcilable. Barring a huge u-turn, the AKP will continue to alienate potential allies on the nationalist right, whilst driving leftists and Kurds further into the arms of the CHP and HDP.

The scenarios to break the political deadlock are not optimal for the AKP. The party will need to consider forming either an emergency cabinet comprised of a wide spectrum of political actors, or a coalition with parties that are avowedly against attempts to change the constitution. The AKP – which is not used to ruling in either a coalition or a minority position – will thus have to quickly adjust to new, and uncomfortable, realities. This may prove to be the biggest test of the party’s political maturity.

Quite where this leaves Turkey’s domestic security problems is unclear. Beyond this, it is hard to see what could end the current tensions with the PKK. Traditionally, the Turkish state has allowed the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan to issue statements calling for calm on both sides. Only this year, during the traditional Kurdish celebration of Newroz, Ocalan opened up the possibility, in a publicly read statement, that the PKK might begin conversations about disarmament. Yet since the conflict reignited and the peace process was officially declared over, Ocalan has not been allowed access to any media to communicate on behalf of the party.

Without his guidance it is unlikely that the PKK will stand down from its current position. The PKK leadership, based in the Qandil Mountains, maintains that it is obligated to resist Turkish aggression, that it was not responsible for restarting the conflict, and that it does not feel that any ceasefire is possible without US involvement. Much may rest on Demirtas’s ability to operate as the moderate face of Kurdish nationalist politics, provided that he is not isolated by the Turkish state or, indeed, by the PKK. Should his constituency fall away in the face of escalating violence, there is nothing to stop a drift of the majority of Kurdish voters away from engagement with formal politics and towards more violent alternatives.

Such an outcome would be disastrous for a potential political solution, and would risk triggering intervention by the Turkish military (TSK) in Kurdish towns and cities to reinstate order. Conflict between the TSK and the PKK has so far been avoided, but there is little doubt that any such intervention would lead to a full-scale military response from the PKK. This is still a distant prospect, but both Turkish government officials and PKK leaders recognise in private that a hung parliament could quickly bring about this situation. They have thus begun to prepare for the eventuality that the current political impasse triggers outright civil conflict.

Quite apart from the damage this could do to Turkish domestic stability and security, full-scale conflict could have serious ramifications for neighbouring Syria. The PKK-aligned opposition group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) now controls vast swathes of northern Syria. The PYD’s armed force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has proven an essential part of the international coalition’s strategy to defeat Daesh, pushing the group out of the town of Kobane in early 2015, and subsequently out of hundreds of small villages across north-central and eastern Syria. As such, the YPG has emerged as a key Western ally, enjoying backing in the form of airstrikes and coalition supplies in its fight against Daesh.

The Turkish government’s suspicions of the PYD run deep, however. Both have eyed each other warily across the border since the PYD assumed control of Kurdish-majority areas of Syria in 2012. The group’s continued empowerment (primarily through US air power) has left Ankara feeling that US power is aligning with the Kurds to gradually squeeze out Turkish influence, not only from the Syrian conflict, but from the broader Levant region. The Turkish desire to implement a safe zone between the Kurdish-held canton of Afrin and the town of Jarabulus north of Aleppo is in part the reflection of a long-held desire to push back against the PYD’s rapidly growing influence.

The Turks also proposed the safe zone to maintain a corridor of support for their allies fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. This has led to deep suspicion in the West that the safe zone could be used to prop up Islamist groups such as the Salafist Ahrar Al- Sham, and even Al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra, with which Turkey maintains loose relations through the umbrella opposition group Jaysh Al-Fatah.

However, the recent agreement between the US and Turkey to begin using the latter’s Incirlik air base for bombing missions against Daesh is a sign that relations are improving. Washington has publicly supported Turkey’s right to defend itself against terrorism, but the cracks are still noticeable. US officials have privately expressed opposition to Ankara’s decision to target the PKK with air strikes, particularly given that Turkey has done relatively little in comparison to target Daesh.

Ankara’s relatively light touch against Daesh is not only a frustration for the US, but is also a major driver of the current conflict with the PKK. The latter’s rank and file are convinced that Turkey has simply used Daesh as a tool to battle the Kurds. Turkey has continually claimed that a large-scale offensive against Daesh is imminent. Yet it continues largely to stand on the sidelines and allow other regional actors to bear a far larger load in combating the extremist group. So deep is Kurdish suspicion of the Turkish state at present that even a sustained campaign by the TSK against Daesh is unlikely to undo the Kurds’ wariness of Turkey’s true intent.

Quite how the president will deal with these issues, and back himself and his party out of the cul-de-sac he has forced both into, is difficult to see. The AKP is highly unlikely to secure a parliamentary majority in November’s elections, permanently blunting Erdogan’s strength. As the PKK insurgency worsens, there will be huge pressure on the weakened president to cope with the problem without alienating the southeastern districts in which the HDP is performing so well. The AKP will ultimately need to recapture the latter’s support if it is ever to regain its parliamentary dominance.

Yet the president is unlikely to take a conciliatory approach to the Kurdish question at present. He must therefore consider how best to move the country forward from his current position of weakness. It is thus unlikely that the AKP or Erdogan will fully recover from this tumultuous period. Eleven years of continued AKP and Erdogan dominance may now be coming to an end.

Michael Stephens
Research Fellow, Middle East Studies, RUSI.
Twitter: @MStephensGulf

Author

Michael Stephens
Associate Fellow

Michael Stephens was the Research Fellow for Middle East Studies. He joined RUSI’s London office in September 2010, first in the Nuclear... read more

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