The elections are a temporary setback that will only fuel Turkey’s ruling party’s appetite and likely encourage the President towards more rash behavior, including his attempt to cement an alliance with Russia via the S-400 and the TurkStream pipeline. President Erdogan will continue to grow closer to Iran and also to oppose US policies in Venezuela, and other places.
Turkey’s ruling AKP party has sought not only to cement itself in power, but to reduce the number of critical press outlets to near zero. It has established TRT and Anadolu as state-supported entities to push the current government’s line, as such during the elections they provided more coverage for the ruling party and when it appeared the AKP might lose Istanbul and Ankara, Anadolu stopped posting results on election night. This is their method, entirely pro-government. Unlike BBC or France24, they are founded on the RT and Al-Jazeera model to propagandize the world for Turkey and its ruling party. And when we read their post-election coverage, we don’t see any discussion of multi-party politics. For them, Turkey is already a one party state. In fact, what we will see is that the AKP will contest the results until it gets the answer it wants.
Turkey’s ruling party has silenced a large amount of critique, jailed or exiled journalists, imprisoned thousands, and used the 2016 coup as an excuse to remove any critics from every government office, from academics, from schools and other sectors. The pro-Qatar-Turkey narrative and their supporters in the US are using these electoral “setbacks” as evidence of “vibrant Turkish democracy,” when in fact they should be seen as one last gasp for air of an opposition that has been weakened over the years.
Turkey imprisons and dismisses critical mayors, accusing them of supporting terrorism. Turkey is involved in an illegal occupation of northern Syria, accused of ethnic-cleansing of thousands of Kurds from Afrin, and weekly air strikes and bombardment of northern Iraq, all under the guise of fighting terrorists. Is there any evidence that PKK terrorists used Afrin to cross into Turkey before the January 2018 offensive, or was it merely an excuse to use the Syrian rebels against the YPG and to pressure the US? Turkey claimed to the “fighting ISIS” in Afrin, when there was no ISIS presence. For Turkey the “ISIS” foil is conjured up when convenient. It claimed in December 2018 there “is no longer any such threat as Deash in Syria” and then claimed a month later it would fight ISIS in Manbij and eastern Syria, “our priority in Syria is to combat Deash.” The Turkish Presidency doesn’t even remove the contradictory tweets linked above.
The real goal of Turkey’s ruling party is to use these foreign battles to distract from economic problems at home and to distract millions of Syrian refugees who count on Turkey’s role in Syria. So it wants to launch another operation in northern Syria’s Manbij not merely to strike at the YPG, which is linked to the PKK, but more importantly to return 1 million Syrian, mostly Arab, refugees to the border areas and thus dilute the Kurdish population. The goal of Turkey’s ruling party has been to separate Kurdish regions of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, by finding ways to put different forces in border areas. This was the plan in Sinjar after the Kurdistan referendum when Turkey signed off on Iraqi government forces and Shia militias moving into the area to separate Sinjar from Syria. Ostensibly this was because Turkey believed Sinjar is a PKK stronghold “another Kandil.” Turkey had threatened an operation into Sinjar, the center of the Yazidi genocide, but suffices with airstrikes, killing Yazidis it says are linked to the PKK. This is convenient for Turkey because it also makes the Sinjar area unstable so Yazidis cannot return.
Turkey continues to have a terrible track record on hosting or turning a blind eye to extremists. It was through Turkey that up to 50,000 ISIS supporters travelled. Today Turkey’s defensive umbrella in Idlib allows HTS to grow in power. Turkey which has championed the Syrian rebels, ironically didn’t seem to understand that the growth of ISIS via the foreign volunteers that joined it in 2014-2015 would destroy the cause of the Syrian rebellion by cannibalizing it and distracting the world from the Assad regime’s crimes. This is another policy that Ankara has not recognized, but instead obfuscated about its problematic role. Turkey continues to search for short term gains that support its immediate interests. And there is no evidence that Ankara’s adventurism in this respect and its toxic coddling of extremists among groups in Syria or Hamas, will change after the election.
What is Turkey’s ruling party’s real narrative after the elections? Anadolu, with support from the government, claims US policy in the Middle East was “created by the evangelical-neocon wing of the White House, which now shapes U.S. foreign policy along with the national security team there.” Turkey is also engaged in long term goals of expanding power in the Gulf via Qatar, supporting forces in Libya, and in the Horn of Africa. This is a long-term investment by Ankara’s regime, designed to make Turkey a major power in the region. Losing a few municipalities isn’t going to change that. Ankara wants to have its influence, primarily among bad actors, like Hamas, across the region. It is involved in a regional competition with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It also spreads anti-western sentiment in most of these cases while also pretending to be a NATO ally, alternating between threats to various EU countries and wanting cooperation on migrants.
As for the details of the actual election outcome. The AKP’s vote share didn’t shrink much in the recent municipal elections. There is no real evidence that the CHP and HDP can reverse the broader trend. The AKP has 51% of the vote with its far-right MHP alliance, and the vote share of CHP and HDP don’t seem to make many real inroads. The elections in Ankara and Istanbul were not a landslide for the opposition. Is there any evidence the AKP is really faltering? The only surprising thing is that despite its grip on power and media, that it hasn’t done better.
Turkey’s ruling party may benefit from this “setback” by using it to pretend it is a thriving democracy. But what kind of democracy is Turkey today, in terms of the broader infrastructure of democracy, like having a critical media and independent academy.