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Turkey and a Region in Crisis
Turkey and a Region in Crisis
Speech / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey and a Region in Crisis

The journey from the best to the worst of days in recent Turkish geopolitics was partly determined by a deteriorating diplomatic context. Our Director of Communications & Outreach Hugh Pope looks back on two decades of change in a keynote speech for the Dutch Peace Research Foundation’s annual prizes for best new MA theses on peace.

The best day of news I remember as a foreign correspondent in Turkey was seventeen years ago, in December 1999.

Turkey was at the end of a miserable decade, having suffered a upsurge of its domestic insurgency, hyperinflation, human rights abuses, a restive military and weak coalition governments. The country was staring into the abyss. Then the Turkish establishment decided to pull its act together. Amid many other steps that showed officials were getting a grip, by mid-1998 they had persuaded the International Monetary Fund to give them one more chance after more than a dozen failed programs to fix government finances. And this time it worked, a light helping the country out of the tunnel.

Looking back now, the outside environment was also extraordinarily benign. The shock of the mid-1990s Balkan Wars had made European leaders realise that they would get as much from a Turkey becoming closer to Europe as Turkey would. The U.S., seeing Turkey as a resilient, indispensable ally bordering numerous trouble spots, played a strong, quiet role behind the scenes in bringing Turkey back into the international fold. The Middle East was quiet (ahead of the second Palestinian intifada in Israel in 2000 and the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S.). Similarly, to the north, Russia was busy adapting itself to the post-Soviet period and Turkey was charging into new markets there.

All this peaked on the 11 December 1999, when the French president lent his plane so that the European Union (EU) chief external representative Javier Solana and the enlargement commissioner Günther Verheugen could fly to Ankara to invite Turkey to become a candidate to join the EU. The talks were difficult. The Cyprus question was clearly still going to be very hard to solve. Turkey suspected it was being sold second-class status. Still, in the end, it accepted. Some senior members of the Turkish Cabinet, it was said, felt that this was at last Turkey’s chance to join in the prosperity and stability that Europe represented.

The result was the extraordinary scene plastered over the front pages of Turkish newspapers, Turkish politicians side by side with their European counterparts, all beaming with pleasure. It was as if Turkey had at long last got an official invitation to the grand ball in Brussels.

This triggered an extraordinary outburst of reforming energy. Turkey repealed the death penalty. Spruced-up corridors in some ministries in Ankara epitomised the new zeal for change. Within a few years, routine torture had ended. Political stability returned. As Turkey’s reality improved, and then its image, the country experienced a flood of foreign investment and growth. As much to the surprise of many in the EU as in Turkey, five years later, European leaders declared that Turkey could begin accession negotiations.

But, almost immediately, the relationship between Turkey and the EU began to run into trouble.

What Went Right?

It may be that the whole framework was hypocritical from the beginning, just another version of a cynical game in which Turkey pretended to join the EU and the EU pretended to accept it.

Turkey is always somewhat at the mercy of international trends.

But even if there was an element of truth to this, it was only part of the picture. The more important question was the direction in which Turkey was travelling, even accelerating. The mere existence of the process was good for both sides, even if the end state was not clear. Over time, it changed Turkey, and it could have changed the nature of the game. It may be true that 1999 Turkey could never have joined the EU as it was in 1999; but it was always going to take decades for Turkey to be at the same economic level as the European average to make it a plausible full member of the club. By that time both sides would likely have changed even more, and a new generation of politicians would strike the right deal according to the conditions of the day.

Another part of the picture is the fact that Turkey is always somewhat at the mercy of international trends. It is on the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, and the crosshairs of the interests of Russia and the U.S.. What went right in Turkey in the early 2000s, I would argue, is partly a by-product of the international system performing as it should.

  • The EU was ambitious, united, visibly successful, attractive and believed in itself.
  • The U.S. was acting as a multilateral security anchor behind the scenes.
  • The UN was well on its way to crafting a settlement that could reunite Cyprus, which it delivered in 2004 (when the Greek Cypriots alone rejected it).
  • Russia was by and large becoming part of the same international system.
  • The international financial system and its rules were credible, as were the belief in the rewards for joining it.
  • After the U.S. helped Turkey capture Abdullah Öcalan the chief of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the PKK declared a long-lasting ceasefire.
  • For all its faults, Turkey had a relatively open, pluralist political culture.

Losing Cruising Altitude

Fast forward to the worst day in Turkey’s recent history: 15 July 2016. On that night, a rogue army faction tried to seize power and came close to capturing President Erdoğan. He managed to rally public support to face down the coup, but 250 people were killed, parliament got bombed and the aftershocks continue to be very damaging. If you were flying a plane, it would be the moment when all the dials suddenly be give off noisy alarm signals. There’s every reason to hope that Turkey will fly on – it has a resilient, functioning state with old traditions – but there is no reason for complacency. For a moment, the government teetered on the brink of civil war. The list of problems now is sobering and long.

