There are two scenarios following the elections.
The first is that Erdoğan will remain in power, potentially somewhat restrained by an opposition-controlled parliament.
The second scenario is one where the opposition wins the presidential election, and potentially also gains a substantial majority in parliament.
Whoever prevails will have a tough economic situation to deal with, not least due to extensive reconstruction needs after the earthquakes.
And, unless Turkey switches to a more conventional economic policy soon, inflation is likely to remain high and the lira will continue weakening – potentially causing a currency crisis.
Scenario I: Erdoğan retains power
If Erdoğan remains in power after the elections, the potential for turbulence in relations with Europe would be high. The election itself could be a major source of friction, if there is evidence of large-scale vote-rigging by the government, or if Erdoğan loses but refuses to depart, worried about retribution by his opponents.
Even if that does not happen and he wins the election fairly, the major sources of EU-Turkey friction would almost certainly endure. It is difficult to imagine that Erdoğan would take steps to improve democratic freedoms. And if democracy in Turkey erodes much further, there will be increasingly loud calls in Europe to formally end Ankara’s EU accession process.
Similarly, Erdoğan’s foreign policy towards Greece and Cyprus would be unlikely to change, meaning that relations with the EU would remain tense. Any Turkish steps to significantly alter the status quo on Cyprus, or to ratchet up tensions with Greece, would lead some member-states to call for economic sanctions on Turkey – as happened in 2020.
Ankara’s ties to Russia could also lead to sharp arguments with many EU allies, as would a continued veto of Sweden’s NATO membership. There may be calls for Turkey’s NATO membership to be suspended – for which there is no mechanism.
Nevertheless, greater tensions are not inevitable.
Erdoğan would have reason to dial down tensions with the West. The EU remains Turkey’s most important trading partner, which provides strong incentives for Turkey to maintain decent relations with Europe.
There is also a good chance that Erdoğan will lift his veto on NATO membership for Sweden, if he thinks he can no longer benefit from hindering Stockholm’s accession.
At the same time, Erdoğan’s ability to pursue his ambitions would continue to be constrained by the state of Turkey’s economy, especially if he continues to pursue an unconventional economic policy based on low interest rates and remains unwilling to seek a loan from the IMF.
Meanwhile, the near-guarantee of America’s involvement (at least as long as Biden is president) would mean that a conflict with Greece would continue to be a remote possibility.
When it comes to relations with Russia, Erdoğan would be unlikely to align unequivocally with Moscow, aware that Turkey’s Western allies would shun Ankara, making it weaker in its dealings with Beijing and Moscow.
It is much more likely that Erdoğan would continue to value Turkey’s economic ties to the EU and its NATO membership while at the same time trying to maintain and if possible deepen economic and political relations with Moscow and Beijing.
Nevertheless, some European policy-makers worry that over time Turkey’s economy may increasingly tilt away from the West, and that that could change Ankara’s calculation about the value of maintaining alignment with Europe and the US.
Scenario II: Government by the opposition
A victory by the opposition alliance would lead to substantial changes in Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy, and in its relations with Europe and the US. The opposition alliance says it wants to change the constitution back to a parliamentary system, restore the independence of the judiciary and the central bank, and pursue an orthodox economic policy.
Opposition parties have been critical of the sidelining of the ministry of foreign affairs and of what they see as the overtly militarized and interventionist foreign policy pursued by Erdoğan. They say they want to prioritize diplomacy in resolving disputes like those with Greece and Cyprus and build better relations with the US and Europe.
Opposition parties are committed to obtaining EU membership, although they recognize that this is a difficult and long-term undertaking for Turkey.
If the opposition does what it says it wants to do, relations between Turkey and its European partners would markedly improve and there would be an opportunity to relaunch EU-Turkey relations.
However, an opposition government may struggle to implement its agenda.
First, there is the potential for squabbles given the fact that the Nation Alliance is a big tent housing parties ranging from nationalists to moderate Islamists.
Second, constitutional changes require a large majority in parliament, and the six parties making up the opposition alliance are unlikely to secure enough votes on their own. They would have to find more support in parliament, which would mean looking to the HDP, or to defectors from Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
However, either path could be challenging.
Finally, an opposition government would have to contend with a bureaucracy that is still dominated by figures from the AKP era. Reforming the civil service and the judiciary will consume time and effort, and could cause friction within the government, with different parties competing for influence.
Some areas of tension between Turkey and the EU would probably endure anyway.
First, although Turkey’s tone and actions towards Greece and Cyprus would mellow, the disputes with both will remain difficult to resolve and could continue to hinder efforts to build closer relations with the EU.
Second, Turkish foreign policy on some issues may not change as much as Ankara’s Western partners hope. When it comes to relations with Russia, Turkey would still have to work with Moscow in Syria, while the importance of trade with Russia and Ankara’s reliance on Russian energy would not change.
The policy of an opposition government towards the war in Syria is not fully clear, but it would probably continue to be driven by the wish to avoid more refugees coming to Turkey and by the need to contain the threat from the PKK.
The opposition is also keen on repatriating refugees to Syria quickly. On other foreign policy issues, from Libya to the Western Balkans, the degree to which Turkey’s policy would change is unclear. All these factors mean that there could still be friction with many member-states on foreign policy.
Ultimately, Europeans should not expect a new Turkish government to simply go back to behaving as Ankara did before the AKP era. Despite its recent economic problems, Turkey is a much wealthier country than it was then, and a much more powerful one in diplomatic and military terms. The global context has also changed, with the West no longer as dominant as it was at the turn of the millennium.
EU membership may still be Turkey’s favoured option, but a successful Turkey outside the EU is much easier to imagine than it once was. Public opinion polls suggest that distrust of the West is deeply embedded in Turkey, and this is likely to limit any government’s room for maneuver, at least in the near term. These developments mark a structural change in the EU-Turkey relationship, which Europeans will have to adapt to.
This is the second part of a report from the Centre for European Reform that FTP is reprinting in three parts.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Free Turkish Press.