In less than a week, on 24 June 20118, Turkish citizens will cast their votes for presidential and parliamentary elections, the first time that both elections will occur at the same time. The elections have been moved to sixteen months earlier than originally scheduled, prompting fears that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is planning for a decisive victory. His decision for early elections are likely linked to the suffering Turkish economy and his desire to usher in the new presidential system, which was decided after a 2017 referendum, so that he may have control of the economy without the impediment of a tedious parliamentary process. Other factors involve the continued state of emergency, the Syrian civil war and resultant migration, regional and national security, and Turkey’s relations with the European Union and other foreign actors. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) hopes to emerge victorious due to a divided opposition and the state of emergency which has resulted in arrests of activists, journalists and opposition members.
The presidential and parliamentary elections
Next week’s elections will be the first time that Turkey votes for the president and parliament on the same day, a new electoral system that was made possible by constitutional amendments adopted after a controversial referendum in April 2017. The referendum sought to convert Turkey’s governance into a presidential system, bestowing more powers on the president, abolishing the position of prime minister, and introducing a vice president. Election for parliament is based on a proportional representation system; a total of 550 seats are contested, allocated by the D’Hondt methodwhich favours larger, national parties over small parties. Each party is required to win more than 4.6 million votes (or ten per cent) to be eligible to enter parliament, a threshold that is critical in determining electoral outcomes.
The ruling party, Erdogan’s AKP, obtained forty-nine per cent of the vote in the November 2015 parliamentary election, winning 317 seats after failing to form government in earlier elections in June (based on Article 116 of the Constitution). The AKP is aiming for more than fifty per cent of the vote in the presidential election so as to win the first round of voting and prevent a runoff, scheduled for 8 July, between the top two candidates. More than three million Turkish ex-patsworldwide started casting their votes on Sunday (17 June 2018), and the AKP is expected to win a significant proportion of votes from over sixty countries where Turkish citizens reside. Erdogan was prevented from campaigningin a number of European countries following Turkey’s spat with Germany and other countries in the run up to the 2017 referendum. Instead, he attempted to reach out to the expatriate community through a massive rally in Bosnia, which attracted a huge number of AKP supporters from Germany, Netherlands, Austria and the Balkans. Erdogan hopes to increase his numbers within ex-pat communities to help secure his majority.
Eleven parties will contest the elections, as announced by the Supreme Board of Elections on 22 April 2018. This includes the new centre-right IYI (Good) Partythat was formed in October 2017 after a split from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). IYI leader, Meral Aksener is a popular former interior minister. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has nominated Muharrem Inceas its presidential candidate. He hopes to eat into Erdogan’s support base using the ‘working-class’ charm offensive that Erdogan had successfully used in his early political career. The CHP has entered a coalition with the similarly conservative Saadet (Felicity) Party, under the banner of Nation Alliance, to challenge the AKP. The alliance also includes IYI and the Democratic Party (DP), and it hopes to gain a parliamentary majority. The Democratic Party, which includes the Motherland Party and the former True Path Party (DYP), will contest the elections with their candidates appearing under the CHP list.
The AKP is also in a coalition, the People’s Alliance, with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Great Unity Party. This coalition will be challenged not only by the CHP-led Nation Alliance, but also the new National Union of Kurds, both of which hope to upset the AKP parliamentary majority. The Kurdish group is led by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party(HDP), whose leader, Selahattin Demirtas, has been leading the election campaign from inside prison, where he is being held on terrorism-related charges. The Kurdish alliance has emerged as a strong contender, hoping to sway voters in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast region, which includes some 140 000 voters who feel disgruntled because of the government’s decision to relocate a number of voting stations, affecting 114 000 voters. Demirtas and his party have not been allowed freely to campaign in the run up to these elections, have been given no media interviews except a twenty-minute television slot on Sunday, and have had to rely heavily on social media platforms. If the HDP reaches the ten per cent threshold required to enter parliament, it could significantly alter the percentage of AKP seats, thus threatening the AKP’s ability to win an outright majority.
The AKP has dominated Turkey’s politics for sixteen years, and has been accused of employing repression to continue this domination. The state of emergency, imposed after the July 2016 attempted coup, under which the elections will take place is one such security measure that may influence political outcomes. Further, there is an ongoing crackdownon journalists, academics, activists and opposition members, such as the eleven HDP membersof parliament facing terrorism-related charges, that began after the July 2016 attempted coup. Many opposition figures see this crackdown which has seen pro-government media dominating the news, as an attempt to help the AKP emerge victorious at the polls.
Despite these negative aspects, however, Erdogan remains popular, and is likely to sway voters using the nationalist-Islamist rhetoric that he has successfully used for more than a decade. Despite accusations that he seek to usher in conservative religious politics, and his rivals referring to him as the ‘caliph-in-waiting’, Erdogan insists that Turkey will maintain its secularity even after the presidential system is implemented.
