Elections in Turkey

Experts dash German hopes for a pro-Western shift in Turkey’s foreign policy resulting from the opposition’s potential victory in the presidential elections.

BERLIN/ANKARA (Own report) – Germany and other Western powers cannot hope for an alignment of Turkey’s foreign policy with Western demands, even if the Turkish opposition wins the presidential elections on Sunday, according to assessments made by observers and experts, as well as statements by leading representatives of the opposition associated with Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Thus, Berlin and Brussels will be confronted with Turkish claims to natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean also in the future, and – as Kılıçdaroğlu has recently threatened – with Ankara’s efforts to “take back” Greek Aegean islands. Germany, and the West as a whole, will have to live with the fact that, even after a potential change of personnel in the presidency, Turkey will seek a compromise with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and continue its cooperation with Russia. Experts ascribe this not only to Turkey’s import and export structure, but also to its foreign policy tradition of a certain non-alignment. This is evident today in Ankara’s persistence not only in cooperating with the West but also in working with Russia.

Hoping for Concessions

Speculations in Germany and other Western countries that a victory for the opposition in Turkey’s presidential elections this coming Sunday could lead to a realignment of Ankara’s foreign policy with the transatlantic block are also related to certain statements concerning the EU and NATO made by opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP). Should he win, Kılıçdaroğlu wants to achieve visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the EU within three months of taking office.[1] In Berlin this is considered completely unrealistic. It would, however, require Ankara’s rapprochement to the EU, as does also the CHP leader’s goal of resuming EU accession negotiations with Brussels. Kilicdaroglu also intends to comply with the demands of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), to release Erdoğan’s opponent Osman Kavala, as well as Selahattin Demirtas, an opposition politician, from prison. The candidate of the opposition also wants to take a less confrontational approach in regards to NATO. He has pledged, for example, to agree to Sweden’s accession to the military alliance. Some in the West are hoping for even more concessions, such as an increased involvement in NATO’s Eastern flank military deployment.[2]

“Independent of Political Parties”

Observers and experts largely agree that even though a change in Turkey’s presidency might bring a less confrontational style in relations between Ankara and the West, it will, however, not otherwise lead to serious course corrections. Recently, Kılıçdaroğlu confirmed this. At an electoral event for Turkish-speaking citizens of Bulgaria, he noted that the foreign and armaments policies “are managed by the state” and are “independent of political parties.”[3] Above all, no changes are to be expected in the policies over which President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan had particularly strong disputes with the West in general and with the EU in particular: the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Turkey’s policy regarding Russia. Alongside historically established orientations, the basis of this continuity lies in Turkey’s strong economic interests.

“Take Back Islands”

In the eastern Mediterranean, a government headed by Kılıçdaroğlu would continue the efforts to gain access to the natural gas deposits under the seabed around Cyprus. No change of course is to be expected either in the dispute over the Greek Aegean islands. Observers point to the fact that also the candidate of the opposition had already called for snatching some of the islands from Greek control, “taking them back.”[4] The only thing to be expected is that Kılıçdaroğlu will focus more on negotiations than on military threats. How this is going to succeed is unfathomable, particularly in the case of the Greek islands, which Athens, under no circumstances, is prepared to give up.

Dialogue With Assad

As far as can be seen, Kılıçdaroğlu’s planned policy toward Syria does not differ too much from Ankara’s approach under President Erdoğan. An apparently well-informed representative of today’s Turkish opposition was quoted saying that in case of a presidential change, Ankara would seek to engage in dialogue with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.[5] This corresponds to the Turkish opposition’s earlier demands, demands that Erdoğan, in the meantime, has been fulfilling. Already at the beginning of the year, the president had held out the prospect of a summit meeting with Assad [6] – evidently as an element of Ankara’s recent policies that have sought detente with its regional neighbor Syria, launched already much earlier by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[7]) Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu are both equally linking this to their effort to expedite the repatriation of millions of Syrian refugees or their deportation from Turkey. Turkish troops stationed in northern Syria will not be immediately withdrawn, but the conditions for their withdrawal will be determined through negotiations.[8] The plan is to return to the 1998 Adana Agreement which allows the Turkish military, in its battle against the PKK, to operate within a five km wide stretch of Syrian territory along their common border.

Corrections of Details, at the most

Nor are significant changes expected in Ankara, in relationship to Erdoğan’s policies toward Russia. Thus, under Kılıçdaroğlu as well, Turkey will neither join the West’s sanctions against Russia, nor give up its current status as mediator between Moscow and Kiev, pertaining, for example, to shipping Ukrainian grain onto the world market via the Black Sea. It is said that Kılıçdaroğlu remains undecided only on questions of detail, such as, whether he will continue to use the Russian S-400 anti-missile system or rather return to the F-35 fighter jets that Ankara has already bought in the USA, but which Washington is withholding because of Ankara’s purchase of the S-400s.[9]

Non-Alignment Tradition

According to experts, economics is one of the reasons, why the opposition is not willing to forego its cooperation with Russia. Turkey is highly dependent on the large amount of relatively low-priced energy resources from Russia. The nuclear power plant Akkuyu is in construction and will be operated by the Russian company – Rosatom. Turkish companies use the cheap energy to produce industrial products for the European market.[10] Ankara is therefore dependent on Moscow, while simultaneously being dependent on the European sales market. This is why Kılıçdaroğlu has announced that relations to the EU will be again improved – at least in style. Moreover, the dual orientation – eastward and westward – corresponds to an old tradition in Turkish foreign policy, which experts describe as leaning toward non-aligned currents.[11] The publicist, Onur Isçi, and Samuel J. Hirst, Professor for international Relations at the Bilkent University in Ankara explain that even during the cold war, Ankara, in spite of its NATO membership, had maintained a certain non-alignment. Meanwhile, Turkish foreign policy is reverting to it openly.


[1] Friederike Böge: Annäherung oder Entfremdung? Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 03.05.2023.

[2] Marc Pierini, Francesco Siccardi: The Strategic Consequences of a Kılıçdaroğlu Victory Over Erdoğan. carnegieeurope.eu 13.04.2023.

[3] State policies on foreign ties, security will be maintained: CHP leader. hurriyetdailynews.com 16.04.2023.

[4] Friederike Böge: Annäherung oder Entfremdung? Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 03.05.2023.

[5] Ragip Soylu: Turkey elections: All you need to know about the opposition’s foreign policy. middleeasteye.net 21.04.2023.

[6] Ronald Meinardus: Ein Triumph für Putin. de.qantara.de 12.01.2023.

[7] See also The Failure of the Regime Change Policy.

[8] Ragip Soylu: Turkey elections: All you need to know about the opposition’s foreign policy. middleeasteye.net 21.04.2023.

[9] David Brennan: Hope for Major U.S.-Turkey Deal If Erdogan Defeated: Opposition. newsweek.com 19.04.2023.

[10], [11] Onur İşçi, Samuel J. Hirst: Turkey’s Elections and Foreign Policy Options. warontherocks.com 01.05.2023.