Media Call: Turkey's General Election

Media Call: Turkey's General Election

Murad Sezer/Reuters
from Media Conference Calls

More on:


Elections and Voting

Congresses and Parliaments

Steven A. Cook, CFR Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, breaks down Turkey's general election, in which the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority.


Steven A. Cook

Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies


MCMAHON: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations on-the-record media call on the Turkish elections.

They've produced stunning results and we are here to dig into the repercussions. I am Robert McMahon, editor of, and I will be presiding on this call. We are very fortunate to have as our expert guide, CFR Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies Steven Cook, who is a close watcher of Turkey and has been watching the rise—the ongoing rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan this—most of this century.

I'll be asking Steven questions for about 15 minutes before opening the call to your questions.

So, Steven, just to kick off, the result show the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, losing its parliamentary majority. Now, it's been noted that this effectively blocks Erdogan's plans to significantly increase the power of the presidency. And he has—and as I said, he has dominated Turkish politics for most of this century so far.

So my first question is to explain why and how this happened.

COOK: Well, first, let me just thank everybody for calling in today. It's a great pleasure. And yes, I think the Turkish elections were certainly exciting to watch, certainly more exciting than the last two. And the outcome is—is rather interesting, and obviously, that's why we're here.

I think that Erdogan was a major problem in this election—he himself. Of course, you know, and there's a lot of people out there who are—who are very happy that he's gotten his comeuppance, no less than millions and millions of Turks. And as a result, it's going to be much harder for him to get what he wants, which as, Bob, as you suggested, was to transform Turkey from a hybrid presidential-parliamentary system into a purely presidential system.

And it will be very, very interesting to see what his next move is. He gave a statement this morning—this morning our time suggesting that no single party has a mandate to rule alone. I think that's obvious by the numbers. But one has to wonder whether he is setting things up for a snap election. Remember, he is the president and he is the one who is going to tap the next prime minister to try to form a coalition. And I think that this may be an indication that he's setting things up.

But let me get back to why the results are the way they are. After all, the Justice and Development Party experienced a 70-plus seat—seat swing from the last elections. And I think you do have to, although Erdogan is clearly going to blame it on the party, blame it on Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, blame it on Bulent Arinc and others, it's clear he doesn't have the capacity for self-reflection and to understand how, one, he alienated Kurdish voters.

If you think back 12 years ago or 13 years ago when the AKP first came to power, some of its opponents were referring to it as—and this is their words not mine—"the Arab and Kurds Party" because many Kurds came out to vote for the AKP and had been a staunch constituency of the AKP.

He went too far in delegitimizing his opponents. I think it's clear the kind of language that Prime Minister (sic) Erdogan has used over the course of the last couple of years has alienated—has alienated many Turks. And most importantly, his attempts to hollow out Turkey's political institutions offended many, many voters including bubble voters, people who were not necessarily supportive of AKP's broad—broad vision, but nevertheless appreciated the gains that Turkey has made over the course of the last dozen years or so.

And I think that's part of the good news in this is that it's clear that despite what seems to be their best efforts, President Erdogan and the AKP have not been able to hollow out Turkey's political institutions to get whatever they want whenever they want.

MCMAHON: It was a big turnout, something like 86 percent. It looks like four parties are going to represented in parliament—in addition to AKP, the Republican Peoples Party, the Nationalist Movement Party, and the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party.

And you mentioned Erdogan's role in helping to form the government. What—what sort of role should we expect the current prime minister, Mr. Davutoglu, to have in this process? Is he someone to—that we need to start reckoning?

COOK: Well, I'm not sure. Davutoglu is not a particularly effective politician. He's—he was, prior to becoming the foreign minister in 2009, was a foreign policy adviser to then-Foreign Minister Gul—actually President Gul, but before that Foreign Minister Gul, who was kind of this bookish, academic. Of course, he—he has an overwhelming sense of himself, but I think that this may be the beginning of the end of Davutoglu, even if he is tapped to try to form a coalition government, which is the obvious place for President Erdogan to go.

Thus far, the—the Nationalist Peoples Movement Party, the MHP, has ruled out a coalition government. So has the People’s Democratic Party, this party that is predominantly a Kurdish party, but has been successful in broadening its constituency, has also ruled out a coalition government. And it seems unlikely that the Republican Peoples Party will also be willing to have a coalition government.

And that is why it seems that Erdogan is setting things up for a possible snap election 45 days from now.

Of course, those are all—everybody's opening statements, "We're not interested in a—in a coalition government." We'll see how well Davutoglu and Erdogan are in the bargaining process. Remember, they have never been—they've never been forced in this position before, going back to 2002, when they won 34.6 percent of the vote and had a overwhelming majority in the parliament because other parties didn't pass the 10 percent threshold.