Turkey’s clock now seems to be set back to some time in the mid-1990s.
  • A reversal of the benign 1999 situation in all four of Turkey’s main foreign policy areas: the EU accession process on life support; the U.S. military openly cooperating with Syrian Kurds whom Turkey views as a terrorist enemy; a horrible year with Russia after Turkey ill-advisedly shot down a Russian military plane; and disorder on Turkey’s Middle Eastern borders ever since the ill-judged U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
  • Cyprus is still stuck. The Greek Cypriots revealed their hand when they alone rejected the 2004 peace plan, and little since then has made a bicommunal, bizonal federation look more likely.
  • Domestically, there are unresolved tensions in the security forces, as evidenced by the 15 July coup attempt and subsequent purges.
  • The economy is in grave difficulty as Turkey tries to go it alone, investors grow wary, the Turkish lira erodes, the government tries all kinds of unorthodox methods to keep interest rates down.
  • Power is increasingly centralised around one person. Since the 15 July coup attempt, the government has removed more than 100,000 people from their jobs, freedom of expression is under threat, and many Turkish intellectuals are moving into exile.
  • The army has pushed the PKK back against the mountains on the Turkish-Iraqi border, but at a terrible price. Fighting has killed more than 2,300 people in the past seventeen months. Many leading Kurdish nationalist politicians have been thrown in jail or have chosen exile. Whole districts of cities in the south east of the country lie in ruins and a new generation of urban Kurds is being radicalised in new ways.
  • Turkey was already becoming isolated. Elected by 151 votes to the Western Europe non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2008, a massive success, its campaign to repeat that in 2014 completely failed. It lost to Austria and New Zealand, which had barely even campaigned.
  • Turkey’s leaders are calling for the reimposition of the death penalty and there are increasing reports of torture becoming official practice once again.
  • The European Parliament is calling for a suspension of the EU accession process.
  • War is spilling over from Syria in multiple ways: three million refugees; IS suicide bombings; and the aggravation of domestic ethnic and sectarian tensions.

Turkey’s clock now seems to be set back to some time in the mid-1990s. What makes it worse is that under the pressure of immediate crises, policymakers are overstretched by the immediate symptoms of this wave of instability, including mass displacement and the spread of transnational terrorism. They find it hard to focus on long-term solutions like development and conflict prevention.

Were each of these setbacks inevitable? Is Turkey just stuck on the crossroads of geography and history, doomed to take collateral damage when next-door countries stumble into wars? Or could more far-sighted policies toward and by Turkey have solved at least some of these problems?

Preventive diplomacy is not necessarily dead. There will always be chances to nudge the needle back to more collaborative methods. We have seen intense international engagement deliver the Iranian nuclear deal; progress toward peace in Colombia; and the high-level push to avoid election-related chaos in Nigeria in 2015.

There is no one miracle cure. But if politicians, diplomats and international officials invest in key dimensions of early warning and early action – analysing conflict dynamics closely, building sensitive political relationships in troubled countries and undertaking complex ‘framework diplomacy’ with other powers to create political space for crisis management – they still have a chance to avert or mitigate looming conflicts and ease existing wars.

At Crisis Group, we see five broad rules for governments to keep in mind, which are as applicable to Turkey and its partners as to any other set of relationships.

1 – Know what is happening on the ground

There are obvious red flags of trouble ahead, but it is useful to lay some of them out:

  • Insurgencies;
  • Leaders losing legitimacy or desperate to hold on to power;
  • Restless police and military forces;
  • Regional or ethnic divisions;
  • Economic strains in the broader public;
  • Neighbouring countries that inflame situations by intervening, sometimes posing as peacekeepers.

For outsiders looking at Turkey, all these red flags are currently up. It’s definitely not a time to assume that all may go well. It is a signal for Turkey’s friends that action must be taken to help – and guard against those who would use these weaknesses to trip up Ankara.

Turkey is in no doubt in the grave situation it is in, but a lack of critical reporting in the country means that often politicians take refuge in blaming outsiders for the country’s woes. Clean, comprehensive sources of information are essential building blocks of policy. The EU Progress Report may be dull to outsiders, but its publication is a real event in Turkey, precisely because its impartial point of view is valuable. The same goes for other factual investigations, like the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Reports, Human Rights Watch’s reports and those of Amnesty International. At Crisis Group, we see it as a critical part of our mandate to issue factual reports based on our longstanding engagement with all sides to Turkey’s conflicts, and translate them into Turkish so everyone has the same reliable data on which to base their judgments.

2 – Maintain relationships with all parties

Engagement is very important. We saw this clearly in Nigeria in 2015, when it seemed that Goodluck Jonathan would cling on to power whatever the outcome of the presidential election that year. A new election-time bloodbath seemed to be looming. We were part of a campaign that in the end included advocacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and many others who intervened to persuade whoever lost the election to accept the result. It worked.

