Post-Election Turkey: More Repression at Home, More Diplomacy in the World

June 1, 2023
by Haşim Tekineş, published on 1 June 2023
Post-Election Turkey: More Repression at Home, More Diplomacy in the World

Turkey has left behind its election period with the second round of presidential runoff on May 28. Proving his invincibility to economic woes, natural disasters, and refuge crisis, Erdogan won another victory against the opposition coalition. But Erdogan is not the only winner of the elections. Turkish nationalism continues to gain momentum in the Turkish politics. However, it is important to note that nationalism may lead to greater repression within domestic politics. Paradoxically, President Erdogan appears to adopt a more diplomatic approach to foreign policy.

The increased pressure in domestic politics, particularly against the Kurds, is capable of dividing the opposition alliance while easing the transformation of Kurdish political landscape. By further criminalizing the HDP, Erdogan can obstruct CHP’s overtures to the Kurds for the upcoming local elections in 2024. Besides, this will also give HudaPar, Erdogan’s radical Kurdish-Islamist ally, a free hand to increase its activities in the Kurdish populated areas.

Nevertheless, the Turkish government seems to contain the effects of this nationalist surge within domestic politics while pursuing a more diplomatic approach in foreign policy. As Erdogan promise of a more effective use of diplomacy suggested, Turkey is poised to maintain its delicate balancing act – a role further emphasized by the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Iron Fist in Domestic Politics

The elections on May 14 pushed the composition of the Turkish Parliament to a further conservative and nationalist line. Alongside IYI Party’s 9.7 percent and MHP’s 10.14 percent votes, ultra-nationalist Sinan Ogan’s 5.3 percent vote in the first round of presidential elections lays bare the nationalist trend in Turkey.  Simultaneously, the HDP’s poor performance provides Erdogan an opportunity to intensify pressure on the party and other uncompromising Kurdish politicians. Thus, Erdogan is likely to consider seizing control of the remaining HDP municipalities or even closing down and criminalizing HDP. These actions would enable him to undermine the de facto secular-Kurdish alliance and design Kurdish politics.

CHP’s mantra was winning Kurdish votes in the 2019 local and 2023 elections. The CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, and Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas have made overtures to Kurdish voters. CHP reaped the fruits of this inclusive approach in elections. Jailed Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas made significant contribution to CHP’s victories in Ankara and Istanbul in 2019 local elections. So indeed, in the re-run of Istanbul elections in 2019, Erdogan even tried to use PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan’s influence to woo Kurdish voters and undermine Demirtas influence, but alas. Kurds gave crucial support to the CHP in the most recent elections too. Despite Kilicdaroglu’s failure to defeat Erdogan, he still received a considerable vote, representing nearly half of the electorate. Undoubtedly, the Kurds played a crucial role in this success. In other words, the alliance between the Kurds and CHP holds a substantial potential, even if it may not necessarily be a game changer, in Turkish politics.

However, intensifying pressure on the Kurds and further criminalizing the HDP has the potential to fracture this de facto alliance by imposing higher costs on the CHP. So indeed, in his election victory speech, Erdogan said that he would not release Demirtas while Erdogan’s supporters were chanting ‘death’ for the Kurdish leader.  

As a matter of fact, it is hard to figure out CHP’s determination to retain Kurdish voters despite its advantages. The CHP leaders have always been a bit shy about their stance in Kurdish rights. Kilicdaroglu's alignment with ultra-nationalist politicians after May 14 highlights the fragility of the CHP's inclusive approach. Notably, the CHP provided unwavering support for Turkey's cross-border operations against Kurds in Syria and the removal of parliamentary immunity for Kurdish politicians. Therefore, the increased criminalization of the HDP, coupled with the surge of Turkish nationalism in recent elections, raises doubts about the CHP's sincerity in reconciling with the Kurdish population.

Another reason for repressing the HDP is AKP’s plan to design Kurdish politics. Since the Peace Process in 2013, the HDP has been the kingmaker in Parliament. Yet, this kingmaker has been on bad terms with Erdogan since June 2015, closer to the CHP. In order to limit its influence, Erdogan jailed HDP’s charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtas. But, even so, the HDP gave Istanbul and Ankara to the CHP. Hence, instead of trying to convince HDP and risking nationalist votes, the AKP tries to replace HDP’s influence with a radical Islamist HudaPar. Suleyman Soylu, Interior Minister, depicted Erdogan’s alliance with HudaPar as a strategic and sociological move. As 1980 paved the way for Islamists by crushing the leftist groups in the Turkish political scene, the AKP government aims to shape Kurdish politics through further criminalization of HDP and promoting HudaPar.

