In a time when the Western World desperately needs to work closely with its Middle Eastern allies to handle the Syrian civil war and combat ISIL, recent Turkish elections will surely complicate an already convoluted foreign policy puzzle.
A couple weeks ago, Turkey’s powerful Justice and Development (AKP) party retook its once long-held majority in Parliament in a snap vote after a poor performance this past June. While many expected the AKP to regain some of its lost ground, few predicted that the party would receive an astounding 49.4% of the vote and secure 316 parliamentary seats.
Turkey´s strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdogan founded the party fourteen years ago. Since his ascension to power, the party has maintained tight control over Turkish politics. Indeed, the results of these parliamentary elections were more a show of support for Erdogan and his heavy-handed policies than support for the party itself. In losing so decisively to the AKP, opposition parties like the HDP (a pro-Kurdish party) and CHP (a center-left, secularist party) could only find solace in that they secured enough seats to deny Erdogan the supermajority he sought. Per Turkish law, a supermajority is needed to pass any amendments to the constitution. With a supermajority, Erdogan had hoped to alter the constitution to enhance the powers of the executive branch and give the presidency more centralized authority.
The polarization of political opinion in Turkish society has reached a boiling point under Erdogan’s leadership. Many Turks find themselves at odds with one other; some are fiercely opposed to such an autocratic leader, while others see Erdogan as the greatest political figure in Turkish history, akin to Ataturk. The political fabric of Turkey has become so frayed that just last month fervent Erdogan supporters stormed the offices of one of Turkey’s most popular newspaper accusing the paper of portraying the president in a poor light. Even cases of violence were reported between Kurdish Turks, nationalists, and riot police in Ankara and in some of the country´s eastern provinces.
In such a toxic political environment, Western opinion of Erdogan and the AKP has shifted significantly over the last few years. The country’s political system, a once shining beacon of democracy and secularism in a region dominated by religious extremisim, has transitioned to a significantly more authoritarian state with a culture of single-party rule. Furthermore, Erdogan’s suppression of the press and opposition leaders, among numerous other human rights violations, has led many other nations to question how their governments can justify supporting a country with such a blatant disregard for individual rights. Between jailing opposition journalists, restricting Internet access, and harsh police crackdowns on Kurdish cities, independent watchdog groups like the Human Rights Watch have increasingly called on the international community to pressure Turkey to reform.
How could the AKP and Erdogan win so decisively after losing Parliament just a few short months ago? The retaking of Parliament by the AKP certainly came as a surprise to many Turks and foreign journalists alike, who saw the elections this summer as a sign that Erdogan`s autocratic policies had caught up to him. Turkish Kurds were emboldened by a strong nationalist movement and liberals worried about Erdogan´s Islamist leanings, which, as a result, the HDP and the CHP were able to capture a large number of parliamentary seats. With such a sharp decline in AKP support, some saw Turkey as a country on the brink of a deep political shift. Instead, a combination of political mastery, state repression, and current events has allowed Erdogan and his fellow party members to take advantage of Turkey’s already tense socioeconomic environment.
In the face of surmounting violence, many Turks believed that an AKP-dominated government was the only way to restore stability to the country. To regain power, Erdogan framed much of Turkey’s recent chaos as a product of a divided government with no clear leader. It´s impossible to confirm whether or not Erdogan intentionally allowed Turkey’s fragile peace with Kurdish insurgents in the south to completely collapse, but it is clear that the resumption of hostiles has benefited the AKP politically. Bombings and renewed fighting with the Kurdish militants have dominated the Turkish headlines for months as peace talks with the PKK (Kurdish resistance) failed to produce anything substantial. The resurgence of fighting between the Turkish military and separatists is almost universally blamed on the Kurds themselves, which created a space in which Erdogan could simultaneously rally nationalists and denounce parties like the HDP for “supporting” domestic terrorism.
On the international stage, the AKP´s recovery of Parliament will undoubtedly complicate U.S-Turkish relations. The divide between Turkish and U.S foreign policy goals in the Middle East will likely deepen at a time when the United States desperately needs to improve its relations with its few allies in the region. While Turkey has focused its military might almost exclusively on Kurdish militants in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, the White House has sought to combat the rise of ISIL however it can. This has led to a significant rise in tensions between Washington and Ankara, as the U.S continues to support Syrian Kurds. The People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group of armed Kurds, has proved to be some of the most effective fighters against ISIL. Since ISIL tore through Iraq and Syria, the U.S has provided the YPG with airstrikes, intelligence, communications equipment, and other crucial supplies. Erdogan, however, has long condemned the YPG for its connections to Kurdish terrorists.
After the Pentagon’s multimillion dollar project to train Syrian rebels failed miserably, the U.S must decide how willing it is to aggravate Turkey (NATO’s only Middle Eastern member) in the fight against ISIL at a time when Russia is also looking to lure Turkey under its influence. If the U.S cannot support the YPG, who will the United States turn to on the ground? Other Middle Eastern allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have pledged their support to Sunni Syrian rebels, but the U.S cannot justify funding extremists hoping to create an Islamist government.
In retaking parliament, the AKP has solidified Erdogan’s power to lead the country with complete authority. Whether it’s taking a hard stance in the fight against the Kurds or pushing back against the U.S for its policies in Syria, Erdogan will look to prove to the people of Turkey that an autocratic government is the only path to peace and stability.