Turkey’s national election on June 7 will mark a pivotal moment for the country’s political future. Postelection scenarios include, at one extreme, a move by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to transform Turkey’s parliamentary system into a powerful executive presidency and, at the other end, the potential for a coalition government after more than a decade of single-party rule.
Carnegie Europe hosted a media call with Marc Pierini and Sinan Ülgen to discuss Turkey’s high-stakes election and potential challenges the country may face after the votes are tallied. Judy Dempsey moderated
JUDY DEMPSEY: Good afternoon.
MARC PIERINI: Good afternoon.
JUDY DEMPSEY: This is Judy Dempsey, Carnegie Europe, and Sinan Ülgen, Carnegie scholar based in Istanbul. Marc Pierini, Carnegie scholar and former EU ambassador to Turkey, is on the line too, based in Brussels. Before you ask the question, identify yourself and ask one question only, so that we can share it around. We’re ready.
YVES BOURDILLON: I’m a French journalist based in Paris, in charge of Turkey. My name is Yves Bourdillon, and I write for the French daily Les Échos. I wanted to know if what is on stake on Sunday is only the political aspect, the presidential regime, or is there also some economical aspect in the pool?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Excellent! Yves, I’ll let both Sinan and Marc deal with those: what is at stake and Sunday’s election. Marc, could you start it?
MARC PIERINI: Yes. The first element is that, frankly, democracy is at stake. It will be weaker or stronger after this election, for two reasons: whether the Kurds of Turkey will stay in parliament or whether they’ll be kicked out because of this 10% threshold; and then whether, because of the result, President Erdoğan will be able to implement his executive presidency or not.
From that point on, you have two effects. One is that the relationship with the EU might be much more complicated in terms of rule of law or democratic standards; Turkey could be weaker. Then, of course, you may have, and that is where the economic aspect comes in, a long period of uncertainty if a referendum is organised, because, basically, Turkey will be under an election campaign for another year. That will hotly contested, which the market will not like.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thank you, Marc. Sinan, what’s at stake?
SINAN ÜLGEN: In addition to what Marc has said, perhaps I’ll address the economic aspect of the question. I think the economy is also at stake, although perhaps not as clearly as the future of the political landscape. On the economic side, the question will essentially be whether Turkey will have the sort of political structure at the helm that can address the rising economic difficulties of the country.
We’re not talking about an economic crisis in Turkey, but what is happening is certainly a slowdown in growth from the 5% average that we have seen in the decade, now 2.5% / 3%. Therefore, the question is what sort of government, what sort of parliament as well, by extension, would facilitate the implementation of an economic reform agenda, and what sort of government would certainly not want to touch this or would not be in a position to implement some reforms.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thank you for that, Sinan. Also, don’t forget about the foreign policy issue. Who’s next, please?
YVES BOURDILLON: It’s Yves Bourdillon again from Les Échos. Could you elaborate a little bit about the reform agenda? What are the reforms which should be implemented as soon as possible, according to you?
SINAN ÜLGEN: I couldn’t catch the latter part of the question. Could you repeat it, please?
JUDY DEMPSEY: What economic reforms should be implemented?
SINAN ÜLGEN: Firstly, even before we start with specific economic reforms, what needs to happen in Turkey is a reassertion of the independence of institutions, starting with the Central Bank. What has happened in the recent past has really been an erosion in their role, whereas the independence of those institutions was a crucial factor in Turkey’s past economic performance. That certainly is one.
The second one, again, is about the rule of law. Turkey is a country that has a big external finance requirement and therefore it really needs to import sizeable amounts of foreign funding. It cannot really do that if it is unable to redress the situation regarding the judiciary and the rule of law.
Beyond that, there is a structural reform agenda looking at labour market issues, liberalisation of a number of key markets, and tackling of the informal economy. That’s, basically, how I would order the priorities.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thanks, Sinan.
MARC PIERINI: I might add, Judy…
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, please go on.
