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Turkey's historic election: Issues, parties and controversies


A mosque in the town of Kilis (Seth J. Frantzman)

A condensed version of this was published by The Jerusalem Post

Fifty-six million registered voters will head to the polls on Sunday June 24 in an election with far-reaching ramifications in Turkey. Turkey is at a crossroads in its history as the elections will transform it into a presidential system, concentrating power in the hands of whoever wins. It will also have consequences for the Middle East and Turkey’s relations with Russia, Iran and the West.

On the eve of the elections Turkey's ruling party has called for joint operations with Iran against the Kurdistan Workers Party. This is symbolic of the growing relations between Ankara and Tehran and part of Ankara's overall drift towards Russia and Qatar and away from the West and Washington's policies.

Turkey's current policies will either be cemented by a win for the ruling party, or thrown into change by a win for the opposition. Since 2002 Turkey embarked on a complex and changing role in the region. It sought "zero problems" with its neighbors and advanced a "neo-Ottoman" agenda of Ahmet Davutoglu. But that agenda fell on difficult times after Turkey began supporting the Syrian rebels in 2011 and supported other political Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Qatar's foreign policy and Hamas in Gaza. In each instance the ruling party chose the wrong side, with the MB ejected in 2013 and Hamas under siege in Gaza and the rebels in Syria largely losing the war by 2016. Increasingly Turkey was forced to get more deeply involved in Syria until the rebels became its clients, rather than independent groups that could govern their own areas. Turkey has also sent troops to defend Qatar, as well as the military presence it has in northern Syria and Iraq. All of this puts Turkey's army in an unprecedented position of involvement throughout the region.

After thousands of foreigners sought to use Turkey to transit to Syria, Turkey found itself confronting ISIS threats and terror attacks. A ceasefire with the PKK also fall apart which led to a conflict with the PKK. Internal strains led to a coup in 2016 and a state of emergency and search for culprits. In addition the downing of a Russian jet almost brought conflict with Moscow in 2015. Isolated, Turkey ended up reaching out to Moscow and working more closely with Putin on peace talks at Astana and then in Sochi.

Most important for many voters is that the Turkish economy has been in a difficult position as well. In May the Lira fell to new lows.

But most important for Turkey is that this election is seen as a major crossroads, one where the country will either be cemented in the hands of the ruling party and its agenda, or one where the opposition might unite for an unexpected outcome.

Erdogan’s Turkey at a crossroads

The election is being called the “great transformation” to “determine the future” that will create a “new era” according to Turkish media headlines. Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been the leading figure in Turkey since his AKP came in first in the 2002 elections. In many ways the election Sunday is a referendum on a decade and a half of his rule and his party’s dominance.

Erdogan was Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014 and has been president since the 2014. He has systematically sought to concentrate power in his hands with the decision to turn Turkey into a presidential system and abolish the office of the Prime Minister. He accomplished that task through a 2017 referendum in which 51% voted to give the president, hitherto a weaker position, more powers. The referendum provides the president more power over the judiciary and appointment of judges and allows the president to be a member of a political party, whereas previously the presidency was ostensibly apolitical.

Erdogan is also accused of eroding other aspects of Turkey’s democracy. Since a 2016 coup attempt the country has been in a state of emergency. Human Rights Watch claims the “authorities have used emergency powers to all but silence independent media in Turkey.” After the coup attempt Turkey has arrested thousands and tens of thousands have been fired from jobs, accused of being members of the “Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO)” a shadowy organization run by a cleric in the US that Ankara alleges masterminded the coup. Teachers, professors, soldiers and police have been accused of various roles in the coup.

In addition Turkey’s ruling party has passed a number of laws, and made widespread changes to society, over the last decade seeking to bring more religious overtones into society. These include major changes to the educational curriculum, and an increase in the use of Islamic or Shariah law. New alcohol laws in 2013 sought to restrict sales of alcohol, the harshest in 89 years of the country’s history as a secular Republic.

The presidential election won’t change all these laws immediately, but an upset would mark a historic break after a decade and a half in which Turkey has trended towards a more authoritarian and religious country.

The opposition

Eight political parties are running and there are six presidential candidates. The parties participating include the AKP, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the Good Party (IYI) and the Nationalist Movement (MHP). The CHP has put forward Muharrem Ince, while the HPD is running Selhattin Demirtas, a Kurdish politician who is campaigning from prison. Meral Aksener of the newly formed IYI is the most prominent woman in the elections. She was a former minister of the interior in the 1990s.

The opposition parties, particularly the CHP, see this election as the last chance to chart a new course for Turkey. In April fifteen members of the CHP in parliament switched to become part of Aksener’s new party so she could run in the elections. The election law required that candidates had 20 members of parliament in order to field a presidential candidate. “Our friends will not go down in history as MPs who left their party, they will go down as heroes who saved the democracy following their responsibility to their party,” Bulent Tezcan, a CHP spokesman, said in April.