Although HudaPar has a limited influence in the region, its existence in the Parliament, Islamist radicalism, and more resources aim to reverse the trends in the region. The HDP’s socialist roots and its distance from Islam have always been a drawback for the conservative demography of eastern Turkey. Instead, HudaPar is affiliated with Turkish Hizbullah, which was not short of ISIS in terms of violence and radicalism. HudaPar’s alliance with Erdogan and its existence in the Parliament will whitewash its violent past and legitimize it in the eyes of many conservative Kurds. Moreover, they will use wider resources to finance their activities. In order to facilitate this transformation, the AKP government might consider removing the HDP from the chessboard.

A Cool Down in Foreign Policy

In contrast to the prospect of more nationalism and repression at home, the Turkish government will likely pursue a more balanced approach to foreign policy that prioritizes diplomacy. A combination of factors drives this shift in strategy. Firstly, Turkey's economic troubles contribute to the need for a cautious approach. Secondly, Turkey's positive momentum in foreign policy serves as a catalyst for adopting a more measured stance. Lastly, the growing uncertainty in international relations further reinforces Ankara's inclination to act with prudence and deliberation. Together, these factors shape Turkey's evolving approach to foreign affairs.

Unlike previous elections, a cross-border military operation or a diplomatic crisis with a Western country was not at the top of the election agenda. Given the pre-election hype of the opposition, Erdogan’s calmness in the foreign policy arena was noteworthy. On top of that, unlike his previous victory speeches, he did not mention fellow Muslim nations or cities, like Palestinians, Bosnians, Damascus etc. He avoided portraying himself as the savior of the Muslim world. He did not promise a military operation. Even anti-Western sentiments were limited in his speech. Besides, he said he would use political and diplomatic channels more effectively.

Several reasons cool Ankara down. First, the current state of the Turkish economy necessitates a more diplomatic and peaceful approach. In order to attract financial resources, Turkey has to portray an image of a stable and trustable country to international investors. 

Secondly, as Ankara has reaped substantial benefits from its assertive foreign policy, it has also made attempts, in recent years, to mend the wounds caused by previous arrogance through a diplomatic approach. Notably, Ankara has successfully normalized relations with the Gulf countries and Egypt. In addition to attracting investments from Arab nations, these diplomatic reconciliations have played a significant role in alleviating Turkey's isolation and weakening the anti-Turkish alliance within the region.

This approach has also helped to ameliorate Turkey’s relations with the US and EU. Although the Biden administration maintains its diplomatic indifference towards the Erdogan regime, the two sides still cooperate on Ukraine-related issues. As seen in the grain deal, Turkey’s diplomatic access to rival camps helps it to maximize its gains through a balancing act. 

The increasing level of uncertainty in the world also encourages Turkey, like other fence-sitters, to hedge its bets and cultivate diplomatic relations with different sides. Thus, the Turkish decision-makers will be eager to keep diplomatic channels open. 

Conclusion

With Erdogan’s clear victory in the elections, the most significant risk for Turkey-US or EU relations is now left behind. If Erdogan had followed former US President Trump’s or Belarusian President Lukashenko’s footsteps to invalidate an opposition victory in the elections, it might have caused a significant challenge to Turkey’s relations with the US and Europe. However, as evident from the congratulatory messages received by Erdogan from Western leaders, both sides are relieved and receptive to a transactional approach in their relations.

Erdogan's election victory, the surge of Turkish nationalism, and the upcoming local elections foreshadow a heightened atmosphere of repression in Turkish domestic politics. Through intensified pressure on the HDP, Erdogan aims to undermine the de facto alliance between the Kurds and the CHP, with the ultimate goal of winning the local elections in Istanbul and Ankara back from the CHP. But Erdogan may demonstrate less enthusiasm for reflecting the same nationalist sentiments in foreign policy.

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