From Berlin to Irbil, a new era
Over the past two days, two crucial electoral contests have taken place in Berlin and Irbil. The German federal elections resulted in a “tectonic” shift for all political parties, whereas Masoud Barzani held a controversial referendum in northern Iraq amid warnings from all sides. The two critical votes, which took place in Turkey’s southern border and in the European Union, yielded results that will likely fuel a new wave of nationalism and racism. As German politics has been shaken by a notable increase in the popularity of racist neo-Nazis and the decline of mainstream parties, northern Iraq now finds itself in utter uncertainty. In the face of two nationalist waves reaching its shores, Turkey must now take well-thought-out steps.
Let us first take a look at Germany. The Social Democrats, one of the country’s mainstream mass movements, received the worst result of any general election in history. The Conservative Democrats, in turn, delivered their second weakest performance to date. It would appear that Angela Merkel will lead Germany’s next coalition government, while her arch-rival Martin Schulz declared his intention to remain in the opposition. Under the circumstances, Germany will be governed by one of two coalitions – unless a repeat election takes place: The “Jamaica” coalition would bring together the CDU/CSU, the FDP and the Greens. Otherwise, the CDU/CSU could try to form a minority government on its own. Provided that there are vast ideological differences between the three parties, the “Jamaica” coalition remains the most likely outcome of the coalition talks. The next Merkel government, under the influence of racist-nationalist winds, will have to implement more conservative policies. As such, Berlin will seek to limit the influx of refugees and foreigners.
The Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) ability to win 99 parliamentary seats, meanwhile, was a completely new phenomenon in post-World War II German politics. To be frank, this incident marks a victory for neo-Nazis in Germany and populism across Europe. The movement has already emerged as an aggressive and polarizing force in the country, since they have been talking about charging Angela Merkel with transferring national powers to the European Union and opening Germany’s borders to refugees. To be clear, Merkel could increase the German government’s pressure on the Turkish community in an attempt to stop losing her supporters to the AfD. Although her position has been weakened in Brussels, the German chancellor might force “EuroTurks” to make a choice between Germany and Turkey. Still, as SETA Berlin’s general coordinator Zafer Meşe accurately noted, Turkey must go on a public diplomacy offensive without delay by reaching out to the business community and newly-elected parliamentarians to repair bilateral relations.
Meanwhile in northern Iraq, Masoud Barzani’s insistence on holding an independence referendum created a wave of nationalism in the Middle East – which is a far more complex problem. Although KRG officials have been carefully stating that they had no plans regarding the territories of Irbil’s neighbors, regional powers find themselves deeply concerned about the prospect of separatism. As such, the next couple of years – which Barzani considers a preparatory stage toward independence – could set the stage for serious tensions and violent conflicts particularly in and around Kirkuk.
Already today, a new process has started whereby Ankara and Tehran directly engage Baghdad in all areas, the referendum – regardless of its outcome – is considered illegal and Irbil will not be able to exercise any of its rights as a regional government.
Among other things, Irbil has lost its position as a counterpart to Ankara and Tehran. Ironically, the KRG leadership would like to prevent Turkey from imposing economic sanctions as it holds talks with Baghdad. And they would like to make sure that Turkey and Iran start supporting Irbil’s bid for independence in the hopes that the newly-established statelet will serve their interests. Meanwhile, they think they can change the minds of regional powers with some help from Israel and the United States.
However, joint efforts by Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran to make the case that the KRG’s independence bid would do more harm than good for the Kurds will inevitably force Kurdish nationalists to adopt a stronger language. What Ankara must do is to develop concrete policies to protect its interests while stopping the wave of nationalism emanating from Berlin and Irbil from crossing its borders.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on September 27, 2017.