By Serhat S. Çubukçuoğlu, Senior Researcher – Strategic Studies Department in Trends Research and Advisory. Read policy note here, May 5, 2023.
- Turkey’s general elections are scheduled for 14 May 2023. If no candidate wins outright by passing the 50% threshold of votes, a second round will be held on 28 May between the two leading candidates. Currently, the frontrunners and most likely to participate in a run-off are incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
- Six opposition parties formed a coalition in February 2022 and in March 2023 declared Kılıçdaroğlu as the candidate to face Erdoğan. However, the “Table of Six”, as the coalition is known, is more a name than cohesive group and derives power more from popular reactions toward Erdoğan than on its own merit. It is fragile and vulnerable to internal political rivalry. Divisions within the opposition increase Erdoğan’s chance of re-election.
- The economy is struggling through tough times with inflation having reached 50%. A series of devasting earthquakes in February are estimated to have cost $104 billion in infrastructural damage and economic loss – equivalent to 12% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Turkey’s GDP is $906 billion and per capita income is $10,661.
- Inflation has slowed in 2023, but the damage from the earthquakes as well as high energy and food prices remain factors in Turkey’s economic challenges, which include high foreign debt, a current account deficit, and a budget deficit.
- Turkey pursues strategic autonomy and active neutrality in the Ukraine-Russia war and has therefore kept channels of communication open with all parties. Ankara’s interest is neither to pick a side in the war nor for any party to win outright. Its continued policy is a “balancing of threats”, maintaining engagement and leverage with all sides, and staying clear of direct armed conflict.
- Russia-Turkey trade volume hit a record high of $68 billion in 2022. Russia is now Turkey’s largest import source and eighth largest export destinatio Turkey remains the only viable air corridor for Russia to the West.
- Turkey is pursuing a policy of rapprochement with Damascus. The goal is to manage the return of at least some of the 4.5 million migrant Syrians under temporary protection in Turkey and to clear Syria’s northern borders of the Kurdish-led People’s Defense Units (YPG). The Turkish and Syrian defense and intelligence chiefs met in Moscow on 25 April 2023 to discuss ways to repair ties. The rapprochement undermines US efforts to create a contiguous zone under YPG control in northern Syria.
- Reconciliation with the Gulf countries and Egypt will continue irrespective of the outcome of the elections, primarily due to economic reasons but also as it is in Ankara’s interest to escape the regional isolation that consumed Turkish foreign policy between 2013 and 2021.
By Serhat S. Çubukçuoğlu, Senior Researcher – Strategic Studies Department in Trends Research and Advisory. Read policy note here, May 5, 2023.
Turkish Elections in 2023
After twenty-one years in power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faces major challenges. Economic struggles and foreign policy failures stalk him as he heads toward the monumental general elections that will mark the . Yet, despite his struggles, the opposition is still not powerful enough to guarantee victory. Six parties from different parts of the political spectrum formed a “Table of Six” (Altılı Masa) to join forces to outpower Erdoğan. After intense political bargaining, the alliance chose the main opposition CHP’s leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to run for the presidency.
Kılıçdaroğlu is a retired bureaucrat with center-left political views who has been at the helm of CHP since 2010. Under his leadership, the “Table of Six” formed a broad coalition of parties from the left, center, and right, with support from the left-leaning Kurdish-dominated People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The coalition is emboldened by the successes of two mayors in Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, who in 2019 defeated the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidates. Before those votes, the AKP had controlled the country’s two largest cities for fifteen years.
The upcoming elections were orginally scheduled for 18 June 2023. Under previous rules, Erdoğan was not able to run for another term. But, using a loophole in Article 101 of the Constitution to reset the count on his previous presidency between 2014-2018, Erdoğan re-scheduled the vote for 14 May, and gained the chance to be re-elected for the third and last time.
Electoral rules mean citizens can only cast their votes in person with no voting online or by mail. This presents a challenge for geographically displaced groups such as earthquake victims. The recent earthquakes have not had any implication for the election schedule. But it remains to be seen how emergency measures will affect southeast Turkey’s government, economy, and population, and whether this impacts voter turnout. The election would only be postponed in the unlikely event of war.
