This article is part of a longer report from MEI's Turkey Program on the upcoming Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections, Turkey's 2023 Elections: Perspectives on a Critical Vote.
If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are defeated in this month’s elections, the next government, led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), will likely prove more agreeable — or at least no more difficult — on virtually every issue of importance to the United States and Turkey’s other allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). There undoubtedly will still be areas of contention, including some of the same ones that have bedeviled the West’s relations with Turkey under Erdoğan. For reasons both ideological and economic, however, a new Turkish government would want a closer relationship with the West than Erdoğan has pursued for many years.
Opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is a secularist who comes from a tradition that sees Turkey’s proper place as part of the Western world. As such, he and his CHP cadre feel more at home in the secular West than in the Middle East or even Russia. Indeed, he lacks the religious credentials that have helped facilitate Erdoğan’s popularity in the Middle East — on the street, if often not with the region’s ruling regimes. He would certainly continue to pursue ties with Russia, which are now economically critical for Turkey, but he would lack the history and avoid the intimacy that Erdoğan has cultivated with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Far more important than personal or ideological compatibility, however, would be the new government’s need to boost Turkey’s shaky economy. The economy, more than any other issue, will likely be responsible for an opposition victory, should it occur; it would also be the issue on which the new government’s success or failure would stand or fall.
Should Kılıçdaroğlu win, his victory will probably be greeted warmly in the West, where frustration has long simmered over Erdoğan’s unpredictability, bluster, and neutralist — and, increasingly in recent years, authoritarian — tendencies. For example, should Turkey need to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to boost its economy, the new government could at least count on a sympathetic hearing.
Assuming the new government takes some of the early steps it has pledged — such as ratifying Sweden’s NATO application,1 implementing outstanding European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decisions,2 and generally increasing Turks’ scope for freedom of expression3 — most Western states will look for ways to support it. And assuming that the new government is seen to be stable and begins the process of implementing some key economic promises differentiating it from the Erdoğan government — such as steps to ensure central bank4 and (more challengingly) judicial independence5 as well as the passage of a public procurement law that meets the European Union’s standards6 — increased private Western investment will likely follow.
In opposition, Kilicdaroglu has not been above trying to outflank Erdoğan’s nationalism on issues ranging from Greece and Cyprus to Israel and Saudi Arabia.7 But as president, his need for Western support, if nothing else, is likely to keep him on a moderate, non-provocative path. Indeed, his campaign rhetoric and platform generally reflect such a restrained course. By temperament and style, he almost certainly will not match Erdoğan's stridency. Moreover, he inherits a post-earthquake atmosphere, in which even Erdoğan has calmed ties with Greece.
Who will run foreign policy if the opposition wins?
The main Turkish opposition, known as the Nation Alliance, consists of six parties, but its government is likely to be dominated by its two largest members: the center-left CHP (the largest) and the right-wing Good (İYİ) Party, which is likely to win less than half as many votes as the CHP.
If CHP head Kılıçdaroğlu wins the presidency, he will be the dominant decision-maker in foreign policy, per the “executive presidency” system he would inherit from Erdoğan. However, Kılıçdaroğlu’s focus — on account of both national interest and personal preference — is likely to be on domestic matters, particularly the economy and issues related to democracy and personal freedoms.
For the day-to-day management of foreign policy, Kılıçdaroğlu will rely on the career bureaucracy and probably a few of its alumni. The common six-party opposition platform pledges to “reinstate the role and duty of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in foreign policy-making.” Both Kılıçdaroğlu and İYİ Party leader Meral Akşener, neither of whom have served in government in a foreign policy capacity, seem fully committed to this course. Each has a former ambassador as a top foreign policy advisor. Kılıçdaroğlu himself is a former senior bureaucrat,8 so it is not surprising that he turns for advice to the bureaucracy’s experts and alumni: As leader of the CHP since 2010, Kılıçdaroğlu has had a series of foreign policy advisors, all former ambassadors.
