All posts by Eleonora Bacchi

A timeline of the Turkish Africa policy

turkey-africaIt has been stressed many times during the last years that the Turkish foreign policy towards Africa started with the came into power of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) in 2002. In this article we try to better understand the time path of the relations between Turkey and the African continent in the last two decades. This timeline aims to give a general idea about the development of the Turkish foreign policy towards Africa. It does not pretend to be an exhaustive document.

As witnessed by Murat Bilhan who was Ambassador in Ethiopia from 1996 to 2000, when he started his duty in Addis Ababa in 1996 the activities of Turkish Embassies in sub-Saharan Africa were rather insignificant.1 The limited number of the Turkish diplomatic missions in sub-Saharan Africa constituted a too scarce presence to establish strong diplomatic, economic, but also cultural relations in the continent.2 This lack of knowledge about the African continent for Turkey is one of the factors that led the Turkish Government to think about a new way to deep its diplomatic activities in sub-Saharan Africa.

This occurred especially in a period – the 90s – when Turkey was resuming its geopolitical role after the end of the Cold War era; indeed the Turkish foreign policy was subjected to the bipolar system in the second half of the 20th Century. After the end of the two-block opposition, Ankara found consequently its new path to regain its foreign policy’s independence and thereby the improvement of the relations with its neighbors. This was the case for the Balkans3 and for the central Asian countries, born from the dissolution of the USSR. These last nations where particularly important due to their linguistic, cultural, religious, ethnic, and historical links with Turkey.4

Therefore, alongside this attention to central Asia and the Balkans, at the end of the 90s, Turkey developed the will to expand its relations with the sub-Saharan countries. As a first step toward Africa, a program named “Africa Action Plan”, designed by the Turkish government, was adopted in 1998. The plan was aimed, among other things, to: increase the number of Embassies in Africa, improve official representing cadres of some sub-Saharan African Embassies, organizing high level invitations from African states (President, Prime Minister and Minister), increase political consultations and communications in International organizations (UN, OIC), promote humanitarian aid to Africa, signing official agreements to facilitate trade and economic relations, sending Turkish experts and organizing technical support programs, encouraging Turkish banks to open branches in selected African countries, providing credit from Eximbank5 for Turkish businessmen to encourage the export to Africa, realization of bilateral business people’s visits etc.6. This comprehensive “Africa Action Plan” drew Turkey’s road map for the improvement of the relationship with the African states. Unfortunately the Turkish government could not realize many elements of the Plan up until mid-2000s. The failure in the effective implementation plan can be explained by two main events that happened in Turkey at that time: the 1999 earthquake and the economic crises in 2000/2001.7

Consequently, the most concrete steps towards Africa have been done after the came into power of AKP in 2002. A first program adopted by the AKP government in 2003 was the “Strategy for enhancing the economic and commercial relations with Africa”. It is however in 2005 that the AKP’s “Open to Africa Policy” took shape in a more consistent way. Indeed, 2005 was declared the “Year of Africa” by the Turkish Government. The same year, Turkey was accorded observer status at the African Union8 and the Turkish Think Thank TASAM organized the first Turkish-African Summit in Istanbul. Moreover in the commercial and industrial field, TUSKON9 started to organize the Turkey-Africa Trade Bridge in 2006.

The first Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit took place in Istanbul on 18-21 August 2008. In the same year Turkey was declared a “strategic partner” by the African Union Summit held in Addis Ababa. In a meeting of the governors within the African Development Bank the Turkish application for the membership was accepted and Turkey became also member of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development Partners Forum (IGAD). It can therefore be said that the Turkish efforts towards Africa have been repaid from the African Countries in the 2008 elections of Turkey as non-permanent member at the UN Security Council for the period 2009-2010, when for the first time 50 out of 53 African states supported the Turkish membership10.

Subsequently, in 2010, a new strategy for the strengthening of these relations was adopted and the first Turkey-Africa Cooperation High Level Official Meeting took place in Istanbul in December. This meeting was followed by the adoption of the “Joint Implementation Plan of Africa-Turkey partnership for the period 2010-2014”.

While in 2002 the value of the projects undertaken by Turkish contractors in Africa was 9.6$ billion, this figure reached 46.4$ billion in 2012.

In 2013 TUSKON opened its first office in Africa in Addis Ababa. In the same year, Turkey participated for the first time at a meeting of the African Development Bank as an effective member and the 2nd Turkey-Africa Cooperation High Level Official Meeting was held in Addis Ababa.

