Election results in four countries offer opportunities, risks for Turkey

France’s newly elected President François Hollande (L), Greece’s Left Coalition Party’s Alexis Tsipras (2nd L), Serbian presidential candidate Boris Tadic (2nd R) and Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan (R)

May 07, 2012, Monday/ 17:28:00

The results of the elections held in France, Serbia, Armenia and Greece over the weekend indicate that there will be shifts in the balances in these countries, and experts agree that both opportunities and risks are in store in terms of the relations of these nations with Turkey.

Four nations held crucial elections on Sunday. Election results show a new and better era is in store for Turkey’s relations with France, while the results of the Greek and Serbian elections might spell unwanted surprises. Not much is likely to change regarding ties with Armenia

In France, Socialist leader François Hollande won nearly 52 percent of the vote in Sunday's runoff, which analysts agree is more than likely to normalize France's strained relations with Turkey under Nicolas Sarkozy and his conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, known for his staunch opposition to Turkish membership in the EU. The elections indicate a new era is beginning between the two countries. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in remarks made on Monday pointed this out, saying he hopes for a “very different” relationship with France

Turkish President Abdullah Gül sent a letter to Hollande on Sunday night, congratulating the new president on his electoral victory. Gül reportedly invited his new French counterpart to “open a new page” in relations between the two countries amid strained ties.

Gül, sending a letter through the Turkish Embassy in Paris, wished Hollande luck during his presidency and said Turkey wants to tackle the problems it has had with France in the past few years.

Hollande’s election campaign director, Pierre Moscovici, also said in a statement that Hollande would like to have a telephone conversation with Erdoğan.

“Relations with France received a heavy blow during the term of Sarkozy,” said Sinan Ülgen, head of the İstanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM). “The change in government will end France's staunch opposition to Turkish membership in the EU. Talks on five chapters that have been unopened due to a French veto are likely to reopen,” he added.

But it will not be all roses and no thorns, notes Beril Dedeoğlu, an international relations professor from Galatasaray University. “Hollande as a socialist politician will have high expectations from Turkey regarding democratization, human rights and transparency. And if Turkey gets angry with this, strains might reappear in relations.” She noted that issues such as some of the controversial judicial processes in Turkey or issues such as freedom of expression might come up as thorns in relations; however, Dedeoğlu noted that Hollande's election certainly opens a softer tone in relations.

Journalist Cengiz Aktar said Hollande is a soft-spoken, unaggressive man and that his personality is likely to contribute to normalization in France and Turkey’s relations, following a period of a highly hostile French president who often looked down upon Turkey and was openly Islamophobic.

Hollande beat conservative Sarkozy with 51.7 percent of Sunday’s vote after a campaign dominated by the economic crisis that has felled 10 other European leaders since late 2009. The new president is expected to be sworn in on May 15.

Uncertainty, fragmented parliament in Greece

In Greece, voters over the weekend punished the two main parties in their elections, giving a boost to the far right and the far left. The long term results of the rise of the Greek neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, and the far right Independent Greeks will certainly not be positive for relations with Turkey, but the country has too much going on right now to even concentrate on longstanding issues with Turkey such as the impasse on Cyprus or territorial clashes over the Aegean.

Herkül Millas, an expert on Turkish-Greece relations, says difficult days are ahead for Greece as uncertainty remains in place over whether a government can be formed, or if it can implement austerity policies expected by the EU -- given the voters’ strong reaction to austerity policies. According to Millas, even with a stronger government and a weaker opposition, Greece was having a hard time following EU policies.

EDAM’s Ülgen agreed, saying, “Greece is headed for a multi-party coalition, and it won’t be likely for them to maintain political or economic stability.” However, he noted that the entry of formerly marginal far-right parties will negatively affect relations with Turkey.

Erhan Türbedar, a foreign policy analyst with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), said although marginal parties are unlikely to be part of the government their newfound power in Greek politics certainly was an unwelcome development. He also said their presence is likely to negatively affect ties with Brussels.