MARC PIERINI: …a couple of points from the EU perspective. As you know two weeks ago there was a decision taken by the Turkish Government and the European Commission to launch discussions to modernise the Customs Union which has been around for 16 or 17 years.
As part of the modernisation of the Customs Union, we’re talking of the introduction or the expansion of trade in services, which constitutes today the bulk of trade between Turkey and the EU. That in itself, when we put the Government in front of it, will imply very serious reforms in terms of competition policy, public procurement, trade union law and so on. The Customs Union can only work if you have a level playing field between the two partners.
Therefore, since the Customs Union, in economic terms, is probably the main avenue for improving relations with the EU, because the accession negotiations are stuck where they are, that too will oblige Turkey to conduct very deep economic reform.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thanks, Marc. Maybe we should actually have a look at foreign policy, given, generally, the collapse of the big good-neighbours-no-problems policy. Sinan, can I ask you: the foreign policy under Erdoğan over the last three years has been quite disastrous…
SINAN ÜLGEN: Yes, but now there is a recognition at least now - better late than never – that this Turkish foreign policy needs to be recalibrated. There’s recently been an effort to do that. Marc already referenced the recent agreement with the EU, at least the political understanding that the Customs Union should be deepened. There is an effort to also improve the relationship with the US.
There has also been an agreement in principle on the train-and-equip package with regard to the Syrian opposition, the opening of Incirlik Airbase for armed drones. Also regionally, Turkey has been trying to normalise its relationships, starting with Saudi Arabia, a relationship that had soured as a result of the support to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Erdoğan’s visit to the new Saudi king, Salman, followed by Turkey’s support to the Saudi-led operation in Yemen – all of these are signs that there is a newfound willingness in Ankara to redress some of that situation.
JUDY DEMPSEY: That’s very interesting. Would anyone like to pick up on the foreign policy issue?
MARC PIERINI: Judy, if I may add something…
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, please, Marc. It’s very interesting.
MARC PIERINI: ...concerning Syria, terrorism and refugees? This is a very important subject for the EU in their discussions with Turkey. As we see the evolution on the ground, Daesh is now progressing and controlling all of the border with Turkey which is not controlled by Syrian Kurds. Turkey is now in a rather different situation, or is going to be in a few weeks, because of lesser access to Syrian rebel groups than before, in geographical terms, and, also, with the issue of refugees becoming a semi-permanent issue.
We’re now talking of resettlement, because these people, at least a large proportion of them, are not likely to go back to Syria until such time there is a political agreement. As we all know, a political agreement requires the involvement of Iran, which is not the case yet. There is a need here for a very serious reassessment of Turkish foreign policy, including its cooperation with the international community, primarily, the UN, the EU and the US, on the Syrian refugees.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Very, very interesting, this shift in this realisation of a need to shift the foreign policy.
DAVID HENRIKSSON: I have a question, actually. Regarding the big number of refugees coming across the border from Syria, apparently this has been a question in the pre-election that has been hidden from the agenda. I guess all parties have to deal with this; how are they going to deal with this huge number of refugees?
MARC PIERINI: The issue is particularly sensitive in some parts of the border, because those coming in are Syrian Kurds and therefore they have links, family links and tribal links, with the Turkish Kurds, but the issue is much bigger than that. Depending on whether you take the Government numbers – 2.5 million – or the UNHCR numbers – 1.8 million – you have a huge number of foreign refugees in Turkey.
This is by far not the most impressive situation, because it’s around 2 million out of a population of 76 million, where in Lebanon, for example, it’s a quarter of the total population. So far, the expectation from Turkey and from the international community has been that these people will go back, except that some of these people have been around for four years, and, secondly, there is no political solution around the corner.
Even if you look at the Iraqi refugees of previous wars, you can see that those who went to Jordan, for example, during the first Gulf War, only about half of them have gone back during the relatively stable period in Iraq. Here, you don’t have stabilisation of the interior; you have 40% of the habitat which has been destroyed, so where do you go back to? Therefore, this is now a very different situation.