The second Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit took place in Malabo (Equatorial Guinea) in November 2014. At the end of this meeting a Declaration and the “2015-2019 Joint Implementation Plan”11 were adopted, and besides the political consultations, many commercial meetings have been also organized by DEİK.

In conclusion about the Turkish-African Relations it must be underlined that during the decade of the AKP “Open to Africa Policy” the trade volume has increased significantly passing from 750 million USD in 2000 to 23.4 billion in 2013 with all Africa. As for the economic presence it can be said as a relevant factor that DEİK established 19 new Business-Councils with African Countries, achieving the quota of 24 Bilateral Business-Councils12. Moreover, the number of businessmen which attended TUSKON’s Turkey-Africa Trade Bridges reached the number of 1.300 people in 2011. In the humanitarian field, TIKA Agency currently operates 11 Program Coordination Offices in Africa and its projects consist in education, restoration, irrigation, agricultural development, health, transportation projects and constructing schools and hospitals. The presence of Turkish humanitarian and commercial NGOs increased substantially after the beginning of the AKP’s “Open to Africa Policy” as well as the number of Turkish International Schools linked to the faith-based Gülen movement. Along this economic, humanitarian, and cultural presence, the Turkish diplomatic missions reached the number of 39 embassies in Africa.13

However, despite all this achievements, Turkey’s Africa Policy is now facing major challenges in many aspects. First of all in the economic field, because in spite of the recent progress, figures remain far behind the targets of the Turkish government.14

In addition, although the number of diplomatic missions in Africa has significantly increased, their activities and staff are rather insufficient so the missions are not fully operational.15

As shown in the case of Ethiopian-Turkish relations, the political instability in Turkey that arose from the last general election held on 7th June, the break-up of the alliance with the Gülen movement16, as well as the regional instability in the MENA area, will most probably influence in some way the relations with the African countries. Moreover it seems that, at the closure of the first decade of the Open to Africa Policy, Turkey has not yet the resources needed for the sustainability of the promises it made in Africa. This aspect is due also to the presence of other major international actors – such as Brazil, China, India and Russia – which contribute to exacerbate the competition in the African continent.

