On November 1, 2015, Turkey held its second parliamentary election in just five months. Carnegie Europe hosted a media call with Marc Pierini and Sinan Ülgen to discuss the outcome of the vote and the possible scenarios for the country’s future. Judy Dempsey moderated.
You can listen to audio of the call here.
Transcript not checked against delivery.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Good morning, everybody. My name is Judy Dempsey and I’m editor of Strategic Europe. I’m moderating this phone-in. It’ll last 30 minutes. If necessary, we might go over that. That’s the first thing.
Secondly, we have our two great experts who are going to deal with the election results – Marc Pierini, who’s based in Brussels for Carnegie Europe, one of our visiting scholars specialising on Turkey, and Sinan Ülgen, another great Turkish scholar, and he’s based in Turkey and he’s a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe as well.
Please put your phones on mute and please identify yourselves and, because there are so many correspondents, could we have one question per correspondent, and you can have your turn again. I’ll kick off just to ask Marc and Sinan each to give one or two sentences about the election result. Marc, you go first.
MARC PIERINI: Yes. Well, I would say the obvious. This is a big turnout, this is a [unclear] result so it’s a big AKP comeback. We have to look at the positive side of this which is the stability; a single-party government probably that can be done within a week or two – no big haggling about a coalition. The other positive element is that we have HDP in parliament which reflects a very strong and important strand in the Turkish society.
On the other side, we can see that, one, the campaign was based on less rule of law than before, which is worrying. We can see that there is no qualified majority for putting the constitutional change to referendum and we don’t see that referendum is the president’s idea of an executive presidency. But maybe Sinan will have more to say on that. It looks like the cycle of violence with PKK and perhaps with Isis as well has played in favour of this result. That’s my short say.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, thanks for that, Marc. Thank you, Marc. Just before I ask Sinan Ülgen to give his two or three short sentences on the outcome of the election results – good morning, everybody. This is Judy Dempsey. I’m moderating this phone-in. Very shortly, please keep your phones on mute. There’s an awful lot of interference. Please ask one question at a time and identify yourself. Thank you. Sinan, a short comment on the election outcome.
SINAN ÜLGEN: Yes, I’ll start off with where Marc has ended. I think this was an election that surprised many of us, including the AK Party leadership. But it was essentially a contest between two narratives and we know which one won. The first narrative championed by the ruling party and president Erdoğan himself was a narrative of stability which they had linked to the continuation of single-party rule. And that narrative proved to be far more effective than many people thought, especially against the backdrop of the rising political instability, a worsening security climate, IS perpetrated attacks, the upsurge of PKK violence. That backdrop, in a way, multiplied or increased the power of this winning narrative.
The counter-narrative was one which was essentially underlining the acute degree of polarisation and championing a coalition government as a formula to appease that polarisation, and also for stronger checks and balances. So in essence, we saw the power of the slogan of stability, and now the government has a broad mandate which it can use in a way to tackle some of the very difficult problems that Turkey faces. The government will be in place until 2019, so they have the room for that. But the fear is that, with this broad mandate, the government can replicate their behaviour of 2011 where they again had received 49% and steered towards majority rule. So I think there is an opportunity for long-term policymaking through difficult issues and a trap which is majority rule.
JUDY DEMPSEY: We have to move on. Sinan let’s move onto the questions, yes? Indeed. And even the Prime Minister said this morning that maybe this time they should consider changing the constitution. Morning everybody. My name is Judy Dempsey. We’ve got Sinan Ülgen and Mark Pierini answering your questions—great Turkish scholars based with Carnegie Europe.
Three tiny little house rules. Please go on mute. Whoever is typing, could you move away from the microphones, please? There’s an awful lot of interference. And please one question per person, and identify yourself. Okay, now we’ll open things up to questions. Who wants to kick off? Hello?
BRYAN MCMANUS: Hello. Bryan McManus from AFP. If you’ll take my question.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, please.
BRYAN MCMANUS: Because my concern is foreign affairs of the EU, I’d like just their views of what this means for the EU-Turkey relationship with the very delicate stage it’s at. Where does that leave us?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Indeed. Thanks very much. Important question. Sinan, Marc, whoever wants to take it first.