In Syria, there were many reasons why the world turned sour on Assad. But a lack of contact underestimated his readiness to stick it out, as well as the depth of Syria’s support from Iran and Russia.

In Turkey’s case, failures to manage relationships with all parties have been particularly damaging in the Middle East and Europe.

For outsiders looking at Turkey, engagement is especially important. The U.S., for instance, has usually one very narrow interest at a time and tends to treat Turkey as a one-stop shop. It is also vulnerable due to critical Turkish perceptions of its Middle East policies. However, it has shown some inspiration, for instance when President Obama called Erdoğan to offer condolences when his mother died. The EU in general has failed to see that its broad array of often lesser interests are in themselves an important reason to be engaged not just with Turkish leaders but a broad range of Turkish actors. They have also not appreciated just how much a disunited approach weakens Europe’s cause in Turkey, and a united, consistent and fair EU policy gets Turkey’s attention and respect. This lack of engagement is one reason why the EU was so wrong-footed when it suddenly had a major interest in refugees transiting Turkey.

In Turkey’s case, failures to manage relationships with all parties have been particularly damaging in the Middle East and Europe. Turkish leaders, like politicians everywhere, have tended to make all external engagements a subset of domestic politics. This has been damaging to relations with the EU, and a lack of balance in its relationships with leaders in Syria and Egypt has had enormous costs. For instance, a real effort by Turkey to reach out to Greek Cypriots could have made all the difference in persuading them to agree to the 2004 deal on reunifying Cyprus.

3 – Build frameworks to channel international diplomacy

With the decline of Western influence, power increasingly lies with multiple countries. But a lot of mechanisms, like the UN Security Council, have lost credibility in recent years. Superpowers are no longer so powerful, and mid-ranking states are now strong enough to step into their place. It is increasingly important to bring major players together through international institutions and frameworks as early as possible in a crisis situation to look for diplomatic ways out.

An obvious recent success for ‘framework diplomacy’ is the nuclear deal with Iran, which brought together Iran with the U.S. and five other major powers to negotiate a solution to the standoff. The group included Russia and China, which worked on the agreement with the U.S. despite other ongoing differences on Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea.

Syria, on the other hand, had been a failure of framework diplomacy. For the early years of the war, the U.S. and Europeans tried to sort out the conflict through the UN Security Council. But they excluded Iran from negotiations until last year and Russia deliberately dragged out the diplomatic process to help Assad. This is now changing, but too late to save many lives lost in this collapse into chaos.

For the outside world, better multilateralism is a good way to work with Turkey. Turkey is never happier than when it has a walk-on role as a middle-size power – being the venue for some of the Iran nuclear talks, hosting the G20, ticking the boxes as part of an EU process while it worked. It is at these times that the country feels it has something to win from cooperation, and that its partners’ messages will be listened to. Naturally, Turkey feels more engaged in forums in which it is treated as an equal partner – NATO, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and so on. Turkey may not be able to win any single battle for its Western partners, but having Turkey on the Western side is a force multiplier that helps in innumerable small ways, often unseen.

The 2014 failure to get elected to a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council should have been a wake-up call for Turkey. It should recognise that reinforcing its links to multilateral institutions has demonstrably done much good in the past. Working alone will always leave it vulnerable to much stronger states.

4 – Strategic planning and communication

This is the area where most preventive diplomacy is going wrong. There is less and less time for strategic planning, and politicians and diplomats react on the fly. Militaries are at their best when they do NOT have to be used. But to pull off that trick, their deterrent value must be credible and correctly communicated.

Leaders and diplomats need to think through the potential ramifications of their statements, and gauge possible reactions by all parties. They should be mindful of the signals they are sending, and take care not to box themselves in down the track.

A message sent on the spur of the moment – like President Obama's demand that Assad should go in 2011 – can make peacemaking much harder later on.

A better example would be when the Netherlands, Germany and the U.S. all backed up NATO-member Turkey’s worries about Syria with Patriot batteries on the border. Unfortunately, other aspects of the relationship were under pressure at the same time, and local frictions marred their deployment. Moreover, Turkey and the West completely underestimated the forces at work in Syria. But it did buy time and underlined to Turkish public opinion that the NATO relationship was meaningful.

In an example of real miscommunication, both the EU and U.S. completely underestimated how they should have reacted to the coup attempt – by giving immediate support to the democratically elected Erdogan, whatever they thought of him.

5 – Creating pathways to peace

Some conflicts are international, some are domestic, and many overlap. In a lot of cases, the essential pathway to peace is to carve out some sort of power-sharing agreement between leaders. A failure to do so is what can fuel the tensions that lead to war.

Good examples are from Kenya in 2008, when Kofi Annan mediated a power-sharing deal after contested elections, and Afghanistan in 2014, when the U.S. got Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to work together.

