Turkey: At A Critical Juncture – Analysis


The 2002 electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi or AKP) was a turning point in modern Turkey’s political narrative. The relatively young leadership of the party, while subscribing to the secular basis of the Turkish Republic, was openly demonstrative of their devout Muslim identity and clearly articulated their support for the preservation of Islamic values and norms in society and the loosening of state control on religious practices. The international observers believed that this was the moment when Turkey would emerge to prove the compatibility of Islam and democracy to the wider Muslim world. However, an analysis of the state of Turkey after AKP has been in power for 13 years and is set to rule for another four, produces a somewhat different picture.

While the secular basis of the social and political order has not been dismantled, the framework has been eroded and is now brittle. There is also no denying that the social and political atmosphere has been irrevocably altered by the open permission and encouragement to use greater religious symbolism and imagery in all walks of life. More damaging has been the party’s disregard for the norms of liberal democratic traditions. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the unquestioned ‘king’ of AKP, has revealed himself to be willing and ruthlessly able to silence and even persecute his opponents and critics, both within and outside his party. The authoritarian streak within the AKP leadership was exemplified by the jailing and sentencing of hundreds of military officers and other critics of the party on trumped up charges. The sanctity of the rule of law, and the democratic culture of the nation has been irrevocably damaged over the past decade.

The November 2015 Elections

Turkey went to the polls on 7 June 2015 and returned an ambiguous verdict, not giving any single party the necessary majority to rule. The election also brought the single party rule of the AKP to and end after 13 years. The reasons for this setback to AKP are many and varied, but it set in motion a series of events that could see Turkey transform into an entity that its founding father Mustafa Kemal would never be able to recognise. Turkey’s constitution stipulates that in the event of a hung-election and the inability of any coalition to garner the numbers to rule, the country will have go back to the polls after a few months. This is exactly what happened—Turkey went back to the polls on 1 November and returned with a very different verdict as compared to 7 June. What happened between June and November to alter the public perception that now gives the AKP a fourth consecutive term?

The first noticeable change was the erosion of the sense of security that the people of Turkey had so far felt under the AKP. The upsurge in terrorism—with the bloody clashes against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistane or PKK) and the suicide bombings by the Islamic State (IS)—during the four months has spread an overall sense of diminished security in the country. The second was the economic downturn, not the result of the resurgence of political violence, but because of a certain amount of mismanagement and as a repercussion of flawed foreign policy initiatives. The Western media squarely blames President Erdogan for both these issues. However, the popular domestic view has been that these emerging issues are the result of the absence of a strong AKP government since the elections in 7 June.

This dichotomy has to be analyzed further to arrive at a reasoned understanding of the situation. Before the June election, the priority issue for the nation was state of the economy, which was showing signs of wear and tear and in a downturn. The eruption of violence and terrorist attacks in the interim between the two elections was cleverly used by the AKP to point towards their previous record of 13 years of stability and convince the electorate that only a majority AKP government could solve the challenge posed to the nation through terrorism and violence. The fact is that although the economic indicators have not changed, even a little bit, between the two elections terrorism replaced economy on centere-stage in the election rhetoric. The majority Sunni electorate was convinced by the regime that the PKK had reignited fresh violence after June. The opposition indirectly assisted this explanation by being dysfunctional and not being able put forward a clear narrative of on-going events. The media played a significant role in influencing the popular perceptions regarding what was ailing the country.

On 1 November, the AKP won 49.4 per cent of the vote, an increase from the 40.9 per cent in June, capturing 316 of the 550 parliamentary seats, which is a comfortable majority. This result went against the grain of all predictions, to a certain extent even by the party itself. The National Action Party (Milliyetci Hareket Partisi or MHP) had won 80 seats and 16.4 per cent of the vote in June. However, it steadfastly refused to join the AKP in a coalition to form the government although both the parties have a broadly similar right wing, conservative outlook. This cost the party dearly in November, the people who were fed up of political instability punished the MHP. The party just managed to win 11.9 per cent of the vote and were reduced 40 seats in November. They are no longer an influential party in the Parliament.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (Halkalarin Demokratik Partisi or HDP) had won double its traditional share of votes in June and managed to enter the parliament for the first time with 13.1 per cent of the votes and 80 seats. In November they managed to stay in the parliament, (Turkish electoral system laws are that a minimum of 10 per cent of votes have to be won by a party to be able to represent in parliament) winning 10.7 per cent of the votes and 61 seats. The HDP being pro-Kurdish has obvious sympathy for the PKK although they attempt to put forward a liberal narrative of peace. The violence blamed on the PKK has got the party stuck between Scylla and Charybdis and even some Kurdish supporters have abandoned them and returned to the AKP. The divisiveness of internal Kurdish politics is examined later. The main opposition party, Republican Peoples’ Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi or CHP) retained its June share of 25.4 per cent of the vote and 134 seats.