They have never had to actually negotiate with other parties over forming a government.

So the next few weeks will be—will be extraordinarily interesting. It'll be extraordinarily interesting to see how President Erdogan, who was supposed to be apolitical, although we know that he hasn't, how he tries to influence the process.

And, like I said, it strikes me, just on his initial comments, that he's unhappy, obviously, with this outcome and is looking towards the possibility of a new election relatively soon.

MCMAHON: One of the many interesting subplots that are now percolating involves the Kurds. It's a large minority in Turkey. They were seen as facing a high threshold for representation. The 10 percent is a pretty high one...

COOK: Very high.

MCMAHON: ... as parliamentary democracies go. They exceeded it by what looks like a couple of percentage points.

Can you talk a little bit about what this party is about and what it means for a Kurdish voice in Turkish politics?

COOK: Now, let me just say that the HDP, the People's Democratic Party, right now, the final results are sort of trickling in, and so they're bouncing between 80 and 82 seats and about 13 percent of the vote, which is three points higher than—and it's a very, very high threshold for a parliamentary democracy of 10 percent.

And it's been that 10 percent threshold that has kept Kurdish-based parties out of—out of the parliament generally up to this point.

It has—it has been the feel-good story of this election. The expectations are extraordinarily high for the party, but let's everybody keep in mind that these people are newbies. They have been, up to this point, totally disorganized. They're new to the political process. And they're gonna have to manage expectations, since they're likely to be in the opposition.

Let me also point out that, you know, this 13.15 percent that right now, at least the latest numbers that I have, would—is a very, very strong turnout for a new party and speaks well of the party leader's, Selahattin Demirtas', political skills.

But it also is a number that has been inflated by liberal Turks and others choosing not to vote for the AKP or voters drifting away from the CHP, the Republican People's Party, whose percentage in the vote has barely budged.

So, what I think is the real genius behind the People's Democratic Party is that it is quite obviously a Kurdish-based party, but Demirtas took advantage of the current political environment in Turkey and spoke to issues beyond parochial Kurdish issues in the peace process and Kurdish rights, and talked about democracy and the role of Erdogan. And so, he gained a certain amount of votes.

Every liberal Turk that I've come across in the last however many months has been very, very pro-People's Democratic Party, and I think that's why they certainly passed the threshold. The question is whether they can maintain that coalition going forward.

MCMAHON: Now, you mentioned, intriguingly, earlier that they support the Kurds' (inaudible)—the AKP, and there has been an interesting relationship, shall we say, between Turkish Kurds and Erdogan.

How do—what is the scenario in which that might evolve further? Or how do you imagine the Kurds working with or working against Erdogan going forward in Turkey?

COOK: Well, like I said, you know, Demirtas has ruled out the idea of a coalition with the—with the AKP. And that's his opening statement.


COOK: We'll see what—we'll see what the Justice and Development Party has to offer them.

And let's also keep in mind the fact that despite the running against Erdogan in this, Prime Minister Erdogan—well, then-Prime Minister now President Erdogan—or I should say Primesident Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party have been, as we say in Washington, more forward leaning on the Kurdish issue than any previous party in Turkey and any previous government in Turkey, going back to 2005 and 2006 with a commitment to invest the number was $12 billion into the predominantly Kurdish southeast. There was an opening to the Kurds in 2008 and 2009.

Those didn't amount to too much in terms of the real fundamental changes. And then there has been this peace process with the PKK that has obviously drawn in the legal political parties in Turkey.

Those are all to Erdogan's credit. The problem that he and the AKP has confronted going forward is that you had a regional situation, the—last summer's battle over Kobani. You have had...

MCMAHON: That's the Syrian Kurdish...

COOK: The Syrian Kurdish city that was under attack by ISIS. You've had allegations that the PKK wasn't negotiating in good faith and that the AKP and President Erdogan have had to approach different constituencies in Turkey and try to maneuver in between them. And they decided that the safest place for them to be was along the nationalist—along the nationalist track.

And there was good reason for it. If you look back at the municipal elections of last spring, in April 2014, the one party that did better against the AKP, they didn't win, but did better against the AKP than others, is the MHP, the Nationalist Movement Party.

And that was the nationalist flank that Erdogan in particular decided he wanted to protect. The MHP and the AKP actually have overlapping constituencies and have worked together previously. So, as an aside, that's why this makes them a potential natural coalition partnership.

But this, in the process of taking this nationalist tack, it has alienated Kurds and Kurdish voters, and has, quite obviously, changed the Turkish political arena in I think very important ways.

