Will the Result of the Turkish Elections Lead to Deep Transformations Between the West and Russia?

Murad Jandali | a year ago




The Turkish general elections scheduled for the coming months are of vital importance to the Justice and Development Party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been in power for two decades, and to the opposition, which previously failed to secure victory at the ballot box.

In addition, Putin’s all-out invasion of Ukraine demonstrated the strategic importance of Turkiye and Erdogan once again, as Western capitals need to work with Ankara on the Russian–Ukrainian conflict, regardless of their opinion of the country’s president’s policy.

From Russia’s perspective, Erdogan remaining in power will enable it to define its policies with Turkiye directly through him, while if the opposition wins the elections, Russia’s bilateral relations and its ability to benefit from Turkiye will diminish due to many factors along with the historical dependence of the Turkish opposition on the West.

As for the West, if the opposition takes power in Turkiye, the operations to encircle Russia will progress faster, in addition to the possibility of it easily controlling from thousands of miles away the natural gas discovered on the Turkish coast of the eastern Mediterranean.

The Turkish opposition is trying to win the elections by promising voters to improve the economy by offering concessions to the West, by saying: “The West is behind us. If we win, hot money will flow into Turkiye from Washington, London, and European capitals.”


Extraordinary Elections

On January 9, 2023, the Bloomberg agency stated in a report that while Erdogan seeks to extend his rule for a third decade, none of those who wish for his departure seem optimistic about who or what will come after these elections.

The agency pointed out that the result of the Turkish elections this year will shape the geopolitical and economic calculations in Washington and Moscow, as well as in the capitals of Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa.

It also reported that the West hopes Erdogan will lose the upcoming elections, referring to the recent Turkish tensions with the EU and the US regarding issues such as: S-400 missiles, the refugee, and Sweden and Finland’s membership in NATO.

Ziya Meral, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, told Bloomberg: “What happens in Turkey doesn’t just stay in Turkey. Turkey may be a middle power, but the great powers have a stake in its election.”

The author of the article, Bobby Ghosh, said that the situation of the US and Europe would be better without Erdogan’s destructive influence on world affairs, especially with the intensification of the West’s battle with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ghosh also criticized the Turkish opposition parties, or what is known as the six-party table, pointing out that they are slow to present a clear strategy.

He pointed out that from an economic point of view, Erdogan’s promises to bring investments from the Arabian Gulf, and even the words of Russian President Putin to build a natural gas hub in Turkiye, were important in this electoral process.

It is noteworthy that with all the stagnation and disorganization of the Turkish opposition parties, which were unable to spark enthusiasm among the people, there is no trace of cracking or retreat among Erdogan’s supporters, who continues to strongly influence foreign policy in terms of Turkiye’s role in the grain corridor, its unique position in the Russian–Ukrainian war, its growing influence in the Middle East and Africa, and its strong hand in the energy competition in the eastern Mediterranean.

In addition to the moves of the local defense industry, the domestic electric car project and the giant infrastructure projects that did not slow down even in the global economic crisis give people confidence in the future with the current President Erdogan.

The only problem facing the People’s Alliance (the Justice and Development Party and the Nationalist Movement Party) is high inflation, but Erdogan downplayed it with new moves such as temporary salary increases and huge mass housing projects.

Ghosh also stressed that it is difficult to replace Erdogan with a new person, noting that if the Turkish economy recovers in the spring, which is said to be a high possibility, Erdogan’s chances of winning the elections will be high.


Political Shift

In an article by the Turkish writer Melih Altinok published on December 8, 2022, in the Daily Sabah newspaper, the West does not want an assertive leader who puts the national interest first in Turkiye and dares to pursue policies independent of the US and Europe.

“Erdogan’s presence in the region causes disruptions, delays, and increases costs for them because he always keeps Turkiye’s long-term economic interests and sovereign rights on the table,” he added.

Altinok concluded by saying that the Turkish people have increased their self-confidence in the last twenty years, and they no longer believe in the Western bloc, which supported coups and terrorist organizations in order to change the government in their country because they realized that the emergence of Turkiye as an actor in the global race is not a dream.

On his part, political analyst Mahmoud Alloush indicated in a statement to Al-Estiklal that in view of the foreign policies pursued by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his two decades of rule, especially in terms of adopting policies close to Russia and heading towards the East and trying to find a balance in the relationship between East and West, in addition to adopting other policies that contradict Western policies in many strategic issues such as Syria, Cyprus and Greece, and all of the above led to the aggravation of Turkish–Western relations.

