Atlantic Council

Elections in Turkey

Frank Ricciardone,
Vice President and Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East,
Atlantic Council

Aaron Stein, 
Nonresident Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East,
Atlantic Council

Time: 9:00 a.m. EDT
Date: Monday, June 8, 2015

Transcript By

Superior Transcriptions LLC

FRANK RICCIARDONE: Good morning, welcome. I know a number of the callers personally. I’m delighted to have you with us.

At the Atlantic Council, we’re really just beginning to get involved in the Turkey business in terms of analysis on Turkey’s role in the region as well as its internal developments and how they impact those things. So this is rather a first for us. And we’re delighted to have Aaron with us.

A couple overarching observations and then I will leave it to Aaron, who is on the ground and a great analyst, to go over a lot of the internal developments and technicalities, and the implications of those.

First, I think this is something that Turks can be hugely proud of. Many are anxious at the results, but I was very pleased, as a long-time observer of Turkey, to see the system really work – to see the strength of Turkish democracy, its institutions of democracy and its civil society. I saw no reports of major violence or disorder. So it was a well-conducted, orderly set of elections, which in Europe and the United States we take for granted but south and east of Turkey is anything but typical. So this, again, suggests that it ought to be a boost for Turkish prestige, I think, in the region.

Secondly, and very importantly, I didn’t see or haven’t seen yet any allegations or evidence of tampering. I’ve not hear Turks, by and large, claim that the results were illegitimate. So this was not only an orderly election without violence, but more importantly something that’s accepted by the Turkish people by and large as a legitimate outcome I think is also very meaningful.

And a third sort of process point that struck me as we went into this is, apart from the constitutional, legal mechanisms in place to oversee or guarantee free and fair election processes, and indeed apart from the OSCE observers that were to be there, what really was quite striking was civil society’s own organization through various movements, particularly one called Oy ve Ötesi, “The Vote and Beyond” in English, a real sui generis mass movement to have poll watchers at each place to show that the citizenry was watching. I think this all speaks to the health of Turkish society.

Let me make one other kind of overarching observation. In the past several years when I was serving there, since before the June 2011 elections and through the present, one issue that Turks have debated in discussing the form of their democracy, the form of their republic, the health, the strength of their democracy, has been the question of checks and balances on state authority. And that was at issue here as a subtext of the whole question of a presidential system.

What I perceived, as someone – a foreigner who had the privilege of working closely with the Turkish state as well as its government and administration – that is to say the permanent national security apparatus and other elements of the state, as well as the elected politicians – is that there are checks and balances inherent in the state, and it functions fairly well for the conduct of certain state interests. On the other hand, there was a serious issue in each of the political parties where checks and balances don’t always let market realities come to the leader. The HDP seems to have been an exception to that.

Let me turn this over to Aaron at this point, and I would like to come back after that and we can discuss a question of whether this will signal a reversion to the mean in Turkish politics and foreign policy. Aaron, would you like to continue?

AARON STEIN: Sure. And thank you for this opportunity, and thanks, everybody, for joining. Good morning for people on the East Coast and good afternoon, good evening for people on my time – on European time.

Just to pick up on the – on the issue of checks and balances, I think the story running up before this election was very much pitted as whether the AKP would get the amount of seats in the parliament necessary to be able to pass its own constitution out of parliament, which would include the strengthened presidential system. And then the concern was that the strengthened presidential system would lead towards a more centralized form of government, absence of certain checks and balances. So the narrative was very much that the HDP – you know, this Kurdish-rooted party – was the check on ultimately the president’s overarching ambition.

And it looks like, you know, they acted in that way, in that the Turkish society grew uncomfortable, A, with sort of the tone of the election as it moved forward. And perhaps the accusation that Erdogan’s actions on the campaign trail, particularly, is very visible as being very much out in front and openly campaigning for the AKP, perhaps in violation of the constitution, was something that made a lot of people uncomfortable and perhaps drove voters away from the AKP, from the tent of the AKP to two parties – two main beneficiaries – the leftist, as I said, Kurdish HDP and the far-right nationalist MHP.

And I think, moving forward, the story will now be about not the Kurdish party any longer, the HDP, but the story now becomes about the MHP. The far-right nationalist party has an opportunity now because of the way the election folded out. The AKP did not get over 276 seats, so it cannot form a single government. It will need to form a coalition if it intends to govern, and the most likely partner for that would be the MHP. And alternatively, if the AKP wants to remain outside of the formal coalition – if it wants to be a minority government – and there is a push towards a coalition between CHP – the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party – the HDP and the MHP. One of the key stakeholders in that will also be the MHP. They have a stridently anti-Kurdish view, so they are uncomfortable working with the HDP. And so you have questions about whether or not the coalition is possible, either with the AKP and MHP, or either through the AKP – or, excuse me – either with the CHP, HDP and MHP.

