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The Day After in Turkey: What is the Meaning for Foreign Policy?

The election results in Turkey have remade the country’s political landscape in potentially fundamental ways writes Ian Lesser . More than a decade of Justice and Development Party (AKParty) majority rule has given way to a more complex and fragmented scene. It will take some time to know the contours of this new landscape, including the make-up of a likely coalition government. The next stages in Turkey’s political evolution may bring more instability, but also an opportunity to shed some of the most prominent impediments to Turkey’s integration with Europe, and cooperation with transatlantic partners.

Foreign policy did not play a prominent role in the June 7 elections, and the international perspectives of some of the key actors, including the newly represented People’s Democratic Party (HDP), are not well understood. Also unclear is the extent to which an AKParty-led coalition will allow significant departures from current policy. But Turkey’s neighbors and partners will be watching closely for change in at least three areas.

First, to what extent will change in Turkey’s domestic trajectory change the country’s external relations? Without question, the tense and polarized climate of recent years, growing constraints on freedom of expression, and a general atmosphere of creeping authoritarianism have contributed to troubled relations with Europe and the United States. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s own rhetoric has played a role in the deterioration of Ankara’s relations with the West. There is little reason to believe that the president will take a new line in terms of his own style and outlook. But to the extent that the recent elections were an implicit referendum on his presidency, Erdoğan’s freedom of action may now be more limited. New leaders and factions may well emerge within the AKParty, and these are likely to have somewhat different instincts on foreign and security policy.

Many in European and U.S. policy circles will seize upon the election results as an opportunity for a “reset” in relations with Ankara. Turkey’s newly empowered opposition parties may also wish to show that they are inclined to a less abrasive approach in relations with Brussels and Washington. Against these positive factors must be set the potential for a period of turmoil in Turkish politics, and a more inward looking and indecisive approach across a range of issues. Financial markets may not find the prospect of a coalition government reassuring. AKParty was already presiding over a marked economic slowdown, with the prospect of more trouble ahead. Despite the potential for a change in foreign policy rhetoric, nationalism remains a touchstone across much of the Turkish political spectrum (HDP may well prove an exception). If the National Movement Party (MHP) enters a coalition with AKParty, the nationalist line could well be reinforced, with implications for the Cyprus dispute and Turkey’s policy toward northern Iraq, among other questions.

Second, whatever the configuration of Turkey’s next government, the country will continue to face the prospect of protracted chaos and conflict on its borders, and an increasingly complicated set of relations with Russia, Iran, Israel, Egypt, and others. The collapse of the regional order around Turkey has also brought a collapse of Turkey’s active, commercially led diplomacy of the last decade. Nothing has emerged to replace this strategy, and it is hard to imagine how a weakened AKParty leadership will produce a striking new approach. But as external pressures build — the almost 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey are a key factor here — the next stages in Turkish politics, and possibly new elections, could well have a stronger foreign policy dimension.

Third, the prospect for a structural shift in Turkey’s troubled relations with the EU and the United States is an open question, and likely to remain so for some time. Turkey’s stalled EU candidacy will benefit from signals that Ankara has taken a different tack on issues such as press and Internet freedom. Turkey’s supporters in Europe — and there are many — will be heartened and reinvigorated by signs that Turkish society really is on the same page when it comes to the basic features of an open society. Ultimately, however, real progress on the membership track will require movement on the Cyprus dispute. HDP is clearly in favor of a settlement, but other parties remain cautious, and MHP takes a hard line on this question as well as the Kurdish peace process, another critical issue for many Europeans. And even with profound shifts on the Turkish side, the environment for significant new EU enlargement is hardly propitious given Europe’s economic stringency, and the strength of xenophobic populist movements in key European countries. Many factors must come together for Turkish-EU relations to take a different course, and political change in Turkey is only one element in this equation.

There is significant potential for improvement in the tone, if not the substance of U.S.-Turkey relations. U.S. policymakers and observers have been vexed by Erdoğan’s pointed remarks about the role of international “interest rate lobbies,” and other conspiracy minded references. There is a widely shared concern that the AKParty leadership has done little in recent years to offset the currents of anti-Americanism running across the Turkish political spectrum. Other parties, and other factions within AKParty, may now see scope for a change of style in relations with Washington. As Erdoğan and others begin to explain their party’s performance at the polls, it would be especially unfortunate if they choose to blame Turkey’s transatlantic partners, all of which have a strong stake in Turkish democracy and stability.

Ian Lesser is executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s (GMF) Transatlantic Center in Brussels, and Senior Director for Foreign and Security Policy at GMF. This article was first published by the GMF.


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