  1. Murat Bilhan was Ambassador in Ethiopia in the period 1996-2000. Now he is Vice-Chairman of the Turkish Think Thank TASAM and Professor of International Relations at the Istanbul Kültür University. Interviewed at Istanbul Kültür Üniversitesi on 13.05.2015 and at TASAM on 02.06.2015.
  2. The Turkish Embassies active in 1996 in sub-Saharan Africa were seven and were in Ethiopia, South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya. Source Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs: .
  3. Zehra Eroglu, “Turkish foreign policy towards the Balkans in the post-cold war era”. Thesis submitted to the Graduate School of Social Sciences of Middle East Technical University. Ankara, April 2005.
  4. As reported by Thomas Wheeler in “Turkey’s role and interests in Central Asia” (Saferworld, October 2013): “After the independence of several regional states in the early 1990s, Turkey focused significant diplomatic effort on its stated goal of assisting the ‘Turkic sister republics’ to become functioning, stable states that were integrated into the international system. Underpinning this engagement were the perceived linguistic, cultural, religious, ethnic, and historical links with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. Following its rejection of membership by the European Union in 1989, Turkey hoped that by building ties with these new states it could build a Turkic community that would fall under its own leadership, a concept put forth by then Turkish President Turgut Ozal”. Namely these countries are: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
  5. Türk Eximbank was created in the framework of the Export Growth Strategy adopted by Turkey in the early 1980s. It supports Turkish exporters, contractors and investors through various credit, guarantee and insurance programs. The Bank does not compete, but works closely with commercial banks encouraging them to increase their support for the export sector. As well as providing direct lending, the Bank also provides insurance and guarantees to Turkish commercial banks to encourage them to finance export transactions backed by sales made on deferred payment terms.
  6. Oğuzhan Tekin, Turkish Foreign Policy towards Africa: motivations and interests 2001-2010”. Thesis submitted to the Institute of Social Sciences in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in International Relations, Fatih University, June 2012.
  7. Ufuk Tepebaş, “Turkey in Africa: achievements and challenges”. May 2015, Istanbul.
  8. .
  9. TUSKON (the Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists of Turkiye) is a non-governmental and non-profit umbrella organization representing seven business federations and 216 business associations with more than 50.000 businesspeople over 100.000 companies. It is the largest and most widespread NGO in Turkish business community. Its primary objective is to support both Turkish and international business people for coming together and forming a synergy between them. However its links with the faith-based Gülen Movement are now creating a major hurdle to their activities in Africa, attempting to undermine the successful result of the trade relations by them established.
  10. Ufuk Tepebaş, “Turkey in Africa: achievements and challenges”. May 2015, Istanbul.
  11. The Joint Implementation Plan 2015-2019 adopted in Malabo aims to further strengthen the comprehensive cooperation for the benefit of both parties, especially on the fields of: institutional cooperation (e.g. through consultations on political matters, inter-parliamentary relations, cooperation within International Organizations, cooperation with Regional Economic Communities and Civil Society); trade and investment (e.g. the creation of a joint database at the level of Chambers of Commerce and business councils, the establishment of a friendly business environment for the creation of joint ventures, holding of joint trade fairs and exhibitions of products, the establishment of Africa-Turkey business councils and cooperation in establishing industrial zones); agriculture sector and Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (e.g. cooperating on the preparation of Agriculture Master Plans in the African countries Sharing of experiences gained from the Rural Development Investments Support Program of the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock of Turkey, training experts and cooperating on seed sowing and seedling cultivation, combat desertification, sand dune fixation works, the impact of climate changes on soil and water resources in African countries, water harvesting, drought, erosion and desertification); health; peace and security (e.g. establishing joint mechanisms to counter terrorism, to suppress the finance of terrorism, and transnational crimes and for capacity building through training programs in Counter-Terrorism Academy and similar institutions in Africa); conflict resolution and mediation (e.g. through the exchange of views on the issues related to conflict prevention and resolution, mediation and facilitation); migration (e.g. encouraging legal and lawful means of travel); infrastructure, energy, mining and transport (cooperating in the fields of infrastructure, transportation, information and communication technologies water and sanitation, enhancing energy infrastructure in Africa with a view to further develop the energy industry in Africa including the promotion of renewable energy and improved energy efficiency); culture, tourism and education (e.g. encouraging African and Turkish academic institutions to exchange languages instructors and/or students to promote indigenous African and Turkish languages cooperation between the academic institutions of both sides, especially on the training of the youth in diplomacy); media, information and communication technologies (e.g. encouraging the production and broadcasting of programs, including films and dramas produced by Turkish and African producers); environment (e.g. increasing the cooperation and consultations on adaptation to climate change issues within multilateral context; youth and sport (e.g. establishing joint research teams to be constituted by experts and researchers, joint projects in the fields of youth and sports including competitions and games between Turkish and African sports clubs, youth exchanges between African countries and Turkey). Source:
  12. DEİK’s bilateral Business-Councils existent before 2000s: with Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, opened in 1990; with Egypt opened in 1992 and with South-Africa, opened in 1997. After 2000s: with Libya in 2007; Ethiopia and Sudan in 2008; with Kenya in 2010; with Angola, Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Mauritania, Rwanda and Uganda in 2011; with Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Mauritius in 2014; with Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Mozambique and Senegal in 2015. Source:
  13. Turkish Embassies in Africa were 7 in 1996 and 12 in 2009.
  14. Turkey’s goal was to reach a trade volume of about $50 billion for 2015. This figure was $23,4 billion in 2014 and it is unlikely that the goal will be attained during this year.
  15. As stated by Ufuk Tepebaş (TASAM).
  16. Namely the opposition of the government to release entrance visa to Turkish businessmen to attend the TUSKON Turkey-Africa Trade Bridge in 2015 caused a major drop in the participation at the event.

The latest developments on the Turkish policy towards Ethiopia

addisThe first part of 2015 witnessed some relevant events in the framework of the Turkish Foreign Policy towards Ethiopia.

In the first instance, in January, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went to Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia for an official visit carried out to underline the importance for Turkey of the relationship with the countries of the Horn of Africa. During the visit, President Erdoğan pointed out that the African Union, which is the most important platform of discussion for regional issues, is based in Ethiopia and the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) is based in Djibouti1. He affirmed furthermore that the “Opening to Africa Policy”, implemented by the Turkish government during the last 10 years, has been successfully completed and will be now replaced by an “Africa Partnership Policy”.

