Written by MORTEN MESSERSCHMIDT - ROBERT ELLIS
The remarkable thing about the Turkish election result is not that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, won but the unanimity in the international press that it would not be good for Turkish democracy if they gained 330 seats or more in the Turkish parliament. In the event, half the votes only resulted in 326 seats, falling short of the 330 seats needed to change the constitution with a referendum and the 367 seats which would have made it possible for the government to change the constitution alone.
The other common denominator was the fear that an overwhelming victory would reinforce what the Financial Times called the AKP’s “unsettling authoritarian tendencies”. This was demonstrated when The Economist recommended that Turks voted for the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, to put a brake on ErdoÄŸan’s autocratic style of government.
The reaction was not long coming. ErdoÄŸan blasted The Economist for being part of “a global gang” which took its orders from Israel, and for good measure blasted the CHP’s leader Kemal KÄ±lÄ±Ã§daroÄŸlu for also being “a project of international gangs”. The Wall Street Journal in turn accused ErdoÄŸan of “reviving the crackpot anti-Semitic media theories of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad”.
In a report published five days before the election, the Pew Research Center confirmed the reasons for ErdoÄŸan’s success. Some 49 percent of the Turks interviewed were upbeat about the economy as opposed to 14 percent in 2002 (when the AKP was first elected) and 46 percent in 2007 (the second election). In addition, 62 percent expressed confidence that ErdoÄŸan would do the right thing in world affairs.
The AKP government’s foreign policy orientation was clearly displayed in ErdoÄŸan’s victory speech when he declared: “Today Sarajevo won as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara, Ramallah, the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza won as much as DiyarbakÄ±r. Today, the Middle East, the Caucasus, the Balkans and Europe won as much as Turkey.” ´
However, the exercise of Turkey’s “soft power” and its policy of “zero problems with neighbors” have already met their first setbacks in Libya and Syria, and ErdoÄŸan has been forced to distance himself from Bashar al-Assad’s savage repression. A greater challenge lies with the growing unrest in Turkey’s southeast and Kurdish demands for regional autonomy, which will not diminish now that the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, has almost doubled its number of seats in the Turkish parliament.
The main stumbling block to Turkey’s European Union accession prospects is Cyprus. To date only limited progress has been made in the current negotiations and the core issues of property, territory and the Turkish settlers remain to be broached. At a meeting of the European Parliament’s Friends of Turkey at the end of March Andrew Duff stated Turkey would be making “a profound and historic strategic mistake” if it put Cyprus before the EU. But the onus now lies on Turkey – and in particular ErdoÄŸan – to take the necessary steps to end the impasse.
The balance of power has changed, as ErdoÄŸan underlined in Strasbourg in April. Turkey is no longer the supplicant at the gates, but Turkey needs Europe as much as Europe needs Turkey. Nevertheless, the Pew Research Center’s survey points out that only 17 percent of Turks believe their country should look to Europe in the future, whereas 25 percent look to the Middle East. Some 37 percent believe that both regions are equally important.
Columnist Semih Ä°diz recently mooted the notion that Ankara’s relations with Europe should be based more on economic self-interest than integration, and called for the establishment of a new “modus vivendi” and a new narrative between Turkey and Europe.
Now that a number of European and Turkish politicians are no longer laboring under the illusion of Turkish EU membership, this might be an opportune moment to reassess the situation.
*Morten Messerschmidt, MEP, and Robert Ellis are the chairman and advisor to the
Turkey Assessment Group in the European Parliament.