Part of Erdoğan’s past success has owed less to his leadership than to the incoherence of the opposition. Disparate ideologies and agendas, as well as personal feuds among party leaders and their followers, have prevented concerted joint efforts to present a united anti-Erdoğan front. Despite an economic crisis of unprecedented scale that is affecting all segments of the society, the “Table of Six” and their supporters remain divided and weak except on their common cause to unseat Erdoğan.
In the meantime, the AKP has made populist overtures including wage rises and offering early retirement to lure the electorate. There are many uncertainties ahead, but as long as the opposition remains fragile without a coherent agenda, it is no foregone conclusion that Erdoğan will lose the election. Erdoğan is a shrewd politician who would not have announced his candidacy to begin with if his chances of winning were slim.
A more critical but less likely scenario is that Erdoğan disputes the election outcome if he loses. This would test the strength of Turkish democracy. In the worst-case scenario, the country might fall into a crisis amid competing factions pouring onto the streets.
Strategic implications of elections in Turkey: An overview
If Erdoğan is re-elected, reconciliation with the Gulf countries will continue. Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for instance, have recently improved ties. The two signed a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CEPA) in March 2023, aiming to increase their trade volume from $19 billion to $40 billion over the next five years.
Such tactics appear to have taken a backseat and there is currently a new era of reconciliation: several regional countries have built ties with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords (2020); the intra-Gulf dispute was resolved at the Al-Ula Summit (2021); and previous foes have given reciprocal visits to one another since 2021, including Turkey with both the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Erdoğan now prioritizes regionalization through diplomatic fence-mending and economic integration rather than geopolitical saber-rattling. This will likely continue no matter the result of the elections. If Kılıçdaroğlu wins the elections, Turkey will accelerate rapprochement with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of the earthquakes, Turkey needs a vast amount of support to rebuild and recover during the current tough economic times.
According to a recent survey among prominent figures of the Turkish opposition, if the government changes hands, foreign policy is not expected to chart a significantly different course on key files such as Russia-Ukraine, Greece, and Cyprus. It is expected that Turkey’s policy of neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war will continue, although the opposition is likely to lean more toward Ukraine and cooperate with the US and NATO further than Erdoğan has.
Relations with NATO are at present strained due to Ankara’s veto over Sweden’s bid to join the club. Turkey approved Finland’s request to join the alliance and in principle supports Sweden’s application. But Ankara is keeping Stockholm in the waiting room for political reasons. After an incident involving the burning of the Qur’an in the Swedish capital in January, Erdoğan told Sweden not to expect Turkey’s support.
However, this is likely to be an election ploy to lure nationalist-religious voters around the AKP. According to a recent poll by Anatolia News Agency, over 90% of Turkish people oppose Sweden’s NATO membership before the Nordic country makes concrete progress in anti-terrorism, including stronger action against the out-lawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) as well as Gülenists (FETÖ) and extradition of their members. The issue is likely to persist at least until after the elections and possibly beyond the next NATO summit in July.
Although some opinion leaders have raised the possibility of Turkey being kicked out of NATO, there is no mechanism to expel a member of the alliance – unless the country itself wishes to leave. Whichever political party wins the Turkish elections, Ankara may approve Stockholm’s NATO application in return for receiving Washington’s support for its long-standing bid to purchase F-16 Block-70 fighter jets and upgrade kits from the US. However, US President Joe Biden is yet to spend any political capital to support Turkey’s efforts at the US Congress. Making the matter more difficult, anti-Turkey constituents led by Senator Bob Menendez, who is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, continue to block a possible deal.
Amid the uncertainty over relations between Ankara and Washington, there are reports of Turkey’s interest in closer cooperation with the UK. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has visited London and met his counterpart Ben Wallace twice in the last six months. The meetings prompted speculation that Turkey is preparing to buy a large package of defense technology from the UK, ranging from Eurofighter jets, Type-23 frigates, cargo planes, and engines for its indigenous battle tank. Turkey is considering buying second-hand Eurofighter Tranche-1 jets from the UK as a bridge-gap solution until its indigenous aircraft, TF-X, is ready in 2028. Given Turkey’s precarious economic situation, there is doubt as to whether such plans will be given priority in the short term.