MCMAHON: I should note, Steven is a featured analyst on a new CFR Interactive on the emergence of the Kurds in Turkey as well as in Iraq, Iran and Syria, the countries they historically have resided in. And I commend that to your attention.

Steven, I wanted to get into foreign policy a little bit. Turkey's in a—in a neighborhood in upheaval right now. I think it's hosting something along the lines of 2 million Syrians now, Syrian refugees on its soil. It is—it has had a somewhat dormant process of talking to the E.U. about accession. And it's—it was supposed to be held up as some sort of regional example, as the countries went through their—what they were known as the Arab awakenings of several years ago, although that has subsided as well.

What—what is to make of the possible impact of this election result on Turkish foreign policy?

COOK: Well, it's hard to really see a major fundamental change in Turkey's approach to Syria or Turkey's approach to Iraq or Turkey's approach to the region more generally.

Certainly, if there a MHP-AKP coalition, it might put the brakes on some of the things that the Turks would like to do in Syria or some of the developing of a relationship between Ankara and Erbil, for example, and actually complicates the Kurds in Iraq's efforts to realize their own independence.

But I don't see how it's going to fundamentally—first of all, if there is a coalition, if they can successfully put together a coalition government, it's likely that the AKP, which will be the senior partner in the coalition, will control the foreign ministry and the key ministries that deal with foreign policy.

And of course, you have President Erdogan who has never been magnanimous in victory. I don't imagine he'll be magnanimous under these circumstances and will continue to use whatever lever at his disposal to express his desires and express his views on foreign policy in a way that other presidents haven't.

The one area where it strikes me that there is a possibility—and I—you know, I imagine that some people on the other end of the lines are going to snicker at me—is actually the European Union. Turks have gone to the polls after significant concern that AKP and President Erdogan had successfully hollowed out Turkey's political institutions. It's clear that Turks take the Democratic procedures very, very seriously, have internalized those as a normal part of their political lives.

And now may be a time, despite what the AKP may or may not want, may be a time for the European Union to step up its diplomacy and, once again, talk seriously about the prospects of Turkey's negotiations, which have been, I think, dormant, for the most part, over the course of the last decade. There have been fits and starts. But now may be a time, because Turks have spoken about their desire to live in a more democratic and open society.

By no means is Turkey a democracy. There have been a lot of headlines, a lot of discussion on social media that amount to, "Yay, democracy." But I don't see that any of the parties are particularly committed to this project, unless there's a signal from Brussels and that they see it as in their interest, whether it's to outmaneuver the other parties in internal politics or whether they actually believe in it.

MCMAHON: Thanks, Steven.

With that, I would like to open up this call to those on the line. And a reminder, this is a CFR on-the-record media call on the outcome of the Turkish elections. And we have Steven Cook, CFR's Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, helping us navigate what to make of the results and what may be coming next.

Operator, can you tell us if there's any questions on the line right now?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir.

Ladies and gentlemen, at this time, the floor is open for your questions. If you would like to ask an audio question, you may do so now by pressing star one on your touch-tone phone. We'll take questions in the order they are received. If at any time you need to remove yourself from the questioning queue or your question has been answered, press star two. Again, to ask an audio question now, please star one.

And our first question comes from Arshad Mohammed with Reuters.

QUESTION: Thank you, gentlemen, for doing the call. Two things. Am I correct in understanding that, in all probability, the only circumstance in which there would be a snap election would be if no one was able to form a coalition government?

And then, secondly, can you—Steven, you made an interesting comment about how Erdogan had not been magnanimous in victory and it was therefore even less likely that he would be magnanimous in defeat or least in a setback. Can you sketch out for us the ways in which he may seek to maintain influence over or undercut, undermine, subvert any coalition government that might ultimately come to power, so as to try to advance the interests of the AKP over time and himself, in particular?

COOK: Thanks, Arshad. Those are two excellent questions. Yes, my reading of Turkish electoral laws, and so on and so forth, is that if there is no coalition government in 45 days, that there would be a new election and the president would call the new election. Of course, there is the possibility of a minority government.

One can imagine the CHP and the MHP coming together. But they together have barely exceeded what the AKP has gotten, based on the numbers that I had before I walked in the door here. So it strikes me that that is a possibility that everybody sticks to their opening statement. But we'll just have to see what happens in the coming weeks.

I was struck by the things that Erdogan had said about no party having a mandate. Some might read that—some who are not as granularly familiar, if that's a word, with Erdogan and his ways, as perhaps I am, some might read that as him being, you know, reaching out and saying, OK, well, we really do need a coalition government and I understand what happened yesterday. And I read it as laying the foundation for him, saying, well, there can't be a—there's no coalition government. We'll have to have new elections.

