The Upcoming Turkish Elections

Analysis

On June 24, 2018, Turkey will elect both President and Parliament. Elections were scheduled to be held in autumn 2019, but Turkish President Erdogan decided to organize snap elections. One of the key reasons for such a step was the continuing decline of the Turkish economy and depreciation of the Turkish Lira. According to the majority of experts, in the short term perspective, the situation would only worsen, thus making Erdogan’s re-election in 2019 less likely.

Given the volatile nature of Turkish politics, it’s very difficult to make any assessments regarding the elections results. However, the most likely scenario is the victory of Erdogan either during the first or second round and the simultaneous defeat of its AK party which may lose the majority in Parliament. In this scenario, the AKP will forge an alliance with nationalistic MHP to form a government, while the CHP (Kemalists) and HDP (Kurds plus different leftist groups) will be in opposition. Given the likely worsening of the economic situation in Turkey after the June elections, Erdogan will face enormous domestic problems during his next term as President, though the quick collapse of the Turkish economy is less likely.

Meanwhile, Turkish elections will also have regional implications. Currently, Turkey is playing an accurate balancing act between the West, in particular the US, and Russia. US-Turkish relations have been deteriorating since the beginning of President Obama’s second term, mainly due to the US position on Syria. The Obama Administration rejected Turkish calls to militarily intervene in Syria and topple President Assad, and after the creation of the Islamic State partnered with Syrian Kurds (PYD with its YPG military units) to fight against the self-proclaimed caliphate.

The growing US-Kurdish cooperation in Syria was one of the irritating factors in US-Turkey relations. However, the situation substantially worsened after the July 2016 military coup attempt. Turkey accused the US-based cleric Gulen of organizing the coup and demanded the extradition of Gulen to Turkey, but with no success. The Gulen case, as well as the trial in the US of the Turkish businessman and banker accused of circumventing Iran sanctions with the direct involvement of Erdogan, makes the US-Turkish relations trickier. Yet, Turkey continues to be fully anchored in the Euro-Atlantic security system and no politician, including Erdogan, gives any hint of a possible strategic rift with the US or the desire to leave NATO. Membership in the Alliance is the cornerstone of the Turkish foreign and security policy and this will be unchanged after the June elections.

Russia-Turkish relations are steadily improving. However, any talk regarding the establishment of a bilateral strategic alliance is a huge exaggeration. In many spheres, including Syria, Caucasus and the Black Sea, Turkey and Russia have contradicting interests. The main trigger for boosting relations is the economy. Turkey is a big consumer of Russian oil and gas, transferring annually billions of US dollars to the Russian state budget. The ‘Turkish Stream” pipeline and Akkuyu nuclear power plant project are more evidence of growing economic ties. Geopolitical rivalry remains, though, and neither Turkey nor Russia is protected from another crisis like the one that happened in November 2015. The mysterious assassination of a Russian Ambassador in Turkey in December 2016 was further proof that bilateral relations are far from being based on true partnership.

Turkey’s growing involvement in Syria will most probably continue after the June elections. Turkey has changed its Syrian policy paradigm from ousting President Assad to combatting Syrian Kurds. Turkey needs cooperation with both the US and Russia to deal with the Kurdish issue. Russia controls the Syrian air space while US Special Forces are deployed in North Eastern Syria supporting Kurdish groups.

Turkey managed to get Russian and Iranian tacit support for its military incursions in North Western Syria, simultaneously turning a blind eye to Moscow and Tehran supported Syrian advancements in Aleppo and Damascus.

Turkey needs US approval to enter North Eastern Syria. The first step in that direction could be the US decision to pull out Kurdish forces from Manbij and have a joint US-Turkish patrols securing the town. However, negotiations with the US have not brought any tangible results on this issue.

Russia actively uses Turkish activities in Northern Syria for driving a wedge between Kurds and Americans. Moscow is eager to show the Kurds that their plight is in Moscow’s hands and only the Kremlin is able to stop Turkish advancements towards North Eastern Syria. Thus, Syrian Kurds should make the right decision and stop their unilateral support to the US. Moscow hopes to become a broker between Turkey and Syrian Kurds in same way she makes efforts to mediate between Iran and Israel on Syria.

One thing is clear, Turkey is not going to pull its forces out of Syrian territory anytime soon and will continue its strategic bargain with both Russia and the US to advance its influence over the territories controlled by the Syrian Kurds.

The recent events in Jerusalem and Gaza sparked another Turkey-Israel diplomatic rift. However, both states have converging strategic interests, including the thwarting of Iran’s regional ambitions which will restrain both sides from total severing of relations. Meanwhile, the recent Saudi-Israeli thaw may create additional difficulties for Turkey in its rivalry with Riyadh for a leadership role in the Sunni world.

Regarding the South Caucasus, Turkey will continue to accept Russia’s growing influence in the South Caucasus while seeking to foster a Turkey – Azerbaijan – Georgia trilateral alliance as a key component of its policy in the region. Significant changes to Turkey’s position regarding its relations with Armenia are less likely. Most probably, Turkey will continue to connect the Armenia-Turkey normalization process with the Karabakh conflict settlement, simultaneously fully supporting Azerbaijan’s position in negotiations.

Thus, in the case of Erdogan’s victory in the June 2018 snap elections, the Turkish regional policy will not face any substantial changes. Ankara will continue its strategic bargaining with Russia and the West to foment its regional influence.

By Benyamin Poghosyan, PhD, Executive Director, Political Science Association of Armenia

31 May 2018 22:50
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