Polls indicate that the ruling AK Party is well positioned to win Turkey’s 29 March municipal elections. This raises hopes that Turkey can build on the series of measures it announced in January to relaunch its stalled EU convergence process. On top of those moves to widen ethnic and religious freedoms, the AK Party has also promised that in April it will return to work on a new constitution.
However, the election campaign has been dominated by Middle Eastern distractions and internal politics, rather than EU affairs. The ruling party’s focus on criticising Israel over Gaza was popular in Turkey and boosted ratings in polls, but the manner in which it was done — with leaders comparing the party’s rise to that of Hamas, rallies with green Hamas flags, and rhetoric point-scoring with Israeli leaders — made the country look decidedly un-European to Europeans.
Worse, the perception of taking sides in a Middle East conflict was a real setback to years of patient Turkish diplomatic work to build trust with all regional parties, including Israel, pro-American Arab states and more radical countries like Iran and Syria. It is not just Gulf fund-managers who are worried that Turkey may be veering off the highway it promised to follow towards European standards, regulations and security of investments. What Turkey underestimates is that most Middle Eastern leaders and elites are interested in building ties with a European Turkey, not a Middle Eastern one.
The populist rhetoric is in some ways nothing new and does not reflect broader globalising trends in Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has always been strongly critical when Israeli policies result in large Palestinian death tolls. Turkey has not subtracted anything from the arms deals, military training cooperation or diplomatic side of the Israel-Turkey relationship. The Israel government has also quickly moved to damp down the dispute with its main Muslim interlocutor. Turkish President Abdullah Gül has made clear he wants to go ahead with a visit Israel later this year.
Arguably, too, a large vote of confidence in AK Party at the local level would put it in a strong position to push forward with the next two key challenges in its “zero-problem” foreign policy and its immediate neighborhood — settling Cyprus and opening the border and diplomatic relations with Armenia. News continues to be optimistic on both fronts, in addition to Turkey’s growing normalisation with Iraqi Kurdistan. Talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots are progressing well towards the establishment of a full negotiating text.
And barring the use by the US President on 24 April of the word genocide to commemorate the onset of the Ottoman Empire-era deportations and massacres of Armenians in 1915 — which would trigger a furious Turkish reaction and put at risk a whole raft of joint U.S.-Turkish cooperation over Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — Turkey and Armenia may well reach a breakthrough in their bilateral relations, including possibly the opening of the border between them, closed since 1993.