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Turkey's local elections and Armenian issue, CU Issue 28, April 6, 2009

On March 29, over 48 million voters cast their ballots in Turkey’s local elections to elect mayors and councils. The vote was seen as a referendum on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a view for which the AKP’s leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was largely responsible. Prior to the vote he had extensively toured the country to rally supporters, and according to observers the mood was closer to a general election than a local one (BBC News, March 30).

Mr Erdogan’s confidence was somewhat misplaced. Voters delivered a stinging – and surprising – rebuke to AKP. Although the party still won, with 40% of the overall vote, and maintained its grip over central Anatolia, its share of the vote slumped by 8% since 2007’s general election, it failed to make inroads on the coasts and it was soundly beaten by Kurdish parties in the southeast. 15 mayoralties were lost. One of the biggest winners was the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP).

AKP has always had a fractious and divided base of support. Its EU ambitions, economic reform and commitment to democracy have rested uneasily alongside its Islamic heritage, accusations of authoritarianism and its frequent battles with the secular establishment. Its supporters have been united by Mr. Erdogan’s charisma, strong economic growth and the lack of a realistic alternative, rather than a belief in the party’s policies. That AKP’s support has finally cracked somewhat, especially given the financial crisis, should therefore come as no surprise.

What does weakened support mean for Turkey’s biggest geopolitical tangles - the EU and Armenia? It could be a blessing or a curse, and it will greatly depend on the country’s internal dynamics. Mr. Erdogan’s weakened mandate should tone down the authoritarian, combative streak which his previous victories, and his party’s survival in the face of repeated legal challenges from secularists, had instilled. Most analysts agree that he will be forced to work with opposition parties, but what does this mean in practice? The elements represented by the opposition distrust each other for a number of reasons, and siding with any one of them will draw criticism from the others.

The other parties are, however, united in their opposition to negotiations with Armenia. Nationalists, Islamists and secularists have distrusted the diplomatic thaw and have strongly criticised the parallel initiative of apologies and historical revisionism undertaken by some Turkish academics. The Armenia issue is an explosive one in Turkish politics, and is not to be handled lightly. Previously, AKP had done so using its comfortable majority, without bothering to consult opposition parties (Eurasia Daily Monitor, March 27). Failure to do so now would cost it dearly.

There are now two factors that the government must contend with if it is to carry through its aim of normalising relations with Armenia. The first is Azerbaijan. Baku has made it clear to Turkey that it is very concerned about the resumption of formal ties between its closest ally and its rival (APA, April 3). Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has reportedly refused to attend an international conference in Istanbul on April 6-7 in protest, and Hurriyet has reported that Azerbaijan may even stop selling gas to Turkey if the borders with Armenia open (Hurriyet, April 2). Exactly how Ankara intends to mollify Baku is not yet clear: it is also uncertain how this rapprochement would affect the delicate negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Azerbaijan seems to be concerned that the opening of Turkish-Armenian borders could lead to hardening of the already tough positions in Armenia with regard to concessions on the Nagorno Karabakh issue. Turkey’s lengthy attempts to persuade Azerbaijan otherwise have seemingly yielded no results. Baku may, after much indignation, settle down and resume the peace process with Yerevan. However, it may equally feel so betrayed that it can gradually turn away from Turkey and the Western states. Azerbaijan’s recent signing of an MoU with Russia on the beginning of gas sale talks could also possibly be understood as a sign of its frustration in this regard.

Now Ankara’s position will be significant: Turkey may, for instance, continue to make the opening of borders conditional on clear progress towards a withdrawal of Armenian troops from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan or other confidence-building measures. But if this was the case, we should expect Azerbaijan’s reaction to have been far more muted.

The second factor is Washington. Barack Obama, who began his visit to Turkey on April 5, promised during his election campaign to recognise the Armenian ‘genocide’. His trip to Turkey is widely recognised as an attempt to, amongst other things, reassure AKP that he will pressure Congress not to pass a bill recognising the 1915 events as genocide. Obama’s promise to reach out to the Muslim world means that he needs pro-Western Muslim states like Turkey, far more than he needs the Armenian lobby in Washington. Provided that Mr. Erdogan receives a satisfying answer, he may be able to press on with opening the border whilst disarming nationalists by blocking Congress’ ‘genocide’ recognition.

If the newly-weakened AKP does achieve a diplomatic breakthrough with Armenia, the backlash at home will be intense. It could even start off a new round of confrontation with the military. The investigation into Ergenekon, a shadowy conspiracy by hardline secularists to allegedly mount a coup, rumbles on – rapprochement with Armenia will provide the General Staff and their supporters with more reasons to distrust the AKP as betrayers of Ataturk’s republic. If the backlash is strong enough, or if President Obama goes ahead and recognises the ‘genocide’ anyway, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Turkish politics will be paralysed yet again, which could further delay EU membership and polarise the electorate.

Restarting ties with Armenia was never an easy task. The Erdogan government has managed to make as much progress as it has through stubborn determination and a refusal to be dictated to the opposition parties. Now, with its political capital diminished and one eye on the general elections, will it be able to keep up the negotiations? And at what cost?

"Turkey's local elections and Armenian issue, CU Issue 28, April 6, 2009" | 1 comment | Search Discussion
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by Rovshan Isakov on Thu Apr 09, 2009 5:59 pm
It is Armenia that desperately needs open borders with Turkey, not vice versa. Under such circumstances, Armenia must withdraw its forces from Nagorno Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, as well as the other towns around Karabakh. Secondly, they must give up their nonsense fake "genocide" claims against Turkey. And thirdly, Armenia must recognize Eastern borders of Turkey. Only after the implementation of all of the above should Turkey go ahead with the normalization of ties with Armenia. Azerbaijan's importance as an ally of Turkey significantly outweighs the positive outcomes of opening of borders with economically deprived Armenia.


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