Secondly, a groundbreaking ceremony for the Awash-Kombolcha-Hara Gebaya Railway Project took place in Kombolcha on 25 February. This project, one of the most important development projects of Ethiopia, is undertaken by the Turkish construction company Yapı Merkezi. It amounts to 1.7 billion USD and part of the financing comes from the Turkish Eximbank. The 389 km long railway will connect the northern railway line from Mekelle to Hara Gebeya to Tadjourah and the central railway line from Addis to Djibouti Port, which is the main transport corridor for both passengers and freight traffic, and for the transportation of imported and exported goods via Djibouti Port. The ceremony was attended by many representatives of both countries, such as the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Turkish Ambassador in Ethiopia Osman Rıza Yavuzalp, Yapı Merkezi Holding Chairman Ersin Arıoğlu, Yapı Merkezi Construction Chairman Başar Arıoğlu, representatives of Ministry of Economy of Turkey and creditor banks2.

Thirdly, the Ethiopian House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) approved on April a highly regarded draft proclamation proposing the cooperation of Ethiopia and Turkey in the military sector. The agreement envisages the way for Ethiopia to produce military equipment and sell them to third parties. Namely, it was signed between the Ministries of Defense of the two countries in Istanbul in 2013 to

«provide for cooperation in the field of defense industry, improving the defense industry capabilities of the countries, production and procurement of defense goods and services as well as related technical and logistic support in the field» (( )).

Lastly the Turkish agricultural Ziraat bank announced on 27 April that it will open a new branch in Addis Ababa, before the end of 20153. This will be the first foreign bank to operate in Ethiopia. The decision was anticipated by the Turkish Ambassador in Ethiopia Osman R. Yavuzalp during a press conference related to Turkish connection with Ethiopia and the African Union on December 2014. In that event H.E. Yavuzalp said that Ethiopia is the country Turkey is most keen to cooperate with in economic, political and social areas; he added moreover that Ethiopia and Turkey are undertaking various activities to sustain the age-long ties and therefore that there was a plan to open a bank which finances Turkish investors in Ethiopia and the proposal was already submitted to the government of Addis Ababa4.

All these events can be seen as part of a wider mutual interest of Turkey and Ethiopia to continue strengthening their ties in all fields.

As affirmed by Evren Doğan from DEİK (Dış Ekonomik İlişkiler Kurulu, Foreign Economic Relations Board):

«Ethiopia is seen as a gate to enter the African market and a very important country. The reason of this is that they have stable government, stable democracy, and an economy that is a very promising one. In terms of trade and investments, we can say that definitely the beginning of this year [2015] with the visit of Mr. Erdoğan to Ethiopia is a new year for upcoming relations with Ethiopia.» ((Evren Doğan is the Turkish African Chamber Coordinator in DEİK – Interviewed in TOBB Plaza, Istanbul, on 21.05.2015.))

This thought is additionally backed by the assertions of the Ethiopian part that is represented for this research by Goitom Kahsay Hagos which states that:

«We have excellent political and diplomatic relations with Turkey. This excellent bilateral relation is supported by economic factors, like investment, trade, and some other cultural issues.» ((Mr. Goitom Kahsay Hagos is Minister Counsellor at the Embassy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in Ankara – Interviewed in the Ethiopian Embassy in Ankara on 15.06.2015.))

Concerning the historical background of the relations between the two countries, it can be said that after the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the first Turkish embassy in Africa was opened in Addis Ababa in 1926. Although the Ethio-Turkish relations remained restrained during the 20th Century, before the instauration of the DERG Regime in 1974, the Emperor Haile Selassie visited Turkey twice in 1967 and in 1971, and some commercial agreements where signed between the two countries.

However, as witnessed by Murat Bilhan who was Ambassador in Ethiopia from 1996 to 2000, when he started his duty in Addis Ababa in 1996, the activities of Turkish Embassies in sub-Saharan Africa were rather insignificant5.

This situation changed in the framework of the wider Turkey’s Africa Policy. It was initiated with the adoption by the Turkish Government of the “Africa Action Plan” in 1998 and continued with the implementation of the “Open to Africa Policy” by the AKP government since 2002.

The Turkish-Ethiopian Relations can thus be placed in the framework of this Turkish-Africa Policy.

Indeed Ethiopia has a considerable politically importance for Turkey, due to the fact that it hosts the headquarters of many relevant international institutions including the African Union headquarters and the regional office of the United Nations.

Attesting this particular attention to Ethiopia from Turkey, it can be mentioned that the first visit of a Turkish Prime Minister in Sub-Saharan Africa was made by Mr. Erdoğan in Addis Ababa in 2005. Moreover, the first African regional Office of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) was opened in Ethiopia in the same year. From that moment on the political and economic relationship have increased year-by-year until 2013. Among others, the actors who played a significant role in deepening these relations were both governmental, as for example the TIKA Agency; but also non-governmental, like Turkish NGOs6 such as TUSKON7 for the commercial and industrial sector, and İHH8, KYM,9 and the Turkish Red Crescent for the humanitarian field10. Namely on the occasion of the 2006 draught in the Horn of Africa, Turkey delivered to Ethiopia an amount of 300.000 USD of humanitarian aid through the UNICEF and WFP funds.