Turkish economy running out of steam?
Despite the AKP’s impressive economic successes, which saw the previously troubled economy (reeling from the 2000s financial crisis) attract foreign investment, boost trade ties, and experience unprecedented growth and employment. The economic boom in the past was largely based on investment and export capabilities of mostly electrical goods, which boosted the manufacturing sector and increased consumption. Over the past few months the Turkish Lirahas steadily weakened and inflation has steadily risen. The weakening economy has been a boon for opposition groups, which have lain the blame for it at the AKP’s door, especially after Erdogan’s statementlast month about taking control of the central bank. His statement followed the Lira’s drop by more than twenty per cent this year alone, causing the central bank to raise interest ratesin an attempt to stabilise the currency. Erdogan’s response in his campaign, was to blame ‘foreign powers’ for the crisis, and offering few solutions except government control of the economy.
The president’s failure to effectively address the economic challenge could lose him significant support even if he does win the election, especially since the opposition seems equally oblivious. The opposition continues to blame him for the weakening currency, but offer few practical solutions. IYI’s presidential candidate, Meral Aksener, proposed a ‘Turkey Solidarity Fund’ to erase eighty per cent of the debt of poorer citizens and students, with the rest of the debt to be paid over ten years. But this proposal fails to address the lack of stability in the economy created by excessive borrowing, government tax cuts, and heavy government incentivising of industries that has pushed up the inflation rate.
This month’s elections campaigning has focused mostly on the deteriorating economy, but other pressing matters around foreign policy in the context of the ongoing Syrian conflictand relations with the European Union have also featured prominently. Erdogan has leveraged foreign policy successes such as the recent campaign against the YPG in northern Syria and cross-border military operations in Iraq and Iran against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). These victories, and the AKP’s former record of high economic growth, supported by a repressive political environment, will benefit Erdogan and his party. Despite AKP denials, the opposition is probably correct that bringing these elections forward is Erdogan’s attempt to leverage government’s popularity before the economic crisis worsens. The opposition alliances hope that economic challenges, coupled with state repression, will help them prevent the AKP attaining a parliamentary majority. However, many opposition parties will struggle to reach the required ten per cent threshold, and divisions within the opposition, reflecting the polarised Turkish society, will weigh against them, and Turkey’s new presidential system will likely be ushered in with the ruling party winning the presidency and increasing its parliamentary majority.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Talks between the Syrian regime and opposition forces, held in Kazakhstan’s capital from 23 to 24 January, concluded with Russia, Turkey and Iran announcing their intention for a trilateral mechanism to monitor and enforce the ceasefire between regime forces and rebels. The talks aimed to build on the 30 December truce, which was brokered by Ankara and Moscow, and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. Delegations from armed opposition groups and the Syrian regime were meant to speak directly; however, this failed to materialise. The talks suggest the possibility of a diplomatic resolution for Syria in the future, but one which will favour the regime, and will not totally end the fighting.
The Astana talks highlighted the role of these three regional powers in Syria’s civil war, and the sidelining of the USA and Saudi Arabia; the former was invited as an observer, and the latter not at all. Astana did little to change the situation on the ground as regime forces continue attacking rebel fighters in Wadi Barada, near Damascus, while fighting between rebel groups broke out in Idlib, further weakening the opposition in the face of an assertive regime.
The nature of the Syrian civil war, with the involvement of a number of states supporting a range of actors, and the role of the Islamic State group (IS), has led to the failure of several UN-mandated peace talks. The organisers positioned the Astana talks as a basis for upcoming UN talks in Geneva, intended to cement the ceasefire while establishing a trajectory for future negotiations. The fall of Aleppo in December was a turning point in the conflict, and allowed the Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, to claim victory and rubbish any attempts to exclude him from any transition process. Since Turkish and Russian support led to Asad’s success in Aleppo, they also took the diplomatic initiative. Their ceasefire deal was signed by Syria and seven major opposition groups. It was active in all areas not under IS control, and excluded UN-designated ‘terrorist’ groups, particularly IS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Qa'ida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra). When the parties decided early January that the ceasefire was substantially holding, Russia and Turkey began preparations to host talks between the regime and opposition forces.
Differing expectations of the Astana talks threatened to collapse the dialogue before it has started. Asad expressed hope that the armed rebel groups will disarm in exchange for an amnesty deal. Opposition groups expected to the talks only to strengthen the ceasefire, leaving any discussion of Syria’s political future to Geneva. The ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey has been more successful than previous agreements between Russia and the USA, and the organisers hoped that excluding the USA from a pivotal role may invoke greater trust between participants. Washington’s involvement in the Syrian peace process has decreased not only due to Asad’s ascendency with Russian support or Iran wishing to exclude them from the process, but also as Obama’s presidency ended. Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem also spoke highly of the chance of success due to ‘strong guarantees’ from Moscow, calling the ceasefire a potential starting point for a political process.
