What Turkey’s snap elections will mean for foreign policy
The question of whether there was going to be early elections, and when they might take place, has been occupying the minds of many Turks for some time. Now they, and those who follow events in the country, have an answer. On April 18, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that there will be snap parliamentary and presidential elections in June, more than a year earlier than normally would be expected.
“We have decided that elections should be held on June 24, 2018,” Erdogan said at the presidential palace. “Our preference has been to try to hold out until the date in November 2019. However, whether it be the cross-border operation in Syria, or the historic developments in Iraq and Syria, events have made it so that it is paramount for Turkey to overcome uncertainty.”
It has been stated that foreign policy issues are the main factor in the decision to call snap elections. As Erdogan’s words illustrate, critical developments in Syria and the region are at the forefront of these challenges.
Needless to say, Turkey has been faced with serious foreign policy pitfalls in the past few years and, obviously, it will need to take crucial steps while the region continues to go through a very important and uncertain era.
However, foreign policy was not the sole motivation. Rather, the reasons behind the early election decision are multidimensional. However, while not a driving force in the decision, foreign policy will play an important role in Turkish politics after the elections. In other words, the outcome is likely to have a significant influence on Turkish foreign and security policies.
The country goes to the polls at a time when it is conducting a military operation in northern Syria against the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian armed wing of terrorist organization the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and playing the significant role of guarantor at the Astana peace process that could shape the future of Syria.
Thus the fate of Syria in particular, and Turkey’s position in the regional arena in general, is closely linked to the outcome of the elections. Any change in the government in Ankara, which admittedly seems unlikely for now, could alter Turkey’s long-term foreign policy goals and future action in war-torn Syria.
The Turkish opposition has been critical of the government’s policy on Syria since the beginning of the turmoil in the country in March 2011. It would not be wrong to say that no other foreign policy strategy in the region has been so heavily criticized. However, as Turkey started to suffer substantial security threats emanating from the Syrian side of the border, and military steps were taken to counter those threats, the opposition offered its support, to some extent.
Should there be a change of government on June 24, Syria will continue to dominate Turkish foreign policy, but with a more cautious and lower-profile tone.
This means that should there be a change of government on June 24, Syria will continue to dominate Turkish foreign policy, but with a more cautious and lower-profile tone. To put it another way, a new government might return to a secular, traditional, distanced approach to regional matters, instead focusing mainly on domestic issues. But if the current government emerges from the election with a victory, it is likely to expect Turkish operations to expand in terrorist-plagued regions of Syria, including Manbij.
As for Turkey’s relationship with the US, not much is expected to change even if there is a new government in Ankara. One of the main controversies behind the deterioration of Turkish-US relations was Washington’s support for the YPG, which is unacceptable to Ankara. The American stance is not only a problem for the current government but also the opposition — when it comes to national security, the fight against terrorism is a matter all segments of Turkish politics agree on.
Regarding relations with the EU, it is likely tensions will rise as several European countries, including Germany, continue to ban Turkish politicians from campaigning on their soil — though Erdogan has declared he plans to hold an election rally in Europe. The support of millions of Turks in Europe remains crucial in this election.
Moreover, the European press has already labeled the upcoming elections “suspicious.” This criticism is not only adds to the pressure on Turkish voters, but does not improve the prospect of better Turkish-EU relations.
Relations with Russia, with which Turkey closely cooperates through the Astana process, are unlikely to change even if the balance of power shifts in Ankara. It is been accepted by Turkish politicians from all sides that despite divergent views on several matters, Turkish-Russian relations remain crucial and are vital to preserve the approach to Syria. The only change might be in the form of the relationship, which currently is mainly based on a leader-to-leader approach, to a more institutional style. However, as long as the presidencies of Erdogan and Vladimir Putin endure, Turkish-Russian relations are likely to remain close and personalized.
The messages sent by foreign countries and the official visits undertaken after the election will be highly significant and symbolic. For instance, Putin’s visit to Turkey was his first trip overseas after his re-election in March, and his visit could be read from several angles. In the same vein, the destination of the Turkish leader’s first foreign trip will tell a lot about the foreign policy priorities of post-election Turkey.
With less than two months to go before the elections, Turkish politicians are likely to be focused on only one goal: To win. The Turkish political agenda is therefore likely to be dominated by domestic affairs for now rather than foreign policy, about which we will not learn much more for sure until the votes have been counted and the result is known.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.