MARC PIERINI: Well, I can start. I think there was already a lot of worry looking at the way the campaign was conducted. Two television closures, two print media closures, a very strong uprising narrative, demobilisation of all Kurds, etc. So this already didn’t resemble very much a liberal democracy as in the EU concept. So the fear right now is that we will have an EU-Turkey relationship which is in rubber raft waters because it would take a real very strong reversal of the rule of law deterioration that we have seen in the past two years and, in particular, in the past few weeks, and what would be the reasons for this? The AKP is solidly in power. There is no election in the near future. And there is a major project of the President which is changing the constitution. So that, in itself, doesn’t lead to an improvement in the rule of law, in my view.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thanks, Marc. Sinan, do you want to come in here? EU reaction.
SINAN ÜLGEN: Well, two things. I think one, on the more positive note, the broad mandate will allow the government to be more courageous on an issue like Cyprus. There is a good prospect now, more than ever really, of seeing a settlement merged in Cyprus but that settlement will certainly need the backing of Ankara. And the fact that there is now a strong government with a strong mandate, a sizable parliamentary majority, could work to the benefit of a settlement in Cyprus.
JUDY DEMPSEY: That’s interesting. And the second point?
SINAN ÜLGEN: So that’s on the more positive note. But at the end of the day, this is not an outcome that would certainly encourage or has signalled any sense of dissatisfaction from the Turkish population regarding the AK Party’s track record in the area of rule of law particularly, and fundamental freedoms, so we can’t really read this outcome as the Turkish electorate sending a strong message for a continuation of these reforms. But at the same time, as I said on the Cyprus issue, this also gives the government quite a bit of margin to manoeuvre on really the foremost issue facing Turkish policymakers which is the Kurdish question. So I would expect the government now to revitalise the peace process sometime in the near future which would have also positive implications for the Turkey-EU dynamic.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Oh, that’s very interesting. Thanks for that, Sinan and Marc. Next question, please. Identify yourselves and whoever’s typing, could you move away a little bit from the microphone or your tape or whatever. Next question please.
SABINE HACKLAENDER: Hello. It’s Sabine Hacklander, a journalist, public radio. Hello.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Oh, yes. Yes, hello.
SABINE HACKLAENDER: Hello. I want to know, what does the result mean for the refugee crisis and the intended cooperation between the EU and Turkey? More stability? Or will the victory of AKP increase the costs for the EU?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Okay, thanks Sabine. Important question. Sinan, Marc – whoever wants to take this question.
MARC PIERINI: Well, I would say that, first of all, my own view of the EU approach on the refugee action plan is rather negative. That has nothing to do with Turkish elections but the way in which the EU has played so far is not really conducive to a deal. Now, the results of these elections with the AKP solidly in power will, in my view, adapt to the demands of the Turkish government. That we know already, we’re launching the accession negotiations and visa liberalisation and so on which are all extremely difficult to deliver, given the vote in the council – the anonymity vote for accession matters and qualified majority votes for visa affairs.
At the same time, maybe being more confidently in power, the AKP government will realise that this is not Turkey against the EU. Turkey and the EU suffer from the refugee issue in very similar ways, ways that they cannot control – people who are likely to stay for quite a while, people who demand jobs and don’t have jobs, people who move around. So it is perhaps time on both sides – EU and Turkey – to play this issue not as a kind of bazaar diplomacy – you give me this, I’ll give you that – but as a joint international responsibility that they have.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Okay, thanks. Sinan, do you want to come in here? Or we’ll move on.
SINAN ÜLGEN: Yes, just to complement what Marc said and perhaps just to throw in a slightly different angle. I think the first thing is that the AK Party will read these elections essentially as a green light to their policies across the board, including on refugees. So what this means is that Turkey will have no compelling need to change its negotiating stance on the refugee issue, which involves more assistance from the EU, acceptance of the burden-sharing principle, lifting of visas and acceleration of the accession talks.
However, Turkey as a government will also be in the position to deliver more internally and domestically. What I mean by that – one of the key elements of this, if an agreement is going to emerge between Turkey and the EU, will be Turkey’s ability to provide for decent prospects to Syrians that are currently in Turkey, which involves awarding or granting the right to formally join the employment market. That’s something that this government can deliver because, again, they are strong, they have four years ahead of them and they are likely to be less worried about the potential political consequences of such a move.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Okay, that’s very important. Thanks, Sinan.