To use the Eurofighter (a plane developed by a consortium of European countries) effectively, Turkey needs to gain access to its computer source code and be able to fit its home-grown weapon systems on it. The Eurofighter’s advantages are its compatibility with NATO standards, maneuverability, and techno-generational superiority against Turkey’s current Block 3/4 F-16s. Its disadvantages are the need to have a separate pilot base, limited distribution of maintenance capabilities and spare parts, and the high price compared to the F-16 Block-70. This is without considering a possible veto over sales to Turkey from other members of the Eurofighter consortium – Germany, Spain, and Italy. For the navy, the UK’s Type-23 frigates are old, hard to maintain, and not meant for the much-needed air-defense capabilities. It remains unclear why Turkey would want to buy them.
where Turkey is trying to prevent the YPG, which is linked to the terrorist group PKK, from forming a continuous zone along its southern border. The key issue from a Turkish perspective is unrelenting US support for the YPG, a group that Turkey is determined to neutralize.
There is a non-partisan view in Ankara that the YPG is a serious threat to Turkey’s security and territorial integrity. This must be weighted against the fact that any further Turkish incursion into Syria might stoke resistance in YPG-controlled regions and risk Anakara’s delicate relationship with the Biden administration in Washington DC at a critical time. If Kılıçdaroğlu wins the elections, he is likely to normalize relations with the Assad regime quickly and roll back Turkish military presence in Syria despite the possible strategic setbacks that it could bring for Turkey.
War in the north: Russia-Ukraine conundrum and the Black Sea
The war in Ukraine has reached a stalemate with no side expected to make major gains on the ground until summer 2023 at the earliest. Russia’s nuclear posture has heightened since February 2022, but according to a recent survey by the Atlantic Council, the biggest impending risk of war between great powers might be in Asia, not Europe. This provides an opportunity for middle powers like Turkey vying for influence to maintain their position as interlocutors to both sides, as demonstrated by a range of prisoner-swap deals. Turkey has tried to maintain a fine balance, carefully choosing strategic autonomy and active neutrality by refusing to join most Western sanctions, as well as keeping lines of communication open with all parties and acting as a mediator.
From a realist perspective, Erdoğan’s interest is neither for Russia to win nor for Ukraine to lose, but to stay on a course that provides him with political leverage over all parties involved, including the EU and the US. Since Turkey wants to keep its strategic backyard in the Black Sea open and accessible, it perceives both a hegemonic Russia and overly active NATO involvement in the body of water as threats to its security. It balances these threats by maintaining active engagement and leverage over Ukraine, Russia, and NATO. This is a “sustainable status-quo” for Turkey.
The war heightened Turkey’s geopolitical significance as a bulwark against Russia’s expansion southward through Ankara’s shrewd observation of the Montreux Convention (1936) that regulates passage through the Turkish Straits. While allowing free transit of commercial vessels, the Montreux Convention places limits on the number, displacement, and transit time of naval vessels in both war and peace time. Applying the criteria based on a ship’s home nation, the convention prohibits the presence of naval vessels from non-riparian states in the Black Sea, such as the US and the UK, for over twenty-one days.
The Montreux Convention also allows Turkey to close the straits in times of war or threat of war, and places restrictions on navies of belligerent states that wish to transit through the straits during war time. In March 2022, Turkey considered the armed conflict as an act of war and closed the straits to all parties involved, including Russia and Ukraine as well as NATO. Warships can only enter the Black Sea to return to their homeport base. Even if Western/NATO countries donate warships to Ukraine, for instance, it is unlikely that Turkey would allow them passage to the Black Sea due to failure to meet the homeport requirement.
The restrictions of the Montreux Convention are a recurrent topic that some countries bring up behind closed doors in an attempt to alter the status-quo to their benefit. Some have aims to relax the rules restricting the passage of non-Black Sea navies, while others want to abolish the convention altogether and replace it with a more favorable alternative. For instance, when Russia is powerful, it desires to relax the convention to allow it to project power toward warm water seas. However, when Russia is weak it tries to maintain the convention lest NATO navies fill the vacuum and exploit its soft underbelly in the Black Sea. Similarly, the US is keen to revise the convention to allow free passage for its naval units, including aircraft carriers, to the Black Sea. Ankara has resisted these efforts to alter the status quo and Erdoğan has previously confirmed that “Turkey abides by Montreux until it finds a better alternative.”
