turkish elections
Voting in the Turkish elections. (Credit: Homeros/Bigstock.com) (via: bit.ly)

On 24 June 2018, snap presidential and parliamentary elections were held in Turkey. Only one round of voting was needed: the incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was reelected with 52.5%, while his main rival, Muharrem Inсe from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), gained slightly more than 30%. The pro-Kurdish candidate from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas ran in the elections from prison, winning 8.4% of the vote[1]. This percentage of the vote can be considered a stable indicator: in the presidential elections of 2014 he also scored a little less than 10%. In a way, the stability of these electoral results can be seen as indicative of how the Kurdish issue in Turkey has remained stagnant and unresolved over the years.

In the parliamentary elections, the victory went to the People’s Alliance Coalition, consisting of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP, 42.5%) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP, 11%). The rival coalition, the Nation Alliance, gained 32% (CHP, 22.5%; Good Party, 10%). The pro-Kurdish HDP overcame the 10% needed to enter parliament too, with 11.7%.

These results are not unexpected and it’s clear that for at least five more years the development of Turkey will be determined by the same political forces that have dominated the country for nearly two decades. Accordingly, there is every reason to believe that both Ankara’s domestic and foreign policies will continue on their present course.

At the same time, it is expected that the state of emergency introduced after the July 2016 coup attempt should be abolished in the near future. As for the Kurdish population, it is likely that in the short term this move would bring some relief to their everyday lives. For example, the frequent practice of curfews could go away. It is of course a big question if there will be any tangible change in the central government’s policies that affect the Kurds.

On the one hand, according to the results of the elections, Erdogan received a solid mandate to carry out the policies he considers necessary. The new constitution, expanding the powers of the president, gives him additional opportunities for this. And in the past, there were signs indicating the possibility of initiating a policy more conciliatory towards the Kurds.

On the other hand, there are circumstances making the prospects of the Kurdish community not so promising. First, as already mentioned, the constitution has been amended so that the Turkish government is now presidential, rather than parliamentary as in the past. For the Kurds (and opposition in general) this is not seen as positive, since with a stronger parliament, the opposition had more opportunities (at least theoretically) to influence the political process in the country. Now the president of the republic is more powerful, troubling when one considers Erdogan’s unpredictability. Secondly, the AKP union with the Nationalist Movement Party that provides Erdogan with the majority in the Grand National Assembly does not bode well for the Kurds. As a right-wing party, both in domestic and international policymaking, the MHP is very likely to act as a roadblock to any attempt at building more trust with the Kurdish population.

As for the People’s Democratic Party, which managed to overcome the 10% barrier and enter parliament, Turkish state media claim that this time in the southeastern regions, where the Kurdish political forces traditionally dominate, the HDP actually lost part of the vote to the AKP.

However, according to other estimates, the HDP’s results should be considered a success, taking into account the tense political climate before the elections and the visible AKP domination in the media. During the election campaign, there were also accusations of the HDP consorting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered a terrorist organisation by the state and has been accused of killing civilians in Turkey’s southeastern region. And unless the tendency to associate any Kurdish political activism or activity with the PKK’s terrorist activities subsides, there is little hope for progress in resolving the Kurdish issue.

At the same time, the continuing economic deterioration in Turkey also increases the likelihood of exacerbating the situation for the Kurdish population, since economically the Kurds are the most vulnerable in Turkey.

The next presidential election is to be held in 2023. In the same year, the centenary of the Republic of Turkey’s proclamation will be celebrated. So far, one has to acknowledge that within almost a hundred years a non-forceful decision of the Republic’s most acute internal issue has not yet been found.

Foreign policy as an extension of domestic policy

It is widely acknowledged that the Kurdish successes in Syria were one of the reasons for Erdogan to abandon his attempts to engage in dialogue with the Kurds in Turkey. This factor is going to remain crucial for Turkish domestic politics in the months to come, regardless of how events will develop beyond Turkey’s southern border.

Given Turkey’s assertive policy in Syria (and also in Iraq, where the country’s armed forces diligently suppress the hotbeds of PKK activity), Turkish Kurds should not expect a strengthening of dialogue with central government.

Meanwhile, Erdogan promises that the fight with terrorists outside of Turkey (which primarily means Kurdish armed units in Syria), will be conducted even more decisively. Indeed, with his electoral achievement, Erdogan is well-placed to pay even more attention to foreign policy matters, including Syria. And here, further surprises are possible. Today the Turks demonstrate unconcealed discontent with the advancement of the Syrian government forces in the southern Syrian provinces. Yet, nothing could be done so far, since these developments are not only supported by Moscow, but apparently were agreed with the US.

At the same time, Turkey’s relations with the United States have recently shown signs of normalisation. The most visible manifestation of this is the recent agreement on the withdrawal of Kurdish armed units from Manbij. All of these circumstances together constitute a serious concern for the Syrian Kurds and their self-proclaimed autonomy in the north of Syria. Only two years ago, a de facto independent Kurdish entity along the Turkish-Syrian border was widely spoken about with optimism. Today it is a question of preserving a much smaller autonomous area in the Northeast of Syria, located in very unfriendly area. It is quite telling that Ankara’s official representatives have already announced their desire to get rid of the People’s Protection Units all along the Syrian-Turkish border, right up to its crossing with Iraq.

When it comes to Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan’s Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani was one of the first to congratulate Erdogan on winning the election. Ankara and Erbil are likely to keep on building an active and mutually beneficial economic partnership. This so far seems to be the only non-conflicting element in the Turkish-Kurdish dyad.

[1] In November 2016, Demirtas was detained by the Turkish state and imprisoned.

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Maxim Mikheev

Research Associate, DOC Research Institute, RU

Maxim Mikheev graduated from the history department of the Moscow State Lomonosov University, specialising in the history and theory of International Relations. With several years of work behind him with the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations”, he focuses on studying the current evolution of the international system as well as on Russian-Western relations. Alongside international relations, his research interests include nationalism and identity issues.