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What new Turkish elections mean for the fight against extremism

August 25, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT
New parliamentary elections will be held in Turkey later this fall. Since President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party lost its majority in June, efforts to produce a coalition government have failed. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins Judy Woodruff to discuss that country’s political uncertainty and the campaign against the Islamic State.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: There was more political uncertainty today within one of America’s key allies in the fight against Islamic State.

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan announced late yesterday that new parliamentary elections will be held later this fall. This came after his ruling A.K. Party lost its majority in the June election for the first time since 2002. Efforts since then to produce a coalition government failed.

Today, he asked his prime minister to form an interim cabinet and government until November 1. But already two opposition parties have refused to take part. This comes as Turkey is now letting the U.S. use its military bases in the campaign against ISIS. Critics charge that Ankara’s own efforts against extremism focus too much on attacking Turkey’s militant Kurdish group, the PKK, and not nearly enough on ISIS.

To help us understand the latest developments and what they mean is our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner.

Margaret, hello.

MARGARET WARNER: Hello.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So this is just two months after the last election. What do we make of it all?

MARGARET WARNER: This is so complicated, Judy. So, let’s just start with the pure politics.

Bottom line is here, Erdogan succeeded. His party, with its Islamist roots, the A.K. Party, has ruled with a total majority in Parliament ever since coming to power. So, suddenly, he was faced with having to make a coalition government. And I’m told by people close to the negotiations that he never really empowered his prime minister to give away anything.

So, if he was inviting another party to join, he wouldn’t even give them the head of a ministry. Well, who would want to join a coalition like that? So, meanwhile, he renews this shooting war with the PKK, this terrorist group — the U.S. calls terrorists. It’s Kurdish militants who fought a civil war with Turkey for years and years. That’s been renewed.

And the analysis is that Erdogan hopes that now he will be seen as this wartime president against not only ISIS, but the PKK, that it will enhance his stature enough that he might win the next election and in fact enough get this supermajority he wanted of 60 percent, which would let him rewrite the constitution and be a powerful, powerful president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But wasn’t it a major surprise back in June in the elections that a Kurdish party got enough votes to win seats in the Parliament?

MARGARET WARNER: Absolutely. That was the big, big surprise. It was a pro-Kurdish party, but they attracted a lot of younger, liberal and just sort of independent-minded voters, who were so alarmed by Erdogan’s grab for power, because he made no secret of why he wanted the 60 percent.

These are some of the same people who turned out, remember, to protest Erdogan’s plan to bulldoze that park in downtown Istanbul. They joined with this pro-Kurdish party. And they got 13 percent and that is what made it impossible for Erdogan’s party to get 60 percent.

Erdogan was so alarmed by this, that he wouldn’t even let his prime minister negotiate with the Kurdish party in search of a ruling coalition. The two of them together could have put one together. So, again, the Erdogan calculation is now that they have got a renewed fight with the PKK, which is pretty much a terrorist group, that maybe some of these liberals and middle-class voters will peel away from the pro-Kurdish party.

There are no polls out yet, obviously, but analysts I have talked to, Turkish analysts, think that could be wishful thinking on his part, but there are months and months to see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meantime, what is at stake truly here for the United States?

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, well, Judy, the big issue for the United States is getting and maintaining Turkey’s cooperation in the coalition against ISIS.

Turkey, as we know, had been very reluctant to get drawn in. And then, all of a sudden, this summer, remarkably, it says, oh, we will let you use our bases. And these are key bases all over Turkey, not just the Incirlik Air Base, but some of the Kurdish region, that make it so much easier and faster to launch bombing runs into both Syria and Iraq.

In other words, so the fighter jets don’t have to come all the way up from the Gulf. So there is that. And then the United States wants to also preserve a working alliance it has with some Syrian Kurdish militants in Syria who are proving really effective against ISIS there and are serving as spotters for bombing runs.

MARGARET WARNER: I guess what I’m told is that, as long as Turkey will allow the U.S. those two things, Turkey is — Washington’s willing to look the other way if Erdogan uses the cover of joining this coalition to really go after his real enemies, the Kurds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it sounds like you’re saying this is a marriage of convenience, but the interests are not always aligned between the two.

MARGARET WARNER: Not at all. That’s exactly the word, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, our chief foreign affairs correspondent, thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Always a pleasure.

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