MARC PIERINI: And I would say this is an arena where the EU could come in in support because job creation schemes are expensive and that is where some of the EU money could be applied.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes. Thanks very much, Sinan. Next question, please. Remember, please mute your phones.
SHABTAI GOLD: Shabtai Gold.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Excuse me. Just please mute the phones – press star and one – because there’s so much interference. So next question, please. And one question. Identify yourself.
SHABTAI GOLD: Hi. Shabtai Gold with the German Press Agency. I just wanted to focus a little bit back domestically on the internal issues in Turkey, particularly the two main things that we saw in the lead up to the election which is the polarisation and the deep divisions in Turkey and then, on the other hand, the future of the constitution which obviously play off of each other, the constitutional issue being one of the polarising issues. So do you see polarisation being diminished in the near future and do you see the constitutional changes happening? And if so, how could that happen?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thank you very much. Whoever – Sinan?
SINAN ÜLGEN: Yes, I’ll start with that. On the constitutional issue, this outcome will certainly keep Erdoğan’s aspirations alive. They were almost dead after the June elections. Now he has been able, with this outcome, to revitalise his presidential ambitions. But that will require something that AKP, the ruling party, has not reached yet, which is the constitutional threshold. They are at 315 seats in parliament; they still need 15 more to reach the constitutional threshold of being able to put the constitutional change to a referendum. So what that portends is we shall see in the coming months an initiative for preparing a new constitution.
That was very similar to the initiative that the previous parliament had started but failed because this would require a consensus at least with an additional political party and, more likely than not, this will be again the Kurds because there is an actual trade-off between what the Kurdish party wants and what Erdoğan wants. So that’s a scenario which may or may not succeed. But nonetheless, we shall certainly see an initiative to draft a new constitution which will embed and switch to a presidential system.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thanks very much for that interesting answer. Thank you, Sinan. Mark, do you want to quickly come in?
MARC PIERINI: No, I just subscribe to what Sinan said.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Okay, super. Next question, please. Star one to mute the phones. One question per person. Identify yourselves. My name is Judy Dempsey. Good morning.
ANNU MARJANEN: Morning. This is Annu Marjanen from the Finnish News Agency.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes. Morning.
ANNU MARJANEN: Morning. From the EU’s point of view – this election result – is this a better basis for cooperation than an unclear result with coalition?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Okay, thank you very much. Marc?
MARC PIERINI: I would say that you can be of two minds on this issue. One is that you have the stability. You’re not going to see political parties haggling for weeks to form a government. This is going to just be done very quickly. And you have therefore economic stability, political stability, therefore it’s almost a luxury from the governing body to be able to resolve some of the very difficult issues they have in front of them, such as the Kurdish peace process, for example, and the refugee issue.
But remember that from an EU point of view, the expectation is that Turkey follows the political criteria and the least you can say is that in the past three years or so and in the past five, six months in particular, the rule of law has deteriorated very sharply. You can paint it in any colour you want – terrorism and this and that and the rest; the fact is that independence of military and freedom of the media and mutual respect for the various strains of society – this is way down from where it needs to be from an EU point of view. So the issue here is whether the AKP and the President will still consider the EU prospect as an important one for them, and therefore one to satisfy some of the requirements or not. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t – that is what remains to be seen.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thanks, Marc. Sinan, do you want to come in here or should we move on?
SINAN ÜLGEN: No, I don’t have anything to add to Marc.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Okay. Good morning, everybody. Next question, please. And one question per person and identify yourselves. Thank you. Yes.
HEIDI PLOUGSGAARD JENSEN: Hi. This is Heidi Plougsgaard Jensen, Jyllands-Posten, Denmark.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Oh, yes. Hi, Heidi.
HEIDI PLOUGSGAARD JENSEN: Hi. This is just quick follow-up on the previous question really. Are you saying it is or will not be a priority for the Turkish government to do a deal with Europe on refugees?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Oh, thanks for that.
MARC PIERINI: Well, on refugees there is a kind of bargaining discussion right now, exchanging progress on a number of issues to the benefit of Turkey while Turkey would keep some of the migrants. It’s one approach; it’s not the finest piece of diplomacy that you can imagine, but this is the way it has started in September and so we are in the middle of bazaar diplomacy here. A deal – there will be one, obviously. The problem is whether the deal will be used as a continuous source of recrimination from Turkey against the EU or whether this is going to be a joint operation.
