Turkey

How foreign policy became a campaign issue in Turkey’s local elections

Local elections in Turkey are taking on the character of general elections as foreign policy comes to dominate the conversation.

Local elections in Turkey are taking on the character of general elections as foreign policy comes to dominate the conversation.

Turkey is about to have one of the most pivotal local elections in its history. Although local elections do not have any impact on the government’s position in politics, the upcoming local elections are perceived as a game changer not only for local administration but also in government affairs.

Beyond this, Turkey’s local election is becoming a hot topic internationally because of its role in potentially shaping Turkey’s foreign policy agenda in the long term. As a result, the current international and regional realities are reflected in electoral campaigning.

Since political parties are joining the elections as a part of two distinct alliances, there is a clash of ideas and interests, especially on regional issues.

The People’s Alliance consists of the AK Party and MHP which aims to project a nationalist stance on Turkey’s role in the regional and international order.

On the other side, there is the Nation’s Alliance consisting of CHP and IYI Party with the support of the outsider HDP. Contrary to the People’s Alliance, this alliance has a critical stance with regards to Turkey’s active role in the Middle East.

Interestingly, national and international issues have always been a part of local election conversations in Turkey. Nevertheless, it is the first time that regional and international affairs have dominated the agenda in this way. One of the reasons of this domination is Turkey’s increasing role in the region especially after the conflict in Syria.

After the conflict in Syria escalated, the AK Party and the MHP came to a consensus on Turkey’s fight against terrorism and the country’s territorial integrity. In this process, Turkey has been exposed to terrorist attacks by the PKK terrorist organisation, which has a branch in Syria, the YPG. The cooperation and coordination between the PKK and its Syrian branch increased terrorist attacks and border violations in Turkey.

As a result of the increasing threat of terrorism, the AK Party government took a firm stand on fighting terrorism. The Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations had been conducted successfully on Syrian territories to eliminate terrorist groups.

Opposition parties are against this government’s policy on Syria and have criticised Turkey’s cross-border military operations. It has become one of the most debated issues of the campaign.

The leader of the CHP, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, emphasised that the CHP did not see the existence of the YPG in Syria as a threat to Turkey’s security. Moreover, the leader of the IYI Party, Meral Aksener, also claimed that Turkey should not be involved in the matters of other states for any reason. In other words, the Nation’s Alliance does not see the existence of the YPG on the Turkey border as a threat.

Another divisive issue between is the future of Syrian refugees in Turkey, and almost every party has paid it a lot of attention.

After the Syrian war started in 2011, Turkey has received a constant flow of Syrians refugees. Approximately four million Syrian refugees are living in and outside of refugee camps. The opposition in Turkey has always criticised the government for accepting so many Syrian refugees in Turkey, and it continues to do so in this campaign. The opposition parties’ positions have led to increasing xenophobia and hate speech against Syrian refugees.

During campaigning, opposition parties have maintained this negative attitude towards Syrian refugees. They have promised to send Syrian refugees back to their countries while meting out harsh criticism of the government’s refugee policy.

Outside of regional security and humanitarian issues, other emerging international issues also have become a part of the local election campaigning in Turkey. For instance, Turkey’s deal with Russia on the purchase of the S-400 air defence system and the US approach on this deal – the CHP and IYI Party have particularly picked up on this issue.

All of these factors have shone a regional and international media spotlight on Turkey’s upcoming local elections. Seeing that Turkey’s regional and international issues are playing such a large part in the election – it inevitably will have a large impact on Turkey’s position in the regional and international order.

[TRT World, 26 March 2019]

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