In 2007, President Erdoğan – who was Prime Minister at that time – visited the country for the second time while he was in Addis Ababa to attend the African Union (AU) Summit11. Other mutual visits marked the Turkey-Ethiopia partnership in the following years, such as for example the visit of the Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu – who was at that time Ministry of Foreign Affairs – in 2011 and 2012. On the occasion of the 18th Summit of the AU in Addis Ababa on 28-30 January 2012, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ, in addition to his participation to the meeting, visited also the Ethiopia’s Christian ruler Ashama ibn Abjar (al-Najashi of Aksum) village in Mekelle. Following the visit of Mr. Bozdağ, it was announced the intention of TIKA to restore the Najashi’s Tomb. This project, of an amount of 4 million USD, is expected to be completed in 2016.

In June 2013, Yapı Merkezi construction company signed the above mentioned contract for the Awash-Woldia/Hara Gebeya Railway Project with Ethiopia Railway Company (ERC) in Addis Ababa, event that marked also an important economic step in the relations with Ethiopia.

However it is an umdeniable fact that in the aftermath of the Arab Springs the Turkish Foreign Policy in general has become more uncertain and this sort of dithering has inevitably had an effect on the Africa Policy.

An evidence of this is the lack of support from the African countries for the re-election of Turkish non-permanent membership at the UN Security Council for the period 2014-2015.12 The second evidence is a drop in the trade volume since 2012.13 Even in the first months on 2015 a decline in the trade volume with Ethiopia is attested.14

Another adverse factor can be seen in the breakup of the relations between the AKP government and the faith-based Gülen movement since 2013. The various organizations linked to this movement, as for example TUSKON and KYM, along with Gülen affiliated schools in Ethiopia15, played an important role during all the decade of the implementation of the Africa Policy. Especially the Turkish International Schools represent a key factor in the frame of the Turkish Soft-Power. Indeed during his visit in January 2015, President Erdoğan stressed, with his Ethiopian counterpart, the necessity to close these schools and to replace them with governmental ones. This request however didn’t find a substantial application since as far as we know these schools cannot be easily closed and they are still pursuing their activity. Moreover as affirmed by Goitom Kahsay Hagos:

« [the Ethiopian government] doesn’t have any problems with these schools. They were not established today, they were there some years ago and they are private schools. We became aware of the fact that these schools were from Gülen movement only last year when frictions raised between the government and the Gülen movement» ((Mr. Goitom Kahsay Hagos is Minister Counsellor at the Embassy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in Ankara – Interviewed on 15.06.2015)).

To conclude, it seems that the visit in January of President Erdoğan, in addition to the announcement of the opening of the Ziraat Bank in Addis Ababa in April are connected by the single idea of the intention of reaffirming the governmental presence of Turkey in Africa. Indeed, this happens in a period when Turkish Foreign Policy is facing regional problems in the Middle East and a slowdown of its influence on the African countries. This last fact is de facto attested by the weakening in the growth of trade volume with Africa and the lack of support of African countries for the Turkish second non-permanent membership at the UN Security Council.

Ankara seems to try to regain its position in Addis Ababa in light of the fact that in the recent period Ethiopia is facing one of the fastest economic growths in the world16, supported by the political stability assured by the recently re-elected government. Moreover, as stated above, Ethiopia can be seen as a key country not only economically but also politically due to the presence of the African Union and other important international organizations in Addis Ababa.

At present, in this framework, there are mainly three challenges for the Turkish government.

The first two concern the internal politics, and are namely: the political instability in Turkey which arose with the recent general election on 7 June, and the breakup with the Gülen movement since 2013. Lastly a third challenge is represented by the regional uncertainty in the Middle East area and North Africa by several factors. Among others: the Syrian Civil War, the Libyan conflict, the spread of the Islamic State and the subsequent instability in Iraq, as well as the emergence of various types of Islamic Militias in the Arab Peninsula and in some African regions (in North Africa, Sahel, Horn of Africa, and Central Africa). It is therefore highly probable that these factors will negatively affect the Ethio-Turkish diplomatic and commercial ties.