We are looking at a situation which is becoming – not yet, but is becoming comparable to the situation of the Palestinian refugees. You’ve had Palestinian refugees for decades in Syria, in Jordan and in Lebanon and they have nowhere to go.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Marc, thank you very much for that. This aspect is very interesting.
DAVID HENRIKSSON: I need to say thank you to both of you. Thank you for your time.
JUDY DEMPSEY: David, thank you very much for coming on the line, for your super questions. I’m sure there’ll be another chance for a phone-in.
DAVID HENRIKSSON: Yes, I hope so.
JUDY DEMPSEY: We’ve got nine minutes left. There’s a huge number of issues here, EU relationship with the United States, not to speak of relations with Turkey’s neighbours. We haven’t mentioned Armenia and we haven’t mentioned Israel, only Iran. There are tonnes of issues. The whole issue is, of course, the personality of Erdoğan.
Please, this is your chance. The time is ticking away and the elections are going to take place in a few days’ time. We have two great experts here to deal with your questions on Turkey, so you needn’t feel shy or pull any punches.
In that case, Marc, I think I’d like you to dwell for a brief moment on whether or not there’ll be a consensus in the EU to try to really revive the accession talks with Turkey.
MARC PIERINI: I think at the moment, irrespective of the election, what you have with the EU is a situation where the focus of the relationship has shifted away from accession negotiations towards the Customs Union, as we said, towards counterterrorism cooperation and towards visa and readmission. These are the three main subjects.
Of course, the accession negotiation is in worse shape today than it was three years ago, because, basically, since Gezi and the December 17, 2013 corruption allegation, rule of law has been substantially rolled back in Turkey. Therefore, one could argue that the political criteria of negotiations for accession are not met any more. Nobody says this bluntly, but this is the situation. Therefore, people are focusing on other subjects.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Marc, say if you turn it around, there are two parallel facts – one, the different function; and, two, this has taken now a life of its own with the Customs Union’s other issues. Isn’t this precisely the very time to open up or discuss the chapters of procurement, the chapters of - leaving aside the energy - Justice, judiciary and so on?
MARC PIERINI: Of course it is the time to do that, but that’s one of the paradoxes of these negotiations: because we need unanimity, each and every single member state has the potential to block anything they want. Therefore, these two chapters you mention being blocked by Cyprus - hopefully the discussion on the political settlement on the island will help the republic of Cyprus to unblock these chapters.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thanks for that, Marc. Is there any question out there? You’re all very shy all of a sudden, for such an important election. Sinan, I’ll have to ask you, it’s quite tricky at the moment, but relations, generally, with the neighbours, Armenia and Israel, I know they’re very different, are they going to make a turn for the better? As you say, foreign policy – there’s a big reappraisal of foreign policy.
SINAN ÜLGEN: I think this will also very much depend on the exact post-electoral outcome, viz. if we see a single-party government emerging, then what I would expect is more of a consistency in what we’ve seen in the recent past, with an effort to recalibrate some of those relationships, but nothing really ambitious.
There will be changes, however, if we see the emergence of a coalition, depending on the nature of that coalition. For instance, if there is a coalition with the currently ruling AK Party and the nationalist NHP, then I would expect a more aggressive tone in relation to Turkey’s overall approach towards the West, possibly complicating the likelihood of a deal in Cyprus.
Then, if you have another government emerging, like AKP and CHP or AKP even with the Kurdish Party, then this will also have a bearing on foreign policy, especially on the policy with regard to Syria, where all of the opposition has been very critical. Certainly, a foreign policy would be impacted, but by whatever structure emerges from these elections.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thank you, Sinan. We’ve got five minutes left. Whoever’s joined or is thinking about asking a question, here’s your chance now.
YVES BOURDILLON: I have a question about the rule of law, because the rule of law, there are some crises, but I have not seen anything in the last few months which indicates something is worsening. Am I correct? Is the problem with the rule of law steadying, or are we to expect some new arrests of judges, journalists or cops, etc?
