Rather than talking about the necessity of cooperation between the EU and Turkey, an issue that has been triggering a massive body of literature, this analysis will focus on what strategy the EU might follow while managing the Turkish issue.
“Turkish issue” is defined here as the coexistence of strained relations between EU and Turkey, and the vitally required cooperation with Turkey on areas of common interest as economy, trade, energy, security, transport, and on issues susceptible to spark regional crises, such as illegal migration and global terrorism.
But firstly it is necessary to frame the current Turkish political paradigm according to latest election results. Considering Erdogan’s presidential victory, the broadly expanded prerogatives of the president in the policy-making and the mandate’s duration (5 years), it seems that he will stay as EU’s interlocutor for a while once again.
However, AKP’s failure to obtain parliamentary majority increased the role of smaller parties. Moreover, the boost in the nationalist vote, which led to a result of ~21% obtained by Nationalist Movement Party (MHP: %11, 20) and Good Party (IYI Party: %10, 14), is both a surprising but also a signifiant factor of the current Turkish political paradigm.
How does the political scene look like post elections?
Turkish dual elections, which were the first to be held after last year’s referendum that paved the way towards a new political regime, concluded with an extraordinary turnout, that reached around 88, 18% of the electorate. As a result of the presidential race, Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared his victory in the first round by winning 52.54% of the national vote, while his strongest rival Muharrem İnce, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s candidate, obtained 30.68%.
With 295 seats (42, 28% of votes), Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to secure an absolute majority in parliament, which makes it more reliant on MHP. People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the pro-Kurdish party, achieved to surpass the electoral threshold of 10% with 11.67% of the vote. However, the most significant victory is widely attributed to nationalist forces, which are mainly shaped by Kemalist nationalism based on the pro-unitary nation-state and strong Turkish values, though the religious discourse is limited.
In this context, two nationalist parties, IYI Party and MHP, succeeded to be represented in the parliament, as they won 21, 3 % of vote (11, 2 % for MHP, 10, 1% for IYI). While the IYI party, a new wave nationalist party, will serve for the first time in the parliament with 43 members of parliament, Devlet Bahceli, the leader of MHP, largely underestimated before the elections, succeeded to preserve his power in the parliament despite the challenge of the new wave of nationalism.
Even though the pre-electoral conditions were as uneven as those of the last year’s referendum, the public objections and criticism with regard to the elections were less numerous than those on the last referendum, though OSCE assessed that conditions for campaigning were not equal, as then incumbent president (Mr Erdogan) and ruling party (AKP) “enjoying and undue advantage”.
In this context, it is essential to recall the factors that significantly influenced the referendum results: the state of emergency loutishly enforced in the name of the fight against terrorism, the domination of pro-government media, and in particular the controversial decision of Higher Electoral Council (YSK) in missing stamp crisis. Due to both these contextual factors and the principled reservations for the new system, three strongest opposition candidates, namely Muharrem Ince (CHP), Selahattin Demirtas (HDP) and Meral Aksener (IYI Party) had pledged to overturn the presidential system in case of victory.
Coming back to the dual elections on 24 June 2018, although the pre-electoral environment did not change much, this time there was no controversy upon the role of YSK. Notably, the acceptance of the results by opposition candidates may be read, to some extent, as the confirmation of the “fait accompli” with regard to the implementation of the new governing system.
However, procedural and contextual legitimate concerns regarding the new governing system still exist. Therefore, opposition faced two main options: either to keep the strategy to overturn the presidential system-a merely impossible mission given the opposition’s lack of means-, or to attempt to synchronize the current governing system according to the democratic standards.
Briefly, Erdogan seems to have achieved his biggest goal, being a president with a vastly expanded authority over the legislature and judiciary, by declaring the snap elections upon the call of his nationalist ally, Devlet Bahceli. In spite of important mobilization of the opposition showed during the electoral campaign, both the time limitation and lack of fair conditions, stressed in the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s report, prevented a significant change on the Turkish political scene.
Bahceli’s election speech, which highlighted the role of MHP in the future of Erdogan’s presidency, has showed once again the fact that Turkish political system lacks liberal institutions based on democracy and the rule of law. However, the opposition leaders repeatedly declared their motivation for the democratic normalization, “whatever the result is”. As Kati Piri, the European Parliament (EP) rapporteur for Turkey declared, the political opposition in Turkey is resilient and that President Erdogan is not the only counterpart to be taken into account; consequently, there still might be reasons to be hopeful about the prospects of Turkish democracy.
The surprising factor in the new parliamentary equation: the nationalist parties
The new governing system has similarities with what political scientists call the “super-presidential” form of leadership, involving a high concentration of power in the president and his centralized administrative apparatus while legislation and judiciary are weak. Nevertheless, strategic alliances between parties still matter not only for guaranteeing the parliamentary majorities regarding law-making but also to ensure the public consensus on the new political system. Moreover, recalling the influence of MHP on current nationalist political discourse, it seems that the smaller parties will keep their significance.