It is not clear who will be foreign minister or even from which party the minister will emerge. Turkish media speculation is focusing on a group of individuals who have at least one thing in common: They are not candidates for the next parliament. Under the current Turkish system, members of parliament are not allowed to serve as cabinet ministers.
Two of the tiny factions in the six-member coalition are headed by former foreign ministers, Ahmet Davutoğlu of the Future Party (GP) and Ali Babacan of the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), both of whom served in Erdoğan’s government but later broke away from the AKP. Like all five leaders of CHP’s alliance partners, they have been promised a vice presidency. (Turkey’s system allows the president to appoint an unlimited number of vice presidents.) Kılıçdaroğlu has promised to consult and seek consensus with these leaders on all major decisions, including national security issues,9 but Davutoğlu’s and Babacan’s influence on foreign policy and national security is likely to be minimal, if that. In office, Davutoğlu was the architect of an aggressive, Islamist-oriented foreign policy that is at odds with Kılıçdaroğlu’s views and whose elements are indirectly denounced by the six-party platform. Babacan is more associated with economic issues, a realm in which he enjoyed considerable success as the dominant player during the AKP’s first years in power.
Outlook: Turning the page on the Erdoğan era
Predictions based on governing parties’ statements and votes while in opposition are uncertain at best; the requirements of office often alter an opposition leader’s outlook. Predictions based on campaign pledges are even more hazardous. Platforms, after all, are political documents, designed to attract votes, not force constituents to come to grips with hard truths.10
With those caveats in mind and using the Nation Alliance’s joint platform as a departure point, two main themes are likely to mark a CHP-led foreign policy, restraint regarding neighbors' affairs and an effort to strengthen ties with the West.
Non-interference. The platform foresees a far less assertive regional policy than Erdoğan’s. It pledges to “respect the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity” of Middle Eastern countries and “not interfere in their internal affairs.”11
This could be strictly boilerplate or simply a jab at Erdoğan’s Syria and Libya policies. However, it also mostly tracks with past positions taken by the CHP and İYİ. From the beginning, the CHP opposed Erdoğan’s regime-change policy in Syria, advocating instead continued recognition of the Bashar al-Assad regime. It likewise opposed sending Turkish troops to Libya in 2019 and voted against extending the presence of troops in Syria in 2021. İYİ joined the CHP in opposing the deployment of troops to Libya; it supported the troop extension in Syria but said it nevertheless opposed any new intervention there. Both parties supported the maritime delimitation agreement with the Tripoli government, while opposing the companion military accord.12
In a similar spirit, the platform pledges to end foreign policy based on “domestic political calculations and ideological approaches”13 — a charge Kılıçdaroğlu has frequently made against Erdoğan. The clear implication is that foreign policy should be driven strictly by a clear-eyed calculation of national interest.
The reference to “ideological approaches” likely reflects Kılıçdaroğlu’s oft-stated accusation that Erdoğan’s foreign policy, including his Syria and Libya policies, is “Muslim Brotherhood-driven.”14 He has muted that language in recent times — including in the drafting of the common, six-party platform — probably in deference to the fact that at least two of the smaller parties in the coalition have their own history of closeness to the Brotherhood. Nevertheless, the Brotherhood and Hamas would seem to have little future in a Kılıçdaroğlu Turkey.
