General Elections in Turkey: Where is the EU?

Posted on 29. May 2015

by Efehan Danisman

efehan-danismanOn 7 June 2015 Turkey will hold its 2015 general election to elect the 550 members of the Grand National Assembly. The results will inevitably have an impact on Turkey-EU relations. There are a number of formidable issues standing in the way of Turkey and the EU making any progress in their already bumpy partnership: accession negotiations have been stalled, mainly due to Cyprus’s blockage of most of the chapters and Turkey’s hesitance to open the remaining ones. Moreover, Turkey and the EU have common challenges other than accession negotiations, such as security – ISIS in particular -, refugees and energy fields. Despite these many common challenges, the attention devoted to Turkey-EU relations by Turkish political parties is relatively limited and in their electoral campaigns, parties rather focused on issues such as economic development, the long-standing Kurdish issue, large infrastructure projects and rule of law. In any case, the four major parties – the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Social democrat Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) have very different positions with respect to the EU and their political manifestos ahead of the elections reflect these differences. After the elections a new engagement can be expected between Turkey and the EU due to the increasing need to cooperate, even though this will probably not translate into a honeymoon.

The ruling AKP is expected to win the elections but with less margin compared to previous elections. According to AKP’s election manifesto, EU membership is a strategic objective, but it should not be considered as an alternative to Turkey’s relations with other countries. The government party also targets the lifting of visas for Turkish citizens traveling to the EU, and wants an update of the Customs Union and enhanced financial cooperation along with a renewal of EU accession negotiations. Particularly lifting the visa requirements for other countries than the EU member states is an accomplishment the AKP prides itself on (visas for Turkish citizens traveling to China are expected to be lifted in 2016; while visa requirements for Ukraine and Russia have already been lifted) and it is expected that they will be pursuing negotiations with the EU on this matter after the elections. The issue of upgrading the Customs Union has been pushed by Turkish policy-makers for a long time and recently Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström asked for a negotiating mandate.

The Social Democrat Republican People’s Party (CHP) is currently the main opposition party and this will probably remain the same after the elections. CHP has the boldest position on EU accession and promises to finalize EU accession negotiations by making Turkey an EU member. Furthermore, CHP promises to not give one-sided concessions to the EU, protect Turkey’s interest in relation to the TTIP, explain how Turkey’s membership will make both sides more peaceful and advocate Turkish-Cypriots legitimate demandsvis-à-vis the EU. Compared to other parties that are expected to be represented in the Grand National Assembly, the ruling AKP and main opposition party CHP seem to give more priority to EU membership than other contenders.

The Nationalist Action Party (MHP), a centre-right nationalist party and third force in the parliament, does not consider EU membership as a priority and looks at the EU as an institution not related to Turkey’s identity and destiny. Despite this, in case of a victory, it would support continuing accession negotiations unless they will touch upon issues considered fundamental to Turkey’s national unity and integrity. This particularly refers to relations with Armenia, Cyprus and Greece and the fight against terrorism.

The People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is expected to be the fourth party under the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s roof and is, to some extent, taking a leftist approach similar to that of Greece’s Syriza. HDP is walking on thin ice: it’s not sure whether it will be able to pass the 10% threshold. However, its potential presence in the parliament could significantly change the power balance in the Turkish parliament. HDP’s political manifesto touches upon Turkey–EU relations only briefly, simply saying “we will consider EU accession negotiations and full membership according to our principles”.

Elections are expected to result in the governing AKP’s victory. However, the number of parties in the parliament will determine whether or not the AKP can change the constitution alone or even whether the AKP can form an absolute majority government on its own. If HDP passes the 10% threshold, the AKP will probably be faced with two choices: either form a coalition government with one of the aforementioned parties, or rule as a minority government. The AKP needs 368 seats in order to change the constitution on its own, 331 to bring the proposed changes in the constitution to the referendum and 276 to form a single party government. If HDP will not be able to pass the threshold, the continuation of a single party government is the most likely result.

Regardless of who will win the elections, the new Turkish government will need to cooperate with the EU to overcome several tricky challenges. This needs an approach beyond the accession negotiations. Recently the European Commission asked a mandate to revise the Customs Union and on-going TTIP negotiations possible affects to the Turkey would be on the agenda. Moreover, visa-free travel negotiations are on-going and according to the European Stability Initiative (ESI), Turkey needs to make some serious efforts if it wants to fulfil the criteria and reach the visa-free travel goal.

Migration and security also pose a challenge to the partners; at the moment, Turkey is hosting around 2 million Syrian refugees and is in dire need of support from EU countries. At the same time, the EU is trying to deal with the on-going disasters in the Mediterranean. Both sides definitely need each other in that realm. They will also have to cooperate against ISIS and the threat of terrorism, particularly regarding foreign fighters originating from the EU member states. However, despite these common challenges, EU accession negotiations will not make any significant progress unless a deal is made on Cyprus.

Elections have a tendency to slow everything down, and Turkey and the EU relations are far away from its potential. In order to avoid another lost term, leaders on both sides should consider revitalising mutual relations.