The Turkish Election Could Reset Ankara’s Relations With the West
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If the opposition wins, Washington and Brussels should be prepared to seize the opportunity.
When Türkiye heads to the polls on May 14, all indicators show that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will be up against the most serious political challenge of his career. Opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is neck and neck with the longtime leader, but his victory is no foregone conclusion. The rhetoric is sharpening on both sides, and an opposition rally was interrupted and marred by violence over the weekend when Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu was pelted with stones, which also wounded at least a dozen people. Erdoğan’s ratings may no longer be as high as before, but his core base mostly remains loyal, and he will use all his advantages as the head of Türkiye’s politicized executive presidential system to win.
Analyses on the foreign policy implications of the elections have primarily focused on what changes can be expected in Ankara’s approach to international relations after the votes are tallied. Western capitals should also be contemplating their own approach to postelection Türkiye. The United States and the European Union must be prepared to seize any new opportunity that may present itself to improve relations with Türkiye and encourage it to come back into the fold.
IF ERDOĞAN WINS
The margin for creative thinking will be limited if Erdoğan prevails. Twenty-one years of experience with the incumbent government has mostly exhausted the West’s expectations for a qualitative improvement in relations, leaving little room for pleasant surprises. Should he emerge victorious, Erdoğan and his sense of invincibility will reach new highs, which will further fuel his fiery mannerism.
But the realities of his self-created economic disaster—as well as Türkiye’s parliamentary dynamics, which will almost certainly no longer be as favorable for him postelection—could temper his actions. Türkiye will be in dire need of foreign financial flows, and Erdoğan will have to conduct foreign policy within the constraints of that reality, which will require less adventurism and more stability. But relations with the United States and European countries will remain transactional, rendering them void of resilience and vulnerable to circumstantial crises.
IF THE OPPOSITION WINS
A scenario in which Kılıçdaroğlu defeats Erdoğan likely would be a different story. Political change could open a window to reset relations, which would be a welcome development from a transatlantic perspective.
The opposition alliance’s election manifesto on common policies, which entails 2,300 goals, vows to strengthen Türkiye’s democratic standards and advance its global interests by upholding international law, abiding by international commitments, and not infusing foreign policy decisions with ideological or domestic political considerations. This is a meaningful commitment, given Türkiye’s recent foreign policy trajectory, and a promising starting point for the opposition—but one that will have to be corroborated in action. This is especially true for matters that Ankara sees through a national security lens, such as its fight against terrorism, the Cyprus dispute, and its interests in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. But managing such fraught topics arguably could become easier with Ankara acting under the mindset outlined by the opposition.
If Türkiye displays genuine resolve to revive its democratic credentials and rekindle its ties with the West, its allies and Western partners should embrace this reorientation in the same spirit. They should have an engagement strategy and a set of practical steps in mind for that purpose. Two critical actors that can help drive such change are the United States and the European Union.
THE UNITED STATES
Türkiye’s relationship with the United States has traditionally been a standard-setter for Ankara’s place in the West, but the current picture is uninspiring. Türkiye is under U.S. sanctions for purchasing the Russian S-400 air and missile defense system, and Washington is concerned with Ankara’s deepening ties with Moscow. U.S. President Joe Biden has kept Erdoğan at arm’s length and excluded him from the U.S.-led Summit for Democracy series over the decline in the rule of law and democratic standards. Türkiye, in turn, is outraged by the U.S. policy of support for Kurdish elements in Syria affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey is also wary of deepening political ties and defense cooperation between its arch-rival Greece and the United States.
There have been occasional spikes of renewed warmth, such as during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan or in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, but these were short-lived. The two countries seem to have settled into a transactional relationship, which may seem practical under the current circumstances but is too low a bar for Turkish-U.S. relations.
Should the opposition win, the United States can engage a new government in Türkiye in several ways. In the immediate aftermath of the elections, Washington should publicly express its congratulations, with a focus on addressing the Turkish public on the successful conclusion of a critical democratic threshold and praise the peaceful transfer of power. Next, it should follow up with timely outreach. Biden waited months after coming into office to call Erdoğan—and only did so to break the news that he would refer to the mass death of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide, contrary to Turkish opinion. This time, he should be among the first to call his new Turkish counterpart (preferably before Moscow), declare his readiness to cooperate, and invite him to Washington for an official visit with the express intent of charting a new course in bilateral relations.
There are two guaranteed ways the United States could sabotage this opportunity in the medium term. One is through indifference to Türkiye’s fight against terrorism, and the other is to favor Athens at Ankara’s expense.
On the first count, the United States can start in Syria by rethinking its support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). It should rein in U.S. Central Command’s practice of publicizing its engagement and occasional displays of affection with SDF elements that cause a furor in Ankara. More importantly, Washington should be ready to live up to its initial promise that its engagement with the SDF would be temporary, transactional, and tactical. Sooner or later, the United States will have to recalibrate its total reliance on the SDF in its fight against the Islamic State in Syria, and a new government in Türkiye might be the opportune time to start considering new solutions. Absent this dynamic, coordinating with Moscow and Tehran remains the only show in town for Ankara.
In addition, the Biden administration should intensify its contacts with Congress to move ahead with the F-16 fighter jets that Ankara has asked to purchase, and it should keep an open mind with regard to Türkiye rejoining the F-35 program (a goal included in the opposition alliance’s election manifesto). This would help alleviate Ankara’s immediate concerns that the military balance in air power may be upset in Greece’s favor.
Both moves would rekindle Turkish-U.S. relations—including its traditional driver, defense industry cooperation—and strengthen the incoming government’s hand in realigning Türkiye’s policies according to its place in the Western security architecture—an objective voiced by the main opposition party’s foreign policy guru.