The AKP has declared the victory as an approval of its policies and more interestingly as a personal endorsement of Erdogan. The party now stays in power till 2019. The victory was crafted by adding a new challenge to the nation and then convincing the electorate that only AKP could solve it. The violence, which has been blamed completely on the PKK, will have to be contained fully almost immediately to ensure that the tactical political manoeuvring that has won the election for the AKP does not turn into a zero-sum game. The PKK cannot be subdued through military action. Negotiations are the only way forward if the cycle of violence that engulfed the nation in the 1980s and 1990s are not to be repeated.

The election victory will not change Erdogan’s general approach to politics and intolerance of criticism. If at all, the arrogance will only get entrenched. The fact is that any institution that could have enforced democratic norms and questioned the government policies have been effectively defanged in the past 13 years in a concerted manner, through the implementation carefully laid plans. The only development to watch out now is whether or not Erdogan will immediately pursue the plans to change the constitution and introduce a Presidential system of government. To alter the constitution the AKP needs the assistance of one of the other political parties, a simple majority in parliament is not sufficient to do so. Constitutional amendment to facilitate a presidential form of government has been a long term agenda and the priority laid in achieving it will tell the story of Erdogan’s personal ambition.

Turkey’s World View

Turkey’s world view has always focused on the Middle-East and the AKP covets a significant role in the region and through it in the larger Islamic world. The AKP has pan-Islamic ambitions and wishes, rather craves, for a new regional order in which Turkey will play the most important role. Turkey wants to emphasise the allure of history while adhering to the concept of a nation-state with nationalism as an important cornerstone in the creation of such entities that it wants to share as a model with the rest of the Muslim world. In his attempt to recreate the Turkish state as a modern democratic republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abandoned a centuries-old struggle for regional primacy and isolated Turkey in order to focus on nation-building. The new Turkey under the AKP and Erdogan invariably harks back to the lost glory of the Ottomans that it wants to regain and is therefore assiduously building a neo-Ottoman imperial agenda.

Turkey considers itself the natural leader of the Middle-East but also suffers from a sense of humiliation because of its failure to join or be accepted by the European Union (EU), which has been a steadfast aim of successive governments. A full integration with the West, Ataturk’s glorious dream, is still unfulfilled. In order to understand some of the more incomprehensible actions that Turkey has recently initiated, they must be viewed through this complex prism of the national narrative.

The Turkey-Iran Equation

For centuries the Ottomans and the Persians, the only two non-Arb powers in the Middle-East, led rival empires for the domination of the region. Turkey and Iran, their contemporary successor states, have continued this millennium old rivalry and are today once again at cross purposes in the quest for the leadership of the broader Muslim world. However, in recent times they have shown some signs of willingness to reach an uneasy accommodation with each other. While open enmity is not visible, there is no overt friendship on display either—stand-off supporting the current status quo seems to be in place.

Both the nations seem to be comfortable with functioning at the extreme grey area between aloofness and alliance. Turkey and Iran offer very different paths to regional stability; each based on the post-colonial experiences of the individual states. Over the past few decades the amorphous variations have coalesced into religious and ideological differences with both aspiring for wider recognition as regional powers. Whether this delicate situation will lead to a power sharing agreement is too far in the future to speculate upon.

Iran has its own ghosts to grapple with. It is still considered by the other regional states as a revolutionary state and Iran has an implicit belief that the regional balance of power is biased and tilted against it. If the region is stable, then Iran will be able to exert only minimal influence. However, when the region is in tumultuous instability and in the throes of sectarian violence, Iran can enhance its regional influence by supporting the groups that feel downtrodden, which creates a position of power for it within the Shiite world. Since the ultimate position of power is an eternal quest for both Iran and Turkey, Iran is not particularly enamoured with Erdogan’s regional initiatives.