  5. Murat Bilhan was Ambassador in Ethiopia in the period 1996-2000. He is now Vice-Chairman of the Turkish Think Thank TASAM and Professor of International Relations at the Istanbul Kültür University. Interviewed on 13.05.2015 and on 02.06.2015.
  6. More than 30 Turkish NGOs operate in Ethiopia in various fields.
  7. TUSKON is a non-governmental and non-profit umbrella organization representing seven business federations and 216 business associations with more than 50.000 businesspeople over 100.000 companies. It is the largest and most widespread non-governmental organization in Turkish business community. Its primary objective is to support both Turkish and international business people for coming together and forming a synergy between them. However its links with the faith-based Gülen Movement are now creating a major hurdle to their activities in Africa, attempting to undermine the successful result of the trade relations by them established.
  8. The Islamic NGO, İnsani Yardım Vakfı, which carries out humanitarian projects all over the world, included in Africa. In Ethiopia it is especially active with educational centers and orphanages.
  9. Kimse Yok Mu, is a Gülen Movement affiliated humanitarian NGO that operates in Ethiopia mainly with domestic utensils distribution, food distribution, construction of orphanages and medical relief.
  10. It must be said that the humanitarian field represented a major issue for the Turkish presence not only in Ethiopia but in all Africa in general. For this reason some analysts defined the Turkish one a “humanitarian diplomacy”.
  11. In 2005 Turkey receive the “observer status” at the African Union.
  12. While in 2008 Turkey succeeded on its non-permanent membership at the UN Security Council for the period 2009-2010 thanks to the support of 50 out of 53 African Countries, the same did not happened in 2013 for the 2014-2015 period’s Turkish membership. Source: Ufuk Tepebaş, “Turkey in Africa: achievements and challenges”. May 2015, Istanbul
  13. The trade volume between Turkey and Ethiopia in 2012 was 441.726 USD, in 2013 it was 421.634 USD and 396.656 USD in 2014. Source: Ministry of Customs and Trade.
  14. Source: Ministry of Customs and Trade.
  16. As Stated in the “2014 Ethiopia Report” by the African Economic Outlook (OECD), “In 2012/13, Ethiopia’s economy grew by 9.7%, which made Ethiopia one of Africa’s top performing economies”.

The viewpoint of Prof. Ziya Öniş over the 7th June elections


Several party flags hanging out in the streets of Istanbul during the 2015 legislative campaign – Eleonora Bacchi

Ziya Öniş is Professor of International Relations and the former Director of the Center for Research on Globalization and Democratic Governance (GLODEM) at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey.
His last paper – Monopolising the Centre: The AKP and the Uncertain Path of Turkish Democracywas published on June 19th on The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs.

The first session of the newly elected 25th Grand National Assembly of Turkey will take place on Tuesday the 23rd of June. Following the 7th June elections, the Supreme Electoral Council has announced on the 18th the official results confirming the general trend indicated on the eve of the Election Day. The ruling party which has seamlessly been in power for the last 13 years, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) of the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, although gaining the first position by once again receiving 40.66% of the votes, failed for the first time to reach a majority that would allow it to form a government without searching for a coalition. The Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP) took 25.13% of the votes, becoming the second biggest represented in Parliament, while the third is the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP) with 16.45%. A fourth party reached the percentage to enter the Parliament, passing the 10% threshold; it is the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP) which obtained 12.96% of the favors. Then the allocation of the Parliament’s seats will be so formed: 258 seats for the AKP, 132 for CHP, 80 for both MHP and HDP.

In light of the previous elections of 2011 some considerations can be made. The AKP faces a drop of around 9% of the votes compared to the 2011 result when it received 49.83% at the elections. This difference can be seen as specular to the advantage of the two parties that faced an increase on their votes, i.e. HDP and MHP. The pro-Kurdish party, which came into the elections in 2011 with independent candidates (because it is the only way to escape the 10% threshold), saw redoubling its share of the votes moving from 6.57% to 12.86%. The nationalist party, MHP, saw also an increase of 3.4% in the votes. The CHP position on the other hand remains almost the same with a loss of less than one point.




% votes N° seats % votes N° seats difference % 2011-2015
AKP 49.83 327 40.66 258 -9.17
CHP 25.98 135 25.13 132 -0.85
MHP 13.01 53 16.45 80 3.44
HDP 6.57* 35* 12.96 80 6.39
Source: Supreme Electoral Council website –
* the party ran for the elections not as a group but with independent candidates

Following the oath ceremony of the 23rd of June, the speaker of the Assembly should be elected within the end of the month. This will be the first test for a feasible coalition between the parties. Within 45 days after the election of the speaker indeed, the new government must be presented and this will be almost certainly a coalition government, given the fact that no party has a strong majority to create a single-party government.