The developments of the war in Ukraine suggest that, by carefully applying the Montreux Convention, Turkey has positioned itself as a non-belligerent balancer between Ukraine, NATO, and Russia, prioritizing stability over military adventure. Turkey’s soft-power diplomacy was also demonstrated by a rare positive development; the Black Sea Grain Deal that opened a humanitarian corridor for the shipment of grain and fertilizers. As of May 2023, 27.7 million tons of grain and grain products have been shipped as part of the deal,over 65% of which have reached developing countries mostly in the Middle East and Africa. If the Turkish opposition wins the elections, it might be inclined to relax the Montreux Convention and demonstrate its interest to join a NATO naval task force to guard sea lanes of the grain corridor. But Russia’s potential reaction and the possible long-term repercussions over this strategic re-alignment for Turkey would have to be carefully considered.
The war has also become a lab to test latest military technologies. Turkey has achieved a quantum leap in its defense industry over the past decade across a wide range of platforms, munitions, and capabilities. Armed drones, corvettes, and armored heavy vehicles are just a few examples of this growth. In 2022, Turkey’s defense and aerospace exports hit a record volume of over $4 billion, while the target for 2023 is set to $6 billion according to İsmail Demir, the President of the Turkish Defense Industry (SSM).
The war in Ukraine has been a major opportunity for Turkish defense manufacturers to improve their battle-proven capabilities and expand their client base. Poland was the first NATO member that acquired Turkish-made TB-2 drones, but Latvia, Hungary, and Bulgaria have all hinted their interest. As both sides in the war dug into their positions, Turkey supplied TB-2 drones to Ukraine in a much publicised campaign that showcased the drones’ battlefield successes on media, earning widespread popularity and acclaim.
Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Selçuk Bayraktar, is the Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Baykar, which manufactures TB-2s. The company has a capacity to make 20 TB-2 drones per month, and has plans to vastly scale up this volume. Despite Moscow’s pressure on Ankara, TB-2s played a major role in breaking the Russian assault on Kyiv in early 2022. Lately, Turkey is also reported to have provided US-designed artillery-fired cluster munitions to Ukraine for use against Russian tanks and personnel carriers. Put together with Turkey’s controversial purchase of S-400 air defense missiles from Russia in 2019 and expansive energy deals including a Russian-built nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, the seemingly contradictory moves aptly demonstrate Ankara’s strategy of balancing both threats and relations.
Erdoğan prefers transactional, issue-based partnerships rather than a steadfast approach to formal alliance-building. In essence, Turkey tries to avoid being dragged into an unintended armed conflict with Russia over Ukraine, while in parallel it works with NATO to keep Ukraine alive and resistant against a complete defeat on the battlefield, which would leave the Black Sea at the mercy of an emboldened Russia.
If Kılıçdaroğlu wins the elections, Baykar might have to assume a lower profile and Turkey might return the S-400s or shelve them indefinitely, possibly in return for receiving F-16 Block 70 fighter jets and upgrade kits from the US. With the latest show of Turkey’s flagship military platforms in April 2023 such as the TCG Anadolu Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD), Hürjet light fighter jet, and Altay main battle tank, Erdoğan not only demonstrated his ability to garner support from nationalist-conservative voters but also pointed at potential repercussions for the defense industry if he loses the elections. He emphasized that Turkey is headed toward self-sufficiency in defense procurement and that an opposition win will disrupt this momentum.
On the economic front, since the start of the war in Ukraine, Russia has become Turkey’s largest source of imports, mainly in terms of energy, grain, and raw materials. Improved trade ties have mutual benefits: Turkey provides a re-export base and market access to Russia to circumvent economic sanctions, while Russia provides natural gas at a discounted price with delayed payments in rubles.
Still, the threat of US secondary sanctions on Turkey looms large amid the precarious situation with Russia. Reportedly, upon pressure from US officials, Turkish customs stopped transiting sanctioned goods to Russia in March 2023. In case the opposition wins, Turkey is expected to chart a stricter pro-Western course and shy away from further economic cooperation with Moscow.
