Turkey is currently undergoing a period of domestic turmoil while facing various external challenges along its borders. We spoke with Kristian Brakel, office director of hbs Turkey, about the recently announced snap elections, chances for reviving the peace process with the Kurdish PKK, and U.S.-Turkish cooperation in fighting the Islamic State (IS).
Hbs North America: President Erdoğan has announced early elections to take place on November 1st after the ruling party AKP failed to form a coalition government. Some commentators have since predicted a return to prolonged political instability. To what extent do the early elections risk destabilizing Turkish politics?
Kristian Brakel: That depends very much on the outcome. There are three scenarios: In scenario A, the AKP will manage to regain its majority, maybe even the super majority needed to change the constitution. In that case, the country could continue on the same path the AKP has been leading Turkey on since 2002. However, voters who did not favor the AKP- especially those who cast their ballot for the leftist-Kurdish HDP- could easily feel betrayed. In scenario B the snap elections would result in a similar distribution of votes as in June, give or take a few percent for each party. In this case, the AKP would face pretty much the same coalition options as before. However, pressure to form a working coalition would be higher this time around. And then there is scenario C, in which the elections would be called off last minute due to the security situation.
So far it seems that scenario B is the most likely outcome. This would minimize destabilization, except if the resulting new coalition would include the nationalistic MHP, which has conditioned its participation in any governing coalition on calling off the Turkish-Kurdish peace process once and for all. Scenario A also offers chances to return to stability in the short-term. However, if the HDP is pushed out of parliament, that might signal to the Kurds that any legal path for them to address their grievances has been blocked. This, in turn, would likely trigger radicalization among the Kurds.
Hbs: Some have claimed that the Kurdish HDP is becoming the liberal beacon in Turkish politics, especially with regard to women’s and minority rights. Others assert that the party could be considered as a Turkish version of Greece’s SYRIZA or Spain’s PODEMOS. How would you most accurately describe their party DNA?
Kristian Brakel: The HDP is actually an umbrella organization under which a number of parties have assembled. The core of the HDP is the pro-Kurdish BDP, but other smaller and mostly leftist parties – including the Turkish Greens – are also part of this alliance. The HDP has also managed to recruit candidates from civil society. Prominent LGBTI and women’s rights activists, liberal academics and candidates from religious and ethnic minorities make the HDP the most diverse party in the history of the Turkish parliament. While other parties, including the conservative AKP, have included some female candidates on their tickets, the HDP’s insistence on a gender quota for their candidates makes them unique. In these ways, the HDP has offered a new political home to those who feel that neither the conservative AKP nor the Kemalist CHP are truly democratic parties. If you want to learn more about the HDP, we will be publishing a brief analysis on them and their political platform shortly.
Hbs: Many democracy supporters inside and outside of Turkey have long been concerned about Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies. His attempt to change Turkey’s constitution to a presidential system was only the latest episode in this broader trend. Has the June election served as a wake-up call for him not to overstretch his power?
Kristian Brakel: No, unfortunately not. It seem like Erdoğan’s answer to his displeasure with the June election outcome is to simply make the voters try again. Recently, Erdoğan suggested in a speech that Turks would need to come to terms with the fact that through his election as the first publicly elected president, Turkey had already turned into a de facto presidential system. According to Erdoğan, it is just the constitution that needed to be changed to reflect this reality. Like any party that has been in power for too long without proper checks and balances and a strong opposition, the AKP and the president have difficulties coming to terms with the fact that democratic politics are dependent on constant change. Turkish society has changed rapidly in the last 12 years, and its youth has grown considerably, especially among the urban middle class. For them, modernity means more than just having several luxurious shopping malls to choose from. For many in the AKP, this is hard to comprehend.
Hbs: The relationship between the Turkish government and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) has been subject to a lot of speculation over the years. The bombing in Suruç seems to have triggered a reversal in the Turkish government’s commitment to fighting the IS. How credible is this recent policy shift?