Although all opposition groups that had signed the 30 December ceasefire had received invitations to Astana, the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, one of the larger rebel groups, did not attend, citing the fighting in Wadi Barada. The USA had insisted that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD, the largest group in the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces) be involved; Moscow remained silent while Ankara refused to consider the inclusion of either the PYD or its armed wing, the YPG, due to their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The SDF responded by announcing its rejection any decisions that would be made in Astana. Opposition groups are divided, and the loss of eastern Aleppo highlighted their weakened position. Turkey is the opposition’s major state ally; however, Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow forces opposition groups to question the usefulness of a diplomatic route that constrains their offensive options and increases tensions with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The current fighting between Fateh al-Sham and allies against Ahrar al-Sham and allies in Idlib highlights this tension among rebel factions.
The Astana talks were largely unproductive, and their primary impact emerged from discussions on the sidelinesbetween Russia, Turkey and Iran on strengthening the ceasefire. In their agreement to set up a trilateral mechanism to monitor the ceasefire, the parties agreed there could be no military solution in Syria, and that the conflict could only be resolved through compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Neither the Syrian regime nor the rebel delegation appeared satisfied by the outcome of the talks. The opposition protested Iran’s inclusion in monitoring the ceasefire and mediating the conflict, and refused to sign any agreement. The government, meanwhile, announced the continuation of an offensive in Wadi Barada despite the ceasefire and had recaptured all rebel villages within a week.
An agreement to extend the ceasefire is a shaky foundation for the UN-mandated talks in Geneva starting on 20 February. Further, the exclusion of up to two thirds of opposition groups does not provide the rebel delegation with a popular mandate. The exclusion of armed groups with alleged al-Qa'ida links has further divided the opposition while providing the regime with an excuse for violating the ceasefire. Iran’s commitment to the ceasefire is a positive step towards freezing the conflict. Ultimately, it seems that a diplomatic solution is on the horizon, with the main drivers being Russia, Turkey and Iran. It will likely be a resolution that sees the co-option of certain sections of the opposition into the government, and an agreement that Asad will remain in power until the next election, when he will gracefully exit.
Turkey and South Africa are two regional powers with international roles, responsibilities and influence. This conference will bring together experts, policy-makers, current and former officials, as well as representatives of international agencies to share their perspectives and provide new insights on the current situation and future of Turkish and South African politics and relations. The conference will have three sessions: The first session will focus on the ways in which dominant party politics affect internal and international dynamics within these two regional powers. The second session will evaluate the roles and responsibilities of Turkey and South Africa towards the MENA region. The last session will concentrate on new initiatives and opportunities for partnerships between Turkey and South Africa in Africa.
|09:00 – 09:30||Registration|
|09:30 – 09:45||Welcome, Introduction:
|09.45 – 11:00||Keynote Address|
|11:15 – 12.45||Session I: Opportunities and challenges of dominant party politics in Turkey and South Africa
|12.45 – 14.00||Lunch|
|14.00 – 15.30||Session II: Turkish and South African roles in the face of a turbulent MENA region
|15.30 – 15.45||Coffee Break|
|15.45 – 17.15||Session III: South Africa and Turkey: The potential for cooperation in Africa
|17:15 – 17:45||Closing Remarks|
The conference will take place at the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria, South Africa.
Sheraton Pretoria Hotel
South African aid organisations have been lauded for their humanitarian efforts in the Syrian conflict. The conflict began with the Arab spring in 2011 and now has degraded into a civil war whereby there are many armed factions fighting for control. To give us more insight and to explain South Africa's humanitarian role in Syria is Afro-Middle East Centre Executive Director Naeem Jeenah.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Of the myriad political and social developments since the spectacular rise of the Islamic State group (IS) in mid-2014, it is perhaps the movement’s ability to exacerbate and capitalise on existing fractures between and within Syria and Iraq and regional powers Turkey and Iran that has dramatically altered the nature of politics in the region. IS can be perceived as less a cause than a symptom of the failure of state-building processes in Iraq since the US invasion and occupation in 2003. The operation to retake Mosul from IS began one month ago, but as alliances and rivalries are ever-shifting in the fight against IS, Baghdad has attempted to prevent Turkey from participating in the US-Iraqi campaign to recapture the strategic city.
Mosul, where 5000 IS fighters are based, has historically been an important crossroad for trade and ideas, and was once a major cultural centre of the Islamic world. While it and the Syrian city of Aleppo share an Ottoman past that remains a point of cultural affiliation with Turkey for the people of northern Syria and northern Iraq, Mosul has been the external frontier of Turkey’s war against the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) – whose power and access to arms . That area in Iraq is also a centre for Turkish military support to Ankara’s ally, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Masoud Barzani.