As far as your other question goes, if, in fact, there is a coalition government, one that Erdogan grudgingly accepts, I think that there are obviously a number of ways in which he can either undermine it or use who he is to extend his influence beyond the—beyond a constitutionally formally mandated powers of the presidency. And much of that is what the kinds of things that he has already being doing.

Although he is, you know, clearly, the presidency is not—it's not—and I've seen this a few times in the media. And you—I know you would never write this, but that the Turkish presidency is a ceremonial position; it's not. It is a political position. It does have some powers that are quite important and some powers that lay dormant that traditionally Turkish presidents haven't taken up, but that Erdogan has clearly decided that he will use. For example, chairing cabinet meetings.

Let's remember, he was the prime minister for 12 years, very successful politically, has the bureaucracy packed with people that support him. When he discovered some of those people didn't support him, he had those purged.

And I think that there are ways through one—the media, through the bureaucracy, through who he is, the fact that he does have a very large core constituency. I mean, we're talking about a party that scored about 41 percent of the popular vote. Only against, its own past success `do we see this as a huge setback. Yes, 9-percent-point drop is a drubbing, but it's still—they still are the senior coalition.

So I think that Erdogan—I would never count him out. He's an excellent politician—among the best. And I can certainly see that he is in the media, the powers of his own office, the powers of persuasion, going over the government to get what he wants.

I think that he will certainly continue to have his eyes on a presidential system and devise ways in which he can make that happen regardless. I do expect that he will, at some point, do in Ahmet Davutoglu, Bulent Arinc and a number of other AKP notables with whom he's had some difficult relations recently. And now he—he actually, as opposed to a few months ago—now he actually has reason to try to bring them down.

QUESTION: Can I ask one other thing?

COOK: Yeah, sure. Go ahead.

QUESTION: If there were to be—if—if they were to fail to form a coalition government and therefore there were to be snap elections, A, how many days after the 45-day period would that take place? Is that sort of constitutionally mandated?

And then B—and I realize, you know, predicting election results is a hazardous business, but why would anybody think that a snap election, you know, however many weeks hence, would necessarily produce a different result?

COOK: Let me answer the second part of your question before the `first part of your question, because I have to be completely honest. I completely forgot what the constitution says about snap elections and the number of days in between (inaudible) search my—my mind while I—while I (inaudible) answer your question.

I don't know. I don't know why anybody would believe in the current circumstances that elections would produce a different result, especially if Erdogan is being seen—Erdogan and in the AKP are being seen as particularly obstreperous with regard to coalition formation.

Up until now, though, and of course, we're less than 24 hours since the polls close and the—and the counting began, you know, it seems to be that it's on the CHP, the MHP and HDP.

They are the ones who were initially saying we—we don't see—we don't foresee a coalition with the—with the Justice and Development Party, which, you know, in—when you—when you move past this immediate kind of assessment of the election could work to their advantage.

But again, Erdogan seems to be—seems to be setting it up so that that is—that is a possibility. Meanwhile, we are furiously looking for what that—that number is. Can't find it.

Let's move onto another question, and then I'll hop in with the—with the answer (inaudible). Thanks so much.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Pinar Ersoy with Milliyet.

QUESTION: Hi, Steven. Could you talk about the possible implications (inaudible) on the Turkey with U.S. relationship, the Washington (inaudible) with the coalition (inaudible) the coalition...

COOK: Yeah. Thanks, Pinar. How are you? It's good to hear from you.

You know, I think quite obviously, the United States is going to accommodate itself to whatever outcome Turks themselves produce. I think that there's probably a sigh of relief at the State Department and the White House this morning that there wasn't as—you know, there was a lot of speculation about the security of the ballot box and that there—there seemed to be—you know, this was handled in a free and fair manner that Turks organized themselves to observe the ballot box.

So I think that, you know, Washington is—is quite obviously pleased with the conduct of the election. Now, in terms of coalition formation, look, this is—this is somewhat of a problem given the fact that, you know, for all of the anti-Americanism that the AKP has spun out, it has been the party that has been most willing to work with the United States.

The MHP and the CHP haven't necessarily been, you know, models of—of, you know, pro-American defending the relationship. They've—they've the U.S. position in the Middle East and elsewhere as a way to—at least to seek political benefit.

So it will be, I think, somewhat more difficult in—in a coalition government, however it works—however it works out. I think that we shouldn't worry too much about this. Remember, Turkey (inaudible) are somewhat at odds on—on a variety of foreign-policy issues related to the Middle East in particular, and I don't think the position of either the United States or the Turkish position is going to change that radically on Syria, on Iraq, on Egypt, on the Palestinians in ways that—that are going to either vastly improve the relationship between Washington and Ankara, or—or make worse.

