Challenges Ahead for Erdogan

Courtesy Al-Ahram, Egypt

What next for Turkey following the Justice and Development Party’s landslide victory, asks Gareth Jenkins from Istanbul

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) was returned to power on Sunday in a landslide election victory. It increased its share of the popular vote to 46.8 per cent to secure 341 seats in Turkey’s 550-member unicameral parliament.

The election results were rightly hailed by the JDP as a triumph without parallel in recent Turkish history and a stinging rebuff to the country’s secular establishment whose warnings that the JDP harboured a long-term radical Islamist agenda appear to have been ignored by almost half of the Turkish electorate.

But there is also little doubt that the JDP’s second term in power is likely to be much more difficult and challenging than its first. When it came to power in November 2002, the JDP inherited an economy which was rebounding from a devastating recession in 2001, and a domestic reform process which had been initiated by the previous government in the hope of formally opening accession negotiations with the EU. Perhaps just as importantly, the JDP had only been established in August 2001 and was thus regarded as something new at a time of unprecedented public disillusion with the established political parties. As a result, the JDP enjoyed a virtual monopoly of that most precious of all political commodities, namely hope.

During its first years in power, the JDP carefully nurtured the economic recovery and accelerated the political reform process, leading in October 2005 to Turkey finally opening accession negotiations with the EU. But the opening of negotiations now appears to have marked the end, rather than a beginning, of a process. With talks now stalled over Turkey’s refusal to compromise on the Cyprus issue, and growing opposition to Turkish membership in key EU states such as France and Germany, few Turks believe their country will ever be allowed to join and the prospect of EU membership has quietly dropped off the political agenda.

Turkey’s ties with the West have been further strained by the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Washington’s refusal either to move against camps belonging to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, or allow Turkey to do so, has triggered outrage inside Turkey. But beneath the anger and nationalist rhetoric which, to varying degrees, characterised the campaigns of all the parties competing in last week’s elections, there has also been a palpable shift in the emphasis of Turkish foreign policy. Relations with the EU and the US were hardly mentioned in the parties’ election manifestos. Instead, they devoted considerable space to promising, if they came to power, to develop closer ties with the countries of the region, particularly the Middle East and Central Asia.

But, as ever in Turkey, the new parliament’s agenda is likely to be dominated by the country’s two great unresolved questions: the relationship between religion and public life, and the question of Turkey’s substantial Kurdish minority.

The elections were called more than three months ahead of schedule after the staunchly secularist Turkish General Staff (TGS) intervened to prevent the appointment of JDP Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as the country’s next president. Like many Turkish secularists, the TGS feared that, with control of both parliament and the presidency, the JDP would finally begin to introduce what they claim is its secret long-term radical agenda.

On Tuesday Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan promised that the new JDP government would adopt a conciliatory attitude when parliament meets to elect a new president in August, raising hopes that it will avoid another confrontation with the military by putting forward a compromise candidate. But on Wednesday Gul called a press conference to announce that his decision as to whether or not to stand as a candidate would be determined by the “will of the people as demonstrated in the election campaign and in the election results”. Yet any attempt by the JDP to appoint Gul to the presidency will galvanise both the secularist opposition and the TGS, leading to deadlock in parliament and perhaps new elections.

Even if Erdogan has his way and a compromise candidate can be found, the new JDP government is likely to come under pressure to find a solution to the Kurdish problem, particularly as the new parliament will contain 24 members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DSP). Speaking after she was elected as an MP for the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, the DSP’s Aysel Tugluk warned that once in parliament she and her colleagues would bring “Turkey’s fundamental problems onto the agenda”. In the run-up to the elections leading DSP politicians openly called for political devolution, perhaps even leading to a federal state. Yet the other opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (RPP) and the Nationalist Action Party (NAP), both campaigned on an aggressive Turkish nationalist platform. Having the RPP, NAP and DSP all represented in the same assembly threatens to be an explosive mixture.

Perhaps more worrying is the potential for tensions outside parliament. Recent years have seen a rise in anti-Kurdish racism on the margins of Turkish society, which has been further fuelled by the violent campaign of the PKK, while nationalist Kurds have become more confident and often explicitly anti- Turkish. In his victory speech on Sunday night Erdogan pledged to combat Kurdish separatism and reiterated the JDP’s commitment to preserving territorial integrity and social harmony. Perhaps the JDP’s greatest challenge will be to ensure that these two cherished characteristics do not become mutually exclusive.


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