Pro-Western direction. Support for NATO and for relations with the U.S. is expressed somewhat unsentimentally but unmistakably — unsentimentally, presumably, because of the general unpopularity of the U.S. and the West in Turkey. The opposition pledges to support NATO “on a rational basis and with our national interests in mind,” while acknowledging that “NATO is of critical importance in terms of the deterrence it provides for our national security.”15
Regarding the U.S., the opposition pledges to “establish” bilateral relations “on an institutional basis with an understanding that both parties are equal” and to “advance the alliance [emphasis added] relationship” on an “equal” basis. The reference to “an institutional basis” is intended to contrast with Erdoğan’s emphasis on personal diplomacy.16
A subsequent pledge to “take initiatives for Turkey to return to the F-35 project” is a veiled suggestion that a new government would seek to resolve the diplomatic problem caused by Erdoğan’s purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system — a known prerequisite for any possible return, however unlikely, to F-35 stealth fighter co-production with the United States and the project’s other international partners.17
The plank regarding Russia calls for “balanced and constructive dialogue,”18 but there is no reference to partnership or friendship, much less alliance. Kılıçdaroğlu has made clear that he would continue Turkey’s anti-sanctions policy, but it seems reasonable to expect that he would at least work with the West to limit Moscow’s ability to use Turkey to circumvent sanctions. In a recent BBC interview, Kılıçdaroğlu affirmed that he would prioritize relations with the West over ties with Russia.19
There are a number of potential obstacles that could ruffle the implementation of a CHP-İYİ foreign policy, particularly in its early days:
Learning curve. As noted, neither Kılıçdaroğlu nor Akşener have foreign policy experience.
Inherited policies. Kılıçdaroğlu probably wouldn’t have pursued Erdoğan’s policies of military occupation in Syria or outreach to the Tripoli government in Libya, but he won’t find it easy to undo them.
Cohesion. The CHP and İYİ generally see eye-to-eye on foreign policy, but İYİ is the more nationalist of the two. How well will they be able to manage differences that inevitably arise in a multi-party government? Will they agree on issues such as Libya, Syria, and the stationing of Turkish troops in places like Qatar and Somalia?
Parliamentary factor. How much impact will the Green Left Party (YSP)20 have, particularly if the Nation Alliance has to depend on it for its parliamentary majority? How much foreign policy mischief will the People’s Alliance (AKP-MHP) cause if it retains a parliamentary majority? (Considerable, one would assume, starting with the budget.)
Opposition leader Erdoğan. Parliamentary majority or not, Erdoğan as opposition leader would set the nationalist bar high, frequently putting Kılıçdaroğlu on the defensive and possibly pushing him into a foreign misadventure.
Stature gap. Erdoğan has been a commanding foreign policy presence domestically and, to a certain extent, regionally and globally for two decades. Kılıçdaroğlu’s policies are likely to be more congenial to many of Turkey’s neighbors and friends — not all — but will his words carry the same weight? Will he be as adept as Erdoğan at managing the Russia-Ukraine-NATO balancing act?
A CHP-İYİ government would include some neutralist elements, and it would likely be loath to compromise on issues related to Azerbaijan, the Aegean, the Cyprus problem, and perhaps the Eastern Mediterranean coastal shelf. But its ideological predilections and economic demands will almost inevitably veer it in a less provocative and more pro-Western direction than Erdoğan has pursued, especially in recent years. The Nation Alliance’s success or failure in implementing its foreign policy, however, would likely depend both on its ability to command respect through economic success on the home front and its adeptness at maneuvering through the many obstacles that potentially await it on all fronts.
Alan Makovsky is a senior fellow on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.
Photo by YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images.
- See quote from Kılıçdaroğlu advisor Ünal Çeviköz: “If the opposition wins, there is a high probability that Sweden’s application will be approved before the meeting in Vilnius on 11-12 July,” https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/former-diplomat-turkish-opposition-win-could-benefit-swedish-nato-bid/.
- Memorandum of Understanding on Common Policies 30 January 2023 (platform document of Nation Alliance — hereafter, MOUCP), p. 38.
- MOUCP, pp. 41-43.
- MOUCP, pp. 57-59 (also, pp 88-90).
- MOUCP, pp. 38-41.
- MOUCP, pp. 10, 52.