Turkey’s military goes back to the early 1990s when a brutal civil war broke out between two Kurdish political groups – Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under Jalal Talabani. Barzani has always been wary of the latter’s close relations with Baghdad and Tehran, and gave Ankara the green light to pursue PKK militants in the Kurdish area of Iraq under KDP control. His difficult relations with PKK leaders enabled a closer relationship between Erbil and Ankara. In the past few years, Turkey’s military has also had military training programmestohelp professionalise the KRG’s Peshmerga forces.
From the end of 2015, Baghdad began vocalising its desire to limit the Turkish presence in Iraq, throwing the generally stable relationship between the KRG and Ankara into stark relief. As the region saw greater Kurdish political consolidation as a result of the two-year battle against IS, Barzani has become less willing to sacrifice himself for the Turkish cause. In December 2015, the Iraqi president, Haider al-Abadi, under pressure from sectarian networks in Baghdad, called on the United Nations Security Council – with Russia’s assistance – to force Turkey to withdraw its troops from Iraqi territory.
Turkey’s refusal was met with attacks on its operating bases, for which both IS and Iraq’s Kata'ib Hizbullah claimed responsibility. The Iraqi government’s most recent refusal to allow Turkey to join the Mosul operation that beganmid-October was reluctantly accepted by Turkey, and it is believed that an agreement between the two limited Turkey’s combatant role to air support in exchange for it maintaining its bases in northern Iraq, particularly the key Bashiqa base.
Arguing there was a possibility of a spillover of the Mosul operation through the porous Iraq-Turkey border, Turkish Armed Forces and combat vehicles amassed in the border town of , prompting Abadi to threaten: ‘If a confrontation happens we are ready for it. We will consider [Turkey] an enemy, and we will deal with it as an enemy.’ Ankara’s response was as undiplomatic, with its foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, publicly challenging Abadi: ‘If you have the strength, why did you surrender Mosul to terror organisations?’ and ‘If you are so strong, why has the [PKK] occupied your lands for years?
Cavusoglu’s comment exposed a sore point for the Turks: the uncomfortable reality that its strategic relationship with the USA is being tested by the shift towards ethnic and sectarian politics in the region, which, since the rise of IS, has favoured the Kurds (including those in the PKK and the Syrian PYG that Turkey regards as an existential threat) and Iranian-backed Shi'a groups in Iraq. The institutionalisation of ethnicity as a means to attain power is largely a by-product of state reconfiguration initiated by the USA during its Iraqi occupation, when it distributed political power and financial support on ethnic and sectarian bases. Whereas Turkey could previously rely on its NATO membership and on the KRG to check the PKK’s influence, rapprochement between the USA and Iran, Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict, and the legitimation of the Syrian PYD (a PKK ally) have limited Turkey’s ability to decisively influence what happens on its borders. The role of the Shi'a militia, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), and abuses by some Kurdish groups against Sunnis have allowed Ankara to argue that Turkmen and Sunni Arabs in Tal Afar, in particular, will be targeted in revenge attacks, and thus Turkish presence is necessary.
Turkey’s key strategic objective is to limit PKK activities in northern Iraq, and to prevent the armed group from joining with the PMU in Sinjar, east of Mosul, which would create a long stretch of territory connecting the Syrian YPG with the PKK in Iraq. Additionally, Turkey has lost prestige as the guardian of Mosul, Sulaymaniye and Kirkuk – regions which historically had significant numbers of Iraqi Turkmen. These areas were ceded by the Ottomans after the breakup of the Ottoman empire following World War I, a sore point for Turkish nationalists like Kemal Atatürk and his successors.
Apart from , Turkey also regards Mosul, together with Aleppo in Syria, as the last outpost of the cultural and historical connection between Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Should the city be destroyed, three territories considered ‘disputed territories’ between Baghdad and the KRG will be at the centre of the rebuilding of a new Iraq and, by extension, a new Middle East. This uncertain outcome requires greater attention. Where will IS members seek refuge if not in the porous border region? Who will be responsible for millions of Iraqi refugees? How long can a military battle against IS (or the PKK) be sustained without completely engulfing the region in protracted warfare? To what extent can the politics of sectarianism be exploited at the expense of inclusive and democratic states in the Middle East?
With the operation against IS in Raqqa, Syria, underway at the same time, and with the YPG playing a key role there, Turkish anxieties about the creation of a Kurdish entity on its doorstep are heightening. Should IS continue to be tenacious,and should the war stretch out longer than planned, Turkey may enter the conflict regardless of the Iraqi position. This could no doubt raise serious legal questions, but would also signal a sharp change in the relations between Ankara and both Baghdad and Washington. ISmight be on its last legs as a pseudo-state, but there is little doubt that it has reshaped the nature of the state and politics in the Middle East for some time to come.