What elections could mean for Turkey's foreign policy

7 min read
16 May, 2023

Neither Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan nor opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu secured 50 percent of the vote in Turkey’s 14 May presidential election. As a result, there will be a run-off on 28 May.

In these upcoming 12 days, the political environment in Turkey will remain hot. Yet, with Erdogan having won 49.5 percent of the vote - over his challenger’s 44.9 percent - it seems that Turkey’s head of state is well-positioned to secure another five-year term.

Questions about Ankara’s role on the international stage and relationships with foreign governments have not been central in this race. Foreign policy issues are generally only significant in Turkish elections when they concern national security.

In 2023, tensions between Ankara and Western powers have not been so important to average Turkish voters. Instead, they have been focused on Turkey’s economy.

"The most critical outcome of this election will be about Turkey's foreign policy towards Russia"

For many undecided voters in the middle, the key question has been whether Erdogan or Kilicdaroglu would do a superior job of dealing with decades-high inflation and implementing policies that can raise the living standards for Turkey’s citizens.

Debates over the government’s response to rebuilding earthquake-ravaged areas such as Adana, Antakya, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaraş, and Sanliurfa have also shaped this election.

Nonetheless, the outcome of this race will have important foreign policy implications. If Erdogan is re-elected, the continuation of Turkey’s foreign policy of recent years can be expected. Specifically, Ankara will remain committed to its efforts to renormalise and improve relations with countries that have not always had easy relations with Turkey in the past, such as Armenia, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

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Matthew Bryza, who served as the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia from 2005 to 2009, addressed Ankara’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the wider Turkic world in an interview with The New Arab.

"I think we’ll also see [in the event of Erdogan being re-elected], Turkish foreign policy continue to emphasize the importance of the Organization of Turkic States, which gives Turkey a stage to pursue collective cultural and economic interests among the Turkic countries to Turkey’s East.”

East-West bifurcation and the Ukraine war

Ankara’s mediation between Ukraine and NATO, on one side, and Russia, on the other, would likely continue with Erdogan staying at the helm. Bryza believes that Turkey, under Erdogan, would continue its bridging role between the East and West albeit with Ankara’s focus “now on being anchored in the East and willing to hold the West, meaning Europe and the US, more at arm’s length”.

If Kilicdaroglu wins on 28 May, it is safe to bet that Turkey’s foreign policy towards European Union (EU) members will become less confrontational. According to Bryza, this is especially so regarding Turkey’s relationship with Greece.

Supporters wave Turkish national flags as they attend a rally of Turkey's Republican People's Party (CHP) Chairman and Presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Canakkale, western Turkey, on 11 April 2023. [Getty]

“President Erdogan has been particularly firm and tough on Greece in recent years, sensing that Greece has been treating Turkey unfairly and not recognizing Turkey’s arguments about its international legal claims in terms of its exclusive economic zone in the Eastern Mediterranean,” the former US diplomat, who was previously the US ambassador to Azerbaijan, told TNA.

“So that has led President Erdogan to use some really intense language, seeming to threaten to use military force against Greece. I think that won’t happen were Kilicdaroglu to win.”

Expectations are that a Kilicdaroglu administration would align Turkey more closely with NATO and the EU against Russia. To be sure, Moscow has high stakes in this race and probably has good reason to worry about the implications of a Kilicdaroglu win.

Turkish-Russian relations are highly complicated, with elements of both cooperation and conflict shaping bilateral affairs. Nonetheless, the extent to which Ankara and Moscow have been able to cooperate in certain areas and maintain mutual respect is largely attributable to the relationship between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. With a change in Turkish leadership, Ankara-Moscow relations could move in a negative direction.

"When it comes to the Middle East and Arab states, it is expected that Kilicdaroglu would have far worse relationships as the Turkish opposition has an almost xenophobic approach"

“The Turkish opposition said they want to maintain the [Turkish-Russian] relationship as it is currently, but I highly doubt they can achieve this…I am sceptical that Kilicdaroglu would be able to achieve the same level of leader-to-leader diplomacy with Putin as Erdogan has been doing in recent years,” said Ömer Özkizilcik, an Ankara-based foreign policy and security analyst, in a TNA interview.

