Now that the July elections are over, Turkey faces one of the most interesting parliamentary party combinations in its 84-year history. The resulting government will bring together under one roof:
- The Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamic-rooted party now on the center-right which acts as an umbrella for leftist intellectuals, Kurdish groups and liberal politicians;
- The Republican People’s Party (CHP), which sees itself as the safeguard of secularism but has been unsuccessful in responding to new social challenges;
- The Nationalist Action Party (MHP), the nationalist party still supporting a tougher stand against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK);
- and the Kurdish independents, returning to parliament after more than a decade.
Although we can expect more political noise in this term, the AKP’s strong majority in the parliament signals that the main policy stance of the past five years will not change.
The stakes are high, however, and AKP action is expected on foreign policy and economic reform. The short-term outlook for Turkey’s relations with its traditional partners, the US and the EU, is gloomy. On the EU front, each region has stringent expectations of the other: the EU expects more reforms on human and minority rights, democracy and the rule of law; and Turkey expects the EU to comply with its commitments, such as the aim of negotiations being full membership.
The main challenges appear to be for Turkey’s relations with the US. Three main issues have potential to cause serious problems and are expected to dominate US-Turkey relations in the near future: the PKK issue, the claims of Armenian genocide, and energy.
Turkey, the US, and the Kurdish Question
Turkey has toughened its rhetoric on the PKK and demands US to put more pressure on Iraqi Kurds as the violence escalates. The Turkish army repeats that “a military operation in Northern Iraq is necessary,” and there is ongoing talk of such an operation. Finally the focus of the discussions about the issue turned to the rumors of a joint operation of Turkish and American forces against the PKK militants following an article of Robert Novak in the Washington Post on July 29, 2007. The fact that the nationalist party entered the parliament by doubling its votes means that the pressure on the government on PKK issue will rise.
Sticks and Stones…
The second issue has been on ice for a while, but is set to explode soon: the Democrat-dominated Congress will vote on a bill that names the 1915 events occurring under the Ottoman Empire as “Armenian genocide” in the US. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s support for the bill complicates the situation. Turkey’s potential response to such an event could include revoking permission for US control of its air bases such as Incirlik, currently used for logistics support to forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not clear yet whether Turkey or the US would go this far, but the issue could provoke a diplomatic crisis and deepen anti-American sentiment in Turkey.
Turkey’s energy deals with Iran are the third variable. Just before the July 22 elections, the US reacted against the memorandum of understanding for the multi-billion dollar deals signed by Tehran and Ankara. Although there are still big question marks on Iran as a reliable energy partner, Turkey not only strengthened its position as an energy route to Europe, but also against Russia’s growing influence in the region. When the projects stipulated in the memorandum begin, we could see the US react harshly, particularly when new sanctions are planned against Iran for its nuclear programme.
While these three issues will shape US relations with Turkey in the near future, we shouldn’t expect immediate change, since the AKP government has been re-elected with a stronger mandate. The main factor to affect relations and determine their future development will be the US presidential elections of 2008.
What are you watching for on Turkey? Do you think that the country should be admitted to the EU? And what about the question of genocide? Your comments are welcome below.
Irem Koker is a Reuters correspondent in Istanbul. She has also written for the Turkish Daily News and the Turkish-language Referans.
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- Simon Tisdall on Turkey’s Rising Self-Confidence and EU Shortsightedness