Monday, 8 June 2015

Pain for Turkey’s ruling party after surprising election

Most election results don’t matter to the world. Turkey’s election result does.

Turkey’s GDP is nudging the $US900 billion mark even despite stagnating growth. And, to the south, an entire region’s power structure is destabilising. Both are forcing Turkey to choose between continued insularity and greater engagement, a choice that will resonate beyond the Middle East.

The June 7 election results reveal a thin parliamentary election victory for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). It threatens the plans of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to consolidate his power and change the country’s democratic model.

Mr Erdogan was planning a constitutional referendum to bring Turkey under a new presidential system if the AKP gained a super-majority in the elections. However, with much of the vote counted, the AKP appears not to have gained enough votes and will need to form a coalition with other parties to govern.

Out of a possible 550 seats in the Turkish parliament, the AKP needed 367 seats to reach super-majority. With this, Mr Erdogan could have begun the process for a presidential system. The party needed only 276 seats for a simple majority to govern on its own.

Yet after months of campaigning to convince Turkey that Mr Erdogan’s vision represents the correct path for the country’s emergence as a strong regional power, the Turkish voters have spoken and the AKP’s rule will now face tighter constraints.

According to initial projections, the AKP’s 41% share of the vote translates roughly 258 seats. This is 18 fewer than it needs for a simple majority. The election result signals the end of the one-party dominance the AKP has enjoyed for more than 13 years. The Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) succeeded in passing the 10% threshold and will get between 75 and 80 seats, while the nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) received 25% of the vote.

Presidential plans
Mr Erdogan’s plans for creating a constitutional presidency have been slowly emerging over a number of years. He stepped down as prime minister of Turkey in August 2014, after serving the constitutional limit of three full terms, to become president. The move raised political neutrality concerns and criticisms from the rest of the Parliament and the public of Mr Erdogan’s power consolidation efforts.

His plans for constitutional reform are to claw back some power for the presidency from the prime minister and parliament. Currently, the president of Turkey is supposed to be independent. However, Mr Erdogan attracted criticism in February after publicly encouraging the public to vote for the AKP.

Over the past decade, the plan’s success appeared possible as he balanced the country’s secular legacy with Turkey’s increasingly religious populace. He also balanced the wealth of Istanbul against the poverty of the Turkish hinterland.

But these political manoeuvres have not been without friction. Although Mr Erdogan successfully undermined his political opponents and remains at the top of Turkish politics – shrewdly placing controllable and docile party members in positions below him – the popularity of the AKP has fallen as the once-booming Turkish economy slows down.

During his transition to presidency in 2014, members of the AKP lashed out at the party leader, showing some discontent. Mr Erdogan is sure to face increasing tension from members within the AKP after the June 7 election results. His attempts to encourage greater Islamic religious influence in Turkey and outreach to the minority Kurdish population may help the AKP’s inevitable coalition negotiations but Mr Erdogan’s plans for reforming the constitution are slipping away.

Economic problems
Turkey currently boasts more than 80 million people with an estimated $US830 billion economy, placing its GDP strength between 17th and 18th in the world. But that is changing too. Turkey’s rising unemployment and inflation statistics are a boon for the AKP’s opponents but a blow to the ruling party’s influence. Its growth oscillates close to 3% with a volatile exchange rate, which threaten inflation problems in the future.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu recently told the Council on Foreign Relations thinktank that despite some concerns about Turkey’s economy, he is proud of the AKP’s economic stewardship.

“Our GDP was around $US240 billion when [AKP] came to power. Now it is around $US830 billion. Per capita income from $US2,500 now around $US10,500. And in all statistics, especially in infrastructure, there has been a tremendous change,” he says.

All this could arise from good stewardship but Turkey’s inflation and growth numbers reflect a decline in investor confidence. Its economy is highly dependent on foreign investment and Mr Erdogan’s meddling in central bank decisions over the years has spooked foreign investors.

The AKP built its reputation on the promise of growing Turkey’s economic vitality. So while its economy remains one of the largest in Europe, the present downturn has clearly hurt the AKP’s image.

Foreign policy and Turkey’s political future
That will affect Turkey’s foreign policy too. Under the AKP-majority government, Turkey held to a policy of non-intervention in its near abroad, which it called “zero problems with neighbours.” This position has become increasingly unworkable as Turkey’s power grows. Not only has the Middle East and North Africa dealt with extreme fracturing and instability since the turn of the century, the economic weight of Turkey is also affecting its relationship with Europe and Israel.

Access to the EU common market was once considered out of the question when Turkey was considered the “sick man of Europe” (it was first called that by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia in the late19th century). However, entering the EU is similarly difficult now its economic heft is larger than most EU members.

Turkey and Israel are competing to develop an enormous undersea liquid natural gas and oil field in the eastern Mediterranean. An energy pipeline project under consideration could help renew the Israeli-Turkish partnership after years of strain. The issue could be used as a springboard for normalising diplomatic relations and encouraging more bilateral investment and intelligence cooperation.

Syria will also cause headaches for the new government regardless of whether the AKP finds a suitable coalition partner. The Syrian regime is under siege from multiple rebel and Islamist groups, many of which Turkey is now actively assisting – albeit covertly.

All these dynamics force Turkey to reassess its non-interference policy. It has found the problems boiling on its southern border difficult to avoid and is realising that as the US disengages from the region, Turkey can take advantage of an emerging vacuum.

Turkey’s politics are about to enter a period of greater gridlock as the new players in Parliament organise control around what’s left of the AKP’s dominance. While the AKP’s domineering president will retain limited control, tensions within the AKP and the emerging coalition will make it an increasingly paranoid party.

The Turkish population has voted against a consolidation of power but also away from a traditional two-party parliament towards greater plurality, which will make Turkish politics less stable. It will pay to watch Turkey closely over the next election cycle, as it answers tough questions about what sort of country it wishes to be as its regional influence rises.

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