Turkey’s post-election relations with the West

Turkey’s post-election relations with the West

The upcoming elections represent a crucial turning point in Turkish politics. Switching from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, Turks will elect a new president and renew the parliament on June 24.

The outcome of the elections will not only determine the nature of the political system, but also shape the country’s identity and future.

One particular heated topic of discussion – especially in foreign circles – is Turkey’s relations with the West after June 24.

There are alternative scenarios about who will win the presidency or which party is more likely to gain a majority in parliament.

Regardless of the election outcome, the need for Turkey to reduce tension at home and abroad has become a pressing reality.

The government has already taken recent steps to restore ties with a number of European countries. Just a few weeks ago, Deputy Prime Minister Recep Akdağ pronounced Turkey’s full membership in the European Union as one of the country’s objectives for 2023 – just when everyone had given up hope on the moribund accession process.

Besides, a preliminary agreement was reached with the United States on Manbij in northern Syria this week, which seems to have reduced tension between Ankara and Washington over the latter’s support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

But there are several other issues, such as the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the verdict on Hakan Atilla (the deputy manager of state-owned Halkbank whom a New York court convicted of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran), U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson’s trial and the delivery of F-35s, which are all waiting to be tackled after the elections. Needless to say, each has the potential to derail bilateral relations.

Compared to Turkish-American relations, the prospects for improving ties with Europe remain brighter, since Turkey has a similar stance with that of Europe — which is also Turkey’s top trading partner — when it comes to foreign policy issues such as the nuclear deal with Iran, the U.S. tariffs on trade and the recent Jerusalem crisis, though this won’t necessarily translate into an automatic revival of accession talks.

There are contradictory forces at play which make it hard to predict Turkey’s orientation after the elections. On the one hand, alarming economic indicators are pushing Turkish policymakers to regain the confidence of foreign investors. The path goes through Turkey’s return to democracy since a transparent and accountable government that respects the rule of law is considered an essential precondition for any secure investment.

But on the other hand, there are potential risks posed by the new presidential system. Since there will be few checks and balances restraining the president, this may pave the way for a more defiant attitude in foreign affairs, along with an increasingly authoritarian governing style.

In this context, an annual study conducted by Kadir Has University on “Public Perceptions on Turkish Foreign Policy” demonstrates growing public support for maintaining Turkey’s European anchor, which many deem essential for the country’s economic development and democratization. 

Accordingly, support for Turkey’s EU membership seems to have increased from 48 percent in 2017 to 55 percent today. Some 71.7 percent of respondents think that Turkey can never become an EU member, yet no other institution, be it the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, is seen as a tangible alternative that could replace the EU. Some 73.4 percent of respondents state that EU membership will contribute to Turkey’s economic development, while 46 percent point to democracy and 37.8 percent cite an improvement in human rights as the expected benefits to be derived from Turkey’s EU membership.

“Despite all the setbacks in Turkey-EU relations, it is heartening to see an increase in public support for Turkey’s EU membership,” says Professor Sinem Akgül Açıkmeşe of Kadir Has University, who also conducted the research. “Turkish people tend to see stronger Turkey-EU ties as a protective shield against the instability emanating from Syria and the Middle East in general.”

Within a few weeks’ time, we’ll have the opportunity to see just how much these expectations will affect the outcome of the election.

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