For instance, HDP’s possible impact was already mentioned in many pre-election analyses due to its position out of the current alliance dynamics. Due to the fact that Erdogan has been elected in the first round of the presidential election, HDP could not play the crucial role that was expected for the second round.
Although HDP’s significance remains active, as it would stay a vital actor for the paradigm of the Kurdish issue, the party is currently at risk of being isolated rather than being a game changer, as a result of the increasing nationalist political discourse and Erdogan’s nationalist alliance in power.
Opposition candidates had shown their interest in Kurdish issue during the pre-electoral campaign; however HDP’s sphere of influence might be limited in a parliament that overwhelmingly consists of either moderate or ultra-nationalist parties. In case of a lack of dialogue with HDP, Turkish democracy, and internal security might face even bigger challenges.
As mentioned above, the biggest surprise in the parliamentary election is the success of the nationalist forces. As a result of such a boost, the IYI Party, the liberal nationalist party, and MHP, the ultra-nationalist party, seem to gain unprecedented importance. Undoubtedly, this new nationalism trend should not be assessed merely with the shift in nationalist votes. It should not be overlooked that Erdogan’s AKP, which already comes from a religious nationalist tradition, adopted an ultra-nationalist discourse since the summer of 2015, when Kurdish-Turkish peace process entirely collapsed.
Additionally, CHP, the secular main opposition party, can also be classified within the nationalist framework as it has always represented the Kemalist nationalism based on the idea of unitary nation-state.
Considering this new political landscape in the parliament, the polarization between secular versus conservative blocs tends to decrease, due to the embracing and unifying nationalism factor; however, this equation also brings a significant risk for Turkish democracy, as the polarization between the Turks and Kurds risks to heavily increase as well.
Going back to the small scale nationalist parties, which Erdogan will most likely work together for parliamentary majority, Bahceli’s MHP has potential to bring the highest risk regarding the disengagement of Turkey from the European context.
Actually, MHP is the only party which has no agenda for the EU in its party programme. In addition to its skeptic approach to the Kurdish issue, MHP is the party which often makes the death penalty a current issue. All of these features give enough reasons to be worried about Turkish democracy in upcoming future.
On the other hand, IYI Party, as a splinter party from MHP, has a considerably different nationalist approach. The founding members of IYI Party did not only establish this new nationalist party as a result of MHP’s inner conflicts, but they also adopted a more rational party program, based on democratic values and harmony with NATO and the EU.
In this context, Erdogan’s possible cooperation with IYI Party would bring some change in Turkish politics. However, this possibility is less likely considering Erdogan’s current nationalist discourse and his previous strategy, as he prevented to be engaged in any clash with IYI Party during election campaign due to IYI Party’s high potential to attract right-wing and nationalist voters.
EU towards Turkey: between a rock and a hard place
EU-Turkey relationship has been facing a wide array of difficulties. Accession negotiations have come to a stalemate and the country’s deficit of rule of law has been criticized many times by EU officials. Moreover, Turkey has been omitted in the European Commission’s long-term budget proposal for the 2021-2027, which also includes EU’s strategy for further enlargement.
Lately, the European Commission’s Report on Turkey stated that Turkey’s accession negotiations have effectively come to a standstill and no further chapters can be considered for opening or closing is foreseen, while the EU’s General Affairs Council stressed on 26 June 2018 that no further work towards the modernization of the EU-Turkey Customs Union is foreseen.
The political dialogue is also strained as Turkey has been moving further away from European democratic standards. Increasing calls for suspension of accession negotiations with Turkey, including from Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria (which currently holds Presidency of the Council of the EU) seem to bring more tension to the current relations. However, to remind Article 5 of the Negotiation Framework between the EU and Turkey, the procedure of suspension of negotiations is a lengthy journey as it says:
“In the case of a serious and persistent breach in Turkey of the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law on which the Union is founded, the Commission will, on its own initiative or on the request of one third of the Member States, recommend the suspension of negotiations and propose the conditions for eventual resumption.
The Council will decide by qualified majority on such a recommendation, after having heard Turkey, whether to suspend the negotiations and on the conditions for their resumption. The Member States will act in the Intergovernmental Conference in accordance with the Council decision, without prejudice to the general requirement for unanimity in the Intergovernmental Conference. The European Parliament will be informed.”