I think one of the unspoken things was certainly one of the things that the Obama administration has—has let go but has certainly been concerned about in a quiet way is the quality of politics within—in Turkey in a kind of thuggish way in which the AKP has approached politics.

Perhaps there is a capacity for self-reflection within the party and the party of the (inaudible) and being forced to cohabitate with another party will—will force a more consensual Turkish politics.

I'd refer that question back on you, whether you think that that's—that's likely or not.

MCMAHON: Operator, thanks. Thank you for the question, Operator. Is there another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question comes from Clayton Jones with the Christian Science Monitor newspaper.

QUESTION: Hi. I'd like to ask how this election might resonate around the region four years after the Arab Spring. What messages are in it for the rest of the Middle East?

COOK: Not much. I think when you look at—you look around the region and you have four countries that are disintegrating Egypt where you have resurgent authoritarianism, I certainly in Egypt, there's a lot of satisfaction derived from the fact that President Erdogan got his—got his comeuppance. But I don't think—I think the—first of all, the heyday of the Turkish model is, you know—all of this was overstated to begin with.

And I think that given the—the stakes within the countries like Iraq, in Syria and even Egypt, which, you know, is obviously not experiencing the same kind of problems as—as those places, Turkey and the Turkish election isn't—isn't much in the way of a factor in the way in which—in the way in which people are looking at their own political systems.

In—in Egypt, it's very, very hard these days to express an alternative view, especially if you want to say, "Hey, look. The Turks just conducted a free and fair election and—and gave a drubbing to their—to their great master. We should do the same to (inaudible) Sisi." I think that person would find themselves in a—in a lot of trouble very, very quickly.

It may to, you know, the small group of people who are continuing to labor on the sidelines of—in Arab countries—it may very well be that, you know, looking at what the Turks have been able to do is a source of—hey, over time, we can push in that direction well, but I don't see how the political forces are aligning in—in any of these places.

And, you know, everybody points to Tunisia. I think at this point, you know, by the time the Turks had this election, the Tunisians could make the claim that they were even, you know—had surpassed the quality of their—their—their democratic procedures were—were as good, if not better than those of the Turks.

MCMAHON: Thanks for that question.

Operator, do you have another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question comes from (inaudible) with Haberturk (ph).

QUESTION: Hi, Steven. Thank you for doing this.

I have two questions, and very short, the first one. How much do you think foreign policy played role in the outcome of this election?

And my second question is, as we know, AKP has (inaudible) for three terms, which is, for the first time—and do you think that this outcome is actually natural, rather than, despite all the—if you put aside all the internal turmoil that Turkey has faced in the—in the last couple of years?

COOK: Those are—those are great questions. And let me answer them backwards. You know, a lot of people say that. You know, the AKP has overstayed its welcome in the same way that, you know, for example, Margaret Thatcher overstayed her welcome, or, you know, Americans' desire to turn out, you know, Democrats or Republicans after they've been in power for—for, you know, a long period of time. There's this kind of 12-year limit. Maybe. It's hard to know.

Certainly—it's certainly the case that Erdogan helped create this problem for himself. He has been singular among Turkish politics—politicians in that he really did seem to, and continues to have a kind of innate ability to read Turks and understand what it is they want and kind of represent a lot of that kind of middle-class centrist conservative kind of sweet spot in Turkish politics.

I think he underestimated how much people, Kurds would abandon him. How much that he could keep that—you know, grips on that nationalist wing when the—when the MHP was making—was making in-roads. And I think he was kind of hammered between the Kurds and—and nationalists— and the nationalists, and shows, I think, probably the wrong route. Although I don't blame him. If I was sitting in the same place, I probably would have done precisely the same thing.

And, again, his thuggish approach to politics. You know, even before the Gezi Park protests, as you well know, were things that were—were quite alienating to—to many, many Turks. And he only needed to move one of these other parties in a few—given the way in which the Turkish electoral law is written, he only needed to move one of these parties in a few percentage points in—in a positive direction to take a real serious bite out of the AKP's parliamentary majority.

Now, on this question of foreign policy, the temptation is to say, you know, not really. Not so much. This is all about the messy politics. But, of course, in Turkey, foreign policy is directly related to—to foreign policy. And everything that Erdogan and AKP has done on the foreign policy front has been calculated to see how it helps him domestically.

