Turkey’s Elections and Foreign Policy

Co-authored with Yusuf Buluç (*)

15 June 2015
On 7 June Turkey held parliamentary elections. Result: The ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) lost its parliamentary majority of twelve years. This was largely attributed to hubris, excessive government spending on luxury, allegations of corruption, growing income disparities and President Erdogan’s relentless campaign for a custom made presidential system. We dispute none of that. And, we believe that JDP’s disastrous foreign policy has also played a part.

Normally and perhaps universally, foreign policy as a factor that shapes electorate choice comes way down the list. But once foreign policy is identified as impacting negatively on national security and prosperity then its prominence gets vastly upgraded. Foreign policy pundits would examine and try to gauge what role JDP foreign policy failures have played in its significant loss of electorate favor on 7 June elections. We believe that JDP’s foreign policy both for its substance and the way it was executed has engendered lessened security and concomitant waste of national resources. This is so not just in the perception of the public; today Turkey is measurably much less secure owing to JDP’s dismal foreign policy record. We have sketched out below the salient negatives of that policy.

A failed Middle East policy:
JDP’s sectarian approach to Arab Spring and ensuing conflicts and above all its obsession with President Assad have made Turkey part of every regional problem and part of no solution. Foreign policy may not be Turkish electorate’s first priority but it is not a non-issue. People see the Syrian refugees, sympathize with their plight but remain unhappy with the government’s failure to play a more constructive role in the Syrian conflict and question the wisdom of arming Assad’s enemies without distinction. Turkey no longer has ambassadors in Israel, Syria and Egypt. This is no small accomplishment considering the state of relations between Israel and Syria. Our relations with Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are strained by JDP government’s alleged support to Libya Dawn. All that remains of our Middle East policy is a dubious partnership with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to topple Assad. Two million Syrian refugees, serious security problems arising from becoming neighbors with Daesh, lost trade and above all loss of our capacity to generate trust are concrete fall out of the “Assad obsession”.

Relations with the West in a downward spiral:
Relations with the West are characterized by dissonance and lack of trust so much so that even our membership in NATO has come to being questioned by Turkey’s adversaries.
Relations with the US are at their lowest point of the last ten years. US officials’ references to partnership, cooperation are designed to camouflage a very uneasy relationship because Turkey matters, one way or the other.
The EU accession process exists only on paper. Turkey’s reform process has shifted to reverse gear.

Turkey and international organizations:
Turkey has failed in its bid to get elected to the UN Security Council. Constant criticism directed at the UN for its inability to stop regional conflicts constitutes a glaring contradiction with our resounding muteness on the failures of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Foreign policy and internal politics:
Foreign policy has been reduced to a tool of internal politics, a huge mistake for a country in the middle of conflict areas.

In light of parliamentary arithmetic resulting from the June 7 elections that no single political party has gained electoral mandate to form a government, inadvertently there is now a general acceptance that a coalition needs to be put in place. That the election dust has yet to settle, minds are pretty fluid as to how and on what basis a coalition should be structured. Those who advocate that a coalition should be formed by the political parties which are known to have opposed the now outgoing JDP government are commonly arguing that “restoration” should be the unifying glue to bind these parties to a workable and durable coalition.

The thought that we would be offering to our readers is that restoration in the foreign and security policy domain should not be the task or the preserve of a coalition of opposition parties but an imperative for any combination of parties, including and perhaps primarily a coalition which comprises JDP as its founding component.

While the term restoration gains currency, so do the terms of “reset” and “returning to factory settings”. We do not intend to propose detailed corrective measures to remedy JDP’s foreign policy failures. But we wish to stress that principles and elements of policy had which had achieved power, influence, credibility and trustworthiness for Turkey in the past should be reinstituted. Here is a shortlist:
• Readiness to contribute the peaceful solution of conflicts in Turkey’s immediate vicinity and beyond.
• Non-involvement and non-interference in intra-Arab conflicts.
• Keeping the EU accession process on track despite numerous obstacles raised by EU members, bearing in mind that this process in itself adds to Turkey’s international standing.
• Relations based on mutual trust and cooperation with the US considering Obama administration’s favorable disposition towards Turkey as witnessed in the speech the President delivered before the Turkish Parliament on 6 April 2009.
• An honest cooperation with international organizations such as the UN and NATO which allows for a reasonable amount of mutual criticism provided that the public discourse remains constructive and in harmony with diplomatic courtesy.
• Refraining from dubious arrangements, operations bearing in mind that in today’s world there is nothing as a “covert operation”, at least for a country like Turkey.
• While not disputing that foreign and domestic policies should be mutually reinforcing, foreign policy cannot be made hostage to domestic policy requirements, neither could the latter be allowed to the overshadow the former.
• Granted that pragmatism may be indispensable in the formulation and conduct of foreign policy, it would be impermissible to eliminate the principle of national interest as the paramount factor that drives foreign policy. It is only publicly endorsed national interest that renders foreign policy to become truly national rather than one that yields to the limited perspectives or parochial interests of a specific political party.

The next Turkish government owes all of the foregoing not only to its own people but also to a region in conflict.
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(*) Yusuf Buluc is a retired Turkish Ambassador and a former Head of NATO’s Department of Defense Plans and Policy

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