My, perhaps naïve, view is that Turkey and the EU are exactly in the same situation. They’re facing the same problem. So they would be much better off putting aside recrimination and bargaining, and agree on a set of programmes that would help both of them. [Inaudible] safe transit of those refugees who are going and much bigger opportunities in terms of education, jobs and healthcare for those staying. That is easy to say but immensely complicated to do. But it would be important and decent not to use the refugees as a bargaining chip on both sides.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thanks, Marc, for that very interesting answer. Sinan, do you want to come in here?
SINAN ÜLGEN: Yes. One thing that I want to add is that this outcome actually tends to comfort the Turkish government and further increase or enhance its negotiating position. Turkey has made a list of demands in terms of what it is willing to accept and now it can sit more comfortably back and basically wait for the EU to decide on those demands. Because what this result has shown is that despite the 2.2 million Syrian refugees that Turkey’s hosting, this issue has not been politicised. None of the parties took this up as a political issue, it hasn’t cost AKP in their electoral campaign. So there is no real pressure on the Turkish side to do anything substantive. Now the nice weather also is coming to an end, so there will be even less numbers of refugee outflows, so Turkey can sit comfortably back and basically ask for the EU to meet its demands.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thanks, Sinan. But interestingly, nobody’s yet asked any questions about Syria. Next question, please. My name is Judy Dempsey. We’ve got Sinan Ülgen and Marc Pierini taking your questions. Just identify yourself, and one question per person. Next please. Any other questions?
GUNNAR WILLUM: Yes, hello. My name is Gunnar Willum. I’m journalist from a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten. I want to add to this thing about the bargaining. The big wave of refugees started a few weeks after AKP lost their election. Is there any sign that the Turks opened up and said, okay, the refugees can go now, as a bargaining point – Marc was talking about it before, that it was like a bazaar diplomacy – and will they now be able to say we won the election, and then close down again?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Okay. Thanks, Gunnar. Yes, Marc, Sinan?
MARC PIERINI: Yes. Well, there are many reasons why the flow of refugees has increased in the summer. The main one is the deterioration of the situation in Syria and, more recently in September, the Russian intervention which signals a big battle for [inaudible]. The other element you have to take into account is that we’re now standing at just over 700,000 refugees that have gone from Syria, Lebanon and Turkey to, let’s say, Central and Northern Europe since the beginning of the calendar year; we will end up with 800,000 by the end of December, no doubt.
If you take a conservative estimate, these people are spending €2,500 each. So this is a €2 billion market along the way. I’m not saying in Turkey, but along the way. And, of course, the most expensive segment of that journey is the Aegean Sea, so about 500 to 600 million probably are spent in Turkey. So there is an immense business going around that. It’s about traffickers; it’s also mafias. It’s about rubber boats, it’s about fake life vests, fake passports and so on. And you don’t need to get into conspiracy theories and that somebody somewhere has organised all this. It’s just a massive amount of money on the move. We’ve seen that before. Ten years ago, we saw that from Libya towards Italy. But now the numbers are staggeringly higher.
JUDY DEMPSEY: And the circumstances are a little different, yes.
MARC PIERINI: So the important thing here is whether Turkey and the EU will want to display joint responsibility towards an international issue that is bound to destabilise both of them. Because destabilisation for both of them as a potential, we know that. And no country can, for a long time, be in the hands of mafias pushing around hundreds of thousands of people.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes. Thanks, Marc, for this. Sinan, want to come in quickly or are you happy with that?
SINAN ÜLGEN: No, not on this one.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Okay. So thank you, both of you. Next question, please. Just quickly identify yourself and one question per person. Yes, who’s next?
CAMILLE LE TALLEC: Hi. It’s Camille Le Tallec from La Croix. Following up on the last question, I would like to know whether, if the election results had been different and a coalition government had had to be formed in Turkey, would there maybe have been more chance for Turkey and the EU to face, in common, the migration crisis?
JUDY DEMPSEY: I’m not sure where to direct that question. Who would like to take that question? Sinan, would you?
MARC PIERINI: Sinan first.
SINAN ÜLGEN: If I understood correctly, it’s the question about what would have happened under the scenario of a coalition government, both on the side of the EU dynamic and the refugee issue. Is that the question?
