- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) handily won Turkey’s national election this week, retaining its majority rule in parliament and striking a blow for Islamists and against the secular establishment to maintain a single-party government for another term. Yet, the Turks made sure that the AKP won’t be able to appoint the new president in a month without the consent of the secularist and nationalist representatives of society.

Alas, Turkey went to the early election as a result of AKP’s insistence on a veiled first lady. The two opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), crossed the 10 percent threshold as well as nearly three dozen independent candidates to claim seats in parliament.

The question is how this election will affect the country’s foreign policy. Turkey is uncertain of its future with the European Union — will it attain membership or be denied because of its Muslim majority, which increasingly dresses in Islamic style, or for some other reason? On the other hand, Turks believe that a cross-border operation into Northern Iraq, even though the United States and the Iraqi Kurds oppose such an action, will be a piece of cake and solve the threat posed by the separatist Kurdish nationalists, PKK. But those mood swings — from anxiety to overconfidence — are quite different than the state’s measured steps.

Despite numerous reports that the Turkish military has crossed into Northern Iraq, no such incursion has occurred. The Turkish Parliament must approve any outside engagement by the Turkish military. The single-party AKP government did not even raise the issue in a debate at the parliament during its previous term. With new parliamentary representation by Kurdish nationalists from the Democratic Society Party (DTP) and Turkish nationalists from the MHP, any debate will include historic context, to say the least. The Turkish Parliament would approve such a resolution once it was opened for debate and while Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, says cross-border operations are necessary — even at the risk of a split between Islamists, secularists and Kurdish nationalists.

In addition, Leyla Zana, a prominent member of DTP, recently said that Turkey should embrace a federal system. Kurdish nationalists want to guarantee that Kurds govern the land they have claimed in Turkey’s east and southeast regions. This issue will be the top priority for the next parliamentary term — as doubts over Iraq’s territorial integrity will find its final answer in the next few years, as well. The politicians’ sometimes aggressive and sometimes populist rhetoric has damaged the state’s unilateral approach to the separatist threat. But if Turks can stay unified over the next five years, it will give both Turks and Kurds a sense of security and self-determination.

Iraq’s fate — whether to remain united or become divided — will be decided during this term of the Turkish Parliament. And the Kurdish issue will finally be solved — either peacefully or through war. If the United States rapidly withdraws from Iraq, Turks and Kurds will most assuredly end up divided by the political problems that have remained for centuries. Many Turks believe that is what the United States wants and what the Kurds dream of.

As that issue comes to fruition, anti-Americanism may either decline or shift. Because there is strong suspicion toward American policies in the region, Turkey has embarked upon its most positive relationship with Iran ever. Turks worry about an independent Kurdistan carving out part of their sovereign land. With that in mind, Turkey recently announced that it is considering an agreement with Iran to transport 30 billion cubic meters of Iranian and Turkmen natural gas westward to Europe. The agreement is not yet finalized, yet Turkey has managed to anger both the United States and Russia. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that the deal represents Ankara looking out for its own interests; yet “Turkey is not a very reliable transit partner,” RIA Novosti, the Russian News and Information Agency, recently declared. “Every gas supplier wants the right of free export to Europe, but Ankara resells their gas and threatens to cut transit volumes if they refuse to accept the scheme.”

The EU may have similar or even stronger criticism for the way Russia uses energy. It remains to be seen how the EU will approach Turkey’s energy deal with Iran. Crucial in the coming term will be whether Turkey will accelerate its reform process and remain on track to join the EU, or whether the process will come to a halt. The next five years will be crucial not only for Turkey, but for the region at large. Only time will show whether the new Turkish Parliament will prove able to handle the challenges, or whether Turkey will go through significant changes before its centennial in 2023.

Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.