Many Middle Eastern experts are increasingly focused on how the outcome of Turkey’s pivotal elections in May could alter the regional order. Turkish citizens will vote in presidential and legislative elections that might be pivotal in the country’s volatile national politics and ambition for regional prominence. At the same time, the May 14 twin elections could determine the fate of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power for more than two decades.
Erdoğan and his party face a stiff challenge from six opposition parties that have joined forces to fight for presidential and parliamentary posts amid growing dissatisfaction with the country’s political gridlock, its economic management and the response to the devastating earthquakes in the region in February that killed 50,000 people. Each of Turkey’s neighbors is interested in the outcome of the election, and each hopes it will bring a new era of less problematic and more predictable Turkish regional politics. Since Erdoğan came to power in 2003, first as prime minister and then as president since 2014, Turkey has become a more active player on the regional stage, intervening decisively in numerous crises in the Middle East and beyond (such as Libya).
The country’s involvement in various regional conflicts and Erdoğan’s resolute and aggressive policies have increased antipathy toward him in many Middle Eastern countries, and his successes have disappointed the opposition. Foreign policy issues, such as Ankara’s view of the West and its relations with its neighbors, are expected to have a significant impact on the outcome of the elections, and the opposition hopes that they will make Turkish foreign policy more domestically oriented. The Turkish opposition, led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the People’s Republican Party (PRP) and presidential candidate of the opposition coalition, seeks to exploit the problems facing the AKP government to its advantage. Above all, it concerns the economic crisis and the government’s failure to respond properly to the earthquake to remove Erdoğan from power.
The opposition’s priority is internal: to reverse both Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule and his unorthodox economic policies. Erdoğan’s critics accuse him of seeking to shape Turkey’s political system in his own image and attempting to build a modern Ottoman sultanate with him at the helm. The opposition also accuses Erdoğan of pursuing economic policies that have brought millions of people to the brink of financial ruin. Millions more were left homeless in the 11 Turkish provinces affected by the February earthquakes.
Under Turkish law, any presidential candidate who can get more than half of the votes is an unqualified winner. A runoff election will be held in two weeks if no candidate is victorious in the first round. If Erdoğan is toppled in the election, the foreign policy challenges facing the Turkish opposition will be enormous. His assertive foreign policy was aimed at turning Turkey into a regional power, and any new leader and his government will have to come up with a new foreign policy that will please Turkish society.
The opposition coalition will also face a number of challenges globally and regionally, from difficult relations with NATO and the European Union to rebuilding trust with neighboring countries. Although Turkey is a member of NATO and has established a close partnership and deepening trade relations with the EU, Erdoğan has aroused the ire of his Western allies with his good relations with Russia and a number of other political problems. The opposition will have to resolve differences with the West on a range of issues, including the US-NATO war unleashed in Ukraine against Russia and Turkey’s future in the Western alliance.
When it comes to Turkey’s immediate neighbors, the most pressing issues for the opposition will be addressing the root causes of the country’s troubled relationship with its entourage after years of heightened geopolitical tensions. Erdoğan’s growing regional ambitions, including his intervention in several conflicts, his willingness to launch military operations in Iraq, Libya and Syria, and his insistent territorial claims in the Mediterranean, have in some ways isolated Turkey and cast doubt on its ties with its neighbors. True, in recent years Erdoğan has sought to change his foreign policy, including through rapprochement with major regional powers such as Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. He has also sought reconciliation with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad as part of his attempt to restore neighborhood ties.
Nevertheless, the ruptures between Turkey and other countries go beyond Erdoğan’s supposedly friendly gestures. Instead, they are the result of deep mistrust and frustration with the ambitions of the current Turkish leader to play a leadership role in the region. A return to the “zero problems with neighbors” policy advocated by former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu would be crucial to restoring trust in Turkey’s relations with the rest of the region. Since Erdoğan’s very active policies result in him taking sides in neighboring countries’ internal political disagreements quite often, a future opposition-led government (if the opposition wins elections) will need to address a number of issues such as ending Turkey’s guerrilla interventions (in Iraq and Syria, for example) and its military presence abroad (in Libya, for example).
