As Turkey goes to the polls on Sunday 14 May, Senem Aydın-Düzgit considers the implications for Turkish foreign policy. If the opposition wins, it will focus on rebuilding trust with Western partners. If Erdoğan prevails, he will focus on regime survival
Turkey goes to the polls on 14 May. Yet these elections are far from being ordinary. They constitute a watershed moment for the fate of Turkish democracy, economy and society for years to come. After countless defeats, the opposition has finally managed to unite against the government headed by President Erdoğan. Polls suggest a close opposition win for the presidency. As for the parliament, it seems likely that neither the opposition nor the ruling bloc will secure a majority.
The election is occurring in a context defined by the erosion of democracy and state capacity, as well as by the poor state of the Turkish economy. This particular context, and the unprecedented unification of the opposition bloc, gives the opposition a real chance to triumph against Erdoğan and the ruling coalition.
In a context of eroded democracy and a crumbling economy, the opposition has a real chance to triumph against Erdoğan
Many ask about the foreign policy repercussions of these elections. What type of foreign policy can we expect from the opposition coalition if they come to power? If Erdoğan wins, can we expect more of the same, or a significant change in Turkey’s foreign policy orientations?
If the opposition wins, it is likely that Turkish foreign policy will undergo changes on multiple fronts. Over the past decade, relations with the EU have eroded, and the opposition would inherit a damaged relationship. Moreover, there is a pre-existing stalemate in EU enlargement policy. The opposition’s first attempts, therefore, would not immediately push for the revitalisation of EU accession talks, but will probably be geared towards building confidence and mutual trust with the Union.
A victorious opposition would not immediately push for EU accession talks, but would first attempt to build a relationship of trust with the EU
With the return to democracy, the opposition would likely push for the opening of talks for the modernisation of the EU-Turkey customs union. It would also make the necessary changes in the Turkish Criminal Code required for visa liberalisation.
One thorny issue here could be the fate of the EU-Turkey migration deal. The Turkish opposition has voiced its discontent with the deal, and has pledged to renegotiate it with the EU. The opposition’s Presidential candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has explicitly stated that his party would ask the EU for financial support in the large-scale return of Syrian refugees. If the EU fails to provide this, the opposition will declare the deal void.
Regarding relations between Turkey and the larger Western alliance, the opposition would restore Turkey’s much-eroded standing in NATO by pursuing a more transparent and credible balancing act between Russia and the West. Turkey’s economic ills, coupled with high dependence on Russian oil and gas, means that it would still refrain from adopting Western-style sanctions on Russia.
Nonetheless, the opposition is committed to changing Turkish foreign policy. It will move from a personalised, extremely centralised approach, to one that is more transparent and inclusive. Involving state institutions and society at large would imply a much narrower space for Russian intrusion than at present.
It is thus no wonder that President Putin is openly putting his weight behind an Erdoğan win. Russia’s decision to defer Turkey’s gas payments until 2024 is clear evidence of this. An opposition win could also mean progress on other thorny problems between Turkey and its Western allies. The opposition is expected to approve Sweden’s accession to NATO, to commit to bringing Turkey back to the F-35 programme, and to shelve the S-400s.
The opposition would also strike a less confrontational foreign policy tone in the Eastern Mediterranean. It stands opposed to the government’s two-state solution in Cyprus, and underlines its openness for multilateral negotiations. It is also likely to pursue the current government’s normalisation efforts with other countries in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond, such as Syria, Egypt and Israel, yet it will not bear the political baggage of a hostility-ridden decade.
In the case of a governing coalition victory, Turkey’s purely transactional approach to foreign policy – geared mainly to attain regime security and facilitate regime survival – would continue. With the consolidation of Turkey’s authoritarian turn, its strained relationship with the EU would persist, with no progress towards constructive engagement. Russian power and influence over Turkey would almost certainly grow. Turkey would most likely approve Sweden’s accession to NATO in the medium term. Its credibility in NATO, however, would not improve.
If Erdoğan wins, Turkey's strained relationship with the EU would persist, with no progess towards constructive engagement
Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean with Cyprus and Greece would not wane. In fact, they could even worsen, with Turkey pushing for a two-state solution on the island. We could expect the government’s attempts to normalise its relations with Syria and other Eastern Mediterranean partners to continue. Normalising relations with Syria could also facilitate the return of some Syrian refugees back to their home country.
A Turkey which continues to be governed by AKP and its far-right coalition partners will mean more of the same for the country’s foreign policy – and, surely, for its troubled relationship with its Western allies.
We will know soon enough the direction the country will choose for itself.