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Turkey elections: How will the vote affect foreign policy?

Differing visions of Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu have fuelled debate, as the opposition alliance faces challenges in finding common ground
Voters pass a Turkish flag en route to a polling station at the Turkish consulate in Berlin on 9 May 2023 (AFP)

What international media have dubbed “the world’s most important election in 2023” is less than a week away. Whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu wins will have wide-ranging implications.

Beyond the domestic sphere, the outcome will also affect Turkey’s policy towards the United States, the European Union, Russia and others. 

What makes this election pivotal isn’t whether the government remains in charge; the key issue is which candidate and political agenda will take Turkey into its second century.

The two main candidates and their differing visions for the country’s future have fuelled heated debate over the economy, democracy, security, territorial integrity, counterterrorism and foreign policy. On the latter issue, a comparative analysis of their visions can offer insights into potential changes or continuity.

Erdogan wants to build on two decades of experience - and the resulting pragmatism, realism and self-confidence that it brings - to pursue an integrated defence, security and energy policy, with three key objectives. These include promoting peace and stability in the region, institutionalising continent-wide initiatives, and leading efforts towards a fairer global order.

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Those ambitious goals signal continuity with regards to Erdogan’s post-2015 pursuit of strategic autonomy, cross-border operations, a combination of soft and hard power, regional normalisation, and a balance between the West and Russia.

Mindful of Turkey’s standing within Nato and viewing EU membership as a strategic goal, Erdogan has experienced tensions with western allies over Syria, counterterrorism operations, refugees, relations with Russia, energy, and friction with Greece.

Diplomatic activism

Having tied Sweden’s Nato membership to counterterrorism, Erdogan, if elected, will engage with the US and EU on the basis of mutual respect.

But this does not mean problems with the US will be addressed swiftly. Despite western criticism, Erdogan will resume the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and Iraq, while continuing to pursue normalisation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya and the Aegean Sea, Erdogan will likely welcome reasonable solutions. Normalisation with Greece and Egypt is what Turkey wants, but reciprocity is key.

Adopting a balanced and autonomous policy towards Russia, Erdogan will cooperate with Moscow on energy. But Ankara’s position may change if the Ukraine war deepens or spreads, because it opposes the region’s destabilisation. Turkey’s priority is to stop the fighting and reach a negotiated solution. It won’t stop “talking to both sides” and seeking balance, an approach that facilitated the grain corridor.

A supporter holds a banner featuring Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s face during a campaign rally in Ankara on 30 April 2023 (AFP)
A supporter holds a banner featuring Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s face during a campaign rally in Ankara on 30 April 2023 (AFP)

Erdogan may seek to stop a new cold war or nuclear escalation amid a deepening great power competition. Accordingly, he may adopt an ambitious yet cautious foreign policy, embracing diplomatic activism to promote peace and stability over uncertainty.

While Erdogan pursues normalisation and bilateral/multilateral cooperation across the Gulf, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the Middle East will take top priority as he works to reinforce political normalisation and fix problems in fragile places such as Libya, Syria and Yemen

Developing relationships with the Turkic world and turning the Organization of Turkic States into an effective collaborative mechanism will also be at the forefront of Erdogan’s agenda.

As Washington’s influence fades, regional players reconsider their interests, and China joins the game, Erdogan will wield soft power, focusing on foreign policy to make Turkey an active player globally.

Structural limits

But while the opposition criticises the policies that western governments have labeled “authoritarian”, it lacks an alternative for several reasons.

Firstly, Erdogan’s pursuit of normalisation with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt in recent years has disarmed the opposition. Normalisation with Syria continues by focusing on asylum seekers and counterterrorism.

Secondly, the structural limits of repairing relations with the US, EU and Greece have become clear. Any future concessions regarding the YPG, the followers of Fethullah Gulen, whose organisation is designated as a terror group (FETO), the Eastern Mediterranean, or the Aegean would result in a nationalist backlash.

Kilicdaroglu's potential victory, along with a pivot to Europe and disengagement in the Middle East, would lead to structural changes

And thirdly, bringing together nationalist, leftist and conservative parties, the opposition Nation Alliance has an ambiguous foreign policy vision. That would likely challenge Kilicdaroglu if he wins.

Endorsements of the opposition from the PKK and Gulenists have frustrated voters, as have some of the radical demands from the Green Left Party, such as releasing high-profile PKK prisoners and withdrawing Turkish troops from Syria and Iraq.

It won’t be easy for Kilicdaroglu, if elected, to find common ground among contradicting political views on Syria, Libya, Iraq, the Aegean, the Eastern Mediterranean and counterterrorism.

“Turning to the West” remains Kilicdaroglu’s clearest foreign policy goal, particularly with regards to jumpstarting the EU admission process and complying with European Court of Human Rights rulings - which would mean releasing Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas and activist Osman Kavala from prison.

Delicate balance

In truth, even redefining terrorism likely won’t revive the EU process, because Europeans expect structural changes that are incompatible with Turkish foreign policy.

Furthermore, membership talks will not stop Greece and Greek Cypriots from making maximalist demands.

Turkey elections: Can the opposition stay together if they win?
Read More »

It would be difficult for the opposition to pursue rapprochement with the West and to distance Turkey from Russia, as this would mean disrupting the post-2015 balance with Russia, and sparking crises over Syria, counterterrorism, refugees and energy - which would be problematic for both Ankara and Europe.

Kilicdaroglu’s potential victory, along with an uncontrolled pivot to Europe and disengagement in the Middle East, would lead to structural changes.

If the opposition were to disturb the delicate balance that Erdogan has crafted, then Turkey’s autonomous foreign, defence and national security policy - not mention energy policy - would become less consequential.

Foreign policy would likely become a passive area without ambitions, due to the ideological and political tug-of-war within the Nation Alliance, and the proposed appointment of seven vice presidents. 

It is thus possible to conclude that Erdogan’s re-election would promote continuity and enable new and ambitious initiatives in the foreign policy sphere.

Regardless of the outcome, and of the heated political and ideological debate that is now underway, the 14 May election will go down in history as an important milestone with regards to the consolidation of Turkish democracy.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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