Waiting for the next steps towards the formation of the new Turkish government we report the viewpoint of Professor Ziya Öniş over the elections and possible future scenarios.

Q: Prof. Ziya Öniş, which are your general observations about the 7th June elections?

A: I see this election as a major window of opportunity for Turkish democracy, because I think the period from 2011 – where AKP has won 50% of the votes – has led to overconfidence. Especially with Erdoğan’s growing power I think we see a sort of growing authoritarian turn and democratic backslide in Turkey. So I see it as a major reaction to the excessive power of Erdoğan in the recent period.

And obviously one of the major factors is the HDP phenomenon which I think is very important because one of the reasons why the AKP’s vote has dropped is that the religious conservative Kurds have voted for the HDP. This is important in showing that the Kurds, especially after the Kobanê affair (see our 09/23/2014 edition), have lost faith in Erdoğan and AKP in terms of strengthening and continuing with the Kurdish Peace Process. But also interesting in HDP phenomenon is that HDP with Selahattin Demirtaş presents itself not as an ethnical party anymore – although it’s predominantly getting Kurdish votes – but as a party of Turkey, coming to the center stage of Turkish politics.

This is an important step in terms of dealing with the major problem of Turkey, the Kurdish question, politically rather than militarily. Many Turks, who would normally vote for the social democratic party (CHP), have voted for HDP. For two reasons: one, the belief that this is a party which is genuine in favor of political rights and freedoms and it’s an opportunity for Turkey to deal with this Kurdish issue and in this sense the Demirtaş leadership has been quite attractive for many Turks not only for the Kurds; and second the fear of the regime turning into an increasingly more authoritarian mood, because (and this was the big fear) if the HDP failed to pass the electoral threshold and the AKP won about 330 seats, they would move in favor of the presidential system.

I hope this will be an opportunity to make coalition politics work in Turkey because in the past coalition politics have failed. But this doesn’t mean that coalition politics cannot work in Turkey, it requires a lot of restraint compromise behavior on the part of key political actors. But I think it’s difficult to have viable coalitions in a very polarized political environment.

Q: What are the main factors of the loss of AKP votes?

A: One of the reasons why AKP has experienced a significant drop in the votes is the Erdoğan factor. Erdoğan, who played a very important role through his personal charisma in the early stages of AKP, is now turning to a liability. If you look at participation rate in the elections it is around 86% which is very high, much higher than the 70% in the presidential elections. So I think the period spanning between the beginning of Erdoğan’s presidency and this election alarmed many people about the fact that increasingly, I think, we are heading on the wrong direction, especially with the symbolism – this new big palace and lavish expenses – Erdoğan is now increasingly presenting himself as a kind of Ottoman Sultan.

One of the positive developments could lead to genuine intra-party democracy in the AKP, with more discussion and more alternative. Because the AKP itself – which is still the dominant force in Turkish politics – is not a monolithic coalition. There are different voices: there are more liberal elements and more nationalistic elements; Kurds, plus the co-religious conservative people. […] There are many within the party who are strongly supporting Erdoğan and they will not concede defeat very easily. But at the same time there are people who are conservative but who are not happy about the way in what Erdoğan is trying to increase and use his power in the recent period.

Q: Like Abdullah Gül?

A: Yes, I think that Gül represents the most liberal face of the AKP and there are many people like that who are conservative but also pluralistic. The way that Gül acted during his presidential power was much more within the constitutional limits so Gül is very critical but he has been sidelined. I think that the hope of people close to Erdoğan is not to form a coalition government, delay the process, have an early election and hope that they will get many of the votes back. But I think it would be impossible for them at this stage, in the short term, to get the votes of the Kurds and if the Kurdish party still gets more than 10% they will still be not in a position to form a single party government.

An alternative strategy for AKP would be to form a coalition and try to go into early elections in a year’s time, not immediately. Hoping to show during this period that the coalition is not working effectively and they need a majority government. But that’s also a risky strategy because they could lose in the process, especially if the economy evolves in a sort of crisis situation.

To come back to the reasons for the loss of votes, another element I think has been the way Erdoğan presented this election as an election, seeking a mandate for a presidential system and I think that it has been a mistake. He calls for an extreme concentration of power, and the way he acted, violating the constitution during the campaign advocating for the cause of AKP, was a mistake because in our system the president has to be neutral in the elections while he was on the streets. So in a way I think that Erdoğan has lost the election more than the AKP.

