2023’s most important election: Turkey

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The May 14 vote is expected to be the most hotly contested race in Erdoğan’s 20-year rule | Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

For Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, next month’s election is of massive historical significance.

It falls 100 years after the foundation of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular republic and, if Erdoğan wins, he will be empowered to put even more of his stamp on the trajectory of a geostrategic heavyweight of 85 million people. The fear in the West is that he will see this as his moment to push toward an increasingly religiously conservative model, characterized by regional confrontationalism, with greater political powers centered around himself.

The election will weigh heavily on security in Europe and the Middle East. Who is elected stands to define: Turkey’s role in the NATO alliance; its relationship with the U.S., the EU and Russia; migration policy; Ankara’s role in the war in Ukraine; and how it handles tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.

He will face an opposition aligned behind Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, nicknamed the “Turkish Gandhi,” who is promising big changes. Polls suggest Kılıçdaroğlu has eked out a lead, but Erdoğan is a hardened election campaigner, with the full might of the state and its institutions at his back.

“There will be a change from an authoritarian single-man rule, towards a kind of a teamwork, which is a much more democratic process,” Ünal Çeviköz, chief foreign policy adviser to Kılıçdaroğlu told POLITICO. “Kılıçdaroğlu will be the maestro of that team.”

Here are the key foreign policy topics in play in the vote:

EU and Turkish accession talks

Turkey’s opposition is confident it can unfreeze European Union accession talks — at a standstill since 2018 over the country’s democratic backsliding — by introducing liberalizing reforms in terms of rule of law, media freedoms and depoliticization of the judiciary.

The opposition camp also promises to implement European Court of Human Rights decisions calling for the release of two of Erdoğan’s best-known jailed opponents: the co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party Selahattin Demirtaş and human rights defender Osman Kavala.

“This will simply give the message to all our allies, and all the European countries, that Turkey is back on track to democracy,” Çeviköz said.

Even under a new administration, however, the task of reopening the talks on Turkey’s EU accession is tricky.

Turkey’s opposition is aligned behind Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, nicknamed the “Turkish Gandhi” | Burak Kara/Getty Images

Anti-Western feeling in Turkey is very strong across the political spectrum, argued Wolfango Piccoli, co-founder of risk analysis company Teneo.

“Foreign policy will depend on the coherence of the coalition,” he said. “This is a coalition of parties who have nothing in common apart from the desire to get rid of Erdoğan. They’ve got a very different agenda, and this will have an impact in foreign policy.”

“The relationship is largely comatose, and has been for some time, so, they will keep it on life support,” he said, adding that any new government would have so many internal problems to deal with that its primary focus would be domestic.

Europe also seems unprepared to handle a new Turkey, with a group of countries — most prominently France and Austria — being particularly opposed to the idea of rekindling ties.

“They are used to the idea of a non-aligned Turkey, that has departed from EU norms and values and is doing its own course,” said Aslı Aydıntaşbaş a visiting fellow at Brookings. “If the opposition forms a government, it will seek a European identity and we don’t know Europe’s answer to that; whether it could be accession or a new security framework that includes Turkey.”

“Obviously the erosion of trust has been mutual,” said former Turkish diplomat Sinan Ülgen, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank, arguing that despite reticence about Turkish accession, there are other areas where a complementary and mutually beneficiary framework could be built, like the customs union, visa liberalization, cooperation on climate, security and defense, and the migration agreement.

The opposition will indeed seek to revisit the 2016 agreement with the EU on migration, Çeviköz said.

“Our migration policy has to be coordinated with the EU,” he said. “Many countries in Europe see Turkey as a kind of a pool, where migrants coming from the east can be contained and this is something that Turkey, of course cannot accept,” he said but added. “This doesn’t mean that Turkey should open its borders and make the migrants flow into Europe. But we need to coordinate and develop a common migration policy.”

NATO and the US

After initially imposing a veto, Turkey finally gave the green light to Finland’s NATO membership on March 30.

But the opposition is also pledging to go further and end the Turkish veto on Sweden, saying that this would be possible by the alliance’s annual gathering on July 11. “If you carry your bilateral problems into a multilateral organization, such as NATO, then you are creating a kind of a polarization with all the other members of NATO with your country,” Çeviköz said.

A protester pushes a cart with a RRecep Tayyip Erdoğan doll during an anti-NATO and anti-Turkey demonstration in Sweden | Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images

A reelected Erdoğan could also feel sufficiently empowered to let Sweden in, many insiders argue. NATO allies did, after all, play a significant role in earthquake aid. Turkish presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın says that the door is not closed to Sweden, but insists the onus is on Stockholm to determine how things proceed.

Turkey’s military relationship with the U.S. soured sharply in 2019 when Ankara purchased the Russian-made S-400 missile system, a move the U.S. said would put NATO aircraft flying over Turkey at risk. In response, the U.S. kicked Ankara out of the F-35 jet fighter program and slapped sanctions on the Turkish defense industry.