In spite of the mutual antipathy, Iran and Turkey share a broader and enduring economic relationship and there is an acceptance of the inter-dependence of the economies in both the nations. Even at the height of the sanctions in 2012-13, around 90 per cent of all Iranian gas was exported to Turkey. Turkey is the hub for oil and natural gas transfer, placed strategically between the suppliers and the customers. Iran is aware of this and of their dependence on the Turkish state for their energy export. Therefore, the competition between the two is carefully compartmentalised. The current conflict in Syria, where the two nations are placed on opposing ends of the spectrum however has the potential to rupture the carefully papered over divisions and ancient rivalries between the two neighbours.

The Kurdish Issue

It is often forgotten that the Kurds are the oldest inhabitants of Anatolia. Their demand for limited autonomy has created chronic unrest in Turkey since the 1980s, which tends to dominate the domestic agenda. After a brief respite in the past three years, the Kurdish issue has boiled over again. Sadly, when it comes to dealing with the Kurds, the ideals, rule of law and democracy all get pushed to the background by the mainstream Turks. The plight of the Turkish Kurds is unenviable.

The pro-Kurdish HDP won 13.1 per cent of the votes in the June elections and called for peace at all costs. This is in direct contrast to the strategy adopted by the PKK, the traditional standard bearers of the Kurds, who were angered by this stance. Perhaps because of this rift, the PKK declared an end to the ceasefire that had been agreed with the government almost immediately after the HDP achieved their best-ever electoral result.

The PKK opposes civilian politics and within the party has legitimised the use of violence as a means to achieve their desired objectives. It is also aligned with the Syrian/Iraqi Kurds who are currently the only ‘moderate’ faction in the Syrian Civil War that has gained sufficient traction on the ground to be considered an influential group. Their latest victory in retaking the town of Sinjar from the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq underscores this point. The Syrian Kurds are aligned with the Western coalition and are being supplied and supported by the US. However, Turkey has steadfastly stuck to its stance of being against all and any Kurd group, irrespective of nationality.

The Kurdish issue has become a permanent feature in Turkey’s political landscape. Ever since Mustafa Kemal founded the Republic, Kurdish identity has been suppressed by Ankara, often violently. As in many other nations with diverse ethnicities, the differences between the Kurds and Turks have been leveraged by politicians to advance their own selfish and often sectarian agendas. At the moment it seems that the differences between Turkish and Kurdish nationalism has reached an irreconcilable divide. Currently, street violence in Turkey is at an all-time high and the situation furthers an already inherent instability. The Turkish society is now divided into deeply mistrustful groups based on ethnicity and religious affiliations.

At the height of the Kurdish activities in the 1990s PKK had been declared a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the US. In the current and evolving political scenario in the region, PKK has aligned itself with Russia, Iran and what remains of the Assad regime in Damascus. The US has chosen to turn a Nelson’s eye towards this emerging alliance. For the PKK what this means is that, for the first time they will be able to bring external influence to bear in their negotiations and dealings with Ankara. While the AKP’s return to power will not change their attitude towards the Kurdish issue, they may not be able to contain it purely as a domestic issue anymore. Any future anti-Kurdish initiatives would be looked upon more closely by the greater powers with a vested interest in the region.

Turkey’s Syrian Strategy

Under the AKP, Turkey has adopted an uncompromising stance, maintaining that only after the removal of the Assad regime would they participate in any negotiations regarding the future of Syria. The rigidity of this policy has created deep divisions in the nation’s domestic politics, with the main opposition party CHP not being averse to negotiating with Assad. The AKP is unlikely to change its stance after the current re-election since there is no real incentive for them to change their Syria policy. However, the insistence on the removal of Assad as a pre-condition for peace efforts in Syria is an unrealistic objective in the current situation wherein Russia is actively supporting the regime and the Syrian Army.

The criticality of Syria to further Turkey’s regional ambition is easier to understand if it is analysed taking into account the regional events of the past decade. On coming to power in 2002, Erdogan consciously ramped up Turkey’s smart power in the Middle-East, improving Turkey’s image and touting the AKP brand of ‘democratic Islam’ as a model. He was uniformly successful in this undertaking. By the time the so-called Arab Spring came about, Turkey, and particularly Erdogan, were at the height of their popularity in the region. Turkey’s overarching reaction to the unfolding events was to sponsor Sunni Islamist groups wherever possible. This was severely criticised by other regional powers who accused Turkey of promoting extremism. In Egypt, Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood failed and there is visible antagonism between Erdogan and the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Turkey also supports Hamas that had been declared a terrorist organisation by both the US and EU. In August, the Arab League passed a resolution condemning Turkey for bombing the PKK in northern Iraq. The fall from grace was rapid.

