Post-Election Prognostication: What’s Next For Turkey
In the wake of an election widely described as “historic,” what’s next for Turkey and the U.S.-Turkish relationship? Amid the uncertainty in Washington, Ankara and the Middle East, predictions are difficult but here are three developments to watch:
When Will the Veneer of Democracy Wear Through?
On June 24, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan succeeded masterfully in calculating the minimum amount of manipulation needed to win. In doing so, he maintained Turkey’s veneer of democratic legitimacy and ensured that, for the near future at least, the opposition will continue to play according to the rules of his rigged game. Put differently, Erdogan didn’t win fairly, but he won without the kind of cheating that would have caused the opposition to cry foul and take to the streets.
Opposition presidential candidate Muharrem Ince, who at one point spoke of calling his supporters to assemble in front of Turkey’s electoral commission if there was foul play, has subsequently been dismissive of those among them who insist he should have contested the results. Meanwhile, debates continue over the future of the CHP leadership and the role of the MHP in parliament – conversations that in themselves suggest a continued expectation of politics as usual. Moving forward, Turkey’s political stability will hinge, in large part, on how long this status quo can be preserved, and what mix of threats and concessions Erdogan will use to preserve it.
Where Will Erdogan’s New Victories and Enemies Come From?
In this election, like others before it, Erdogan convinced voters that he was the only leader who could continue to advance their and their country’s interests in the face of implacably hostile foes. Erdogan’s narrative – of achieving grand victories in the face of malign enemies – is unlikely to change. The question, then, is where will Erdogan find his victories and his enemies going forward.
Specifically, on the domestic front, Erdogan has consistently presented himself as the champion of his pious and patriotic constituency in the face of an oppressive, treasonous and culturally alien elite that is just waiting to reassert its hegemony. Needless to say, as Erdogan and his followers have become increasingly powerful, consolidating control across the state and society, this narrative risks losing its power. The attempted coup certainly helped perpetuate a sense of threat, and a handful of CHP supporters can always be counted on to play their part in sustaining it. But Erdogan still stands to gain from fanning the flames of a culture war and delivering his supporters new victories in it.
Set against Erdogan’s interest in maintaining a minimum degree of opposition buy-in is an incentive (and certainly for many a deeply felt desire) to push for dominance in realms from which Erdogan can claim his followers have been excluded, such as culture and the economy. Pushing an Islamist alternative to the Istanbul Biennial won’t create too much controversy, but more aggressive measures targeting students and teachers at Turkey’s elite schools, or appointing trustees to opposition-aligned businesses could prove explosive.
Can Turkey “Reset” Its Relations With Washington?
Since the election, some Turkish commentators have suggested that this is an opportunity for Western nations to recognize that Erdogan is here to stay and reset relations with Turkey accordingly on his terms. At the same time, Erdogan appears willing to offer some selective concessions to Washington in order to make such a reset possible. So what are the prospects?
At the very least, a reset would require Ankara to release imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson, and it would require the U.S.-Turkish Manbij roadmap to survive the summer. Ankara has so far refused to budge on Brunson, even at points when doing so could have substantially defused tensions with Washington. Similarly, while the announcement of the Manbij roadmap generated enthusiasm, there is not yet agreement on such key details as who will be appointed to the council that actually runs Manbij. And then? Were Brunson released, would anyone in Washington be concerned with the fate of the State Department’s imprisoned Foreign Service Nationals (much less thousands of other Turkish journalists, politicians and ordinary citizens who are unjustly imprisoned)? And would Manbij ultimately matter if Washington subsequently decided to withdraw its forces from Syria? If the answer to both questions proved to be no, a reset of sorts could be possible.
Going forward though, the risk lies in Erdogan concluding that he had secured through pressure concessions that were actually the result of U.S. indifference. Ankara has often assumed a baseline level of U.S. hostility which makes, for example, Washington’s support for Syrian Kurdish fighters appear intentionally anti-Turkish rather than anti-ISIS. Were Ankara to see U.S. withdrawal from Syria as a consequence of Turkish policy, rather than a natural outgrowth of Washington’s instrumental use of the YPG, this could lead it to take a more confrontational approach to upcoming issues, such as the S-400s and Iran sanctions.