MARC PIERINI: I think in the past few months and even the past few weeks, the situation has definitely worsened, in the sense that there is less and less tolerance for criticism from the media. For example, only a few days ago the editor-in-chief of a major opposition newspaper, who has revealed this alleged arms delivery to rebel groups in Syria, has been threatened publicly by the president himself. The New York Times has been told to know their place. Freedom of expression has gone back.
Then, of course, you can now have instances where judges, because they have launched an investigation that the leadership doesn’t like, end up being themselves under investigation. There is no doubt that rule of law has deteriorated, and we might even see it deteriorating further in the next few days. Then, of course, it will all depend on the outcome of the election.
JUDY DEMPSEY: That’s a very depressing picture. Another question out there?
ORIETTA MOSCATELLI: Yes, I would like to pose a question, please. Orietta Moscatelli from Rome, Aska News.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Hello, thank you for joining us.
ORIETTA MOSCATELLI: Hello. I’ve been listening with interest. I have a very specific [unclear] question about this electoral campaign, this electoral phase that’s seen from outside. We see, especially, see this increasingly nervous Erdoğan [inaudible]. It’s something that really looks bizarre, from an outside point of view, considering it’s the presidency of the state.
My question is: how much of a reason is it of an electoral tactic, this attitude? Could it pay, in an electoral sense? How much will, according to his occupation and fear that the vote could have a negative outcome in terms of [inaudible]?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thank you very much for that.
MARC PIERINI: I would say here that you have two elections in one, because the president, who obviously is not the candidate in this election, wants an executive presidential regime, he needs, as we all know, a certain qualified majority in parliament to implement it. Therefore, he’s put all his charisma and influence into the campaign.
This has been called unconstitutional by all three opposition parties, but he said he said he didn’t mind; he was essentially working for the Republic of Turkey or for "New Turkey." Certainly, from an EU point of view, it looks strange to realise in front of a legislative campaign that you have the president who is assigned a very neutral role by the constitution actively campaigning and immigrating ports and highways and whatever else here and there.
This is a strange phenomenon, but at the same time you have to realise that the AKP in the past 12 years has not lost one election. Therefore, President Erdoğan, who until August last year was the leader of AKP, is not used to losing an election. Therefore, he probably attaches a lot of importance to the ballot.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Indeed. Thanks, Marc. Thank you very much for that question from Rome – very, very important. Sinan, did you want to add anything on to this, on Erdoğan’s election style or his panicking? Do you get any sense of this when you’re out in the campaign field?
SINAN ÜLGEN: I wouldn’t say I would qualify it as panicking, but there’s certainly an aspect of popularity that Erdoğan believes he can add to the ruling party. This is the first election for the past 13 years that AKP is running without Erdoğan and without Gül, the two heavyweights of the party. The impression for many is that the performance of the Prime Minister Davutoğlu has not satisfied Erdoğan and therefore he is willing, on a daily basis, to campaign on behalf of the party in order to raise its levels of support in the population.
The question, and Marc would be in a better position to attest that, is whether Erdoğan’s involvement or interference is actually helping the party or is hurting the party. That’s a very valid question which I think we should see more clearly after the election.
JUDY DEMPSEY: That’s very, very interesting. Sinan and Marc, could you tell our listeners if you expect a more or less credible full election results on the Sunday evening? I want to confirm to our listeners that the election results - we should have a good picture by the end of Sunday evening. Marc and Sinan, yes.
MARC PIERINI: Yes.
SINAN ÜLGEN: Yes.
JUDY DEMPSEY: We have two more minutes. Anybody else want to have a question? I think we’ll wrap it up then. I think this is a very interesting set of questions. Thank you very much for phoning in. Just to repeat, there will be podcasts later today and the transcript will be available tomorrow morning. Thank you very much again. Thank you, Sinan. Thank you, Marc. Thank you all for holding.
Marc Pierini is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. He was EU ambassador and head of delegation to Turkey (2006–2011).
Sinan Ülgen is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. He is also chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, an independent think tank in Istanbul.