Foreign policy a key battleground in Turkish presidential election

Foreign policy a key battleground in Turkish presidential election

While there are just days left before Turkey’s June 24 elections — which will be one of the most important votes in the country’s recent history — foreign policy issues have started to dominate the presidential candidates’ campaigns. 
 
In the past, foreign policy did not get a lot of attention in Turkish elections. However, as Turkey has started to play a greater role in international and regional politics, the public is taking a more serious interest in the country’s record on foreign policy issues. Although voters will inevitably focus first on the economic and domestic issues that affect them most, the outcome and political meaning of the election is significant as it will have a considerable impact on Turkey’s foreign relations. Aware of this fact, the six presidential candidates who are vying for the position currently held by Recep Tayyip Erdogan have revealed their road maps for post-election Turkish foreign policy.
 
Obviously Turkey’s foreign relations are not limited to those emanating from the Syrian conflict or the multi-layered rifts with its NATO ally, the US. However, the Syrian war and relations with the EU have mostly dominated the candidates’ election manifestos.
 
On June 24, for the first time, Turkey will hold both presidential and parliamentary elections on the same day. There are six presidential candidates running from different parties: Erdogan, Muharrem Ince, Meral Aksener, Temel Karamollaoglu, Selahattin Demirtas and Dogu Perincek. Coming from diverse backgrounds and with different political ideologies, each candidate has their own vision for the country. 
 
The Syrian conflict, with the many threats emanating from the war-torn country, and Iraq are priorities for all the candidates. Erdogan, the ruling Justice and Development Party’s presidential candidate, has promised that the basic principles of his foreign policy would continue and that new cross-border operations would be launched.
 
The other candidates have expressed their support for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as Turkey’s fight against terrorism. However, they have different approaches toward Bashar Assad’s regime and Syrian refugees. 
 
The Palestinian issue is the only foreign policy topic that all the candidates agree on, as they have vowed to continue supporting the Palestinian cause.
Sinem Cengiz
 
Ince, the candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, stated he would restore diplomatic relations with Syria if he was to win the upcoming election. “Although we have four million Syrians living in Turkey, we do not have an embassy in Syria, it is not acceptable,” he said. Turkey closed down its embassy in Damascus in 2012 and, since then, has hosted Syrian refugees, supported opposition figures and launched military operations in northern Syria. 
 
With a similar stance to Ince, the Patriotic Party’s Perincek, who is known for his close ties with Russia and who played a significant role in the mediation between Russia and Turkey, has also expressed his willingness to have a formal relationship with the Syrian regime. “The first thing that we will do after victory in the election is that we will invite Bashar Assad to Ankara and we will welcome him at the airport. We see no limitations and barriers in developing relations between Turkey and Syria and we will make our utmost efforts to materialize this objective,” he said.
 
Regarding the refugee issue, it would be fair to say that the opponents of Erdogan share the same vision of sending the Syrians back home if they are elected. The presidential candidate of the Good Party, Aksener, vowed she would send back the Syrian refugees before the end of next year. Other presidential candidates have stated that the Syrian refugees’ presence has had a negative impact on Turkey’s economy, blaming the policies of the current government. Peoples’ Democratic Party candidate Demirtas, who is currently in prison on terror-related charges, also touched on the Syrian conflict in his manifesto, making a commitment to ending the war and uncovering a democratic solution in Syria based on the brotherhood and equality of its own people.
 
Regarding relations with the EU, the candidates’ positions differ significantly. Erdogan referred to Turkey’s bid to join the bloc, saying the country has never given up its goal of full membership despite the recent tension between Ankara and some member states, and the long-stalled negotiations. While Ince promised to normalize Turkey’s relations with Western countries and the EU in the direction of the country’s national interest, Perincek and the conservative Felicity Party’s Karamollaoglu are not willing to be part of the EU. 
 
The Palestinian issue is the only foreign policy topic that all the candidates agree on, as they have vowed to continue supporting the Palestinian cause.
 
What kind of a day the Turkish people will wake up to on June 25 is still to be decided, but the outcome of the elections won’t have an impact only on Turks, but also the country’s Syrian refugees. In any case, whether the current president and his party leads the country or not, the elections will shape the country’s future position in the region. 

• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view