Kristian Brakel: Turkey’s position has been that while it put the IS on its terror list years ago, it wanted to avoid stirring up the hornets’ nest and inciting friction with the group. Turkey understandably thinks that the U.S. and the EU lack a proper strategy to end the civil war in Syria. For them the IS is – quite correctly – only a symptom of the Assad regime’s reign of terror. In lieu of a better solution, Turkey has used an approach of supporting whichever proxy is willing to fight against Assad. This is actually pretty similar to the strategy the U.S. deployed in Afghanistan or Latin America in the 1980s. So Turkey’s approach vis-a-vis the IS might have changed recently, but the general approach of supporting militias in Syria is still the same. The current public relations push by Turkey and the Saudis to sell the jihadist group Ahrar ash-Sham as a reliable western ally is part of the same strategy.
Hbs: The U.S. and Turkey have recently struck an agreement to increase their joint efforts in fighting ISIS. Days later, the Turkish government stepped up its bombing campaign against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in southern and eastern Turkey. To what extent are these developments related?
Kristian Brakel: Bombing the PKK after it broke the truce is meant to cater mostly to a domestic audience before the elections. It is also supposed to strengthen the government’s position in case peace negotiations will be renewed after the elections. It seems the U.S. has at least tacitly given Turkey free reign to bomb the PKK in Iraq in exchange for not attacking Kurdish forces in Syria.
Hbs: There has been a lot of confusion over the establishment of a “Safe Zone” or a “Free Zone” on Syrian territory under the U.S.-Turkish agreement. The U.S. has so far refused- at least publically- to partake in any such zone. Is the initiative dead?
Kristian Brakel: No, it is very much alive. But the Turks and the U.S. have a very different understanding of what such a zone entails. For the U.S., this is a concession given to Turkey to keep the Kurds from gaining control over a continuous territory along the border. It also aims at keeping the IS away from the border crossings. For Turkey, such a zone is what they hope will be the first step to finally getting the U.S. more engaged in the Syrian quagmire. They have been pushing this zone for years for several reasons: one objective is to stem the flow of refugees into Turkey by establishing refugee camps in the zone. Another objective is to stop the advance of the Kurds, keeping the Bab as-Salamah border crossing open for the militias they support. Lastly, Turkey knows that the next step to using U.S. air support to keep the zone free from IS is flying air raids against Bashar´s troops should they enter the zone.
Hbs: The bombing in Suruç marked the lowest point in the fragile peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK. Do you see a realistic chance of reviving the process in the near future?
Kristian Brakel: Yes. Both parties need the process. They are not necessarily interested in a settlement right now, but the conflict management approach of the last years has served them both well. So in theory, depending on the outcome of the elections, the process could be revived. The question is, if in the meantime either side takes actions that would make it impossible to return to the process later on. For example, if the government employs means designed to kick the HDP out of parliament or imprisons their top leadership. The PKK people involved in the current clashes are mostly untrained youth. The seasoned guerilla fighters, which are much better trained and armed, are either still in Syria or in Iraq. The PKK has also largely avoided targeting civilians this time. If they returned to attacking civilians, especially in western Turkey, the government would escalate.
Hbs: How much leverage do the EU, its member states and the United States have to push for the continuation of the peace process?
Kristian Brakel: The EU has squandered much of its influence by blocking Turkey’s EU membership. The U.S. remains an important player that the Turks, though grudgingly, want to have on their side. And while there is much to criticize about the Turkish government’s approach to both domestic and international issues, they have a point when it comes to Syria. If the EU and the U.S. want to regain Turkish trust, they need to come up with a Syria strategy that entails more than the “wait and see”-approach of the last four years. As for the peace process-- in the end, both the government and the PKK know that this confrontation cannot be won militarily. Exploiting it for an electoral gamble is a very risky game for the government. As for the PKK, it is really unclear what is driving their current suicidal strategy other than frustration and maybe the will to reign in the HDP. Neither approach is wise. It is high time the peace process gets an impartial third party to observe both adherence to the agreements as well as the negotiations themselves. This role could be filled by either the U.S. or a regional organization like the OSCE.
The interview was conducted on August 26, 2015, by Charlotte Beck, Program Director for Foreign & Security Policy at hbs North America.