Turkey’s AK government looks outwards after poll victory

After its electoral comeback, the AK Party has to deal with crises in Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan and negotiating with Europe over the refugee issue.

The domestic political implications of Turkey’s governing AK Party’s stunning victory at 1 November election have already generated countless analyses and much literature; less discussed but no less important are the foreign policy ramifications of this victory.

Before delving into single agenda items, it is important to situate the AK Party’s recent electoral victory within the regional divide along revolutionary and counter-revolutionary camps. Since the military coup in Egypt in July 2013, the counter-revolutionary forces across the region seemed to gain in strength at the expense of the revolutionary forces. The nascent democratic experiment in the largest Arab country, Egypt, was crushed by a military coup.

In the birthplace of the Arab Spring, Tunisia, the ancien regime came back to power with some cosmetic changes in its style and profile. With active military, economic and political support from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, the Assad regime has clung onto power in Syria, despite genocidal campaigns. The radicals of all variants have dominated the scene of the Syrian civil war, which is increasingly undercutting the case of the Syrian opposition.

Turkey, which stood the firmest on the side of the revolutionary forces and which was the first to call upon Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak to step down once people took to Tahrir Square demanding change, seemed to lose momentum after 13 years of uninterrupted rule. Its ruling AK Party experienced a roiling domestic political scene and faced opposition of various forms.

Electoral turnaround

For outsiders, the foundation of the AK Party’s political power appeared to be shaky and its electoral fortune in decline. For many, the party’s electoral setback in 7 June election in which the party lost approximately 9 percentage points and its single-party rule confirmed their belief that the party is experiencing an irreversible decline. This was seen, by some, as a nail in the coffin of political Islam region-wide. If the 7 June results repeated itself on 1 November, the revolutionary forces across the region would have risked losing the level of morale and political support that they have received from their most ardent regional supporter, Turkey.

Rashid Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian Ennahda party, in congratulating the AK Party’s leader and Prime Minister Davutoglu, said: “Today is an important day for the Arab Spring and democracy.” Likewise, in a statement posted on Facebook, the Muslim Brotherhood congratulated the AK Party and said the result of Turkey’s election sent a “positive message to all those who support revolution, freedom and democracy”.

The message from Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, mirrored these sentiments. Therefore, AK Party’s landslide victory hasn’t only endowed the party with a freer hand in its foreign policy projections, it has also boosted the morale of the revolutionary movements across the region.

The most immediate ramifications of the election are likely to be on Turkey’s policy towards the Syrian crisis, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, and Turkey -EU relations.

Syria

On Syria, Turkey is unlikely to revise its “No Assad” policy. To the contrary, Turkey, in coordination with other regional countries Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is likely to ramp up its level of support for the Syrian opposition. It views the debates on the transitional period for the Assad regime as an unenforceable ploy to prolong him and his regime’s political life span.

Moreover, it seems that Turkey regards the US’s recent deployment of 50 Special Forces troops to the north of Syria, purportedly to assist and advise friendly forces fighting Daesh, as the beginning of a larger deployment down the road, and welcomes it. Finally, relieved from the pressure of the election, the government is likely to commit itself more in anti-Daesh strategies and operations.

Iraqi Kurdistan

The second area that will have the imprint of the recent elections is the rivalry between Turkey and Iran in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

KRG has been embroiled in a heated dispute over the election of its president. Serving as the president of the KRG since 2005, the incumbent Mahsoud Barzani’s term expired on 19 August. He was first elected to the KRG’s presidency in 2005 through a parliamentary vote and re-elected in 2009 by a popular vote in the first direct presidential election in the KRG. His term should have ended in 2013 according to KRG law, yet, supported by his arch rival, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani, he was able to extend his term until 19 August 2015.

As his extended term also expired, the question of what should happen next has been a topic of great controversy. Not only has the Kurdish political scene been polarised over this question, some regional actors have been closely involved in the matter as well. As of now, Barzani continues to occupy the presidential seat, yet the controversy rages on with possible domestic and regional ramifications.

Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) are close allies of Turkey, whereas the opposition PUK and the Change Movement (Gorran) are closely associated with Iran. Since the invasion of Iraq, Turkey and Iran have vied for influence in Iraq and the KRG. Endowed with intimate links with ruling Shia groups, Iran has thus far had the upper hand in this competition for influence in Iraqi national politics at large, whereas Turkey enjoyed supremacy in the KRG due to its connections with KDP.

In this recent battle, Iran has thrown its weight behind the opposition, whereas Turkey avoided giving the impression of fully engaging in KRG domestic politics on behalf of Barzani prior to the election, due to the sensitive nature of the issue. As the election is over, Turkey is likely to engage more in KRG politics on behalf of the KDP. In fact, Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu’s visit to Erbil, capital of the KRG, right after the election clearly illustrates this inclination.

Turkey and the EU

Finally, the AK Party’s strong mandate coupled with the ongoing refugee crisis has significantly strengthened Turkey’s hand vis-a-vis Europe. The pre-election visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Turkey, the delaying of the EU’s progress report on Turkey (in which it criticised the government on many accounts) – twice before and once after the election – in order not to antagonise the government and to get it on board on the refugees and migration issue, shows Turkey’s strengthened bargaining position vis-à-vis Europe.

But reinvigoration in relations between Turkey and Europe (or single European countries) will not necessarily translate itself into the speeding up of Turkey’s EU membership track. As an institutional framework, the EU has its own logic and procedures. As a candidate country since 2005, Turkey-EU has opened up only 14 out of 33 chapters for membership. Out of these 14 chapters, Turkey-EU managed only to close two of them. Moreover, both France and Greek Cypriots have vetoes on most of the remaining chapters, and France and Germany continue with their opposition to Turkey’s full membership in the EU.

This picture is unlikely to change dramatically any time soon. Therefore, there is a decoupling between Turkey-European relations and Turkey-EU relations. While we will see some dynamism on the former, the current stalemate is likely to continue for the latter.

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