- See, for example, Ragip Soylu, “Turkey’s opposition promises to target Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Greece,” June 27, 2022, accessed at https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/turkeys-opposition-promises-go-after-israel-saudi-arabia-and-greece; and “Turkish opposition leader backs two-state solution in Cyprus,” June 11, 2021, accessed at https://ahvalnews.com/cyprus-issue/turkish-opposition-leader-backs-two-state-solution-cyprus. See also https://twitter.com/bulutuzay_/status/1570393461043625986, regarding Kılıçdaroğlu taunt that Erdoğan, if serious about attacking the Greek islands (as Erdoğan had frequently threatened), should stop talking and just send in the troops, as then-CHP leader Bülent Ecevit did in Cyprus in 1974.
- Kılıçdaroğlu was a civil servant from 1971 to 1999, rising to become director general of the Social Insurance Institution.
- “Güçlendirilmiş Parlementer Sisteme Geçiş Sürecinin Yol Haritası, 6 Mart 2023,” a 12-point agreement on governance procedures signed by the Nation Alliance’s six party leaders. See especially point 8.
- The six-party platform devotes less than 5 pages (MOUCP, pp. 232-236) out of 245 to its foreign policy section, although some other sections do touch on issues related to foreign affairs. It contains very few specifics, but, as suggested here, there are hints at the course the opposition wishes to take.
- MOUCP, p.235.
- “Turkish opposition votes against military deal with Libya at parliamentary committee,” December 18, 2019 (updated December 19, 2019), accessed at https://ahvalnews.com/turkey-libya/turkish-opposition-votes-against-military-deal-libya-parliamentary-committee; Hande Firat, “Main opposition CHP objects to sending troops to Libya,” December 17, 2019, accessed at https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/main-opposition-chp-objects-to-sending-troops-to-libya-149940; “Turkey’s parliament approves military deployment to Libya,” January 2, 2020, accessed at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/1/2/turkeys-parliament-approves-military-deployment-to-libya; Nazlan Ertan, “Turkey’s parliament votes to extend mandate for troops in Iraq, Syria,” Al-Monitor, October 26, 2021, accessed at https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/10/turkeys-parliament-votes-extend-mandate-troops-iraq-syria. Kılıçdaroğlu explained his negative vote on Syria mainly in technical terms, emphasizing that he objected to a two-year extension rather than the more standard one-year extension. This allowed him to say that his vote should not be taken as undermining the troops already in Syria. Many saw his stance — probably correctly — as outreach to the Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), with an eye on the 2023 elections. HDP strongly opposed the extension, and, as Ertan points out, an HDP parliamentarian from Diyarbakir warned CHP of political consequences if it supported the extension.
- MOUCP, pp. 29, 232.
- See, for example, Kılıçdaroğlu quote accusing Erdoğan’s foreign policy of being “purely based on the Muslim Brotherhood,” in Serkan Demirtaş, “CHP leader criticizes Turkey’s Libya policy,” Hurriyet Daily News, December 28, 2019, accessed at https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/chp-leader-criticizes-turkeys-libya-policy-150360.
- MOUCP, pp. 30, 234.
- MOUCP, pp. 30, 236.
- MOUCP, pp. 30, 236. Turkey’s participation in the F-35 co-production project came to an end early last year; the U.S. decision to wind down and terminate Turkey’s involvement was made in 2019, in response to Turkey’s acquisition of S-400s. Turkey’s purchase of 100 F-35s was also canceled as a result of the S-400 purchase. Were Turkey to resolve the S-400 issue with the U.S., it could presumably once more purchase F-35 aircraft; it is unlikely, however, that it could re-join the co-production program, which has moved on, distributing to other partner-nations the production tasks formerly fulfilled in Turkey.
- MOUCP, pp. 31, 236.
- Orla Guerin, “Turkey election: Erdogan rival Kilicdaroglu promises freedom and democracy,” May 4, 2023, accessed at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-65467117.
- Operating under the expectation that the pro-Kurdish HDP might be shut down by the authorities, party members instead decided to run as part of the YSP party list. The YSP leads the Labor and Freedom Alliance coalition, which has endorsed Kılıçdaroğlu for president but is concurrently running its own candidates in the parliamentary elections.
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