And so, moving forward, I think for the next 45 days or within the next three months or so, the focus in Turkey will be very much on these internal dynamics. Is there a pathway to a coalition? And if there’s not the pathway to a coalition, are early elections coming? And what will those early elections – how will those early elections play out? Will the presidential system continue to be on the table? Or will the AKP take this time to look inward, to reflect and perhaps modify elements of this political manifesto – its election manifesto – to try and capture the large tent again, to expand its voter base?

And with that, I think, Frank, I’ll turn it back over to you.

MR. RICCIARDONE: OK. We’re just de-muted. So I’ll be glad to go in-depth on any of these questions with the really wonderful people we’ve got calling in.

For me – for all of us, I guess, the question is, how are the new Turkish politics going to play out on their foreign affairs? And as in many democracies – so too in Turkey – foreign affairs often have been a secondary issue, except in times of foreign crises. And often, typically of Turkey left, right and center, there’s been an element of rallying public opinion against the foreigner, seeing foreign conspiracies, foreign enemies of the moment, whether they be, you know, Greeks or Armenians or, you know, suspicions even about America as the ally, or the Arab world or whatever it is. That’s been a hardy perennial in Turkish politics.

But some of that has become rather more extreme in this campaign. I recall when I was in office and had just arrived in 2011, speaking with the then-prime minister about the 2011 campaign. Then-Prime Minister Erdogan assured me that foreign policy was unlikely to be a big issue in the campaign. And then when I saw him just before the elections again he said, you see? It hasn’t been a very big issue in our campaign. What my people really care about is economics.

So I imagine that, with the Turkish people having voted for – to accept the uncertainty that comes with coalition politics rather than the greater stability, if you will, or certainty that comes with a single party government – that there’ll be more debate about foreign affairs issues, as about all issues, slower decisions. There well may be the xenophobic notes that are always in Turkish politics. But hopefully, there’ll be a reversion to the mean in most issues. And by that, I mean going back to the outlooks that the Turkish people and Turkish governments have traditionally had on their internal affairs and on their foreign relations. That is to say, an understanding in foreign relations that alliances with the West and relations – trade relations and defense relations with the West – the United States, NATO, European Union – really do matter, number one; number two, that there is opportunity and – as well as risk in dealing with their neighborhood to the south and east. Perhaps number three, the mean in Turkish foreign affairs is best summed up by the famous Ataturk dictum that I’ve heard Turkish leaders quote over and over again, and that includes AKP leaders. And that is: peace at home and peace in the world. That suggests a less anti-foreigner tone in some of their rhetoric. And with that, it should be a little bit easier for Turkey to get back to a position of prestige and influence, I hope, in regional affairs.

Why don’t I end there and then let you take questions. And I know people will want to talk about other specific issues in greater depth.

MS. YAKUB: I’d like to open the floor to questions, so please use the system to get in the queue.

MODERATOR: Our first question comes from Trudy Rubin with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Q: Thanks very much for doing this. I’d like to ask what you think the impact of these elections will be on Turkey’s policy on Syria and its handling of its border issue, running people across. And I’m also curious what you think the election says about the Turkish public’s view of the role of Islam in politics.

MR. RICCIARDONE: Trudy, why don’t I take the first one and I’ll leave Aaron to respond to the second one.

Q: Thank you.

MR. RICCIARDONE: On Syria, as you and all of us who follow Turkey well know, the Turkish government’s strong anti-Assad policy has been not very popular, and it’s been a subject of great debate in Turkey, as it is in the United States. It’s not an easy issue, and publics are conflicted and confounded about what to do. And in Turkey’s case, of course, they’ve got those couple million refugees that are there.

It’s hard to say how this will break. Remember, it is – there is still a strong executive and strong machinery of state. Turkey has a sort of world-class foreign ministry, defense establishment, intelligence establishment that bears the burden of conducting these policies. They’ve done a fine job in dealing with the refugees. I imagine that the main thrust of the Turkish foreign policy towards Syria in particular is likely to continue, partly for lack of really terrific alternatives from a Turkish perspective.

But what I also imagine is that there – coalition politics will mean there isn’t going to be a free ride, that there’s going to be much more open, public debate within the parliament. That can be a good thing, I believe. It makes policymaking harder, as in any democracy, but sure in a certain sense because issues get a fuller airing. So I tend to see this as a positive outcome in terms of Turkey’s ability to figure out its national interest with respect to Syria. And therefore, I think it’s good for Turkey’s collaboration with its allies, including the United States, on Syria as well as all else. I choose to be optimistic.