Our Middle Eastern colleagues often say that in their contacts, officials are only looking for information that will help them win the battle of the day, not long-term peace. This is because political economies, and the elites that dominate them, can become shaped by conflict and even dependent on them.

Agreements on resource sharing – not just power sharing – are also important steps to resolving international flashpoints. We see deals on Libya’s energy wealth as vital to ensuring long-term peace there. Likewise, in the South China Sea, ASEAN and China need to come up with a common plan for sharing fishing and other resources too.

In Turkey, it is clear that Turkey’s decision to start building the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates river in 1984 was one reason that pushed Syria to help start the PKK’s insurgency that same year.

Agreements on resource sharing – not just power sharing – are also important steps to resolving international flashpoints.

Governments may not be ready to embark on pathways to peace for political reasons, yet their officials begin to realise that a change will have to be made. This is where Crisis Group’s reporting on Turkey has sought to create those pathways in advance, ready for the moment when the politicians and other conflict actors might be ready to take them.

For instance, we have put great emphasis on breaking down the resolution of the Kurdish rights problem in Turkey’s Kurdish-speaking south east and the PKK insurgency into stages: first, separating the question of Kurdish rights (which should be granted as a matter of course) from the insurgency (which any government would fight); second, how to reasonably define those rights through a legitimate political process under the roof of parliament in Ankara; and third, eventually, what a disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration process might look like, including the question of transitional justice. Our contacts with both sides say they know there is no military victory, so we know that, bleak as the current all-out conflict now is, there must be a return to talks one day.

Another example is the Cyprus problem. After five major rounds of peace talks, we came to the conclusion that the UN parameters of a bizonal, bicommunal federation were out of date and unlikely to be the basis of a sustainable peace deal. So we fleshed out what a partition plan might look like. A sixth round is now in progress – which some see as very hopeful – but if it doesn’t work, an alternative pathway to peace is there for the taking.

People attend a campaign meeting of Presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Muharrem Ince (unseen) in Diyarbakir, on June 11, 2018. ILYAS AKENGIN / AFP

Turkey’s Election Reinvigorates Debate over Kurdish Demands

Ahead of Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 June, opinion polls suggest a tighter race than many anticipated. The country’s Kurds could be kingmakers, prompting politicians of different stripes to court their votes and opening much-needed debate about longstanding Kurdish demands.

What’s new? Snap presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey appear likely to be more closely fought than anticipated. The country’s Kurds could affect the outcome of both contests. Politicians, especially those opposing President Erdoğan and his Justice and Development (AK) Party, have pledged to address some Kurdish demands in a bid to win their support.

Why does it matter? Debate on Kurdish issues has been taboo since mid-2015, when a ceasefire collapsed between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group designated by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union as terrorist. That the election campaign has opened space for such debate is a welcome development.

What should be done? The candidate that wins the presidency and whichever party or bloc prevails in parliamentary elections should build on the reinvigorated discussion of Kurdish issues during the campaign and seek ways to address some longstanding Kurdish demands – or at least ensure debate on those issues continues.

I. Overview

On 24 June, some 50 million Turkish citizens will head to early presidential and parliamentary elections. The contests were originally scheduled for November 2019. But in a surprise move on 18 April, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called snap polls, leaving prospective candidates just over two months to mount their campaigns. At the time, early balloting appeared to favour the president and the ruling party: it would catch the opposition off guard and allow incumbents to ride the wave of nationalism that followed Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish militants in Syria’s Afrin province.

But eleven days before the vote, opinion polls suggest both presidential and parliamentary elections could be more closely contested than initially anticipated, with Erdoğan’s contenders scoring better than expected. Turkey’s Kurds – some 18-20 per cent of the electorate – could play the role of kingmakers in the presidential contest and their votes could prove decisive, too, in parliamentary elections. As a result, opposition politicians are showing an unusual sensitivity to longstanding Kurdish demands, in some cases pledging to support Kurdish-language education (though without specifying whether this would entail general instruction in Kurdish, as many Kurds have long sought, or simply Kurdish as an elective language course) and the devolution of governing powers to local authorities, which in Kurdish-majority areas tend to be dominated by the largest pro-Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and a local affiliate.

It remains unclear whether opposition leaders would deliver on these promises were they elected. But the campaign has created a welcome space for debate of Kurdish demands, a discussion that has been largely taboo since the 2015 collapse of a ceasefire between Ankara and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group which Turkey and Western powers designate as terrorist. No matter who wins the forthcoming elections, Turkey’s president and whichever party or bloc holds the majority in parliament should capitalise on this momentum and seek constructive ways to address the Kurds’ longstanding demands.

II. The Kurdish Political Scene

Around half of Turkey’s Kurds live in the south east and the other half in central and western cities. Traditionally, the Kurdish vote splits roughly in two between conservative and left-leaning voters.

