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Dec 18, 2012 | 11:48 GMT

Turkey's Main Opposition Party Pivots To Foreign Policy

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

While traditionally focusing on domestic issues, Turkey's main opposition party has recently begun to challenge the ruling Justice and Development Party in an area perceived to be a party strength: regional foreign policy. 

On Dec. 6, the opposition Republican People's Party announced that its leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, will visit Iraq to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The announcement came two days after Baghdad denied Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz permission to land in Arbil for an energy conference. While the opposition party denied its upcoming visit is related to Baghdad's pushback against Ankara, the move should be seen in the context of rising criticism in Turkey of the ruling party's regional policies as Ankara struggles to manage an array of challenges in its near abroad. 

The opposition party's new strategy faces short-term constraints, but the party — a Kemalist and liberal political grouping — is setting itself up for a longer-term challenge to the ruling party. 

As the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad maintains a tenuous hold on power, Turkey's southern border is getting progressively unstable. At the same time, Turkey is finding it harder all the time to influence the trajectory of Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamist groups in the region, as evidenced by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's struggles and by the fact that Egypt assumed the role of mediator between Hamas and Israel following the recent crisis in Gaza

This has created space for opponents of the Justice and Development Party's foreign policy, and of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's doctrine of "zero problems with neighbors," to voice their criticisms. It also has created a political opportunity for the Republican People's Party. The party exploited Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's loss of influence in Syria when an opposition party delegation in October secured the release of a Turkish journalist held in Aleppo. Now they are looking to take advantage of the government's deteriorating relations with Baghdad, where Erdogan's refusal to extradite Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and Ankara's increased cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government have elicited strong objections. 

The confrontational foreign policy moves by Turkey's opposition party have not been confined to neighboring countries. On Sept. 30, Morsi invited Kilicdaroglu to visit Egypt, while on Dec. 6, Faruk Logoglu, the party's deputy chair and a former ambassador to the United States, said that his party would like to send a representative to Gaza and Ramallah. Turkey's relations with Egypt help shape the balance of power in the Middle East, and the Republican People's Party's moves in a country that is influenced by the Justice and Development Party's own blend of Islam and democracy illustrate an evolving internal opposition to Turkey's recent foreign policy. By focusing on countries that receive the focus of the Erdogan government's diplomatic energy, the opposition is looking to highlight the shortcomings of Turkey's recent foreign policy and to show its awareness of Turkey's rising international role. This amounts to a re-invention of the Republican People's Party's strategy.

A Political Pivot

Since the Justice and Development Party moved into power, the Republican People's Party has built its political strategy around domestic issues, emphasizing its role as protector of the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. While this has allowed the party to maintain much of its core support among liberals, it has been unable to make inroads with conservatives, who for the most part continue to support the Justice and Development Party. 

Erdogan's charismatic and direct leadership style has also proven to be effective in gaining electoral support in a country aspiring to be a regional power. His strong stances in regards to regional actors such as Israel and Syria play well to the Turkish electorate, and the Republican People's Party is picking up on this. As the party adopts a more international focus to align its strategy with Turkey's regional aspirations, its leaders hope to amplify the perception that Erdogan's party has fallen repeatedly short in the foreign policy arena. The Republican People's Party could use this as a base to challenge Erdogan on domestic issues such as Turkey's lagging economy, a side effect of the financial crisis plaguing Europe. 

Constraints

The Republican People's Party has so far not been able to mount a significant and focused opposition to the government, and that will probably not change in the upcoming local elections, set for early 2014. Their objective in those elections will be to maintain control of Turkey's third-largest city, Izmir, and to focus on the major southern city of Antalya, in addition to a few major boroughs of Istanbul. However, the party is getting set to broaden its campaign against the Justice and Development Party in presidential elections later in 2014.

As regional developments unfold, the opposition is hoping Erdogan's failures will be made clear to the general population of Turkey. For instance, as Syria further disintegrates, a Kurdish entity similar to northern Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government may take shape in that country. This would cross a redline for Turkey and would damage the credibility of the Erdogan administration. 

The Republican People's Party's new focus comes at a time when other secular parties are in the retreat across most of the Islamic world, and this may be one reason the party seems to lack political allies in its foreign policy strategy against the Justice and Development Party. The Nationalist Movement Party on Dec. 13 said it would turn down an invitation to Baghdad if that were offered; it then chided Republican People's Party leadership, saying the party should not allow itself to be exploited by the Iraqi government. 

Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party appear to be facing a more concrete electoral challenge from an opposition party that is looking to use foreign policy to undercut the ruling party's popularity. The Republican People's Party's strategy aims to attract supporters on the margins of the Islamist-secularist political divide, and its success will depend on regional developments and on Turkey's ability to weather the economic slowdown. For now, the Justice and Development Party does not appear to be facing a significant threat to its hold on power.

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