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What Turkey's looming election could mean for the fight against ISIS

Turkey is facing the second nationwide elections within a year.
Turkey is facing the second nationwide elections within a year.
Gokhan Tan/Getty Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced snap elections today after interim Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu abandoned his efforts to form a coalition government. The last parliamentary elections were only two months ago, but Davotoglu was unable to form a coalition, and the opposition already ruled out supporting a minority government.

This is a tenuous moment for Turkey and a potentially difficult time to hold elections. The country is engaged in major military offensives against ISIS and is also combating the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group. It has partnered with the United States against ISIS, but that relationship was already strained, and the election could complicate it further.

Earlier this week I spoke with Michael Werz, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an expert on security and emerging democracies who has focused on Turkey, about the significance of new elections. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Annett Meiritz: This week, Turkey ran out of options for a ruling coalition. As of Sunday, Erdogan can officially call early elections. How likely is that?

Michael Werz: Turkey is very likely to see new elections in November, maybe earlier. That seems to have been the strategy of President Erdogan all along. This is not a good development for Turkey.

There were two strong parties that came out of the last election, on June 7: Erdogan's ruling Islamist AKP (Justice and Development Party) and the social democratic CHP (Republican People's Party). A national unity coalition would have been the best solution for the country, to bring in some political rest.

Annett Meiritz: Turkey's fighting a two-front war against ISIS in Syria and Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq. Why would Erdogan be so eager to hold elections in a situation like this?

Michael Werz: Erdogan’s motives are pretty obvious.

The strong showing of the left-wing, Kurdish-orientated Turkish HDP (People's Democratic Party) challenged President Erdogan's increasingly aggressive attempts to introduce conservative religious principles into Turkish politics, to the education system, and to culture.

This also threatened Erdogan's dominance of Turkish politics and the AKP [Justice and Development, Erdogan's party], because the HDP took a lot of seats from the AKP in the eastern part of the country. In June, the AKP lost their majority in the Turkish assembly for the first time in more than a decade. Many observers have been wondering how Erdogan would respond to this challenge. Now we know.

Annett Meiritz: Is Erdogan likely to win in a new election?

Michael Werz: One has to be careful with giving prognosis in such a volatile situation, but at the moment, it seems, there is a likelihood that Erdogan's strategy is about to backfire.

Most recent opinion polls that we have seen have the AKP actually losing slightly, the Kurdish Party being as strong as they were before, and the opposition actually gaining a few percentage points. Which would basically mean that we end up with the same result that the June 7 election brought, with no clear majority for any party and the need to form a coalition government.

That would definitely leave Erdogan weaker. Many in the AKP already wonder whether he who once was an asset for the party is becoming a liability.

Annett Meiritz: When you see Erdogan's public appearances and his cheering supporters, you don't get the impression of him struggling, though.

Michael Werz: Erdogan is fighting for his political survival; the June 7 elections have left him weakened already.

For the first time, people in the AKP have started doubting him. Even AKP members are very uncomfortable with the fact that he has established himself as a de facto president with many more political powers than the constitution actually grants him in his own country.

There is a strong opposition among the nationalists, among Kurdish minority groups, among liberals, intellectuals, and social democrats in Turkish society. It is, for him, a lose-or-win-all situation. There are not many options, and there also are looming corruption investigations against members of his close family. So he has a lot of reasons not to expose himself to political and parliamentary scrutiny.

The US-Turkey relations are strained already

Activity At Incirlik Air Force Base Increases As It Prepares For War Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Incirlik Air Force Base: The US military uses the key air base near the border with Syria to launch airstrikes against ISIS.

Annett Meiritz: What does this development mean for Turkey's international partners, especially the US?

Michael Werz: Turkey is the United States' most important strategic partner in the region, independent of which government is actually running Turkey at the moment. And one shouldn’t forget Turkey has been an important NATO ally over the last few decades.

The contacts and the ties between the administrations are still strong; there is a lot of cooperation going with regard to the fight against ISIS and with regard to the situation in Syria. But at the same time, the state of relations is difficult, and they are definitely strained. That has been going on for a while; there has been major disappointment.

Just to mention one: the fact that a close NATO ally like Turkey had the United States beg for over a year to be able to use the Incirlik airbase. That is quite humiliating, and upset a lot of people here in Washington, DC.

Annett Meiritz: Do I understand it correctly that the US and NATO in general just have to deal with any government in Turkey? Because there aren't many other reliable partners left in the Middle East right now?

Michael Werz: There is a massive overlapping of interests between Turkish national interests, US security interests, and European interests.

At the same time, there has been a lot of concern about the Turkish course over the past three years — for example, about the Turkish government’s unclear position about ISIS activities in the region and it using Turkey as a fallback terrain. There have been increasing questions about Turkey's regional policies, which have not been very successful in establishing the EU partnership. At the same time, the Turkish government cares for Syrian refugees in a remarkable humanitarian effort.

So there is a mixed record, but not one without distinction.

Annett Meiritz: How long can the international partners tolerate that Turkey is bombing PKK rebels while it's supporting the fight against ISIS?

Michael Werz: The official position of the US government is that Turkey has the right to launch counterattacks against PKK terrorism. But whether this is tolerable forever — that is a discussion that is ongoing here in Washington.

It seems that President Erdogan has very cleverly played the Incirlik deal to his advantage and used it to launch an all-out attack, not as much against the PKK but even more so against HDP, the democratic Kurdish Party in Turkey, with an attempt to weaken them in the next round of elections.

That is something that people here in Washington understand very well. The US government has messaged strongly to the Turkish government that this is not acceptable. At the same time, the Turkish government seems to be determined not to ease those concerns. I personally think it's time to speak out much more clearly and, if needed, in public.

Planned "safe zone" at the Turkish-Syrian border: Erdogan has long been pushing for a buffer zone inside Syria, he's considering sending troops in there. The United States prefers a "no-fly zone" and fears that sending soldiers could trigger an escalation.

Annett Meiritz: What's going to be the challenge now for Turkey's allies?

Michael Werz: Turkey has a fairly strong bureaucracy, it has a military and a foreign office where a lot of professionals are working. So on the working level I think this is not an immediate challenge, because it’s a country which is very developed and has strong institutions.

But if the opinion polls are correct, Turkish people seem to understand that this aggressive, sectarian, and polarizing path is not in their own best interest. There is a vast majority of Turkish voters, including AKP members, that are against any adventures in Syria when it comes to establishing a safe zone and sending in Turkish soldiers.

I think one has to have a certain amount of trust in the Turkish population here. If the outcome of the election is the same as before, there will be no other path but to create a national unity government, and that will eventually also have its impact on curbing President Erdogan’s power.

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