Regarding the ample amount of variables to get to effective suspension of negotiations, such as: i) the Commission’s own willingness to recommend the suspension of negotiations, given the high stakes in EU-Turkey relation; ii) gathering the required number of Member States to ask for suspension; iii) the votes necessary in the Council and Intergovernmental Conference (within the latter, the unanimity is required), the suspension of negotiations does not likely to happen soon. Consequently, within this context, it is crucial to think of alternative strategies for the “Turkish issue” instead of the last option, that of negotiations suspension.
Before discussing the possible approach for the EU, it is important to highlight what Erdogan presidency’s will be. Abdulkadir Selvi, a pro-government journalist who has strong insights about AKP’s administration, regards economy, counter-terrorism and foreign policy as Erdogan’s priorities.
Turkey’s economic struggle is not something new because the country has been experiencing critical economic challenges-high account deficit, overreliance on consumer spending and government sponsored infrastructure projects, exports of consumption goods versus imports of investment and intermediate goods, high dependence of energy imports, low saving rates-since a few years, and the successive electoral campaigns have only postponed the undertaking of structural economic reforms.
Moreover, the appointment of President’s Erdogan son in law, as minister of finance is seen as a further centralization and politicization of the decision-making.
Nevertheless, the centralization of political power on the Turkish economy is not the country’s only problem. The rule of law and democratic standards has significantly been damaged because of the widespread human right violations, political imprisonments and erosion of institutions aimed to ensure the preservation of the check and balance system.
Hence, the human rights violations in Turkey should not be approached by the EU as a chip bargain for other external issues such as migration crisis, global terrorism, and energy security. Furthermore, any compromise for the topics directly related to the rule of law, especially the human right violations on account of “counter-terrorism”, might cause a great contradiction for EU’s normative values and its overall credibility.
Although European leaders might prefer to be less vocal about legal issues, this preference has a risk to contradict the EU’s founding values and to further alienate segments of Turkish society; in this regard, it is worthy of mention that the support for country’s EU membership is still very significant: a poll conducted at the beginning of this year showed that nearly 78.9% of citizens were favoring Turkey’s membership of the EU.
For instance, the ignorance of the European Court of Human Rights for the Turkish ban on headscarves in public institutions in 2004 and 2006 had given birth to Euro-skepticism among conservative groups, which still reflects on Erdogan’s anti-EU discourse.
In addition to the firm position for human rights violations, it is crucial for the EU to keep dialogue channels open with Turkey, in particular with the opposition groups, and hence to be able to contribute to democratic normalization.
Considering the opposition’s two possible strategies for current governing system, either overturning the parliamentary system or synchronizing current ‘super-presidential system’ with European democratic values based on separation of powers, the EU has capacity to contribute with its experience and institutions to safeguard some of the Turkish democratic standards. Respecting opposition’s appetite for democracy, the EU would not have any difficulty to find actors to collaborate (moderate nationalists, seculars, and Kurds) for such a dialogue.
As it is previously stated, undemocratic features (violation of civil liberties, unfair elections, and uneven political competition) are not new in Turkish political history considering the successful military coups and the rule of authoritarian political parties. That is why expecting from Turkey a fast pace to a full, liberal democracy is not realistic.
Acknowledging this fact, the political expectations towards Turkish administration might necessitate realistic adjustments with the Turkish political reality. For instance, regarding both the opposition’s struggle for democracy and the Kurdish issue, whereas the EU should take strict position against human rights violations, it should also to sustain and support the dialogue and cooperation with Erdogan’s administration in order to prevent other immediate crises.
Although skeptical stance on Turkish membership has become the norm due to the strained relationships, the EU has a great opportunity to raise its leverage of cooperation through the economic sphere. The EU is by far Ankara’s largest trading partners: it is Turkey’s main export market (44.5%) but also the main provider of the foreign direct investment in Turkey.
As concerns regarding the deterioration of Turkey’s economy increase, the EU can be in the driving seat by offering to upgrade the customs union with Turkey. A modernized custom union would not only sustain the EU as a strong trading partner but it would also enhance the economic interdependence between Turkey and the EU.
By being aware of the rising nationalism trend, it is important not to overlook the risk that hard-core actions against Turkey might damage the EU’s public diplomacy towards Turkish society. In short, it is crucial for the EU to keep the alternative dialogue channels open with Turkish opposition and civil society organizations.
Notably, the EU might face the instrumentalization of Cyprus issue, widely regarded as a significant national issue by almost every segment of the Turkish society, or the demonization of EU/NATO by Erdogan’s nationalist administration.
It is not an easy task to deal to deal with a country that has such many polarization axes (Turks versus Kurds, Seculars versus Islamists, and Liberal versus Nationalists). However, rather than taking a position towards the current cleavages , the EU can ensure its trust among Turkish society by isolating itself from such discussions and build last longing and constructive relations with Turkey by taking a consistent position having at its core the respect of the democratic principles and of the rule of law.