Syrian civil war and the Turkish engagement
Turkish policy towards the Syrian civil war has changed over the past twelve years. Starting out by supporting rebel factions in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and an array of jihadists aiming to topple President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, it backtracked to a defensive position after 2016. The aim of this stance is to push ISIS away from its borders and prevent the YPG from forming a contiguous zone in northern Syria. Russian intervention, Iranian involvement, and US support for the YPG were instrumental in the Turkish leadership’s change of calculus.
Russia, Turkey, and Iran emerged as “guarantor powers” of Syria’s territorial integrity within the framework of the Astana Talks (named after the first tri-partite meeting in the Kazakh capital of Astana/Nur-Sultan) to find a peaceful settlement to the civil war. Erdoğan’s focus then shifted away from toppling the Assad regime to the security of Turkey’s southern borders. The Astana Process remains intact, with Iran also joining the meeting of Turkish and Syrian defense ministers and intelligence chiefs in Moscow on 25 April 2023, in accordance with Erdoğan’s belief that Iran should be involved in Russian-mediated diplomatic talks with Syria.
On the military front, Turkey has launched three large-scale land operations in Syria since 2016: Euphrates Shield (2016), Olive Branch (2018), and Peace Spring (2019). The latest assault in Syria took place in 2020 in Idlib province. Named “Spring Shield”, it targeted the Syrian Army and allied militias in response to an air strike that killed 34 Turkish servicemen. Turkey also targeted the and the PKK via air strikes on Syria and Iraq in November 2022, following a bombing by the group on a busy street in Istanbul that killed six civilians. Although Erdoğan has continually reiterated his goal of forming a 30km-deep security belt along the border, his repeated threats of a fourth major land incursion into Syria have not yet materialized.
Erdoğan’s main goal now is to cooperate with Damascus to neutralize the YPG in northern parts of Syria, establish a mechanism with Syria to secure Turkey’s southern borders against terrorist attacks, and to manage the return of at least some of the Syrians based in Turkey. While he is keen to reconcile with Damascus and coordinate an assault with the Syrian Army against the YPG to the west of the Euphrates, Assad set Turkey’s withdrawal from the north and ending of support to rebel groups like the FSA as preconditions.
Erdoğan does not rule out handing back the territory that Turkey has occupied in Syria since 2016, but insists that it must be tied to a concrete plan and strong commitment and action from Damascus to guarantee security and stability in the region. Assad will most likely wait to see the election results before any attempt at normalization with Turkey. This is partly because Assad feels stronger than in the recent past with Gulf countries presently backing his rule and the ongoing discussions of Syria’s return to the Arab League. Still, Erdoğan is seeking reelection on 14 May 2023 and is willing to sit down with Assad to promote peace in the region. If Kılıçdaroğlu wins the elections, he will accelerate the rapprochement with Assad since he believes in Assad’s legitimacy and has criticized Erdoğan’s policy of intervention. Kılıçdaroğlu will aim to normalize bilateral ties in a much shorter time than an Erdoğan administration would.
In the end, both Erdoğan and the opposition are likely to continue the policy of reconciliation with Damascus, which could potentially allow the return of some of 4.5 million Syrians residing under temporary protection in Turkey as well as the marginalization or dismantlement of the YPG. The earthquakes destroyed livelihoods of many Syrians, who will find it increasingly more difficult to survive in Turkey amid economic hardships and social strife. That presents more urgency to establish a roadmap for normalization between Ankara and Damascus and to allow the return of Syrian migrants. Regardless of who wins the elections, this will be a long and painful process that can only be carried out in consultation with Russia and Iran under the Astana Process.
Turkey is headed toward the most critical elections in its history on 14 May 2023. The latest polls show that the two most popular contestants for presidency, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, are neck and neck. It would be prudent not to place big hopes on a clear win for either side. Despite the enormous impact of the economic crisis and the baggage of his policy failures, Erdoğan still has a good chance of re-election. This is partly due to his effective populist policies but also due to the opposition’s fragility and inability to form a coherent front.
Neither side is expected to chart a very different foreign policy course immediately after the elections. However, there may be changes in nuances to relations with NATO, Russia, and the Middle East. These carry the potential to cause major shifts in Turkey’s strategic outlook in the mid-to-long term.
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