- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 24, 2018

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling political party he leads on Sunday secured victory in the country’s first-ever parallel presidential and parliamentary elections.

With over 90 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Erdogan defeated opposition candidate Muharrem Ince, securing 52 percent of the country’s presidential ballots, with Mr. Ince garnering over 30 percent of the vote. Mr. Ergodan’s political coalition, led by his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) also won control of the country’s legislative branch, soundly defeating Mr. Ince’s opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) Nation Alliance by locking in over 53 percent of the parliamentary vote to CHP’s 34 percent, according to unofficial tallies taken by Turkish news agency Anadolu.

Over 56 million Turkish citizens were registered to vote in the historic election, which for the first time put control of the parliament and the presidential palace on the same ballot.

While Turkey’s Supreme Election Council has yet to validate the vote tallies and announce an official winner in either the presidential or parliamentary races, Mr. Erdogan and his AK Party claimed victory in the early hours of Monday morning. “The unofficial results of the elections have become clear. According to these … I have been entrusted by the nation with the task and duties of the presidency,” he told reporters from party headquarters in Istanbul.

Despite messages of congratulations for Mr. Erdogan from regional and world leaders, CHP party leaders refused to concede, arguing that Mr. Erdogan or his party could still fall short of the required 50 percent majority threshold. That would trigger a July 8 runoff.

In his victory statement, Mr. Erdogan warned political opponents not to “overshadow the election results to bury their own failures.”

The Turkish leader’s win ushers in a new power structure put in place by a landmark referendum vote last May that dramatically expanded presidential power and made the longtime leader eligible for two new, five-year terms, the first of which he won Sunday.

“The Turkish people have elected Erdogan as Turkey’s first president/executive president under the new system. The Turkish people have said ‘onwards’ with President Erdogan,” government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said in a Twitter post Sunday night.

Heading into Sunday’s election, questions swirled around whether Mr. Erdogan would be able to win majorities in parliament and secure a new presidential term in the face of Mr. Ince’s aggressive opposition campaign.

A possible power-sharing situation where Mr. Erdogan’s presidency would have to work with an opposition-led parliament was the biggest concern among voters heading to the polls Sunday, said Ali Cinar, president of the Washington-based Turkish Heritage Organization.

“People are questioning what will happen with Turkey’s future,” he said, noting “the system will not work” under a split government, referring to the presidential mandates outlined in the referendum vote.”

But Sunday’s vote solidified Mr. Erdogan’s grip on power in Ankara, just as the U.S. attempts to improve military and diplomatic ties with the NATO ally.

At the heart of the conflict is U.S. forces’ continued collaboration with elements of the YPG or Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD), which also make up the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S.-backed confederation of Arab and Kurdish paramilitaries who flushed ISIS from its Syrian capital of Raqqa last year.

U.S. forces continue to train and equip SDF fighters — including those tied to the YPG and PYD — in Manbij as the anti-ISIS offensive continues in Syria. Turkey has labelled the YPG and PYD offshoot as terrorist organizations.

Washington has extended an olive branch to Ankara, pressing ahead with joint U.S. and Turkish military patrols in the highly strategic northern Syrian enclave of Manbij — which is ground zero for American operations in the country against the group known as Islamic State or ISIS. That effort has garnered much needed political goodwill in Ankara, Mr. Cinar said.

“The U.S. did their part … they did a great gesture” by joining with Turkish forces in Manbij, Mr. Cinar said, adding that “after the election you will see a greater coordination” between Washington and Ankara in Syria and elsewhere in the region.

“A new page has been turned,” he added.

Roughly 200 Turkish troops are deployed in and around the Manbij pocket, with more forces expected to be sent in as part of the roadmap, says Ankara. Approximately 2,000 American troops are stationed in the city and elsewhere across Syria, according to Pentagon figures.

While the new joint U.S.-Turkish patrols have calmed tensions in Manbij for the time being, the U.S. will continue to be forced to walk a fine line in Syria — continuing to appease Ankara while not completely abandoning support for Kurdish forces in the country.

“It’s a complex issue. It is the most complex battle space I have seen,” Mr. Mattis told reporters earlier this month, ahead of bilateral talks with Turkish officials at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

“How do we take Turkey’s legitimate security interests [in Syria] and enhance their security. They are only NATO nation with an active insurgency inside its borders,” Mr. Mattis said. “They are the frontline state … in this disaster [Syrian president Bashar] Assad has put upon us in Syria, with the Iranian’s help [and] Russia’s help,” the defense chief added, while en route to this month’s alliance ministerial.

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