Regular, expanded outreach from U.S. officials to their Turkish counterparts to discuss geopolitical developments would be another meaningful step. Nowadays, the Turkish public is more used to hearing about meetings between its officials and their Russian counterparts than similar meetings with the U.S. side. The image of Türkiye being excluded from the Ukraine discussion on the sidelines of the Bali G20 meeting in November left an indelible mark. It is time to reverse this, both in perception and practice.
One way to do this would be to better instrumentalize the Strategic Mechanism, a platform initiated last year to advance bilateral cooperation in areas of mutual interest. While the idea has potential, its current structure is too loose, making it seem more like window dressing—and implying a lack of belief and insufficient interest on both sides.
The United States should challenge Türkiye to holding structured and result oriented consultations within the mechanism. The idea could be to develop shared goals on each topic, such as the European Security architecture after the war in Ukraine, building synergies in defense industry, developing joint projects in Africa, and energy cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean. Meetings could be held at the undersecretary or deputy secretary level, on at least one theme annually; each would involve three sessions—two of which can be held in respective capitals, and the other on the sidelines of other meetings. Intelligence officials, military personnel, and external experts could be invited from both sides to contribute to the discussion. A formal, continuous, and well-structured consultation process would rekindle the culture of dialogue between the sides and would reconnect Turkish and American officials at different levels, filling an interpersonal void that has severely deepened over the past several years.
Finally, to the extent that Türkiye starts making progress in re-establishing the rule of law and basic democratic standards, the United States should consider including Türkiye on the invitee list for the next Summit for Democracy, hosted by the Republic of Korea. The Turkish opposition’s experience and electoral success in an uneven playing field could make for an interesting case study on that occasion.
THE EUROPEAN UNION
In an environment where Türkiye returns to a process of democratic reforms, approaches Europe in a new and more like-minded spirit, and reintroduces orthodox economic policies that provide favorable trade and investment opportunities, the engagement between Ankara and Brussels can become more productive. This would benefit Ankara and offer an excellent opportunity for the European Union to strategize the way forward in its collaboration with Türkiye, especially in the renewed debate on enlargement and wider Europe that has gained pace after the war in Ukraine.
Türkiye’s accession process for full membership to the European Union has been at an impasse for some time, but the opposition alliance is committed to pursuing this goal if it wins. Prioritizing areas of cooperation that provide high impact and visibility would make sense from a strategic point of view, with four areas that stand out: upgrading the customs union, implementing the agreement on visa liberalization for Turkish citizens, increasing cooperation on irregular migration, and enhancing political dialogue.
First, the partners should expand the scope of the customs union, an idea initially proposed by the European Commission and embraced by Türkiye. A World Bank report from 2014 established that greater trade integration would “bring welfare gains to both parties.” Progress on this front would boost Türkiye’s ailing economy, especially in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes in February, and significantly improve the climate in relations between Türkiye and the European Union. Absent political objections from within the EU, this is a low-hanging fruit.
Next, visa liberalization for Turkish citizens and cooperation on irregular migration are highly visible and more controversial issues for both sides. Türkiye and the EU had linked the two issues and agreed on a way forward in 2016 but have run into difficulties in implementation.
On visa liberalization, the opposition can be expected to quickly fulfill the EU criteria in areas such as personal data protection, anti-corruption measures, and counterterrorism legislation, that Türkiye has so far failed to complete. Kılıçdaroğlu made a high-stakes promise to deliver on visa liberalization within three months of coming into office. Türkiye can soon be expected to put the onus on the EU and test its commitment to visa liberalization for Turkish citizens. The EU has done this for the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries, and any inclination to renege on its commitment to Türkiye would go down negatively and inevitably cast a shadow over relations.
The 2016 migration deal was designed to dissuade potential migrants through measures in which Türkiye agreed to accept the return of unauthorized migrants arriving in Europe from its territory, and the EU agreed to permit more immigrants with the proper paperwork from Türkiye. Varying disagreements between Türkiye and the EU on other central elements of the deal led to its collapse in 2019, raising the need for its renewal, which Türkiye’s political opposition is committed to doing. This will require the EU to refrain from viewing Türkiye as a migrant basket and be proactively engaged in stemming irregular flows, and Türkiye to refrain from weaponizing the issue and ensure better control of mass movement toward Europe. Any mutually acceptable agreement would remove an irritant in relations and contribute to the image of Türkiye and the EU working toward mutually beneficial solutions even on complicated matters.
Finally, in an era of significant geostrategic and geoeconomic paradigm shifts, Türkiye and the EU have a shared interest in enhancing their dialogue. The EU should strengthen its engagement with Türkiye at all levels, and should the political circumstances avail, consider benefiting from various high-level EU meetings to come together with the Turkish leadership. Rekindling the culture of dialogue in a positive spirit will help build confidence between the sides and eliminate disruptive tendencies in the relationship.
AFTER MAY 14
The most used expression about Türkiye’s upcoming elections has been to say they are historical. This is true, even of the context: this is the centennial year of the founding of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The elections themselves may be a turning point for Türkiye, whereby the longest era of any leader in its modern history may end—or be prolonged, with continuing corrosive effects on the institutional, secular, and democratic foundations of the country. And in an era of nativist populism and rising authoritarianism, Türkiye’s experience will become a reference point for countries worldwide.
Among the election’s many implications, the foreign policy trajectory will have far-reaching consequences. Opinion polls suggest that despite an uneven playing field, the opposition coalition is gaining momentum and may stand a chance to emerge victorious after May 14. In that case, a new window will open in relations with Türkiye. This will be an opportunity that Türkiye’s traditional allies and partners in the West should not miss, and one in which the United States and the European Union can play an instrumental role.
Türkiye’s political opposition is vowing to take a step toward its Western partners. They should be prepared to reciprocate, if that indeed happens.
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