One of the things that had—I think was surprising to me a number of trips ago to Istanbul, Ankara and other places was—was that, despite the fact that, you know, there was a sense that Kemalism is dead and Turkey has kind of grown out of the principles that—that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk demanded, that there were certain things that lived on. And that was—one of them was the way in which people interpret, you know, his famous saying, "Peace at home and peace in the world," which—and that interpretation is, Let's not get too involved in other people's affairs, especially the affairs of the region around us. And the kind of activist foreign policy specifically related to Syria that has placed Turkey's national security in jeopardy to some extent is something that I sense people were quite worried about. And that may have been a factor in—in the way people—in the way people voted.

Certainly, the outreach to the Kurds was something that, you know, nationalists have responded to. The failure to help Kurds—and this kind of speaks to the dilemma that Erdogan and the AKP found themselves in—the failure to reach out to the Kurds, especially during the Kobani incident, also had a negative effect on their—on their performance yesterday.

MCMAHON: Thank you for that question.

Operator, do you have another question, please?

OPERATOR: We do. Before we do, we'd like to remind you that if you'd like to ask a question, to please press star, one now.

Our next question comes from Joseph Dyke (ph) with the Syrian News Services.

QUESTION: Oh, thank you. OK. The exiting (ph) largely kept Turkey's borders open to Syrian refugees, especially when compared to Lebanon and Jordan. But all of the opposition parties have been more hostile to the policy or have been more reticent, perhaps.

Is it likely that any government that comes out of these negotiations will be less in favor of open borders?

COOK: Well, I think, you know, certainly a combination of AKP and MHP would be likely less responsive to the idea of continuing to keep Turkey's borders open. Which would be—you can understand it, but unlike refugee crises in the past, the Turks have been actually quite good in terms of providing, you know, relief of the international standards for Syrians seeking refuge from the horrific violence engulfing Syria.

You can also see that being the case in an AKP-CHP coalition, although I think that coalition is—is less likely than one with—with MHP.

Certainly—and this is what I meant before in my—when Bob and I were talking about, that there may be a break to some extent on the way in which the AKP has approached the Syria crisis. But overall, I don't see it as there's going to be a major fundamental shift. And, again, keep in mind that AKP will be the senior member of—of the coalition, and likely to get the kinds of ministerial portfolios that will be most important with regard to foreign policy and—and internal security.

It's—it—but I think your—you know, your reading is that there is significant internal pressure about the disposition of Syrian refugees in Turkey —millions of people—who, at this point, don't look like they're going home anytime soon, if ever. So I think this is a challenge the Turkish governments are going to confront going forward, and one that the Justice and Development Party has not actually grappled with other than a generally laissez-faire attitude towards Turks—not—not just the refugees, but—but Syrians of more means making their way in Gaziantep, as well as Istanbul, and kind of settling there.

MCMAHON: You know, also border traffic the other way, Steven.

COOK: Yeah.

MCMAHON: Turkey's been identified as the number one point of transit for so-called Islamic State fighters into Syria, in particular. Are you seeing any—that playing into, you know, essentially a future government role in clamping down more on that front? Or is that still going to be kind of a murky area?

COOK: I think it's going to be a murky area. This is, you know, the world of not necessarily open—open discussion, open politics. I think that the Turkish government has been of late coordinating with the Saudis and the Qataris to some effect on the battlefield. I think it's a dangerous—I think it's a dangerous thing. It continues to be a dangerous thing.

It's very, very hard, though, to imagine a—something other than stasis in—in Turkish foreign policy. That's not to suggest that, you know, the MHP or the CHP are on board with the Turkish government's rhetoric about you must bring Assad down. They'd rather not have anything to do with this conflict. But the fact of the matter is, is that the Turks are directly involved, and I think that they will continue that.

MCMAHON: Thanks.

And just a reminder to those on the call, this is a CFR on the record media call with Senior Fellow Steven Cook talking about the outcome of the Turkish parliamentary elections.

Operator, do we have another question on the line, please?

OPERATOR: We do. Our next question comes from Joe Lauria (ph) with the Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Actually, your last answer touched on what my question was gonna be, which is, is recent evidence that, in fact, Erdogan's government has been supporting jihadists in Syria? I'm talking about those three trucks and the Defense Intelligence Agency document of about 10 days ago, which clearly said the West, Turkey and the Gulf Arab states were supporting Salafists and Al Qaida, this is from August 2012, inside Syria.

Now, the CHP had been saying that they were doing this for a long time, it was denied. Now, there's evidence. Did that play any role, do you think, in the election result?

COOK: Well, the CHP has been saying this for a very long time. The CHP—there have been CHP delegations that have gone to visit with Bashar al-Assad. The fact that the CHP was willing to publicize this certainly did not accrue to the benefit of the CHP in this (ph) election. They have remained basically in the same place that they were before these elections with, you know, I think the—I think the CHP is steeling (ph) itself as a—as a regional party with its base is Ismir (ph), you know, and will continue to have a limited appeal broadly among the Turkish public.

