After the morale-raising 6-7 April trip to Turkey by U.S. President Barack Obama, Turkey is back to facing the reality of its tough neighbourhood: last-minute stresses in its hopeful recent talks on normalisation with Armenia (see our 14 April 2009 report), isolation for Turkey at the 4-5 April NATO summit as it resisted the eventual choice of a new secretary general and now new challenges for the ongoing talks on a Cyprus settlement, a dispute which, left unsolved, remains Turkey’s biggest obstacle on the road to the EU.
In parliamentary elections on 19 April, Turkish Cypriots gave victory to the right-wing nationalist National Unity Party (UBP – Ulusal Birlik Partisi), handing it 44 per cent of the vote and 26 of the 50 seats. They voted out the ruling left-wing Republican Turkish Party (CTP – Cumhuriyetçi Türk Partisi), giving it 29 per cent of the vote and 15 parliamentary seats. After years in which Turkish media has all but ignored Cyprus, victory for the Turkish Cypriot opposition suddenly put the issue centre stage for commentators and politicians – some of whom used it to argue that it showed how the ruling AK Party’s “defeatist” policy of compromise with Greek Cypriots and the EU had failed.
In fact, the Turkish Cypriot results did not reflect new disapproval of the modest achievements of inter-communal talks in progress since September (see our 23 June 2008 report), but rather represented frustrations over domestic governance and the steep local economic downturn. UBP’s policy options are limited, too. It will have to trim its sails to the winds from Turkey, which finances much of the Turkish Cypriot administration, runs Turkish Cypriot security and has been supporting a compromise Cyprus settlement since 2004.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately warned the new Turkish Cypriot government not to upset the inter-communal peace talks. Turkish President Abdullah Gül repeated Ankara’s strong support for the firmly pro-settlement President Mehmet Ali Talat, who is responsible for negotiating on behalf of the Turkish Cypriots. The UBP has quickly promised to support the talks, has toned down its anti-European Union rhetoric and has softened its old policy of a two-state solution to one that has confederal elements.
Still, there remains a risk that UBP returns to its long-time role as the party of hardline nationalists including the retired former President Rauf Denktas, and that it voices demands for extreme self-determination that are anathema to the Greek Cypriot side. Such ideas are already being encouraged by the Turkish opposition, whose nationalists are urging Turkish Cypriots to forget the “false paradise” of compromise.
New pressure is clearly on Talat and his Greek Cypriot counterpart Demetris Christofias to show results sooner rather than later. Talat, the former leader of the CTP, faces re-election in April 2010. Christofias won a strong mandate for a settlement when he was elected to a five-year term in February 2008, but nationalist hardliners in his main coalition partner, DIKO, dominated elections for senior party posts in March. The new Turkish political interest in Cypriot events is partly the result of Turkish local elections on 29 March, in which Prime Minister Erdogan and his ruling AK Party saw their grip on power slip slightly.
Here again the main reason appears to be frustration with economic woes, as well as Erdogan’s legendary displays of impatience with his opponents and the government’s attempts to minimize the impact of the global crisis. Even if Turkey’s banks appear to have weathered the worst of the financial storms, the Turkish economy contracted sharply in the first quarter of 2009 for the first time after six years of uninterrupted economic growth. Exports fell by one third and unemployment surged to a record high. More than one quarter of Turkey’s youth is now out of work.
In the election, AK Party won 39 per cent of votes for provincial councils, versus 47 per cent in the parliamentary elections of 2007 and 42 per cent in the last local elections. In Turkey’s fractured political system, 39 per cent remains a high figure and rules out bringing the next parliamentary elections forward from 2012. But this is Erdogan’s first electoral setback of any kind. On election night, he admitted he was unsatisfied and would be drawing the necessary lessons.
Notably, AK Party lost strength in Western and coastal districts, progressive parts of Turkey that usually point to where Turkey’s future lies. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) scored 36 per cent in the country’s cultural and financial capital, Istanbul, and captured Antalya and other major tourism centers along the Turkish riviera. Some commentators believed that this was a reaction to a perceived threat to contemporary lifestyles by the conservative AK Party’s pro-Islamic tendencies. Overall, CHP came second with 23 per cent of the vote. The right-wing National Action Party (MHP) also experienced a surge in its vote to 16 per cent, scoring high among unemployed youth. The ultra-conservative Felicity Party scored 5.2 per cent with its specifically religious messages.
The Kurdish nationalist Democratic Society Party (DTP) won just 5.6 per cent of the national vote, but it displaced AK Party as the top vote puller in the mainly Kurdish southeast and dramatically beat AK Party in a high-profile battle for the main southeastern city of Diyarbakir, where it won 65 per cent of the vote, up from 43 per cent.
Turkey’s EU negotiator and AK Party minister Egemen Bagis said that the result was “just great” considering the financial crisis and the wear and tear of AK Party’s seven years in power, noting with some justification that the distribution of results proved that his party dominated the political centre and was the only one able to attract votes all over the country. He said that upcoming three years with no elections meant that “now is the time to do reforms.” He said this would have to be in consultation with the opposition CHP, and listed as priorities reform of the political parties law, the election law, and urgent legal preparations to allow two chapters of the EU negotiations to open in June. AK Party leaders suggest they will first work to make it harder to close down political parties, an area where Turkish democracy is particularly vulnerable.
Olli Rehn, EU commissioner for englargement, did not mince his words in a 31 March speech to the joint EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee. “The main ‘fuel’ of the process remains reforms in Turkey,” he said. Citing threats to freedom of expression, he specifically criticized the government for its $500 million tax charge in February on the Dogan media group. He sought more respect for women’s rights and Christian religious institutions. He warned was that “it is now time that Turkey takes the necessary steps, including changes in the Constitution, to align Turkey’s legislation with the guidelines of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe and European best practices. This is essential to respect the Copenhagen criteria.” Finally, he called for Turkey to put all its weight and support to the UN-led process on Cyprus, since a settlement there had the most direct impact on clearing obstacles on Turkey’s path to the EU.