Why the Turkish Elections Affect the World: US Foreign Policy to China and Russia to Africa

By | May 14, 2023

In a lengthy analysis, Al Jazeera describes Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s independent foreign policy that put Turkey on the world map, and notes that the opposition’s may be much more… quieter.

In August 2019, after inspecting Russia’s then-new fifth-generation Su-57 fighter jet, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin if it was for sale. “Yes, you can buy it,” Putin replied with a smile, as he courted Erdogan with Russia’s latest planes at the MAKS-2019 international airshow outside Moscow.

The two men, dressed in dark suits, were also shown other fighter jets and then took an ice cream break. “Will you pay for me?” Erdogan asked Putin, turning his gaze to the ice cream, and the Russian president replied: “Of course, you are my guest.”

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The exchange noted the renewed closeness of Turkish-Russian security relations after a difficult period between them, but also Erdogan’s approach to foreign policy guided by his own personality during his two-decade rule.

As Turkey has sought to position itself as a regional heavyweight, the confident, if confrontational, style of the AKP party and its leader has shaped the country’s international relations. Turkey has undoubtedly gained more influence, not only in the Middle East, but also in Africa and Europe, a prominent example being its leading role in mediating between Russia and Ukraine.

But now a new potential successor is emerging, with bold opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) facing Erdogan today in Turkey’s most crucial election in years, potentially ushering in a post-Erdogan era, which would mean changes in foreign policy.

From Erdogan’s “magnificence” to Kilicdaroglu’s “predictability”?

If Erdogan’s “kingdom” is ruled by the politics of personality and swagger, the opposition, especially under Kilicdaroglu, will be more muted and predictable. Under Erdogan, foreign ministers and diplomats have been largely excluded from decision-making, with personal relationships between the president and foreign leaders playing a much larger role. “Turkey will be much more predictable because it will be more institutionalized,” Salim Cevik, a researcher at the Center for Applied Turkish Studies at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik in Berlin, told Al Jazeera.

Sami Hamdi, managing director of International Interest, a Middle East-focused political risk firm, said Erdogan’s policies are also aimed at increasing Turkey’s soft power, particularly in the Muslim world. “Turkey’s rapidly expanding influence is rooted in Erdogan’s ability to capitalize on Islamic power through his ‘Muslim’ rhetoric, allowing him to rapidly advance both politically and economically in multiple areas,” Hamdi told Al Jazeera.

Turkey’s ties in the Middle East: from military interventions to normalization

Erdogan’s foreign policy shows his military capabilities across the Middle East through interventions in Iraq, Libya, Syria and even Azerbaijan. In Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s military actions focused on eliminating threats it perceived to be linked to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ankara has spent decades fighting mainly Kurdish forces in northern Iraq and controls several areas along its border with Syria to crush US-backed forces it views as an offshoot of the PKK.

In Libya, Turkey intervened to support the UN-recognized government in Tripoli against forces based on the eastern side, and in 2020 it supported Azerbaijan in a war with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

On paper at least, the CHP has said it will reverse course and take a non-interventionist role, according to the party’s platform. “We respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Middle East countries, we will not interfere in their internal affairs and we will not take sides in problems between them, but will facilitate solutions,” the platform said.

However, Erdogan has already embarked on a new course by normalizing relations with Arab states, a process that is likely to continue under opposition. Turkey may see a decline in its popularity in the region as it takes a step back on Middle East affairs, which will be especially true under Kilicdaroglu, who is seen as the candidate who vowed to “cut off” Turkey from the world. Muslim. Erdogan is seen as the one who is committed to bringing it back to the Muslim world and redefining Turkish identity.

Kilicdaroglu may reignite frozen ties with the West

Perhaps where a change in foreign policy is most likely to occur with a change of government is in Turkey’s relations with the West. “According to the political platform of the opposition, the new Turkish foreign policy will seek to reaffirm Turkey’s Western orientation,” Ulgen said.

An opposition-led government will seek to improve Turkey’s relations with its traditional partners in the West, namely the European Union and the United States, but “the outcome of this will also depend on how Washington and Brussels react to the prospect of political change in Turkey,” he added.

The West may welcome Kilicdaroglu not because of its own interests, but because he is seen as less aggressive in defending Turkish interests, Hamdi notes. Others argued that it is the West that pushed Turkey away. And while most parties favor closer ties and integration with Europe, Europe does not see Turkey as part of it, and France, in particular, has been vocal on the matter, Hamdi said.

As a result, Erdogan changed his priorities and placed more importance on the Islamic world, where Turkey was able to develop new alliances, new ties, and rapidly expand its influence and power to become a major and more independent player in the region. Hamdi said.

Cyprus and Greece will remain problems in Turkey’s relations with the EU even under Kilicdaroglu

Erdogan had relatively friendly relations with former US President Donald Trump, but relations with current US President Joe Biden are cooler. Washington withdrew Ankara from its joint F-35 fighter program in 2019 after Turkey bought NATO-incompatible S-400 air defense systems.

Kilicdaroglu’s party has promised to return Turkey to the F-35 program, but has not said whether it will be asked to return the Russian systems. Ankara has also been wary of US support for the YPG in Syria, but its support for Ukraine and its turn to veto Finland’s NATO membership, though it remains unsure about Sweden, have pushed Washington to sell planes. Anchor F-16 and other military equipment in the interest of the NATO unit.

Under a possible new government, many of these issues may still apply, but “there will be willingness from the new Turkish government to address them more constructively,” Ulgen said.

Also, in the post-Erdogan era, some thorny issues with the EU may remain, such as the dispute over Cyprus and the dispute with Greece over maritime rights. But despite strained relations on these issues during Erdogan’s rule, the EU remains Turkey’s main trading partner and source of foreign investment.

Ties with China and Russia intact, but strategically more balanced

Although Turkey may lean to the West under opposition, its ties with Russia and China will remain intact. However, according to Ulgen, the opposition will seek to balance its allies more strategically than Erdogan did. Su-57 fighter jets and ice creams aside, Erdogan and Putin undoubtedly have close ties, as Turkey is heavily dependent on Russian energy imports.

Even so, the two have supported opposing sides in Libya, Syria and the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Turkey has also condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but remains opposed to Western sanctions against Moscow, a balancing act the opposition is likely to continue.

At the same time, Turkey has been allied with China for years and joined the Belt and Road Initiative in 2015 to finance infrastructure. However, China’s persecution of the Uyghurs, who are Turkic and speak a similar language, has been a subject of tension between the two allies, with Erdogan accusing China of “genocide” in 2009 but not publicly pressing the issue. the matter ever since.

The key difference, then, between a third Erdogan term and an era after him will likely be that the current president will continue to foster these relations in a continued distancing from the West.

Ties with Africa and the new international position that Türkiye is taking

Turkey’s African policy has been largely dictated by trade and investment, and will continue regardless of who wins the election, as it is considered successful. However, on the cultural front, Turkish NGOs conducting religious activities on the mainland may not have as much support from a new CHP-led government. As a result, Turkey’s cultural influence in Africa will continue to some extent, but may diminish under opposition, Cevik said.

Two decades of Erdogan’s rule have changed Turkey’s position in the world Turkey, both positively and negatively. A third presidential victory for Erdogan would be a vindication of his policies, despite his declining popularity. However, the opposition, while still bearing elements of Erdogan’s foreign policy, will seek to reposition Turkey internationally by balancing its relations on the world stage.

“Turkey will continue to have stable relations with its neighbors and non-Western powers, Russia and China. However, this would not be at the expense of its geostrategic alignment as a partner in the Western community of nations,” Ulgen concluded.

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