A meeting in late March between Kılıçdaroğlu and the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Jeff Flake infuriated Erdoğan, who saw it as an intervention in the elections and pledged to “close the door” to the U.S. envoy. “We need to teach the United States a lesson in this elections,” the irate president told voters.

In its policy platform, the opposition makes a clear reference to its desire to return to the F-35 program.

Russia and the war in Ukraine

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Turkey presented itself as a middleman. It continues to supply weapons — most significantly Bayraktar drones — to Ukraine, while refusing to sanction Russia. It has also brokered a U.N. deal that allows Ukrainian grain exports to pass through the blockaded Black Sea.

Highlighting his strategic high-wire act on Russia, after green-lighting Finland’s NATO accession and hinting Sweden could also follow, Erdoğan is now suggesting that Turkey could be the first NATO member to host Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Maybe there is a possibility” that Putin may travel to Turkey on April 27 for the inauguration of the country’s first nuclear power reactor built by Russian state nuclear energy company Rosatom, he said.

Çeviköz said that under Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership, Turkey would be willing to continue to act as a mediator and extend the grain deal, but would place more stress on Ankara’s status as a NATO member.

“We will simply emphasize the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO, and in our discussions with Russia, we will certainly look for a relationship among equals, but we will also remind Russia that Turkey is a member of NATO,” he said.

Turkey’s relationship with Russia has become very much driven by the relationship between Putin and Erdoğan and this needs to change, Ülgen argued.

Turkey brokered a U.N. deal that allows Ukrainian grain exports to pass through the blockaded Black Sea | Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

“No other Turkish leader would have the same type of relationship with Putin, it would be more distant,” he said. “It does not mean that Turkey would align itself with the sanctions; it would not. But nonetheless, the relationship would be more transparent.”

Syria and migration

The role of Turkey in Syria is highly dependent on how it can address the issue of Syrians living in Turkey, the opposition says.

Turkey hosts some 4 million Syrians and many Turks, battling a major cost-of-living crisis, are becoming increasingly hostile. Kılıçdaroğlu has pledged to create opportunities and the conditions for the voluntary return of Syrians.

“Our approach would be to rehabilitate the Syrian economy and to create the conditions for voluntary returns,” Çeviköz said, adding that this would require an international burden-sharing, but also establishing dialogue with Damascus.

Erdoğan is also trying to establish a rapprochement with Syria but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says he will only meet the Turkish president when Ankara is ready to completely withdraw its military from northern Syria.

“A new Turkish government will be more eager to essentially shake hands with Assad,” said Ülgen. “But this will remain a thorny issue because there will be conditions attached on the side of Syria to this normalization.”

However, Piccoli from Teneo said voluntary returns of Syrians was “wishful thinking.”

“These are Syrians who have been living in Turkey for more than 10 years, their children have been going to school in Turkey from day one. So, the pledges of sending them back voluntarily, it is very questionable to what extent they can be implemented.”

Greece and the East Med

Turkey has stepped up its aggressive rhetoric against Greece in recent months, with the Erdoğan even warning that a missile could strike Athens.

But the prompt reaction by the Greek government and the Greek community to the recent devastating earthquakes in Turkey and a visit by the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias created a new backdrop for bilateral relations.

A Turkish drill ship before it leaves for gas exploration | Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

Dendias, along with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, announced that Turkey would vote for Greece in its campaign for a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council for 2025-26 and that Greece would support the Turkish candidacy for the General Secretariat of the International Maritime Organization.

In another sign of a thaw, Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos and Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi visited Turkey this month, with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar saying he hoped that the Mediterranean and Aegean would be a “sea of friendship” between the two countries. Akar said he expected a moratorium with Greece in military and airforce exercises in the Aegean Sea between June 15 and September 15.

“Both countries are going to have elections, and probably they will have the elections on the same day. So, this will open a new horizon in front of both countries,” Çeviköz said.

“The rapprochement between Turkey and Greece in their bilateral problems [in the Aegean], will facilitate the coordination in addressing the other problems in the eastern Mediterranean, which is a more multilateral format,” he said. Disputes over maritime borders and energy exploration, for example, are common.

As far as Cyprus is concerned, Çeviköz said that it is important for Athens and Ankara not to intervene into the domestic politics of Cyprus and the “two peoples on the island should be given an opportunity to look at their problems bilaterally.”

However, analysts argue that Greece, Cyprus and the EastMed are fundamental for Turkey’s foreign policy and not much will change with another government. The difference will be more one of style.

“The approach to manage those differences will change very much. So, we will not hear aggressive rhetoric like: ‘We will come over one night,’” said Ülgen. “We’ll go back to a more mature, more diplomatic style of managing differences and disputes.”

“The NATO framework will be important, and the U.S. would have to do more in terms of re-establishing the sense of balance in the Aegean,” said Aydıntaşbaş. But, she argued, “you just cannot normalize your relations with Europe or the U.S., unless you’re willing to take that step with Greece.”




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