What the Turkish election means for the Middle East


The schadenfreude in the West and in Israel over the electoral blow suffered by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday is understandable.

After 12 years in power, the man who was initially seen as the prime minister who modernised Turkey’s economy, ended the oversized role of its military in politics and offered a more moderate version of political Islam, has evolved into an anti-Western and intolerant Ottoman throwback with disturbing dictatorial tendencies.

As it became increasingly clear that the election would be close, he lashed out in all directions. He appeared to revert to antisemitism in saying that the New York Times, which criticised him, was backed by “Jewish capital”, and called for Jerusalem to be “liberated”.

It was widely assumed that Mr Erdogan, who was not running in these elections, sought a super-majority for his AK Party so that he could secure a new constitution that would give him excessive presidential powers.

Instead, Turkey’s voters emphatically preferred other parties, including the Kurdish HDP, which, for the first time, succeeded in passing the high threshold of 10 per cent of the vote. Mr Erdogan’s party failed for the first time since its founding in 2001 to receive even a regular parliamentary majority.

This is a massive setback for the Erdogan neo-Ottoman project, but it is too early to predict his political demise. He is still only in the first year of his five-year term, and effectively controls AKP, which, while weakened, is still the largest party in the parliament, with over 40 per cent of the seats.

It is unclear at this stage whether a coalition can be established. Theoretically, the three other parties could form a government, but the relatively liberal HDP would have a very hard time sitting with the nationalist MHP, which has advocated a tough line towards the Kurdish minority. But neither would find it easy to join AKP as a junior member of a tie-up.

Any coalition will necessitate major concessions from all the potential partners, and Turkey is unlikely to have a stable government in the near future — another election in 45 days is a distinct possibility. Perhaps the country will be focused inward for a while now.

While a temporary retreat of the boisterous president from the global stage will be welcomed, Turkey is a necessary partner for the West and its isolationism is not good news.

As a neighbour of both Syria and Iran, Turkey plays a major role in the regional developments. Lax border controls in the past allowed thousands of Western jihadis to join the ranks of Islamic State, while in recent months, together with Qatar and other Gulf states, Turkey has been pivotal in the transfer of arms shipments to rebel groups, allowing them to push forces loyal to the Assad regime out of much of northern Syria.

Security co-operation between Turkey and Israel — and some of Turkey’s Nato partners — is still at its lowest point in decades. The Erdogan government has also tried to be a patron of Hamas; the terror group’s leaders now operate freely in Turkey.

Whatever happens to these policies in the medium term, Mr Erdogan’s aspiration to become a 21st-century sultan looks to have suffered a fatal blow.

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