German and Kurdish votes do not help Turkish positions

German and Kurdish votes do not help Turkish positions

“We warned you that the far right is on the rise,” said Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan on Sept. 25, implicitly addressing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as if she was not aware of the rise in xenophobic, even racist votes in her own country. Merkel had lost some votes in Germany’s election on Sept. 24 but she still holds the power, having been elected for the fourth time in a row, breaking the record of Europe’s first iron lady, Margaret Thatcher.

The most likely coalition is speculated to be formed between Merkel’s CDU/CSU, the liberal FDP and the Greens, after Martin Shulz of the SPD decided to stay out of government. Shulz said he would try to heal the wounds of the Social Democrats, but his move will also have provided some relief for Merkel as it means the main opposition post will not be left to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

One of Merkel’s main political tasks will be to win back votes for the CDU/CSU from the AfD. She successfully did something similar in the past, weakening the Greens by following an ambitious environmentalist energy policy. 

In order to weaken the AfD she may now shift to a new immigration policy, but every step that she could take in that field would draw the attention of Turkish President Erdoğan because of the over 3 million Turkey-origin people living in Germany. 

After recently saying she does not want Turkish domestic politics to have negative effects on German politics - and taking account of similar views in the Liberal and Green flanks - Merkel could take a number of steps. She could move on double citizenship, not allowing people to vote in both countries, and not allowing the domestic political propaganda of other countries to be carried out in Germany, which has been one of the major issues raising tension between Turkey and Germany. 

Measures that Merkel already announced before the elections - including limitations on military sales and limits to investments of German companies in Turkey - may or may not continue, but steps regarding political activities could force Turkey-origin people in Germany to choose between becoming a full part of German society or agreeing to simply stay there as “guests.” The issue could also hurt Erdoğan because lower visibility in Europe could mean fewer votes for him during Turkish elections. 

Regarding the independence referendum in Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on Sept. 25, which is being held despite international reactions, the picture is more complicated. Endorsing the position of the central Iraqi government in Baghdad, Turkey and Iran say they will not recognize the referendum, which they denounce as illegal and illegitimate.

The end result is that KRG President Masoud Barzani insisted on going ahead with the referendum, as any political leader in his position would likely do. He did so despite threats from Turkey, through which the KRG has sold oil to world markets and upon which it also has economic dependence in other areas. In addition to Ankara, there are also threats and warnings directed at the KRG from Iran, the U.S., Russia, Germany, Britain and France. 

Turkey used to have a unique position in the situation of the KRG, considering its own Kurdish problem and its protective stance of the KRG, based on economic and political considerations and the presence of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) - a rival of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The irony is that the PKK has its headquarters in the Kandil Mountains within KRG territory. 

Despite the Turkish military build-up on the Iraqi border and the ongoing drill (as well as one by the Iranian army), the Turkish Armed Forces are not expected to stage a massive operation into Iraq unless there is a direct threat to Turkish borders. Perhaps at most a few cross-border operations could be staged in order to target PKK positions, rather than the Peshmerga forces led by Barzani. 

It is true that Ankara could step up its reactions if and when Kurdish independence is announced - in Iraq, Syria or both. But that is not likely to happen in the short run; among other things, the U.S. would certainly do its best to prevent that from happening in order to avoid antagonize Turkey and Iraq further.

So following the KRG referendum, Turkey’s political position on developments in Syria and Iraq is likely to get weaker in the medium term, despite possible increases in political, economic and military activity in the short term.