Another reason is the relative economic decline of the recent period. We see a slowdown of economic growth – which is not as impressive as in the earlier part of AKP government – and rising unemployment, although we are not in a real crisis situation. […]

Another issue is the Kurdish Peace Process. The failure to show commitment with the Kurdish peace process has alienated the Kurds because in the past the Kurdish votes were evenly balanced between the AKP and the Kurdish ethnic parties. Now almost 90% of the votes of the Kurds have gone to the Kurdish party (or the HDP). The Kurdish Peace Process has also created a nationalistic backlash among the Turks. So the AKP has been undercut from two directions both the Kurdish nationalists and the Turkish nationalists.

Another element which I find important is the spirit of the Gezi protest. For the first time it had a political impact, perhaps not a major one, but it was channeled into HDP for 2 or 3%.

And another interesting factor that I want to emphasize is that Turkey’s major democratization reforms in the early 2000s were conducted under the impulse of the EU membership. The EU was a very critical actor in the period from 2000 to 2007. But now the real challenge for Turkey is that we have to regain the democratization impulse through domestic politics because the EU soft power is quite limited (in spite of the reports of the European Parliament). The reputation effect is not working without credible membership signals. In this context external dynamics are not that significant since nobody believes that membership can materialize in the foreseeable future.

Q: What about the possibility to form a minority government? Which are otherwise the feasible coalitions?

A: It is also an option for the AKP to form a minority government because they have quite a significant number of MPs. Then in the case that they will not be able to govern the Country, they can also use the weapon of “we tried to act constructively and others blocked us”. […]

If you look at different scenarios, an AKP-MHP coalition would be possible because many of the votes of the AKP have moved to MHP. So, discontent of the AKP has been channelized in part to HDP, and in part to MHP. In many Anatolian cities, the more nationalistic and the quite conservative electorate is channeled to MHP. But if that coalition takes place, then it would be a major barrier to resolving the Kurdish question, because MHP is the key actor which opposes any kind of opening. And especially one of their problems is that there is very strong leadership continuity. If the party [the MHP] could be transformed, with a new leader and a new vision, perhaps they could get a much larger percentage of the votes from the AKP. But they don’t’ have that kind of vision at the moment (MHP). So whenever they are able to increase their votes it’s primarily when there is dissatisfaction in the AKP rather than coming up with a positive agenda.

I think the best workable scenario is an AKP-CHP coalition. The problem in the case of CHP is that the CHP itself is a coalition of two very different elements: one is a very hardline secular nationalistic kemalist segment who are not willing to compromise in many issues and the other a more liberal and social democratic camp (which I think Kılıçdaroğlu is close to). So the problem for the CHP is that it also has to strike a compromise within the party which is a rether difficult challenge in itself. […]

An alternative coalition comprising of CHP-HDP-MHP, leaving out AKP is in my opinion not workable in any case given the extent of differences.

It is a big window of opportunity but it can be missed. […] The nice thing about these elections is that the complexity, the plurality of Turkey is now 100% represented in the Parliament. So you cannot say that anybody is now excluded. In spite of this infamous 10% threshold everybody is represented. In terms of representation it is fine, but whether representation can be turned into effective governance is a problem and that requires effective coalition building, political actors acting more in the public interest rather than for a short-term partisan interest. […] A politics of compromise in a country where politics is much pluralized and the term compromise means weakness. But the cost of not compromising could be quite alarming.

Q: How will the result of the elections affect the economy and the foreign policy of Turkey?

A: I think that economy is one of the major risks and the business community is right: it wants a new government formed because there is a lot of uncertainty and the economy is in a fragile situation. So one of the big challenges is to form a coalition government and use it to implement effective economic policies. […] The longer the process is delayed the more the uncertainty grows. And since the risks of a major economic downturn would hit the governing party itself, this should also increase the incentives for the AKP to form a government soon. […]

In terms of foreign policy already there has been a pragmatic turn and I think with a coalition government this will continue. Uncertainty was one of the mistakes of the AKP government on the Syrian case, for example. Taking a very sharp anti-Assad position versus a more lenient position towards ISIS has, I believe, affected quite significantly Turkey’s international popularity, and has led to major criticism from both US and the EU. So my sense is that with a coalition government a more restrained, and more balanced foreign policy will take place. I see also a link between democracy at home and foreign policy abroad. What we see in 2011 to 2015 period is a backsliding of democracy at home and unilateralism abroad.