But, getting back to your question, I think, you know, this is the worst kept secret in Turkey, that they have been coordinating with extremist groups, more recently working with the Saudis and the Qataris in this—to coordinate this army of conquest that has done fairly well most recently.

There's less evidence that they've been directly involved with ISIS. I think that that is a—that is a creation of the JDP and the opposition in the run-up to these—in the run-up to these elections.

It may have had an effect on people who were looking for some other place to vote. It might have driven some people to the HDP, given—and wanting to punish the AKP for not helping the Kurds and/or trafficking with these kinds of people.

But it's unclear until a real deep dive analysis on the elections and why people voted the way they did, which I fully expect to happen. You know, there's a number of good Turkish centers and academics who do these fantastic electoral geographies and ethnographies, and you can kind of see the way in which people voted.

But we'll have to wait at least a few weeks for that kind of thing.

MCMAHON: Joe, thanks for that question.

Operator, is there another question on the line, please?

OPERATOR: There is. Our next question comes from Damon Harris (ph) with Chevron.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks, Steven, for taking the call and talking to us a little bit about this.

I've got a question—you may have already sort of touched on this a bit, but maybe a more nuanced picture of how you see the relationship between Ankara and Irbil going forward, based on sort of the changing dynamics of internal Turkish politics?

COOK: It's a terrific question. And I think it really will depend on how the coalition talks go and what, ultimately, the coalition government will look like.

Already, things have—you know, things have not been great since the Kobani incident or when the peshmerga underperformed last August and the Turks were very slow to offer assistance to the Kurds in Irbil. There has been this relationship between the AKP and Masoud Barzani's KDP. And I think that Barzani was expecting some more support from Turkey at that moment, and they didn't get it.

But I think that it is—what it certainly complicates and certainly I think perhaps made moot was this idea that Erdogan and Barzani could cooperate with each other in a way that would make Erdogan the king of the Turks, which he has been since he became the president last August, and that would make Barzani the king of the Kurds.

I think any of the—any coalition government with the exception of an AKP-HDP government, severely complicates the Iraqi Kurdish ultimate goal, which is have their own independent state. It strikes me that the Turks don't really have an option to prevent the Iraqi Kurds from declaring their independence or going down the road of a referendum ahead of a declaration of independence.

They're not gonna march an army on Irbil. Kind of punitive economic and financial sanctions will really only hurt Turkey, which has a significant presence in the KRG. But the politics of it in a coalition government, especially with the Nationalist Party, will make it much more difficult for Erdogan or whoever the—if it's Prime Minister Davutoglu or anybody else to countenance any kind of significant change in the status of the KRG.

MCMAHON: Thank you for that question.

Operator, is there another question, please?

OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question comes from Stewart Ames (ph) with the New York Jewish Week.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thanks again for doing the call. I wanted to check and see, you had mentioned no change with the Palestinians. So you believe that they will still be the help for Hamas and that they will continue to spout anti-Semitism?

I see some people saying that the anti-Semitism and anti-homo—you know, homosexuals, et cetera, there was a backlash there. Do you see that as well?

COOK: I think among, you know, some—we shouldn't, you know, I think blow this out of proportion, that people were offended by Erdogan's anti-Semitism or his anti-gay rhetoric and so on and so forth.

I certainly think, again, in this—in this environment, in the way in which the Turkish electoral laws are written, movement of a few percentage points of any party in a positive direction has a profound effect in the way in which seats are allocated in the parliament.

I do expect—look, there is no—there's no party in Turkey that—and we don't know enough about what the HDP, you know, how they view the world and how they view that particular issue, but there's really no party in Turkey that is a particular friend to Israel, that doesn't have, you know, a profound strain of anti-Western, anti-Zionism, or anti-Semitism.

And so I think that, you know, Erdogan had—continues to have a core constituency that is rather large—let's remember it's almost 41 percent of the electorate—and that responds well to his anti-Israel rhetoric.

And the problems in the Israel-Turkey relationship, are, one, I think beyond the AKP's core constituency. There may be people—more people than we would suspect who think that the—for example the Mavi Marmara incident was reckless of the AKP. But the fact of the matter is that eight Turks and a Turkish-American were killed by Israeli forces in that incident. And that's a deep and profound offense to Turks generally speaking, beyond the—beyond the AKP core constituency.