MR. STEIN: On Syria just very quickly, the electoral map shakes out to where you have 80 HDP representatives in the parliament, and the HDP has been very outspoken the AKP’s policy in Syria, both with its handling, first beginning in Kobani, and we’re going to start seeing some problems creeping up over the Kurdish offensive in northern Syria that’s about to encroach upon certain areas along the Turkish border will certainly bring the issue back to the fore in Turkish politics. And I think the larger, more robust number of seats that the – that the Kurds have in parliament will make for these debates to be aired in parliament. So I completely agree with that.

As for the role of Islam in politics, the AKP’s campaign strategy very much focused on targeting a segment of the population: pious, religiously minded Kurds who had hitherto voted for the AKP but were waffling back and forth between the AKP and the HDP. And the Kurdish number, the HDP number, was 13 percent, so was past the threshold by 3 percent. A lot of that was more liberal voters in Istanbul who gravitate towards the party, but the gains were particularly in the southeast, the Kurdish-majority areas, where voters who had been attracted to the AKP because they were more pious chose a different political party because of their discomfort with certain policies in the parliament. So I think it’s actually a victory for the – the role of Islam in politics, you know, certainly is there, but it’s not overarching. It does not drive dynamics in Turkey more than certain voter preferences and traditional things – local politics – that we would associate in the United States.

MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Roy Gutman with McClatchy.

Q: Hi, Frank. I’m glad you guys are doing this today.

I’m interested in Demirtas’ – his role in Kurdish politics in Turkey: his relationship with the PKK, his role in last autumn’s riots in Diyarbakir, where a lot of people died. You know, those really were not, I guess, major issues in the campaign here. But doesn’t he have a fair amount of – he’s a very attractive and charismatic man, but he – I think he has a fair amount of baggage. How does he deal with it? And how does, in fact, the Turkish political system deal with it?

MR. RICCIARDONE: Why don’t I start, and again I’ll let Aaron chime in if you like.

Of course, I met Selahattin Demirtaş several times during my tenure in Turkey. I have to say – have to say that I was very impressed with him then, and not just with him but with his party as being qualitatively different from the other political parties in Turkey. They were less focused on the personality of their leader, and within the HDP I found more of a kind of coalition politics of their own, starting sort of by a self-imposed discipline of requiring a woman to share office for each of the spots not only that they stood for for election – say, you know, mayors and co-mayors – but also within the party. That in itself was profoundly qualitatively different from other Turkish parties, and that imposed diversity brought about I think a more lively discussion within each party. And I found this even when I would meet with them. There would be several at once, and everybody felt free to speak. They didn’t all defer to him, or for that matter to the woman, when I would meet with him and at that time Gültan Kışanak. So it was a really interesting party, and I think a lot of the credit for that has to go to not only the party members themselves and their leadership council, but to Selahattin Bey himself.

In my out call with him, as I was taking leave last summer from my position in Turkey, I was again impressed. He was looking ahead to the presidential campaign, and his comments were all very broad – broad-minded, broadly focused – in terms of his vision. It was not all about the Kurds. It was about what works, what is necessary for Turkish democracy to flourish, and he saw the Kurdish interests as succeeding or failing within a successful Turkish democracy. And that struck me as a – as a winning formula that was quite compatible with the formula of the AKP as it had been articulated before this past year or two, when the AKP itself was working with the HDP and the BDP before that to come to a solution of Kurdish – full Kurdish rights as Turkish citizens within a unified Turkish republic.

So I was impressed with his leadership. He’s young and there seems to be party chemistry and a party culture that’s set up for success, and I think that’s played out within this campaign. Also, he’s been very disciplined, and Mr. Undat (ph) as well has been disciplined, in calling on the party members and its supporters not to react to provocations over this campaign period. So all these things I have to say positively impressed me.

MR. STEIN: Demirtas’ links to the PKK are undeniable, I mean, starting with family members and even his own story. But I think one thing that you’re seeing – and it’s the ultimate irony of this election, if you’re actually asking me – is that, you know, he is an outgrowth of the AKP’s peace process and the HDP is actually where the peace process was going regardless. You know, so the peace process was frozen a couple of months ago for political reasons, but nevertheless it got pushed forward with the election of the HDP, passing the 10 percent threshold. If the Kurdish issue is going to be solved along the lines that the AKP has previously put forward and we have moving – moving towards, the idea of a reformed or at least PKK-linked politician who has the right political agenda and who is not violating any laws certainly should be welcomed in the political space, particularly when they ran as – a campaign as well as the HDP did and had a figure like Demirtas, who had such a crosscutting appeal to both Turks and Kurds.

MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Ayla Yackley with Reuters.

Q: Hi. So my question is to follow up on those comments about the peace process in particular and what concerns you might have about the peace process moving forward. You know, even if there is political will from different parties, is that enough? You know, who are – who are the actors now today? The deputy prime minister and his terse comments – Ocalan is instrumental in the peace process – very sarcastically dismissed the HDP’s ability to push the process forward without a partner in the AKP.