In 2011, when the Syrian civil war started, Turkey believed that Basher al-Assad would also go the Gadhafi way, and be removed quickly. This belief made Turkey support the hard-line factions in Syria, entering into and stoking the sectarian strife that was emerging. However, Turkey had not fully understood Assad’s obstinate staying power and had miscalculated the regional dynamics. It had also underestimated the foreign support that Assad could rely upon—on hindsight it seems certain that Turkey had not factored the circling of the wagons by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia to provide pivotal military, political and economic support that continues to ensure Assad’s regime survival. Turkey’s inability to project power into the Syrian imbroglio is a sign of its waning influence in the region.

In the meantime, Assad has cleverly leveraged his country’s geographical position to convert it into an energy corridor that would rival Turkey’s attempt at doing the same thing by signing a $ 10 billion worth memorandum of understanding with Iran. The proposal is to create an ‘Islamic pipeline’ to carry natural gas from Iran towards its export market. This is a nuanced move that has long term implications for the economic developments in the region and abroad, which has not been sufficiently analysed or considered in the broader debate. Turkey could be left out in the cold.

Turkey has aligned its actions in Syria with Saudi Arabia in supporting Jabhat al-Nusra, the main Sunni, anti-Assad force other than the IS. This group has been credited with the territorial defeat of the Assad forces in early 2015, which was the catalyst for the Russian military intervention. The Russian actions were initially directed against the al-Nusra and other smaller groups fighting the Assad regime and both Turkey and Saudi Arabia were unable, and also unwilling, to do anything about this direct targeting of their allies and proxies. Turkey also has a military agreement with Qatar, and together they continue to sponsor the elements fighting the Assad regime. However, there is a clear understanding in both these nations that they would not commit ground forces in Syria.

Turkey currently is stuck with and committed to a strategy of regime change in Syria, although it has now become a failed initiative, with no meaningful effect on reality. It views with trepidation the rising influence and ambition of the Syrian Kurds, fearing that this would lead to an exacerbation of their own internal Kurdish issue. Therefore, in the political negotiations that are being initiated to find a solution to the Syrian Civil War, Turkey will vehemently oppose, and even veto if possible, any move towards providing even limited autonomy to the Syrian Kurds. Turkey is also mistrustful of US intentions in the region and this has become a core premise of all foreign policy development within Turkey. While Turkey is unwilling to accept it, the fact is clear that it is on a downward slope of decreasing relevance and influence. Turkey needs to rethink its foreign policy initiatives and align it more with international plans rather than continue to attempt to change the direction of the rest of the wider world community involved in the region.

Failing Foreign Policy

Turkey now faces a foreign policy crisis. Its Syrian policy has proven to be a mess; the relationship with Israel is strained almost to snapping point; Egypt and the UAE both oppose the concept of political Islam that Turkey ardently supports, thereby increasing tensions; Turkey considers Egyptian President al-Sisi unpalatable to deal with; and is at odds with Jordan for their tacit support for the Russian intervention. Russia is a now a major and critical player in the shifting geo-political order in the Middle-East, whether Turkey admits it or not. Turkey needs a more pragmatic and flexible approach to its foreign policy. The recent electoral victory and the four-year term that it entails should be used as an opportunity to take stock and alter core foreign policies to avoid the train wreck that is coming its way.

All the facts are pointing towards the need to revise its foreign policy. However, considering the past record of President Erdogan who calls all the shots in the ruling AKP, changes if any are instituted are bound to be biased and minimal. The AKP has repeatedly demonstrated an entrenched anti-Western sentiment and Erdogan has been abrasive in his anti-Western rhetoric. Given the corner that it has painted itself into, this is unlikely to be toned down in the near future.

However, pragmatism dictates that with Iran now being part of the peace talks in Vienna, Turkey needs to reorient its foreign policy, if it is to continue to be relevant and influential in the region. While a U-turn may not be possible or palatable to the AKP and its leadership that is what it will take to regain lost traction.

