This year in the Turkish calendar is a momentous one. The country will celebrate the centennial of the founding of the Republic, whose principles and aspirations have been battered considerably in the past few years. The founders’ domestic arrangements and goals, and their Western aspirations, have been derailed or subverted, and at a time of deep crisis for nearly all democracies across the world Turkey’s politics have also in taken a sharp turn away from democratic ways, separation of powers and the rule of law. In foreign policy orientation and identity, Turkey’s firm strategic Westernness is increasingly questioned by friends and foes alike, although its membership in NATO and the Council of Europe and its near-fictitious candidacy for membership in the EU continue. While it is premature to declare the end of that strategic identity, it has been significantly dented as a result of recent years’ dramatic developments, most notably Turkey’s use of its veto power over the admission of Sweden and Finland as NATO members.
With so much at stake, the country is to make a historical - indeed existential - decision about its own future. By mid-June at the latest, voters will go to the polls to elect a new President and the members of Parliament. The results of the election will likely determine the trajectory of the Republic as it enters its second century. A vote for the current President and the alliance that supports him means a continuation of a Sultanist Presidential system. The opposition, in turn, promises a return to a “fortified” parliamentary system more in line with Turkey’s experiment in democratic politics.
The voters’ choice will determine whether the electorate as a whole admits it made a mistake when it accepted the sui generis unrestricted Presidential system in the 2017 referendum. Their choice will also indicate whether the Republic will remain faithful to its founders’ project, inspired by Enlightenment principles and a Western orientation, or be reimagined by a religiously-inspired authoritarian alternative, a movement that was shaped by opposition to the original design.
In some sense these elections, together with the direction Turkish foreign policy will follow, with the Ukraine war in the background, will help crystallise the country’s relationship to the Atlantic Alliance and the valued components of the Westernisation project as well. The domestic battle for Turkey’s identity, what some authors call its Kulturkampf between a religious-nationalist authoritarian and a secular-democratic vision, is part and parcel of the battle to shape the country’s foreign policy orientation and the principles that will guide this.
On both these counts, the elections in Turkey will have significant regional and global repercussions. If a well-entrenched, electoral authoritarian rule that is gravitating towards even more repression is rejected through the ballot box, this will provide a heartening example and give hope to all democratic opposition movements globally, much like the Brazilian elections did. If the new government manages to restore Turkey’s relations with its allies and reconfirms its Western strategic orientation, this will also boost the efforts to reconstruct the Atlantic Alliance, with NATO as its core institution, in the wake of the geopolitical earthquake that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was.
Such a dramatic change in Turkey’s politics may lead to a recalibration or rethinking of the relations between the European Union and Turkey as well. Currently, the lack of imagination on the part of the EU, the indifference if not the antipathy of the Erdogan government towards the European project except economically, and the dearth of trust between the two parties reduced their relationship to crass transactionalism. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that a Europe that needs to be reimagined economically, strategically and in terms of overall security will need to forge a different type of relation with republican Turkey. This is an imperative if Europe wants to remain relevant in the new global geopolitics.
Similarly, in a so-called “polycrisis” world that will be organised along economic clusters as the previous version of globalisation is in disrepute and the turn towards localism is gaining momentum, Turkey will need to consolidate its position in the European economic cluster and partake of its markets and its impending technological surge. It also needs European investment in order to get out of the hole that the current government’s unorthodox (read irrational) economic policies had buried the country’s economy in. In short, Turkey must participate in the reconstruction of the Western alliance and the new European imaginary, and not merely be a bystander. For it to do so a change of government is the necessary condition.
On foreign policy three issues will stand out, and need to be monitored carefully. The first one concerns relations with Greece, which have deteriorated considerably since 2020. Both countries have elections this year within weeks of one another and tough talk reaps benefits domestically for the incumbents. On the other hand, the belligerent language used by President Erdogan overshadows Turkey’s legitimate concerns and solidifies the block of Greece’s defenders and its network of partners in Eastern Mediterranean. The second issue, as noted earlier, is the decision Ankara will ultimately make about NATO enlargement. It is clear that the two countries will only go so far in meeting Turkey’s demands to break the stalemate and Erdogan will probably not let admission go forward before the elections. This might jeopardise Turkey’s purchase of upgraded F-16’s and modernising kits for its ageing fleet.
Finally, relations with Russia will continue to play an important role in Turkey’s foreign policy as well as its economic fortunes. Ankara critically blocked Moscow’s use of its navy fleet in the Black Sea by calling the invasion and the ensuing military engagement a “war” and invoked the Montreux Convention, which enables it not to allow the passage of belligerent parties’ battleships through the Turkish straits. It does not recognise the annexation of Crimea, supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and sustains Kyiv’s war effort by supplying it with drones and other military materiel. At the same time though, it keeps its line of communication with Vladimir Putin open, does not close its air space, does not join the sanctions regime, welcomes Russian refugees and oligarchs (and their yachts and money), and helps broker agreements such as the grain corridor with the UN that alleviates a global problem of grain shortage and food price hikes. Nevertheless, it gets sternly warned by the US Treasury for its attempts to bust financial sanctions. Putin openly supports Erdogan’s re-election and even sent some emergency money to Turkey through Rosatom. How long Turkey can continue this balancing act, which increasingly appears to be titled towards Russia, remains to be seen.
Domestically, safeguarding the free and fair nature of the elections is Turkey’s main challenge. The change in the electoral law, the shaping of the high electoral council and the change in the composition of it, a draconian “disinformation” law interpreted by a nearly totally partial judiciary are cause for concern. On the other hand, the Turkish public takes the ballot box and the sanctity of its vote very seriously and ultimately its vigilance is the insurance policy for these existential elections.