On Tuesday, November 4, The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) hosted a discussion on the outcomes of the recent Turkish parliamentary election with Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, Director of GMF’s Ankara office, and Sir Michael Leigh, Senior Fellow at GMF. The panel was moderated by Derek Chollet, Counselor and Senior Advisor for Security and Defense Policy at GMF’s Washington DC office.
Chollet opened the discussion by touching on the recent political upheavals that created the need for a second round of parliamentary elections on November 1. Following the election, which saw the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) regain control of the parliament after losing the June 7 elections, Ünlühisarcıklı commented by stating, “none of us had the foresight to see the AK Party come back.” Considering the rapidly deteriorating political, security, and economic situations in Turkey, few had projected the AK Party to regain their majority, especially in light of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent crackdown on media freedoms and the breakdown of the Kurdish peace process.
To explain this unexpected outcome, Ünlühisarcıklı pointed to three primary contributing factors. He claimed the first factor was the Turkish society’s desire for political stability, and stated, “the voter needs a government.” In the eyes of the voters, the inability of Turkey’s main parties to form a coalition government – whether by choice or by circumstance – created an overwhelming sense of chaos, which resulted in a return to the status quo. The second factor was the cultural desire to gather around a strong leader, which has intensified due to the precipitous threats from ISIS, as well as the recent Russian incursions into Turkish airspace. The third factor Ünlühisarcıklı described was, “a low transference between the AK Party and the other potential ruling parties.” Given the strong ethnic, ideological, and nationalist identities embodied by the competing Turkish parties, the AK Party had the ability to attract support from the most diverse voter demographic. In forecasting the next five years of AK Party rule, Ünlühisarcıklı argued that the sharing of executive power between President Davutoğlu and Erdoğan will be crucial and laid out two dichotomous scenarios – one in which Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu decreases polarization and works with other parties towards a new constitution, or one in which President Erdoğan consolidates power regardless of the constitution.
Sir Michael Leigh continued by discussing what happened between the June and November elections. Leigh pointed out that opposition parties bear some of the blame for their loss in the November 1 election. For example, one of the opposition parties, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), alienated many of their conservative Kurdish supporters by adopting very liberal tendencies, such as their large support for the LGBT community. Leigh emphasized that although the elections were declared by the Organization for Stability and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to be well-organized with a large voter-turnout, the elections were not, “held under fair conditions.” As evidence of this, Leigh argued that Erdoğan stoked the violent atmosphere in the pre-election period by not thoroughly investigating the October bombing of a protest in Ankara, and by increasing his violent reign against journalists, newspapers, and opposition candidates. Regarding the prospects of Prime Minister Davutoğlu emerging as a unitary figure in Turkish politics, Leigh stated that Davutoğlu, “is utterly and completely the creature of Erdoğan,” and thus had little faith in the possibility of Davutoğlu becoming a benevolent leader.
Refocusing the discussion to the transatlantic security arena, Leigh considered the potential for Turkey to accede to European Union membership. Leigh began by begging the question: “Can the EU really continue to treat Turkey as a fixation for membership within the context of shared values?” In light of the democratic shortcomings being seen in Turkey, Leigh questioned the ability of an external EU actor to internally establish rule of law within the country. Stating that “local ownership is a precondition,” Leigh underscored the perplexity of this debate by describing the necessity of treating Turkey as a strategic geopolitical partner, despite concern regarding its internal weaknesses. Leigh also criticized the EU for postponing the release of a report that was highly critical of President Erdoğan’s regime, arguing that this lack of complete transparency also tarnishes the reputation of the EU.
During the question and answer period, topics discussed included Turkey’s ability to assimilate Syrian refugees, the prospect for peace talks with the Kurds, the reinvigoration of U.S.-Turkey relations, and the religious undercurrents within Turkish society. In their final remarks, both Leigh and Ünlühisarcıklı stated that they see cooperation in Syria as the first step toward a renewal of U.S.-Turkey relations. Although the West is conscious of the prosecutions against the Turkish media, Ünlühisarcıklı argued that the answer does not lie in Western powers exerting pressure on the regime, but by Turks playing a larger and more active role in shaping the domestic political dialogue.