Under Erdoğan and the AKP government, Turkey has stepped up its interventions in both Iraq and Syria to counter perceived threats to its security from Kurdish rebels and their allies in the two countries. Turkey has expanded its military presence in northern Iraq, building dozens of bases and outposts and conducting regular air operations and ground incursions, presumably against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) inside Iraqi Kurdistan. Another stumbling block in Turkey’s relations with Iraq is the shortage of water in the Euphrates-Tigris basin, caused by large-scale upstream projects that Iraq fears threaten downstream livelihoods.
The scope of Turkish involvement in Syria has expanded since the country’s 2011 uprising, going beyond simply addressing Ankara’s concerns about the ensuing civil war. Turkish intervention, which started politically, later developed into military assistance to Syrian opposition forces and transformed into occupation of large chunks of Syrian territory. One of the consequences of Erdoğan’s Syria policy is the presence of millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, who are now engaged in electoral debates. Many Turkish opposition parties, campaigning on an anti-immigrant platform, want to send these refugees back home.
In both countries, the conflict reflects a view underlying the long-standing Kurdish question in Turkey. Turkish strategists fear that the Kurds could use the chaos engulfing the two countries to create their own independent state in Iraq and Syria, which could accelerate a PKK-led separatist movement in Turkey’s Kurdish areas. The issue is acute in the run-up to the election, especially given that Turkey is home to some 15 million Kurds, whose constituencies will have a decisive influence on the outcome of the vote.
The country’s election map shows that the outcome could depend on the Kurds. A recent poll showed that the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which is largely Kurdish based, is expected to win at least 10 percent of the vote, which could make it the front-runner after the election. The HDP is running its parliamentary candidates under the banner of its sister party, the Green Left, to circumvent a potential ban in Turkey’s Constitutional Court over accusations of supporting the PKK. The party has not officially joined the six-party coalition supporting Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy for president. Instead, her constituents, who are likely to play an even bigger role in the presidential election, support the HDP-nominated Green Left party. Thus, the opposition alliance is expected to face a fundamental problem in addressing Turkish public policy regarding the use of the PKK’s existence as a pretext for both repression of the Kurdish community and its neighborhood strategy.
Any future Turkish opposition-led government will also need to reconsider the country’s involvement in Libya, where Turkish soldiers and associated foreign fighters have been deployed to advance Turkish interests in the southern Mediterranean region. The opposition will need to propose an alternative Turkish strategy in Libya aimed at ending military intervention in that country and reassuring Libya’s neighbors of its peaceful intentions. Turkey’s claim to exclusive economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean has also antagonized rival claimants and increased regional tensions. Many other countries are involved in a series of disputes in the area, where there has been an increase in gas production. Turkish opposition parties have made it clear that they do not support these unilateral deals by Erdoğan, and they are reportedly developing alternative plans to secure Turkey’s interests in the regional gas market.
Turkey is as important to the region as its neighbors are to the country’s economic and political well-being and security. Relations between Turks and Arabs and other Middle Eastern minorities have centuries of history, but opinions differ on what and how they survived under four centuries of Ottoman rule. More recently, Erdoğan’s growing regional ambitions have strained diplomatic relations, inflaming anti-Turkish sentiments and forcing Arab countries to take a cautious approach to Turkey.
The next Turkish government, whoever wins the election, needs to keep all these complex issues in mind in order to work out the most effective way of dealing with its rival neighbors and pave the way for more equitable and beneficial regional cooperation. Thus, the opposition alliance is expected to face a fundamental problem in addressing Turkish public policy regarding using the PKK’s existence as a pretext for both repression of the Kurdish community and its strategy
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”