Since 2002, when the Justice and Development, or AK Party, first came to power, it has built a strong support base among Kurds in rural areas, many of them conservatives belonging to large clans and Sunni Islamic orders, or family members of the “village guards”, Kurdish paramilitary forces armed and paid by the Turkish state. This constituency has tended to side with Ankara against the PKK – and has done so since the ceasefire broke down in July 2015 (according to Crisis Group’s regularly updated infographic, this latest phase of the conflict has killed at least 3,600).[fn]See Crisis Group infographic on fatalities of Turkey’s PKK conflict, http://www.crisisgroup.org/interactives/turkey.Hide Footnote

Left-leaning Kurds, meanwhile, have historically gravitated either toward explicitly pro-Kurdish parties, several of which have been shut down by the state since the 1990s, or toward nominally independent candidates running on pro-Kurdish platforms. Pro-Kurdish parties and candidates traditionally build their campaigns around long-running Kurdish demands for decentralisation, mother-tongue education, electoral reform to enable representation of pro-Kurdish parties in parliament, and the removal of ethnic references from the constitution.[fn]The Turksih constitution stipulates that “everyone bound to the Turkish State through the bond of citizenship is a Turk”.Hide Footnote Longstanding Kurdish grievances, particularly related to the Turkish army’s heavy-handed security measures in the south east in the 1990s, have consolidated this segment of Kurdish society as a political bloc.

The HDP is the latest in a succession of pro-Kurdish political parties established in the preceding 30 years. In the last national elections, in 2015, the party received 13 and 10.7 per cent of votes (a first vote in June 2015 produced a hung parliament, with the AK Party losing its majority and unable to form a government according to the parliamentary system in place at the time, leading to a repeat election in November 2015). This support mostly came from urban Kurdish constituencies, though some rural Kurds (from the roughly third that traditionally does not back the AK Party) and some liberal and left-wing Turks also voted HDP. Party functionaries assert that the party is operationally distinct from the PKK, but admit the two organisations’ social bases largely overlap. Government and state officials, on the other hand, allege that the PKK controls the HDP.[fn]For more details, see Crisis Group Europe Report N°243, Managing Turkey’s PKK Conflict: The Case of Nusaybin, 2 May 2017, pp. 10-11.Hide Footnote

As hostilities with the PKK resumed in mid-2015, the government used the broad definition of terrorism in Turkish law to prosecute HDP MPs and supporters for “being members of or aiding the PKK”.[fn]“World Report 2018: Turkey”, Human Rights Watch, January 2018 at https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/turkey.Hide Footnote  The crackdown on the party intensified following the 15 July 2016 coup attempt: since then, police have arrested or detained at least once 25 of the 59 HDP MPs elected in 2015, and parliament has stripped eleven of the party’s MPs of their status as legislators. Nine HDP MPs remain in jail, including the party’s former co-chair and 2018 presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş.

The government used the broad definition of terrorism in Turkish law to prosecute HDP MPs and supporters for “being members of or aiding the PKK”.

The crackdown over the past few years has crippled the party, particularly since restrictive measures have extended to local HDP branch offices, municipal authorities run by its local-level affiliate, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), and media outlets as well as NGOs that sympathise with them.[fn]“Turkey: Crackdown on Kurdish Opposition”, Human Rights Watch, March 2017 at https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/20/turkey-crackdown-kurdish-opposition.Hide Footnote  During the current campaign, Turkish authorities have arrested some of the HDP’s election workers or subjected them to security checks. Moreover, the party has suffered physical attacks by unknown assailants on some of its campaign offices; the attacks are likely due, at least in part, to mounting nationalist sentiment in Turkish politics.

Besides the HDP, other Kurdish parties have small – mostly conservative – bases. The Sunni Islamist Hüda Par (Free Cause Party) is allegedly tied to Kurdish Hizbollah, a militant group speculated to have been backed by the state to fight against PKK in the 1990s.[fn]The party denies ties to Kurdish Hizbollah. Mehmet Kurt et al., Kurdish Hizbullah in Turkey: Islamism, Violence and the State (London, 2017).Hide Footnote The party enjoys most influence among rural residents in the south east, though its electoral strength is limited (it usually wins between 3-5 per cent of votes in Batman, Diyarbakır and Bingöl provinces, but only around 0.1-0.3 per cent in nationwide polls). Other even smaller Kurdish parties are active in Turkey’s south east. Most are sympathetic to the former head of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani, and his family.  

The voter bases of Hüda Par and these other smaller parties are relatively insignificant, and none will field a presidential candidate. But their local representatives in mostly rural areas of the south east can help influence the preferences of wider circles of voters. Despite announcing that it does not approve of all his policies, Hüda Par has declared its support for Erdoğan in presidential polls.

III. New System, New Calculations

With its overhaul of Turkey’s election law in March, the AK Party, in conjunction with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), laid the groundwork for snap elections. The amended law does not lift the 10 per cent electoral threshold (the minimum number of votes parties need to qualify for parliamentary seats), which has been a feature of Turkish politics since 1982.[fn]For detailed discussion on the lowering of the electoral threshold see Crisis Group Europe Report N°219, The PKK and a Kurdish Settlement, 11 September 2012, p.30.Hide Footnote  But it allows the formation of pre-election alliances, enabling small parties to enter parliament as part of a grouping, with the threshold now applied to the vote totals of the alliances as a whole, rather than the individual parties within them.

The AK Party-MHP manoeuvre galvanised opposition parties to forge their own alliances, leading to the emergence of two grand electoral coalitions. One, the People’s Alliance, consists of the ruling AK Party, the MHP and the Great Unity Party (or BBP, an MHP splinter with heavier Islamist leanings). The second, the Nation Alliance, comprises the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), the centre-right MHP offshoot İyi (Good) Party, the Islamist Felicity Party and the centre-right Democrat Party. The coalitions, particularly the opposition Nation Alliance, represent cooperation among parties – notably between secular and Islamist parties – that over the past decade have rarely collaborated. But neither it nor the People’s Alliance contains a Kurdish party. The HDP and Hüda Par will contest parliamentary elections alone, as will the small Turkish left-wing Patriotic (Vatan) Party.

The AK Party-MHP manoeuvre galvanised opposition parties to forge their own alliances, leading to the emergence of two grand electoral coalitions.

Pollsters currently predict that no party or coalition will win enough votes to secure a majority in parliament – more than half of its 600 seats, in other words. The People’s Alliance is projected to receive around 46 per cent of the vote and the Nation Alliance about 40 per cent, while the HDP’s support currently stands right around the 10 per cent threshold.[fn]Based on Crisis Group average calculations using polling data from five reliable polls conducted between 25 May-6 June 2018 by pollsters with diverse political leanings.Hide Footnote According to Turkey’s new presidential system, the newly elected president will form the government. But a hung parliament could complicate lawmaking, so in the event no party is able to form a majority, the president might feel compelled to call for repeat elections. 

The presidential contest is also projected to be tight. Six candidates will square off in the first round: the incumbent Erdoğan, Muharrem İnce for the CHP, Meral Akşener for İyi, Temel Karamollaoğlu for Felicity (the CHP, İyi and Felicity will each field their own presidential candidate despite running in parliamentary elections together as part of the Nation Alliance), the imprisoned Demirtaş for the HDP and Doğu Perinçek for the Patriotic Party. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the votes in the first round, the top two candidates will enter a run-off on 8 July.

The opposition complains that the playing field is skewed. With most media outlets under ruling-party control, opposition candidates and parties scarcely receive coverage, while the HDP and Demirtaş face a total blackout in mainstream media. According to Transparency International, in the period 4-31 May, Turkey’s state-run TV channel TRT allotted 105 minutes of livestream or news coverage to Erdoğan, 37 minutes to İnce, fourteen to Akşener, five to Karamollaoğlu, two to Perinçek and a mere 18 seconds to Demirtaş.

Despite this advantage for Erdoğan, and initial expectations that he would easily prevail in the presidential contest, opposition parties and candidates appear energised. The latest polls predict that, in the first round, Erdoğan will fall just short of 50 per cent of the vote, depending to some degree on the extent to which he can retain conservative Kurds’ support. His most likely run-off opponent is İnce, projected to receive around 25-27 per cent in the first round.[fn]Based on Crisis Group average calculations using polling data from five reliable polls conducted between 25 May and 6 June 2018 by pollsters with diverse political leaning.Hide Footnote Akşener currently polls at about 12-14 per cent, Demirtaş at around 8-10 per cent and Karamollaoğlu at some 2 per cent.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

IV. The Kingmaker Kurds?

The depth of Kurdish support for Erdoğan and his AK Party is a matter of considerable debate. His backing among many Kurds in rural areas likely remains solid. But a stratum of urban conservative Kurds who have long supported the AK Party today is turned off by its nationalist bent and alliance with the far right.

“The AK Party has become more and more like the [far-right] MHP over the last few years. You cannot distinguish them anymore. They will probably lose support here”, a middle-aged Kurdish man in Şanlıurfa, a south-eastern city of Turkey, told Crisis Group in late May 2018.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Şanlıurfa, May 2018.Hide Footnote  Another source of disillusionment may be Ankara’s strident opposition to the September 2017 independence referendum held in the KRG-controlled areas of Iraq, given many of Turkey’s conservative Kurds’ sympathies for the Barzani clan.

In the first round of the presidential vote, HDP supporters will vote for the HDP’s candidate, Demirtaş. But the votes of a segment of conservative Kurds that previously supported Erdoğan and his party could prove decisive in the first-round contest. The 1-2 per cent drop in their support that is currently projected could leave Erdoğan below the 50 per cent mark and force a run-off.