And let's also recognize the fact that, you know, Turkey and Turks are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Those few years between 1996 and 2000 in which there was this tight strategic alignment between Israel and Turkey was a particular—was a product of a particular moment and a particular configuration of political forces in Turkey itself that made that possible. Otherwise, the Turks have been, you know, run from neutral to somewhat hostile to not wanting to have to be directly involved in this, in this conflict at all.

So, I would expect, and you'll continue to hear a significant amount of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, the whole kind of panoply of things that we've heard thus far that have been disturbing will continue. It may be more muted, but it will certainly be there.

MCMAHON: And it was to continue to keep Hamas as a base in Turkey?

COOK: I don't see—I don't see that there will be a major change. There may be, but I don't think it's anything that any junior partner in a coalition is going to demand as a—as a stipulation of government.

QUESTION: Good, thanks.

MCMAHON: Thank you for that question.

Operator, do we have another question please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir, our next question comes from Gulveda Lama (ph) with Haberturk.

QUESTION: Hi, Steven.

I have a hypothetical question. It's which coalition government do you think will work more harmoniously with the United States in combating ISIS? Is it AKP, MHB, the nationalist party, or AKP-HGP (ph) Kurdish party?

Which one do you think will be more in line with the coalition's agenda to defeat and destroy ISIS?

COOK: I would suspect that a AKP-HGP (ph) coalition would be more—more predisposed towards the ISIS—anti-ISIS coalition than an AKP-MHP because—the coalition, because that would be obviously the MHB being nationalist party, obviously given the AKP base that they have, they share a constituency, and I think it would pull the—I think it would pull the AKP a little more on to the MHP position on this.

I think it's likely they, that coalition would be much more concerned about Kurdish nationalism than the ISIS threat, which the way in which the current government has approached—approached the Kobani issue, approached the entire situation with regard to northern Syria more generally.

Obviously the HDP, being Kurdish-based, would see how ISIS is more of a challenge to you know, Kurdish rights all over greater Kurdistan, and would likely want to—want a change in Turkish policy.

MCMAHON: Thanks for your question.

Operator, is there another question please?

OPERATOR: No, sir, at this time we have no other questions. So I'll turn it back to you for closing comments.


I had wanted to touch on something we didn't get into that much, which is sort of the—what are we to see potentially on the rise for the Turkish economy, if it had been one of the things that might put wind in the sails of AKP, especially during the middle years of its dominance, it has—the economy's been tailing off, and there's been some concern about the strong arm of Erdogan there, certainly in his later years as prime minister.

Any thoughts about the Turkish economy after these elections?

COOK: Well, as you know, at the opening of the Istanbul stock exchange day all of those construction companies that were closely linked to the AKP took a beating, which you know, if I take my analyst hat off for a second, which was kinda cool, but I think that the AKP has generally been good stewards of the Turkish economy.

I think you know, they have—and one of the reasons why Erdogan has been so intent on this interest rate lobby thing is because he understands that they—they, Turkey has experienced to some extent a consumer credit bubble. Turks are—you know, just becoming used to using credit in certain ways, and that a rise in interest rates can be quite hurtful to the Turkish economy. I think it's coming—the economy is going to grow about three percent this year. It's coming back to—coming back to earth. It's going to be a little bit more difficult, but I think that going forward, the real issue is what does this coalition government look like?

Remember, the 1990s, which you know, because Erdogan has pursued a kind of thuggish approach to the political arena, the 1990s where you had coalition government, you had significant economic uncertainty. Now, in the late 1990s early 2000s, Kamal Dervaig (ph), an economist, someone who had you know long experience in international financial institutions and subsequently Turkish politics, came in and fixed the banking sector and so on and the AKP has stuck to that. Let's hope that those changes have been actually institutionalized and—and we won't see the kinds of economic problems going forward, but certainly the big economic crisis of 2001 was in part in a big way a function of the political uncertainty emerging from unstable coalition governments.

This is just by way of previous—this is something that I'm going to be touching on an article that I'm going to be writing that'll be out on Wednesday about you know, post-Turkey elections. It's not all good news. Anyway, that's—that's my view of the—of what might happen.

MCMAHON: And where should we look for the article?

COOK: That'll be in the American Interest.

MCMAHON: Thank you.

And on that note, we are going to conclude this CFR on-the-record media call on Turkey's landscape, political landscape, foreign policy landscape after its rather stunning election results from yesterday. We're really thankful to have CFR senior fellow Steven Cook as our guide today, and thank you all for taking the time to stay on this blog—to stay on this call, excuse me.

I wanted to reference also Steven's blog, From the Potomac to the Euphrates for further analysis about the situation in Turkey and the region.

Thanks again for taking part in this CFR media call.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes today's presentation. You may disconnect your phone lines, and thank you for joining us this morning.


Most Recent