- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2015

The State Department may have breathed a “sigh of relief” at the stunning rebuke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sunday’s national vote, but the underlying friction that has bedeviled U.S.-Turkish relations in recent years is unlikely to abate, regional analysts said Monday.

The Obama administration has found Mr. Erdogan difficult to work with on regional issues like the Islamic State in Iraq, as well as the civil war raging in Syria. Additionally, increasing U.S. dependence on Kurdish (a sizable minority in Turkey) fighters has increased friction between Washington and Ankara.

But even with Mr. Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party having lost its majority in parliament and facing weeks of uncertain coalition negotiations, it is unlikely President Obama will find a more sympathetic partner when the horse-trading is done.

“The thing to remember is that the United States and Turkey are at odds” on situations surrounding countries like Iraq and Syria, and, even with an electoral upheaval, that isn’t likely to change, Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a press briefing Monday.

However, he added, given Turkey’s status as a NATO ally on the doorstep of some of the world’s most brutal conflicts, “the United States will accommodate” whatever form of government may result from the election and that it would be “hard to see a fundamental change in foreign policy” resulting from the election.

With nearly all of Sunday’s votes counted, Mr. Erdogan’s AKP, which began the campaign hoping to secure a big enough majority to rewrite the constitution, attracted only 41 percent of the vote. This is the first time since the party took over Ankara in 2002 that the AKP has failed to gain an immediate majority.

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“There was probably a sigh of relief at the State Department this morning,” Mr. Cook said of the results, citing fears about the legitimacy of the vote in light of the “thuggish way” in which Mr. Erdogan and the Islamic-based AKP have approached Turkish politics for over a decade.

In one early sign even Turks are uncertain what lies ahead, the Turkish lira fell to an all-time low against the dollar, while the Turkish stock market fell 8 percent at the opening of trading, and closed Monday down 5.05 percent.

But despite AKP’s history of anti-American rhetoric and “Ottomanist” overtones, Mr. Cook said the party has been “the most willing to work with the United States” on issues of foreign policy of the major political factions in Ankara.

Many attribute the stunning results to a recent push by Mr. Erdogan and others to pass a constitutional amendment that would have massively expanded the power of the presidency. Even though as the supposedly nonpartisan president of the country, Mr. Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, was not on the ballot, virtually all sides saw Sunday’s vote as a referendum on his record and a verdict on his plans to increase his personal power.

Erdogan helped create this problem for himself” by pushing to move the country to a completely presidential system and attempting “hollow out” other governmental institutions, said Dr. Toni Alaranta, senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. The analyst criticized the AKP’s efforts as a “mission to build a utopian, conservative-Islamic state.”

But the electoral surprise may also provide new fuel for the country’s flagging drive for membership in the European Union, one long resisted by such major EU powers as Germany

“It’s clear that Turks take democratic processes very seriously,” said Mr. Cook, explaining that the results may potentially signal to other parties besides the AKP that it’s high time to revive so far “dormant” discussions with Brussels about membership.

One major concern for many is the possibility that Mr. Erdogan may be setting up for a snap election if the AKP fails to fashion a majority coalition in the coming days. Under Turkish election law, parliament now has 45 days to form a majority coalition before another election must be held.

“I don’t know why anyone would think that a snap election would produce a different result,” said Mr. Cook, who was also “struck” by Mr. Erdogan’s statement that no single party had earned a mandate to lead the country.

While it may be possible for other parties for form a minority government, Mr. Cook warned that an authoritarian leader like Mr. Erdogan would most likely use his powers, such as chairing cabinet meetings, to undermine such a caucus.

Most other parties rapidly produced official statements saying that they would under no circumstances join in a coalition with AKP, but Mr. Cook isn’t convinced that the current climate will hold.

Erdogan is an excellent politician, an excellent negotiator,” he explained. “I wouldn’t count him out.”

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