Projecting the results of a second round – if one takes place – is more complicated. Erdoğan is currently expected to win a run-off no matter which of the other candidates he faces. But results could depend on developments after the first round, how alliances reconfigure and the preferences of Kurdish constituencies. For example, if İnce qualifies for the run-off, pledges cabinet positions to Akşener and her team, and perhaps even to Karamollaoğlu, and is thus able to pick up many of those voters that supported Akşener and Karamollaoğlu in the first round, Kurdish votes – particularly those of HDP supporters but also conservative votes – could then tip the balance. President Erdoğan remains the clear favourite but a united opposition vote against him would make for a tighter contest, with Kurdish votes potentially decisive.

HDP voters could end up decisive in parliamentary elections, too – though in a different way. In many south-eastern locations the HDP enjoys widespread support, but even if it wins there, it will get no seats if it does not pass the 10 per cent threshold nationwide. If it fails to do so, the AK Party would benefit.

Knowing that even small vote swings could decide both presidential and parliamentary polls, Erdoğan and his rivals [...] are all making overtures to the Kurds.

The Turkish parliament is elected from 87 electoral districts, with seats allocated according to each party’s share of the vote in that district (provided the party passes the 10 per cent threshold nationwide). If the HDP does not reach the 10 per cent threshold and thus does not qualify for seats, the AK Party, which ranks second in most of HDP’s south-eastern strongholds, would pick up many – perhaps as many as an additional 65 – of the seats that would have gone to the HDP. If the HDP fails to meet the threshold, in other words, the AK Party would likely secure a parliamentary majority on its own.

Knowing that even small vote swings could decide both presidential and parliamentary polls, Erdoğan and his rivals İnce, Akşener and Karamollaoğlu – and their respective parties – are all making overtures to the Kurds. It is a tricky game: reaching out to the Kurds risks provoking a nationalist backlash.

In 4 June speeches in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakır, Erdoğan tried to thread the needle. He made broad calls for social cohesion and coexistence without addressing specific Kurdish demands. He also said the Kurdish problem no longer exists and that the problem is one of terror – insinuating that fault lies with the PKK, not the Kurds as a whole or their relations with the Turkish state. He added that since Afrin – a town in north-west Syria held until recently by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate – has been captured by the Turkish military and come under Turkish control, “Qandil’s turn” is coming (implying that the Turkish military could conduct a similar offensive against the PKK’s headquarters in the mountains of northern Iraq).[fn]“Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan: Şimdi sıra Kandil'de sıra Sincar'da” [“President Erdoğan: Now it is Qandil’s, it is Sinjar’s turn”], CNN Türk, 5 June 2018.Hide Footnote  Erdoğan may further consolidate his nationalist backing if the ongoing operation against PKK positions in northern Iraq achieves substantial Turkish military gains before elections.

İnce and his CHP party have made more concrete promises to the Kurds. He has called for the release of Demirtaş, even visiting him in prison. He pledges to teach children their mother tongue in schools and to empower elected local administrations, which in Kurdish areas tend to be HDP-dominated. The CHP’s platform offers to set up a legal and institutional framework that would increase the availability of mother-tongue elective courses – in Kurdish, Arabic or other languages. It also promises to fully implement the Council of Europe’s European Charter of Local Self-Government to devolve administrative powers to elected local officials, a long-time HDP demand.[fn]“Muharrem İnce'den Diyarbakır'da Kürt sorunu mesajı” [“Muharrem İnce’s Kurdish issue pledge in Diyarbakır”], Habertürk, 11 June 2018. For CHP’s 2018 election declaration see http://secim2018.chp.org.tr/files/CHP-SecimBildirgesi-2018-icerik.pdf?v=3Hide Footnote Pro-government media paints such promises as support for the PKK.[fn]“ABD ve PKK'nın talepleri CHP beyannamesinde” [“USA’s and the PKK’s demands are in CHP’s election declaration”], Akşam, 31 May 2018.Hide Footnote

Similarly, Akşener of İyi has called for Demirtaş’s release and said those who wished to should be able study their mother tongue in school – a surprising move for the veteran right-wing nationalist. In December 2017, she had visited Diyarbakır – claiming she had ancestral ties to the area – and was photographed kissing Kurdish children dressed in traditional clothing.[fn]“Meral Akşener'den Selahattin Demirtaş çıkışı” [“Meral Akşener speaks out on Selahattin Demirtaş”], Habertürk, 16 May 2018. “Meral Akşener, Diyarbakır'da böyle karşılandı” [“This is how Meral Akşener was received in Diyarbakır”], Hürriyet, 8 December 2017.Hide Footnote

