The Sultan on a hot tin roof


After the resounding victory at the polls, the AKP has to face a few thorny issues on the agenda in Turkey. The Kurds, the new constitution and the Syrian crisis are post-electoral ‘hot potatoes’.

Turkey called snap elections on November 1 with the fear of change dominating the nervous system of the Turkish citizenry. As a result, voters who had been slipping away from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the June 7 elections five months prior rushed back to the ruling party. The AKP safely secured a majority in parliament, governing singlehandedly for at least four more years, but it now faces tough challenges in both domestic and foreign policy.

On October 10, thousands of peace activists gathered in the capital Ankara to call for an end to the increasing violence that has spread across the country since July, when two suicide bombers killed 102 people and injured over 100 more, marking the worst terror attack in Turkish history.

The attack was similar to another in the town of Suruc near the Syrian border on July 20, which resulted in the death of 34 young activists. The prosecutor’s offices in Ankara claim that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants were behind the two attacks.

Following the Suruc attack, the fragile peace process between Turkish authorities and the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rapidly collapsed. A PKK affiliated group killed two Turkish police officers, and the Turkish government resumed military operations against the group, putting many Kurdish provinces under curfew.

Turkey had been stable and peaceful until the June 7 elections in which the AKP lost its majority and urged early elections. But in the span of five months, as the early parliamentary polls were approaching, the country descended into a bloodbath.

After governing for 13 years, the AKP faces deep challenges both at home and abroad in its new term. The surge in terrorism both by the PKK and ISIL has cast a pall not just over the southeast of the country but also over Turkey’s tourism industry. Fear of instability has fueled economic vulnerability as the economy has slowed, inflation and unemployment have risen and the lira has tumbled.

An optimist might assume that the AKP, once a brave proponent of a peace settlement with the Kurds, would immediately seek peace with the PKK. But just two days after the ballot, party officials vowed to continue military operations against the separatist Kurds. Turkish authorities claim that they can only resume the peace process, which is “at the refrigerator”  at the moment, if the PKK lays down arms and withdraws from Turkish territory.

A new constitution which would create an executive presidency and give more power to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of the founders of the AKP, has long been on the agenda of Turkish politics but has only garnered weak support.

A few days after the November 1 polls, however, Erdogan signaled that his ambitions for stronger powers had not diminished. The act would require only a handful of votes beyond his own party’s current parliamentary majority. 

Presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said that the country could hold a referendum, asking people if they supported Erdogan’s push to change the country’s political system.

Thus the agenda of fundamentally rewriting the Turkish constitution to create a powerful presidency in place of its traditional figurehead role will likely dominate Turkey’s domestic politics in the near future.

This prospect deeply worries his opponents, and not without some justification. Turkey’s secularist opposition is afraid that Erdogan intends to impose his brand of Islamism on the long-secular Turkish political system. Crackdowns on government-critical media and the prosecution of opposition journalists, bureaucrats, and academics has left no room for doubt as to his tendency toward authoritarian rule.

The government’s suppression of free media was a serious concern throughout the campaign period and remains so after the polls. The Turkish authorities raided the magazine Nokta, confiscated its latest issue and arrested two journalists just after the November 1 election.

The new government also has to cope with a challenging security environment in its region, particularly stemming from the Syrian conflict which has acquired additional urgency after attacks carried out by ISIL.

The Turkish position vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis has slowly been converging with that of the United States since early 2015. Turkey allowed U.S. led coalition forces to use NATO’s Incirlik Air Base to bomb ISIL targets. Turkish war planes are even participating in the aerial campaign against the jihadist group, but in doing so, the country becomes more vulnerable to security threats.

The strains of the civil war in neighboring Syria put pressure on Turkey due to the threat posed by the ISIL as well as by the growing power of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, which Ankara views as an extension of the PKK. The U.S. support of Syrian Kurds upsets Turkey and sometimes causes strain between the two allies.

The country hosts more than 2 million Syrian refugees, only some 250,000 of whom reside in camps. The rest are trying to survive on their own across Turkey. Russia’s military intervention in Syria risks prolonging the war. This, in turn, raises concerns of a new wave of migration with which Turkey will struggle to cope, and which will ultimately press on Europe’s borders. The new AKP government will have to reassess its policies regarding Syria and the influx of refugees.

The Turkish government has long been one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fiercest critics, insisting that no lasting peace can be achieved in Syria without his removal from power. But Ankara is already showing signs of backtracking on its push to ensure that Assad is removed from power. It has lent support to a plan, discussed among international actors, which envisages a temporary administrative period for Syria’s government during which Assad would remain in power for six months.

President Erdogan said that a solution including Assad was possible for the duration of the transition process, already a major change in Turkey’s foreign policy stance regarding Syrian crisis.

On November 24, a Russian Su-24 warplane was shot down by NATO member Turkey along Turkish-Syrian border, raising cold war fears, with the fact that the last time a Russian jet was downed by NATO was in 1952.

Ankara said the Russian fighter plane violated Turkish airspace during an assault against Sunni-Turkmen groups in Syria, whom Turkey defines as ethnic kin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the incident “a stab in the back” and warned of serious consequences for bilateral relations, including economic sanctions.

Trying to defuse tension, Ankara appealed for dialogue, but fell short of the apology Moscow has demanded. Turkey obviously has to deal with another complicated consequence of Syrian crisis, this time with one of its most important partners in trade, energy and tourism. Two countries are likely to avoid a spiral into conflict over this incident, but medium-term turbulence in relations is inevitable.

Not sure what this means… “on ice”?

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