The problem for the opposition is that it has been divided in its response to the AKP over the years. The AKP and MHP are running together in this election, while four opposition parties also formed an alliance. This alliance includes the CHP, IYI and two smaller parties, the Democratic Party and Felicity Party. Another issue facing for the opposition is that while the CHP is a center-left party representing the old secular tradition in Turkey, the Felicity Party is a conservative Islamic party. Aksener also comes from a right leaning nationalist tradition. So the opposition combines most of the spectrum of Turkish politics. The one thing it doesn’t include is the mostly Kurdish leftist HDP, whose candidate Demirtas is currently in prison. Despite the HDP’s Kurdish roots, historically many Kurds have also voted for Erdogan’s AKP; the Kurdish vote in this election may once again help Erdogan secure just enough to win the election. Kurdish votes, for instance, were vital to him winning the 2017 referendum.

Over the last decade the AKP has usually performed well in the conservative center of the country while the more secular eastern districts vote for the CHP and the HDP takes many Kurdish votes in the east. If this election plays out like the past, the opposition may win more parliamentary seats but Erdogan will win the presidency.

The AKP has also been riven by internal disputes recently. Old allies such as Abdullah Gul and Davutoglu seem sidelined today.

A refugee camp near Suruc (Seth J. Frantzman)

Foreign policy and minorities

Turkey has become deeply involved in the conflict in Syria in the last years. In August 2016, along with Syrian rebel allies, it took over a corridor from the Euphrates river to the border town of Kilis. It sent more soldiers into Syria near Idlib in 2017 and in January 2018 moved into the Kurdish area of Afrin and establishing a dozen observation points in Syria with regular patrols. In June it also began patrols in Manbij, an area controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

Turkey has accused the US of backing “terrorists” in Syria by working with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Since 2015 Turkey has being fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Ankara accuses the PKK and YPG of being the same entity. Under Erdogan Turkey has also increased operations in Iraq where it maintains several military outposts. The AKP has threatened to send the Turkish army to Iraq’s Sinjar and Qandil regions to root out the PKK presence.

In the lead-up to the poll Turkey’s Foreign Minister called for a joint effort with Iran against the PKK. In addition Turkish media has reports of new arrests of ISIS terrorists, PKK members and FETO conspirators on the eve of the election. The reports make it seem Turkey is under siege by various terrorist groups and feeds a feeling of being under siege from foreign threats in general.

During the campaign both the CHP and AKP have campaigned for votes of the Alevi minority. The AKP Prime Minister promised to legalize their places of worship after the elections. Erdogan has also claimed that his government has helped Kurds, improving standards of living and ending “denial policies and policies of rejection,” a reference to the pre-1991 policies in which Kurds were portrayed as “mountain Turks” and their existence denied.

Syrian refugees

There are 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and their presence has become controversial. After the refugee crises in 2015 the European Union began paying Turkey to host the refugees. Both the opposition and the AKP have talked about returning them to Syria. Turkey is now looking to build a university in Al-Bab in Syria, an area it controls, and Erdogan says that 200,000 refugees have returned to “liberated areas” in Syria.

At a speech in Gaziantep he promised after the election to “make all Syrian lands safe.” Mohammed Ruzgar, a Syrian commentator, says that for many Syrians in Turkey Erdogan has been a guarantor of their ability to stay in the country. “If Erdogan does not win, the Syrian situation will get worse.” He says that thousands of Syrians have received Turkish citizenship and that if the opposition wins then Syrian refugees will face pressure and harassment and that the opposition will cut support to the Syrian rebels in Syria.

Foreign observers

Foreign observers who sought to monitor the election have faced criticism in Turkey and some have been denied entry. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim claimed the foreigners were behaving “like spokespeople for radical political structures.” In total 400 members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have arrived to observe the elections.

Two OSCE members were denied entry, one from Sweden and the other from Germany’s Die Linke party. Turkish authorities claimed that one of them was a supporter of the PKK.

The accusation is part of a larger political crises between Turkey and Europe in recent years. European politicians have accused Turkey of meddling in European politics, and campaigning in Europe among Turkish minorities. Controversially two German soccer players posed with Erdogan, leading to criticism in Germany. After Austria sought to expel Turkish imams in early June, Ankara accused Austria of racism. It is one of Turkey’s many run-ins with foreign countries, including strained relations with the US, and its growing ties to Russia and Iran. The election will likely determine whether Turkish strained relations with the West continues.

The EU needs Turkey because of the refugee crises but Turkey is increasingly seen as a controversial issue in Europe. Overall there are frequent spats with European leaders and it puts on ice the idea that Turkey will ever join the European Union. This is part of the larger process by which Ankara has sought out other allies, such as Russia.

It is also part of the difficult relationship with the US. In recent months Turkey and the new US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did create a road map for Manbij. However at the same time the US Senate sought to block the sale of F-35s to Turkey and Ankara vowed it would go elsewhere to purchase warplanes if the US continued down this path.

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