And I had a second question, and that has to do with Erdogan and how you sort of gauge the Erdogan factor. Do you imagine that he will now retreat to his palace, or is he actually now a more – a potentially destabilizing figure for Turkey after his sort of hopes to change the constitution appear to, at best, be on hold?

MR. RICCIARDONE: Again, I’ll jump in, Ayla. Nice to hear your voice.

On the peace process, I didn’t hear the remarks attributed to – that you just cited from a deputy prime minister, but I think we do have to remember the AKP did win this election. They won 41 percent. They are the leading party as a result of this election. And they are also the first ruling party of Turkey to seriously grapple with the Kurdish issue through the constitutional processes and political processes of the republic. And it was part of the AKP’s winning formula in its first five or six elections, where they’ve done so well. They have managed this really quite well. In fact, I don’t see how the party – how the peace process can go forward unless the AKP and HDP find some way of working together on this really important issue.

As to President Erdogan, he is still the president for the next four years. He was just elected last year, as you know. He has considerable authorities as the president, and he’s by all accounts exploited every one of them and even gone beyond that to use his personal charisma and political skills to get even more. So he clearly is going to be influential on this. And with respect to the Kurdish issue, as you just mentioned, if he’s behind it and the HDP are willing to work with him, then I think that whole process can move forward. It has suffered a lot, of course, through the past couple election campaigns.

MR. STEIN: To my mind, the questions are actually linked. Erdogan still – he will be the man who mandates parliament to form a coalition. So, you know, he will have some influence, if not a considerable amount of influence, on the way in which the ruling coalition will be shaped. And if it’s not shaped, he will certainly play a role in early elections, as the AKP goes back.

One thing you did see, and one of the principal reasons that the AKP did bleed votes in the southeast off to the HDP, was its handling of the Kobani crisis. And some of Erdogan’s and (Ocalan’s ?) rhetoric, particularly after the disagreements about the cease-fire and the reading of the Ocalan letter at Nowruz.

There’s clearly a pathway back to the peace process, and the peace process benefits the AKP if they choose to go that route and it’s really the HDP’s only route to really solidify itself as Turkey’s fourth-largest party. But I think a lot of it will depend on the outcome of the next – once these things get started over the next 45 days and perhaps the early election, you could see the peace process being put on hold up until the future trajectory of Turkish politics are decided upon either from a coalition government or early elections.

MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Tolga Tanis with Hurriyet.

Q: Thank you. Thanks a lot for this, and good to hear you – from you, Aaron as well. Thank you.

You know, Frank, I had a question for you since you worked in Turkey in the ’90s and since you experienced the coalition government (?) in Turkey. How would you characterize the differences of the current situation in Turkey in terms of being prepared for a coalition government? I mean, the vulnerabilities in terms of the economic stability or compromise culture. How would you define the differences of the current Turkey from the ’90s in terms of the coalition government? And is it ready, Turkey, for a coalition government? Or do you expect any crisis, any early elections? Can I get your assessment on this? Thank you.

MR. RICCIARDONE: Thank you, Tolga. It’s good to hear your voice. I hope we might be able to speak some more later.

I think Turkey – today’s Turkey is far, far beyond the Turkey of the 1990s by any measure, never mind the economic measures. But politically, it’s a far more mature democracy and republic. The role of the military – starting just with the role of the military in governance. They are now out of governance and out of politics quite definitively in a way that nobody expects them to come back to. That’s a good thing.

Despite the stresses of the issues here now, real constitutional identity issues, we’ve seen through these elections that the Turkish people were able to debate them, vote on them, and now – and now one way or another that vote is going to play out in coalition politics. And Turks evidently – 60 percent, or 59 percent – were comfortable enough to go back to a coalition arrangement. And everybody knows that does bring uncertainty, and uncertainty can move into instability. But the Turkey I experienced in the past four years of service before I left last summer is one that seemed to be able to deal without violence with fundamental problems like the rights of citizens – the rights of all citizens, including the Kurds, other minority identities – the Alevis, the Armenians; questions like, you know, the restoration of property to the very, very small Christian minority. These are things that the republic as a state, and then the parliament and the political machinery as an administration, were able to deal with overtly and successfully.

So I am very confident that this will, in a deeper sense, lead to further maturation of Turkish politics and a strengthening of the republic. I’m even more optimistic about Turkey. I’m not anxious at all that coalition politics are going to lead to some kind of weakening of Turkey or its influence or its way ahead. Politics will be messy and noisy, but you know, it’s in – there are difficult economic issues, difficult regional issues, but I think the republic is well-poised now to – as well-poised as ever to deal with them, much better than the ’90s.

MR. STEIN: Nothing to add on my end.

MR. RICCIARDONE: I think we have – we’ve reached the end of our time.