Turkish Elections and Foreign Policy: Change for the Better or Continuity?

Seeking every vote: incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is fighting for his political future. Image: Sipa US / Alamy

Every national election is a pivotal moment for any country, but some can be truly historic turning points. This was so for the 2002 election which brought Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP into power, and it is so for the 2023 election, which might very well mark the end of the Erdogan era.

The parallels between 2002 and 2023 are difficult to miss. In 2002, after a large earthquake three years prior that had claimed more than 17,000 lives and faced with spiralling inflation, damaging economic policies and a rising cost of living, an electorate exhausted with politicians and politics searched for a new, inclusive government that could focus on the economy, while demanding greater democracy and freedoms. Fast-forward to 2023, and after a recent earthquake that claimed tens of thousands of lives, with inflation spiralling and the cost of living on the rise, unorthodox economic policies clearly driven by short-term political image rather than long-term growth, and demands for more democracy and freedoms, voters are exhausted by polemics and culture wars and are searching for a new political moment that can unite, heal and deliver better economic conditions.

We will see how the election plays out, but the signs are that it will be a close call and the most competitive election President Erdogan has faced since 2002 – and there are grounds to believe that he could lose. In fact, the last minute pull-out of another presidential candidate could help the main opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu gain 1–2%, which could be a game-changer for the results. Elections matter in Turkey, including for Erdogan, and they are by and large protected against any interference, even though the playing field is not fair and they cannot be said to be held under fully free conditions.

The outcome, no matter which way it goes, will alter Turkey for decades to come. If President Erdogan wins again, we will see a new phase of government, like we saw in the aftermath of the 2011 election and in 2016 after the coup attempt. Both moments led to major shifts in both how the AKP governed and how the state was structured to accommodate this. A victory for Erdogan in 2023 will result in the consolidation of long-term ‘one-party’ rule, making Turkey much closer to China than any other comparable models from the Islamic world. If Kilicdaroglu wins, there will be a return to strengthened parliamentary rule, amnesties for imprisoned critics and political figures, and a more inclusive multi-party era with more freedoms. While the former seems set to continue economic policies that are widely criticised in the hopes of attracting more investment from non-Western sources to support short-term political messaging around growth and big projects, Kilicdaroglu is promising a return to conventional fiscal policies, an independent central bank and efforts to ease inflation.

US–Turkey relations are limited to basic necessities, and a change in Ankara will not simply turn back the clock and resolve strategic divergences between the two countries

When it comes to foreign policy, however, a clear-cut change for the better might not be realistic to expect. The new government will inherit a complex portfolio with many external factors that are not within Ankara’s control. Yes, a Kilicdaroglu victory would mean fewer polemics and a less combative attitude towards Europe and the US, a potentially speedier entry of Sweden into NATO, positive signals to Western investors and governments, and an improvement of Turkey’s image in international media. But a long list of key challenges and difficult conversations will remain. As he has already signalled, Kilicdaroglu’s government will also have no option but to maintain complex balancing act between being a NATO member and engaging with Russia. US–Turkey relations are limited to basic necessities, and a change in Ankara will not simply turn back the clock and resolve strategic divergences between the two countries in key areas such as North Syria or the US enabling of an offshoot of a listed terror organisation fighting Turkey. In fact, the Kilicdaroglu coalition includes Turkey’s centre-right nationalists as well as left-leaning groups, who are far from favourable in their views of the US. There is absolutely no way of bringing Turkey’s EU accession progress back from the dead, no matter who is in government in Turkey, but perhaps a new era might bring a better Customs Union agreement. In addition, there is unlikely to be any change on the horizon when it comes to hopes of a breakthrough on Cyprus. Kilicdaroglu’s regular statements about taking Turkey ‘out of the swamp of the Middle East’ and sending all Syrian refugees back to their country are worrying populist appeals. While such sentiments appeal to voters, they are bound to create substantial questions on Turkey’s complex regional entanglements and interests, as well as for European states that worry about a new wave of Syrian asylum seekers. Similarly, his idea of a ‘Turkic Silk Road’ to deepen trade across Central Asia and connect with China – if China agrees to stop persecuting Uyghurs – is an aloof populist promise, along with his statement that his initiative will worry the West, ‘but let them be concerned’. There is also very little sign of any potential new approach to the Kurdish issue, which is now not just a domestic human rights question but a regional and complex challenge that goes beyond welcomed gestures to Kurdish voters.

In fact, while there are definitely a lot of positives ahead when it comes to conditions within the country, and there are certainly opportunities to ease some of the unsustainable tensions between key regional and international players and Ankara, foreign policy is the less thought-through portfolio for a prospective new government, and is less of a focus or personal comfort zone for Kilicdaroglu. This would mean that a potential shift in government would be followed by a rocky re-ordering of the priorities of key departments and structures of the Turkish state in the absence of a thought-through vision and a clear, capable and strong foreign policy team that is already in place. This would hinder a Kilicdaroglu government’s ability to maximise new opportunities in key portfolios, and would risk frustrating allies and partners alike in a short honeymoon of expectations of change.

The opposition would do well to form a foreign policy team and a clear, sustainable and long-term vision for Turkish foreign policy as soon as possible

Perhaps the lack of focus on foreign policy is underwritten by the fact that it is far down the list of issues and concerns for the opposition’s diverse support base, who are united behind a singular point: electing a new president who is not Erdogan. This might very well work this time, and might be a valid focus as an electoral strategy. But, in the scenario of a Kilicdaroglu victory, the day after the party is going to be truly difficult: managing a complex political alliance, achieving a smooth handover of executive power over a bureaucracy shaped by 20 years of AKP rule, and recovering the economy while navigating a complex geopolitical arena. This might give Erdogan and the AKP a glimmer of hope for a return to power with a renewed mandate and focus after some time in opposition.

Kilicdaroglu and the opposition bloc would do well to form a foreign policy team and a clear, sustainable and long-term vision for Turkish foreign policy as soon as possible. Otherwise, the current strategic fatigue towards Turkey in the world’s most influential capitals will turn into indefinite stagnation.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Ziya Meral

Senior Associate Fellow

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