“The most critical outcome of this election will be about Turkey's foreign policy towards Russia,” Mustafa Gurbuz, a non-resident fellow at Arab Center Washington and a senior faculty at American University, told TNA.

“The opposition will need to give confidence to global markets as they face tremendous challenges in dealing with an economy that was devastated after the earthquakes. That's why it’ll be important for them to give positive messages to Washington as well as the European capitals.”

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The Middle East

Kilicdaroglu winning could negatively impact Ankara’s ties with Arab countries, according to some experts’ warnings.

“When it comes to the Middle East and Arab states, it is expected that Kilicdaroglu would have far worse relationships as the Turkish opposition has an almost xenophobic approach to Arabs and just doesn’t want to do anything with them other than have formal relations without any real engagement,” said Özkizilcik.

A Kilicdaroglu win would probably be bad news for Qatar, which only began playing an important role in Ankara’s foreign policy during the Erdogan years. The Republican People's Party (CHP) was very critical of Erdogan’s administration for being so rigidly supportive of Qatar during the 2017-21 Gulf crisis.

Back in 2017, Erdogan condemned the blockade of Qatar as “un-Islamic” and two days after the siege began the Turkish parliament approved legislation permitting the deployment of Turkish forces to a joint Turkish-Qatari military base in the gas-rich Arabian emirate.

Such military support from Ankara bolstered Qatar’s sense of confidence amid that feud with neighbouring countries and Egypt. However, CHP lawmakers believed that Ankara should have been more balanced in its response to that dispute between Arab states.

As a candidate, Kilicdaroglu has spoken out against Ankara’s deep ties with Doha, leading analysts to assume that Turkish-Qatari relations would downgrade if Kilicdaroglu defeats the president this month.

Citizens walk past a poster showing the portrait of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 5 May 2023 in Istanbul, Turkey. [Getty]

Ankara's difficult relationship with Washington

Although many voices in Washington have framed this election as a make-or-break moment for the Turkey-US alliance, some experts don’t believe that so much is necessarily at stake in this heated race.

Despite the views that an Erdogan loss would reset Washington’s relationship with Ankara, Bryza told TNA that “I don’t think Kilicdaroglu would pursue a very warm relationship with the United States because for decades his CHP has used anti-Americanism as a way to win votes”.

Bryza also addressed the contentious S-400 issue and how that is set to evolve after this Turkish election is over.

"Although many voices in Washington have framed this election as a make-or-break moment for the Turkey-US alliance, some experts don't believe that so much is necessarily at stake"

“When it comes to the United States, Erdogan has been working to take the venom out of the US-Turkey dispute over S-400s and F-35 fighter jets by saying instead of Turkey being angry about not being able to procure the F-35s, for which it already paid a billion and a half dollars, instead Turkey wants to apply that money into a USD 20 million deal to buy more F-16s, for which they already have, and modernization kits for those F-16s,” said the former US diplomat.

“So I think once this election is finished, we will see that deal finalised for the F-16s regardless of whether Erdogan or Kilicdaroglu wins.”

In terms of Washington and Brussels’ relationships with Turkey, Bryza does not believe much will depend on the outcome of this election other than rhetorical change. Instead, what is most at stake in this election is the nature of Turkey’s own economic policies and political system along with grander questions about the future of Turkish democracy.

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“What really is at stake is Turkey’s own evolution. The question is, will Turkey return to more orthodox economic policies with an independent central bank and monetary policies that more traditionally embrace higher interest rates to reduce inflation rather than lower interest rates that are believed to stimulate more inflation,” said Bryza.

“Kilicdaroglu promises a more ‘democratic’ Turkey. He wishes to restore a parliamentary political system rather than a political system in which so much power is in the presidency. That would be a huge shift for the evolution of Turkey as a democracy and Turkey’s evolution as a democracy is really important to the US and Western Europe because Turkey is such an important strategic partner despite all the tensions that might be in bilateral relations.”

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero