Foreign policy forecast: What analysts expect after elections in Turkey
With less than 40 days to go, readers of this newsletter very well know Turkey’s 2023 elections will be among the nation’s most consequential in modern history. What none of us know is how exactly the outcome will impact Turkish foreign policy in the months to come.
To get a sense of where Ankara’s FP might be heading, Turkey recap spoke to eight analysts, academics and commentators on a wide range of topics, the details of which follow below.
In general, most respondents expect a “re-institutionalization of foreign policy” if the opposition wins, meaning diplomatic affairs would shift back to the Foreign Ministry and away from the more personalized approach used by Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
If the AKP retains power, analysts expect a continuation of the current rapprochement with regional frenemies, such as Greece, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and more attempts at dialogue with the Syrian government.
Compared to previous election cycles, Erdoğan has so far used less confrontational rhetoric on foreign relations, though he did hint at an Athens missile threat in December and pledged to stop meeting the US envoy to Turkey Sunday, with opposition to Sweden’s NATO bid in between.
Still, the mid- to long-term forecast for both leading presidential contenders, Erdoğan and the main opposition alliance candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is an extension of Ankara’s recent rapprochement efforts into the foreseeable future.
“The reversal has already begun … This is a love fest now,” Soli Özel, a lecturer of international relations at Kadir Has University in İstanbul, joked regarding warming Ankara-Athens ties, which saw a rare visit by the Greek Defense Minister Tuesday.
“[The AKP] have changed their tone and their direction, so I suppose they will continue on this path,” Özel told Turkey recap. “I cannot see them going back to a policy of escalation. They will not have the money to do that.”
Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, Ankara director for the German Marshall Fund, agreed the normalization trend would continue after elections, adding that a driving factor behind the AKP’s FP shift was “a constant need for foreign cash flows” to facilitate the government’s unorthodox monetary policies.
“The most important thing is maintaining the cash flows to Turkey,” Ünlühisarcıklı said, adding financial incentives could be encouraging Ankara’s reversals with Cairo and Damascus.
“I’m not going to draw a direct parallel, but for example when [Turkish FM Mevlüt] Çavuşoğlu went to Egypt and the two countries agreed to exchange ambassadors, Saudi Arabia deposited $5 billion in the Turkish Central Bank,” Ünlühisarcıklı told Turkey recap.
He continued, “Was it an entire coincidence that when Erdoğan said at some point he could meet [Syrian Pres. Bashar] Assad, the news trickled into the media that Russia was postponing Turkey’s gas payments?”
Some analysts see the deferred gas payments as not just tacit support for Erdoğan, but also as leverage for Moscow in negotiating with the next Turkish government in the case of a Kılıçdaroğlu victory.
Tuba Eldem, an assistant professor of political science and international relations at İstanbul’s Fenerbahce University, reiterated “the survival interests of the ruling elites have driven Turkey’s rapprochement” in the region, though near-term outcomes may produce diminishing returns, requiring additional relation-building efforts beyond Turkey’s immediate neighborhood.
“To compensate for increasing regional and international isolation and its weakening influence in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, Turkey under Erdoğan will turn its face towards Central Eurasia and try to improve its relations with Turkic states,” Eldem told Turkey recap, noting the opposition would likely follow a similar strategy.
Regardless of election results, most analysts expect Ankara to continue pursuing its “balancing act” between Russia and Ukraine as well as Russia and NATO, though Kılıçdaroğlu would likely not continue the frequency of contact seen between Erdoğan and Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin.
According to the opposition alliance’s January memorandum, the Kılıçdaroğlu administration would maintain relations with Moscow, but through institutions.
Noting Russia and Turkey are Black Sea neighbors and share extensive economic links, Yusuf Erim, editor at large and foreign policy expert at TRT World, said the next Turkish government “is going to have to sit at the table with Russia.”
“Russia sends six million tourists a year to your country,” Erim said, referring to Turkey. “They are a major export market for many of your agriculture products. They have the ability to escalate your southern border and turn it into a nightmare situation, they provide tremendous amounts of gas. You can’t unravel this.”
While the GMF’s Ünlühisarcıklı also underlined the perpetuity of Turkey-Russia relations, he noted Erdoğan was more dependent on Moscow to counter perceived threats to his presidency from the West.
Energy is among the top drivers of “interdependency” between Turkey and Russia, said Hürcan Aslı Aksoy, deputy head of the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS).
In January 2023, Russia sent Turkey 34 percent of its imported oil and petroleum products and 35 percent of its imported natural gas, according to the most recent figures released by the Turkish Energy Market Regulatory Authority.
At the same time, Russia’s Rosatom State Corp. is constructing the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant in Mersin.
Turkey’s first nuclear plant is projected to produce 10 percent of nation’s electricity needs. It will also be the world’s first nuclear plant developed under a “build-own-operate” model, in which Rosatom handles all phases of the project and sells energy to the Turkish grid during the plant’s life cycle.
Because of this unique arrangement, Sinan Ülgen, chairman of the İstanbul-based Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, said the plant’s development and operations may be subjected to renewed scrutiny under an opposition administration, which stated in its memorandum it would “review” the current status of the project and the contract details.
“I don’t want to sound alarmist, I don’t mean that the whole deal needs to be cancelled, but I think there are legitimate grounds for having a fresh look at what the full consequences of that deal are,” Ülgen told Turkey recap, noting geopolitical realties have shifted since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Allies and alignments
Both the ruling party and the opposition have stated they would continue the EU accession process and seek out visa liberalization in the short term. Both sides are pro-NATO.
Both sides are also expected to keep core “state policies” as analysts defined them, meaning little would change regarding Ankara’s stances on Cyprus, Azerbaijan, the MENA region and sovereignty disputes in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas (though without a repeat of 2020 tensions).
Differences lie in the opposition’s pledge to comply with decisions by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Erdoğan will likely stay the course on rule of law issues and pursue his ‘Century of Turkey’ vision, where Turkey assumes a greater role in global politics as a sovereign nation among equal partners.
Notably, during the campaign’s launch event in October, Erdoğan underlined the 2020 reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque as “a great challenge against global tutelage” (he used ‘vesayet’), exemplifying opposition to foreign meddling in domestic matters, which voters in both camps support, though not always in the same manner or tone as Erdoğan.
İlke Toygür, a lecturer at University Carlos III of Madrid and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Europe Program, said she expected “more of the same” in the case of an AKP win, but noted the EU would also take a cautious approach with a new opposition government.
“According to conversations in Brussels, the EU is not only waiting for Turkey’s elections but also its aftermath,” Toygür told Turkey recap. “The issue of aligning Turkey with other countries and recent developments in wider Europe is extremely important. This is also closing the ranks in the continent – which is broader than just reinvigorating EU-Turkey relations.”
She continued, “This is why many in the EU claim that they wait for a two-folded reassurance from the country to include Turkey in future plans related to wider Europe: one on Turkey’s return to democracy, another one on its Western vocation and long-term foreign policy alignment with the EU.”
Shanghai Cooperation Organization
Another difference in electoral outcomes might materialize in approaches to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Turkey is currently a dialogue partner of the body and, in September, Erdoğan said he would aim for membership.
In its memorandum, the opposition stated it would “evaluate” relations with the organization, though few analysts expect a Kılıçdaroğlu administration to deepen ties with the SCO.
“If you talk to foreign policy people in the CHP, they don’t think it’s a good idea to join the SCO,” said Aksoy, from CATS, adding Ünal Çeviköz, a former diplomat and current advisor to Kılıçdaroğlu, is one of the key figures pushing for Turkey to fortify its standing in the Western alliance.
Çeviköz also stated his party would have been more critical of the treatment of the Uyghur minority in China, as cited in this November assessment of opposition FP stances by Alper Coşkun and Sinan Ülgen.
In contrast, İlhan Uzgel, an international relations professor in Ankara, said he believes Turkey would not become an SCO member, regardless of the electoral outcome.
"Turkey is fully integrated into the Western world. It’s part of NATO, it’s a founding member of the Council of Europe, so the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a facade for Chinese influence in Turkish foreign policy,” Uzgel told Turkey recap.
He added, “Membership in this organization will not bring anything for Turkey, it doesn’t have a direct influence on Turkey foreign or domestic politics."
US and Sweden
Finally, Turkey’s relations with the US are expected to remain highly delicate and complex in the near-term amid a variety of unresolved issues (SDF support, S-400s and F-16 sales to name a few). Still, the opposition pledged to “take initiatives for Turkey to return to the F-35 project” in its memorandum, which could involve a decision on the S-400s.
“Relations with the US are the most tricky for Erdoğan,” CATS’ Aksoy told Turkey recap. “If Biden stays in power, I don't think the Americans will change their approach to Turkey. They don't think Turkey is a reliable partner.”
Kadir Has University’s Özel echoed this point, saying, “Look, the man [Erdoğan] is not trusted. And trust is the single most important ingredient for Turkey’s relations with the outside world, whether it be diplomatic or economic.”
If Erdoğan wins, TRT World’s Erim said he expects US-Turkey relations to remain transactional and without major changes until Jan. 2025, following the next US presidential elections.
“I think Türkiye will enter a wait-and-see period to see if Trump’s coming back or someone else is coming [other than Biden],” Erim told Turkey recap, adding Ankara’s “relationship with the West will be more London- and Brussels-weighted rather than Washington-weighted. It will keep its relation with Washington on cruise control.”
As for Sweden, most analysts expected Ankara to approve the nation’s NATO bid after Turkish elections, though Erim said the accession process might extend into 2024.
Additionally, the GMF’s Ünlühisarcıklı noted a divided parliament or a split government, in which opposing parties hold the presidency and majority in parliament, could also further complicate the Sweden bid.
“Regardless of who gets elected president, I think it is very unlikely that the next president will [govern] with a majority in the parliament [meaning] that even if the next president would like to ratify Sweden’s accession, he may be unable to do so,” Ünlühisarcıklı said.
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