“I think that the Western bloc has long counted on the fact that the Turkish elections in the summer of 2023 will lead to a political shift in the country’s foreign policies. The West believes that any opposition figure winning the elections is better than Erdogan remaining in power,” he continued.

“Western countries believe that the Turkish opposition’s assumption of power may restore the historical alliances between Turkiye and the West again. In my opinion, one should not bet that Turkiye may radically and rapidly shift its foreign policy even if the opposition came to power because Turkiye’s interests, regardless of the person who rules it, necessitate that it has balanced relations with Russia and the West on common issues,” he added.

The political analyst expected that Turkiye would witness, if the opposition won the elections, a less push towards its relations with Russia, in parallel with less confrontational policies with the West, stressing that its foreign policies did not differ significantly, whether under or without Erdogan’s rule.

“Turkiye’s role is very important in the Western–Russian conflict, and this role became clear after the Ukraine war through the policy of balance and the mediating role that Turkiye played. I believe that Erdogan or the opposition will not abandon this approach,” Mr. Alloush noted.

“It is not possible to bet that Russian–Turkish relations will remain this strong without Erdogan, for the reason that Erdogan and Putin played a major role in shaping the relations between the two countries after 2016,” he also stressed.

Mr. Alloush concluded by saying: “I think that the Turkish elections this year are exceptional elections, at the domestic level, given the alliance of several opposition parties, for the first time, and their support for one candidate to compete with the current President Erdogan, while at the external level, given that it may reshape the geopolitical calculations of the West and Russia.”


Rapprochement With Different Goals

Despite Erdogan’s problematic relationship with many European countries, he made good use of the war in Ukraine.

A few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western leaders are ready to retract all their criticism of Turkiye and open a new page with Erdogan, who has become a close friend of Putin over the past years, but with a Western aspiration for Erdogan’s mission to end with the upcoming elections.

Since then, Erdogan has hosted a series of peace negotiations in Istanbul, thereby establishing himself as the only NATO leader who can facilitate such events.

However, it is no secret that the US has little faith in Erdogan’s policies, especially when it comes to Russia, as he had previously defied US threats of sanctions and proceeded to purchase the Russian S-400 missile system.

In recent years he has also strengthened the partnership with Putin in many ways as a partial result of deteriorating relations with Washington and European countries.

Although the grain deal was welcomed by the West, it does not necessarily constitute a long-term interest for the West, as Turkish–Russian cooperation in the Black Sea would consolidate their leadership role in this region and block the way for the West to enter it.

Turkiye has also recently become more cautious in continuing to supply Ukraine with military equipment to avoid angering Moscow.

Moreover, Erdogan is still threatening to block the project to include Finland and Sweden in NATO if the two countries do not fulfill their pledges to cooperate with Ankara in combating terrorism.

In terms of Turkish–Russian defense cooperation, the failure of the US F-16 fighter jet sale project to Turkiye is likely to push Erdogan to obtain additional military equipment from Russia.

As for the Syrian file, Turkiye has finally expressed its willingness to cooperate with Russia and Iran in expelling the US from northeastern Syria and weakening its Kurdish allies.

The changing Turkish approach toward the Assad regime also indicates that Erdogan is seeking to align his country’s interests more closely with Russia in Syria.

It is noteworthy that Turkish–Russian relations have recently witnessed a great rapprochement, despite the different goals and points of view on some issues

Experts believe that there are common interests, so Moscow supports Erdogan’s survival in power, and despite that, there are those who question this rapprochement between the two countries.

In turn, foreign policy and energy expert Aydin Sezer said in a statement to DW that “Russian–Turkish relations are very important and of great value to the Kremlin.”

He pointed out that “in order for the relations between the two countries to remain good in this way, officials in Moscow prefer that the government remain the same after the upcoming presidential elections,” adding that “Putin is aware that it is in Russia’s interest that someone like Erdogan continue to rule in Turkiye.”

The expert revealed that “due to the above, Moscow has recently repeatedly tried to support the current Turkish government, for example, the Russian state-owned company Gazprom postponed Turkiye’s debts from buying gas.”

Commenting on this, a retired Turkish diplomat told DW that “Russia is not doing this without justification, but rather to serve its interests.”