CAMILLE LE TALLEC: Yes, it’s correct. Yes.
SINAN ÜLGEN: Yes. Well, personally I always thought that the coalition government would be a more favourable outcome regarding Turkey’s EU accession. In particular, if it was a grand coalition between CHP and AKP as opposed to a nationalist coalition, a grand coalition would have brought forward the EU agenda in a more constructive manner. But on the refugee issue, of course the coalition decision-making is likely to have been more difficult than under a single-party government. So some of the difficult decisions related to the future of refugees in Turkey, like opening the employment/jobs market, would have placed more constraints under a coalition setting than under the single-party setting.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, thanks for that, Sinan. Marc, do you want to add anything or shall we move on?
MARC PIERINI: Well, just adding one issue, it’s certainly true that now, with the AKP comfortably in power, they have almost the luxury to reconsider a number of foreign policy issues. Visa accession is one, Cyprus is another one, Syria is another one – refugees. The important element here is that the President this morning, before leaving Istanbul, said that he wanted the international community to recognise this victory and the legitimacy of his victory. There is no doubt about the legitimacy of the victory. But the issue here is that if we all want Turkey and the EU, Turkey and the Western community, to resume a normal constructive relationship, we need to see that the Turkish authorities – and that involves both the government and the President – will play these issues in a joint responsibility manner.
For example, Cyprus is this year under a unique opportunity of success for a lasting settlement on the island. Both leaderships are very positive. There are still difficult issues but what’s needed now is, of course, full acceptance from the guarantor powers and in particular from Turkey. That is one example where the result of the election could bring something positive that wasn’t there before.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Interesting. Thanks for this. Sinan, can I press on with the questions?
SINAN ÜLGEN: Yes, of course. Yes.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Hello? Yes, any other questions out there? Hello? No more questions. Marc, Sinan, can I come quickly and since there’s no more questions, we want to wrap this up very quickly. A word about Syria. Nobody’s mentioned this.
MARC PIERINI: Well, we have a few things to consider. Turkey’s position on Syria was, number one, that the Assad regime should finish and the President should go. Number two, that there should be a no-fly zone, safe zone. And number three, that the Syrian Kurds should stop at the Euphrates River and not reunite geographically all three districts – Syrian Kurdish district.
There is a need obviously for a revision of the Turkish policy because, with the Russian intervention, the Assad regime is not going to crumble and that may go at one point in the unknown future and we will perhaps have a different setup in Syria in a political transition where the Syrian Kurds will be formally part of the settlement. They have been helped by the US, as we know. They have been recognised politically by President Putin. So they are a full part, an integral part, of any settlement. That needs to be acknowledged by Turkey. But at the same time Turkey again has a stable government so can resume its full role in this diplomatic effort about Syria, provided a few adjustments.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, thanks, that’s very interesting. Thanks, Marc. Sinan, a quick word on Syria. Are you in concurrence with Marc?
SINAN ÜLGEN: Yes, well, more generally on foreign policy. I think what we need to see now is how the government will interpret this vote in terms of its foreign policy proclivities. What I mean by that is whether they’re going to interpret this as a backing of the myriad of foreign policy initiatives that ended up failing quite dismally after the Arab Spring in the region, weakening Turkey’s role in the region, or will they interpret this as a backing for the more recent, somewhat haphazard recalibration efforts that the government was making? So I think that’s an open question which it will be important to determine – how Turkey will behave or will adopt its foreign policy priorities going forward.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Sinan, thank you very, very much. I think that’s it, listeners, unless anybody has another question. I don’t think so. Thank you very much for joining. Thank you to Marc Pierini, thank you to Sinan Ülgen – our great scholars at Carnegie, Europe. Thank you very much for joining us. And I think there will be a transcript perhaps later in the day. Is that right, Monica?
MONICA TIBERI: Yes. And the podcast will be available in half an hour and the transcript though in a few hours.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Wow, wonderful. Thank you very much, all of you, for contributing.
MONICA TIBERI: Thank you.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thanks, Marc, again. Thank you, Sinan. Bye-bye.
Marc Pierini is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. He was the EU’s ambassador and head of delegation in Turkey from 2006 to 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.
Judy Dempsey is a nonresident senior associate at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of the Strategic Europe blog.