A political upheaval is seemingly underway in Turkey, as the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan experienced a significant setback in the country’s June 7 parliamentary election. What does that mean for the country’s future as well as its relationship with the West and Israel?
Although the long-dominant Islamist party of Erdogan again received the most votes in the election, the number of seats it won is not enough for a full parliamentary majority. Besides thwarting Erdogan’s ambition of amending the Turkish constitution to give the presidency more executive power, the election results could force Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to form a governing coalition with other parties in Turkey’s parliament.
AKP also faces the possibility of being completely ousted from a coalition by the other parties.
The setback to Erdogan’s regime comes against the backdrop of the Turkish leader’s ongoing anti-Israel foreign policy stances and anti-Semitic rhetoric.
“Particularly since the Gezi Park protests in 2013 [against Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule], Erdogan and other leaders of the AKP have spent a lot of time railing against various foreign interests that they claim do not have Turkey’s best interest at heart,” Michael Koplow, program director of the Israel Institute think tank, told JNS.org.
For example, during the recent election campaign, Erdogan lashed out at the foreign media for criticizing him – and floated an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory in the process. At a rally, he said that “Jewish capital” funds The New York Times and that the newspaper has consistently criticized Turkey’s leaders, dating back to the days of the Ottoman Empire.
While the recent elections results were a setback for Erdogan’s ambitions to seize more power, they are unlikely to change Erdogan’s behavior, according to Koplow.
“His behavior has become more divisive and erratic over the last few years,” Koplow said. “It really started when the AKP hit its peak of power in 2011 and then when the AKP started to get criticism for the first time in 2013. I don’t think we can expect his behavior to change for the better. The Erdogan we see now is here to stay.”
Efraim Inbar, professor of political studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), is not optimistic about AKP’s imminent political downfall and does not expect a change in Turkey’s attitude toward Western nations and Israel.
“The struggle over the soul and identity of Turkey continues,” Inbar told JNS, explaining that while “the election is definitely a blow to the AKP, [the party] still remains the major political force in Turkey.”
Yet Dr. Harold Rhode, a distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute think tank and the former Turkish Desk officer at the Defense Department, is encouraged by the possibility that Turkey’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), which won 132 seats, as well as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which gained about 80 seats apiece, may be considering forming a governing coalition that leaves out AKP.
Other analysts, however, consider AKP’s absence from a coalition to be an unlikely scenario.
The Syrian civil war was also a major factor in determining the outcome of the election, said the Israel Institute’s Koplow, who noted that “the AKP’s Syria policy is deeply unpopular throughout Turkey, but especially with Kurds in southeastern Turkey.”
Indeed, many Kurds were upset with the Turkish government’s response to the Islamic State terror group’s siege on the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobani earlier this year.
Kobani, which lies in Syria and on the border with Turkey, was the center of heavy fighting between Kurdish People’s Protection Units (who were supported by U.S. air strikes) and Islamic State. While hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees and other refugees crossed into Turkey, the Turkish government provided little military support for Kurdish forces in their eventual victory over Islamic State, drawing strong condemnation and protests from the Kurds in Turkey.