The refugee crisis in Europe could provide an opening for Turkey to be seen to be proactive. Turkey does have an important role in resolving the crisis and Europe needs its cooperation. However, Turkey is likely to push a hard bargain and not look to creating good will. It will want a more liberalised visa regime for its citizens for entry into EU. Considering the recent events in Paris, this might not even be on the negotiating table. It is also unlikely that the refugee crisis and Turkey’s cooperation in sorting it out will be sufficient to restart a push for EU Membership. After all the European nations are past masters at diplomatic negotiations and very good at compartmentalising different aspects of foreign policy.

In Conclusion

Turkey has grandiose plans of creating a new ‘global order’, within which political Islam will find its rightful place. It believes that the regional autocracies in the Middle-East are doomed to failure and that they will be replaced by an elected government led by a ‘man of the people’. The fact that such a person invariably turns out to be despotic and dictatorial, clinging to power long after his usefulness has become illusory, is lost in the hubris of this rhetoric. Turkey believes that it will be seen as the torchbearer in creating such a region which it would influence completely under the banner of pan-Islamism; the call to unite under Islam being the common denominator in this appeal. It is openly known that Islamist groups across the Middle-East are unofficial allies of the AKP and derive support from the party. In a single-focused pursuance of this agenda, the AKP has thrown aside the nation’s much vaunted secularism with the convenient argument that secularism does not represent the will of the Turkish people. There is no evidence to prove this claim.

The AK-ruled Turkey today stands at a cross-road. The path it takes will determine Turkey’s place in the global comity of nations into the future. If one is to hazard a guess—it would seem that at the end of the next four-year rule of the AKP, Turkey would be the hub of political Islam; and sectarian violence would have increased on the heels of religious intolerance. The painstakingly built ‘Republic’ of Mustafa Kemal may by then have been sacrificed to fulfil the biased, narrow-minded and sectarian ambition of a single individual.

Dr. Sanu Kainikara

Dr. Sanu Kainikara is a Canberra-based Military Strategist and a practising Historian. He is an Adjunct Professor at the University of New South Wales and the inaugural Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Regional Security, Canberra.

8 thoughts on “Turkey: At A Critical Juncture – Analysis

  • November 18, 2015 at 1:03 am

    Well researched article .explained geopolitics in the region simply.

  • November 18, 2015 at 2:44 am

    Thank you for that comprehensive analysis which was interesting and informative as usual.

  • November 18, 2015 at 2:52 am

    Good analysis giving insight into Turkey’s current and potential role in the region, following the renewed pledge of the western allies to get rid of the IS. Will its secular nature and membership of the NATO be under any strain?

  • November 18, 2015 at 3:11 am

    Very informative..Thankd

  • November 18, 2015 at 3:32 am

    An excellent analysis. You have captured Turkey’s problems in a rapidly shifting situation. The Paris attacks by the IS will bring greater co-operation among the G-20 about dealing with the Syrian crisis. Turkey may have to refocus it’s startegy in that area.

  • November 18, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    Hullo Sanu
    Thanks for your well researched and dispassionate review of the political position obtaining in President Erdogan’s Turkey today. I wonder how the fallout of the Black November attacks in Paris will affect Turkey’s rocky foreign policy and whether the predominantly Islamic nation will ever be accepted as member country of the EU, considering that it first applied for membership 29 years ago!

  • November 21, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    Good analysis. Valuable read.
    Col CN Suresh,Retd

  • November 24, 2015 at 2:02 am

    Objective and erudite. The web of regional politics and its implications have been explained clearly – it is certainly hard going for President Erdogan and testing of his capability to manoeuvre his country’s fortunes through this web of political-regional uncertainty. The gaps seems to be getting wider and complex.

    The multitude of refugees streaming across from Syria into Turkey could not have been visualised in the political calculus prior to the start of the Syrian crisis – and would be unsettling to Turkey’s mainstream political and regional agenda. It appears that Turkey has tapped the Syrian refugee crisis for concessions with a possible back-door access into the EU or the EU markets?

    Secondly, though an Ottoman-era retribution, the West and the larger democracies is unlikely to really forgive or overlook Ottoman’s genocide of over a million Armenians in 1915. The AKP or any of the other political party in Turkey will have to negotiate this dark past from their region’s history with the EU – maybe an official apology or compensation of sorts (as settled by the ICJ ?)

    The AKP’s Islamic agenda runs counter to all what Mustafa Kamal visualised for a progressive democracy.

    Thanks Sanu sir – always look forward to reading your analysis write-ups.

    Joe Matthews


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