Will President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accept the democratic verdict of the Turkish people after last weekend's parliamentary elections, in which his AKP party lost its absolute majority? The stakes couldn't be higher, and not only for Turkey.
At the recent G7 summit in the Bavarian Alps, President Obama urged the EU to reflect hard on Greece's failure, in view of its strategic importance for South-Eastern Europe. But Greece pales in comparison with its much larger and more strategically important neighbour Turkey. Ankara holds one of the keys not only for decisive action on Syria and Iraq, but also with regard to the seminal question of the compatibility of Islam and democracy.
As has been extensively reported, Erdogan has changed over the last couple of years from a democratic Dr Jekyll, bent on calming tension both within (the Kurdish question) and without (in the Middle East), to an authoritarian Mr Hyde, curtailing civil liberties at home and stoking the flames in Syria by aiding and abetting extremists, especially ISIS. Erdogan now wants to change the constitution to grant himself Putin-like presidential powers.
Without Turkey turning a blind eye to thousands of Muslim crusaders transiting to Syria and Iraq, the self-appointed caliphate could never have flourished as it does now. The Sunni Erdogan has from the outset of the Syrian civil war strongly endorsed the rebel side, now dominated by Sunni extremists, against Assad, who is propped up by a Shia coalition, the Alawites, Tehran and its proxies.
Two basic scenarios are possible in the wake of Erdogan's setback at the polls.
He can now direct his party to honestly reconcile with important parts of the electorate, basically the Kemalist social-democratic opposition which came in second and is led by an Alawite, and the new leftist party led by the charismatic Kurd Selahattin Demirtas, which came in fourth and is composed of Kurds and the urban opposition. All have rebuffed Erdogan's dreams of constitutional change. In parliamentary terms this would mean either a coalition or a minority government led by his AKP, with policies sufficiently moderate to be tolerated by the loyal opposition.
Unfortunately the third-largest party at the recent polls, the ultra-right Nationalist Movement Party, cannot be counted as loyal. It harbours a neo-fascist, anti-Alawite youth movement, the Grey Wolves, which violently disturbs the peace at home and in the large Turkish diaspora abroad. The Nationalist Movement is also home to notorious Armenian-genocide deniers.
According to the Turkish constitution, if no working government can be hammered out within 45 days, the president has to call new elections. However, Erdogan dominates his party to such an extent that his personal choice — accept the election outcome or plow ahead with his dictatorial policy, language and style before the vote — will become obvious soon through the AKP's behaviour in the coalition talks.
If he chooses the latter, all bets are off. In the short term this would obviously spells trouble for the country itself. The democratic opposition, buoyed by the election result, will not take a continuation of the AKP's recent policies and rhetoric lying down. The 'Takim Square riots' against Erdogan of 2011 will look like child's play compared to what we are likely to see in the streets of Istambul. The disastrous consequences for the Turkish economy and currency, already seriously rattled after the election, are also evident. Kurdish terrorism could resume as its past flag bearer, the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, is still very much alive and has only held its peace after overtures towards the Kurds by the Erdogan Government in its early years.
The ultimate nightmare for Turkey would be a scenario in which its president, running out of all other options, is tempted to play the Sunni card at home, with the Middle East's emerging mother of all Islamic wars (Sunna vs Shia) thus casting its devastating shadow over Turkey.
The consequences would of course be dire. All talk of moving the country closer to the EU, let alone joining it, would be moot. In the medium term, its NATO membership could hang in the balance. A huge strategic void would thus open. Last but not least it could also nip in the bud the hope that Turkey's long petrified front on Cyprus could start to crumble, following the recent electoral success of a moderate on the eastern part of the island where the Turkish army maintains a force of a couple of thousand troops.
Photo by Flickr user Brookings Institution.