New Democracy and socialist PASOK, the only major parties supporting a 130 billion euro EU/IMF aid program, won just over 32 percent of the vote and only 149 out of 300 parliament seats. Greece’s parliament will be the most fragmented for decades and the only way to a workable coalition looks like some kind of rollback of the terms of the bailout, something which lenders and northern European countries firmly reject.

Golden Dawn won between 5 to 7 per cent of the vote according to exit polls, giving them representation in parliament for the first time in Greek history.

The biggest beneficiary of the protest vote was the Left Coalition party of Greece’s youngest political leader, Alexis Tsipras. He won nearly 17 percent of the vote compared to 5 percent in the last election three years ago.

New path for Serbia

In Serbia, the right-wing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) appeared to be narrowly ahead of the liberal Democratic Party (DS) as of Monday, with the two candidates facing a run-off for the presidency on May 20. SNS’s success is likely to affect relations with this country negatively, although Turkey and Serbia have developed friendly ties over the past few years.

EDAM’s Ülgen noted: “Over the past few years, Serbia’s relations with Turkey have improved greatly. Turkey was successful in mediating with Bosnia. The election results will bring about Serbia’s getting closer to Russia, undermining Turkey’s recent confidence in Serbia.”

The SNS won 24.7 percent, ahead of the Democrats on 23.2 percent.  The Democrats polled 38 percent in the last election in 2008, punished this time for an economic downturn that has driven unemployment to 24 percent. But with 16.6 percent of the vote, the third-placed Socialist Party (SPS), once led by Slobodan Milosevic, will likely cast the crucial vote to decide who forms Serbia’s next coalition government.

Relations unlikely to normalize soon in Armenia

In Armenia, the incumbent Sarksyan government’s party was set to win parliamentary elections on Monday, indicating that the current status quo in relations is likely to be preserved, most experts agree.

Director of the Caucasus Institute Alexander Iskandaryan told Today’s Zaman he didn’t expect an important change in relations with Turkey. He said most Armenian parties “more or less” agree that Armenia is ready to normalize ties, but, added, “The problem is on the Turkish side.” He recalled that a protocol signed between Turkey and Armenia to normalize ties in 2009 included no preconditions regarding the Karabakh dispute or recognition of the Armenian genocide. “When you connect a hard process with another one that is harder you kill both,” he said, adding, “We weren’t the ones who closed the border.”

Artak Shakaryan, an independent analyst on Turkey-Armenian relations said, presidential elections are usually more important than parliamentary elections. “Foreign policy is decided by the president. If Serzh Sarksyan is elected president again next year, we can expect a review of the protocol.” He said relations with Turkey will come up during the presidential election campaign “because all candidates will use a more hawkish language on this issue.”

AZG Daily Editor-in Chief Hagop Avedikian agreed that Sarksyan was likely to get re-elected as president and added that Turkey will need to take a step to get a response from the Armenian side.

Noyan Soyak from the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council (TABDC) was optimistic about the possibility of revival of the normalization process between the two countries, pointing to strong, stable authorities as an opportunity in this regard.

“Having the same administration in Armenia keeping their strength and a stable Turkish government, are the essentials for making a progress in Turkish-Armenian issues,” he said, adding that “we would like to see diplomatic channels start working again in between respective Foreign Ministeries and officials.”

He underlined that after the election period, having secured strong governments in both countries, the expectation from both governments is to avoid negative approaches and/or statements which might have happened during the election campaigns, but encourage reapprochement efforts in both civil society and commercial ways as well as well as in diplomatic channels.

Elsewhere in the world, there were elections in Syria on Monday. The opposition in Syria says the vote is a sham meant to preserve President Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic rule. The voting for Syria’s 250-member parliament is unlikely to affect the course of Syria’s popular uprising, which began 14 months ago with largely peaceful protests. Turkey is closely watching the elections in Syria, where, according to UN figures, more than 9,000 people have been killed in the turmoil, which some observers say is descending into a civil war.

*Gözde Nur Donat in Ankara and Celil Sağır in Yerevan contributed to this report.

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