For his part, Karamollaoğlu even before the campaign had suggested a peace conference in Diyarbakır to “resolve the Kurdish issue”.[fn]“Saadet Partisi’nden çağrı: Diyarbakır’da barış için toplanalım” [“Call from the Felicity Party: Let’s meet in Diyarbakır for peace”], Cumhuriyet, 1 April 2018.Hide Footnote  Announcing his party Felicity’s report on the resolution of the Kurdish question on 6 June in Diyarbakır, Karamollaoğlu said his party, if elected, would resolve the Kurdish issue in its entirety, through “social, cultural, political, psychological and economic reforms rather than only a security-based struggle”. He, too, has made references to his support of mother-tongue education without specifying whether he intended to extend Kurdish beyond elective courses to include full instruction in Kurdish.[fn]“Saadet Partisi’nden Kürt Sorununa Üç Çözüm Önerisi” [“Three solution proposals to the Kurdish problem by the Felicity Party”], VOA, 6 June 2018.Hide Footnote

Kurdish women sitting amid HDP and Felicity Party banners in majority-Kurdish neighbourhood of Şanlıurfa, south east Turkey. CRISISGROUP/Yılmaz Akıncı

While Karamollaoğlu’s vote in the presidential race is inconsequential, Felicity is the most likely destination in parliamentary contests for conservative Kurds who resent Erdoğan’s policies but are unlikely to vote HDP. In the 1990s – before the AK Party emerged – Islamist-leaning Kurds backed parties that were ideologically akin to Felicity. One of Felicity’s candidates in Istanbul is Altan Tan, a former HDP legislator with a good reputation among conservative Kurdish urbanites. The party is expected to garner only around 3 per cent of the national vote, but because it belongs to the Nation Alliance, it will not have to pass the threshold by itself, and prospective supporters need not fear their vote will go to waste. Neither the AK Party nor the HDP has fielded candidates with much allure for conservative Kurds, opening a vacuum for Felicity to fill.  

V. Elections amid “Security” Concerns

Turkish elections tend to be free and well organised, notwithstanding the uneven playing field. But opposition and international observers are more concerned ahead of these polls than in the past, given speculation about irregularities in the last vote – an April 2017 referendum that strengthened the powers of the presidency. They fear that a likely tight race means even small infractions could swing outcomes in both presidential and parliamentary polls.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition representatives in Istanbul and Şanlıurfa, May-June 2018.Hide Footnote The chief worry relates to a 28 May decision taken by Turkey’s Supreme Election Council to relocate or merge polling stations in nineteen eastern and south-eastern provinces, on the grounds of stopping PKK voter intimidation.

The election council has not yet announced which stations it will move. But the HDP blasts the decision as an effort to discourage its supporters from voting, by moving polling places from HDP to AK Party strongholds. It claims the decision affects more than quarter of a million voters. The election council argues that in fact only about half that number are affected, and that no station will be moved farther than 5km.

In the south east, bitter disputes – in some cases, blood feuds – pit different Kurdish villages and urban neighbourhoods against one another. A member of a prominent Kurdish clan in Şanlıurfa told Crisis Group: “What people are saying is that they will not leave their years-long rivalry aside just to cast their vote in the rival village. The elders or clan leaders will likely not want their clan members to travel there”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote

As yet, the election council has not announced whether it will provide transportation, so local HDP offices have begun their own preparations. Up to 500,000 seasonal workers (most of whom are Kurds) will be away at work in the fields of southern and western Anatolia. The HDP also plans to set up transport for them.

Other concerns about the vote relate to changes made to the election law in March 2018. The first of these is that electoral authorities will be legally permitted to accept unstamped ballot sheets as valid which, the opposition worries, could allow for ballot stuffing. Civil servants (rather than randomly selected party members) will be appointed to head the committees that supervise balloting, prompting opposition fears that those civil servants will be less rigorous in detecting and reporting potential irregularities. Governors, who are AK Party appointees, rather than district election councils, will be allowed to request the relocation of ballot boxes for “security reasons”. Opposition parties see all these changes as potentially favouring the ruling party.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition representatives in Istanbul and Şanlıurfa, May-June 2018.Hide Footnote At the end of May, opposition and civil society representatives came together on what they call the Fair Elections Platform, saying they would triple the number of observers monitoring relocated or merged polling stations.

VI. Conclusion

Irrespective of these anxieties, aspects of Turkey’s campaign season thus far are positive. It has created entente among opposition factions that traditionally are adversaries, bridging – at least for now – some gaps in an otherwise polarised society, in particular between a segment of Islamists and secularists. Critically, the campaign also has opened space for much-needed debate on the Kurdish question, which largely has been taboo since the 2015 breakdown of the ceasefire with the PKK, and particularly after Ankara’s operation in Afrin. The CHP’s overtures to the Kurds, as well as those of nationalists like Meral Akşener, show that Turkish politicians can surmount their traditional disregard for Kurdish grievances, if only for electoral dividends. No matter who wins, Turkey’s president and parliament should build on the reinvigorated debate of Kurdish issues and seek ways to address at least some of the Kurds’ longstanding demands.

Istanbul/Brussels, 13 June 2018