Transatlantic Take

Sunday is a Big Day for Turkey. Here’s What to Expect

Photo Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock
Could Turkey’s Elections Reset Relations with the West?

Could Turkey’s Elections Reset Relations with the West?

BRUSSELS — Turkey’s June 24th elections will be a critical test for Turkish democracy. Whatever the outcome, there could be an opportunity to repair Turkey’s troubled relations with Europe and the United States. But the prospects for improvement are hardly a foregone conclusion and would require substantial shifts in attitude at the public and leadership levels. The prevailing mistrust and friction draws on deep historical anxieties. The atmosphere of combative nationalism is widely shared across the Turkish political spectrum — and is mirrored across the Atlantic and in a number of European capitals.

The key variable is President Erdoğan himself. He has little if any political capital left in Washington, Brussels, Berlin, or Paris. This very high stakes election will be closely watched as a test of political legitimacy. International observers are increasingly concerned, not just about Turkey’s democracy and the rule of law, but about Turkish stability. If Erdoğan gets a renewed mandate and fully implements a presidential system, existing Western concerns over Turkey’s internal evolution will be reinforced. In an era of practical, transactional diplomacy, it may be that Turkey’s European integration and convergence with Western norms no longer matter. But if so, the scrutiny of Turkey’s foreign and security policy behavior will be even heavier. Partners cannot have it both ways. From the purchase of Russian S-400 surface to air missiles, to pressure on the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, to mounting tensions in the Aegean, to the detention of allied nationals, Ankara’s policies have left much to be desired from a Western viewpoint. And Ankara has its own complaints about European and American policies toward Turkey and its neighborhood. Turkey’s explicit desire for diversification and an implicit preference for non-alignment in foreign policy are now deeply entrenched. Arguably, a victorious President Erdogan might see virtue in a lighter approach to the West. But beyond political tactics, the sources of his behavior, and the conspiratorial worldview that has taken hold in Turkish society, may well prove durable.

Whoever wins on June 24th, it will take a brave politician to change course when some 73 percent of Turks hold unfavorable views of Europe, and some 83 percent dislike the United States. Should opposition candidate Muharrem Ince win the presidency — a long shot, but not inconceivable — some degree of change is possible. At a minimum, Europe and the United States can expect a less confrontational style, and perhaps some shift on the S-400 issue. Given the deep concerns over Turkey’s domestic trajectory, Western partners will surely want to give any new leadership the benefit of the doubt. There is a great deal to repair in Turkey’s foreign and security policy relationships. But nationalism and sovereignty consciousness will likely be the hallmarks of Turkish–Western relations for some time to come.

-Ian Lesser, Vice President, Foreign Policy; Executive Director, Transatlantic Center


Five Factors that Will Determine the Outcome of Turkey’s Election

ANKARA — Even in the final week of the campaigns, it is difficult to project the outcome of either the presidential or the parliamentary election in Turkey. President Erdoğan and his People’s Alliance enjoy hugely asymmetric access to media and public resources. Apart from this obvious advantage, there are five factors that could impact the outcome of Sunday’s elections.

The first factor will be President Erdoğan’s emotional bond with his followers. While many expect the recent economic downturn in the Turkish economy —  marked by devaluation of the national currency, rising inflation, and dramatic increase in interest rates — to turn a significant part of his voters away from the current president, this effect may be limited. Voters today tend to vote from an emotional rather than rational place.

The second factor will be the emergence of Muharrem İnce as a unifying leader of Turkish opposition beyond his formal position as the presidential candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party. Compared to Erdoğan, İnce is organizing rallies in more places, attracting not only bigger but also more enthusiastic crowds. He interacts with them and in television interviews with skill. İnce has already guaranteed the consolidation of the opposition vote in the second round of presidential elections if there is one, but the question is whether he will attract votes from  Erdoğan supporters?

The third factor will be the emergence of the moderate nationalist İYİParty in Turkish politics and its leader Meral Akşener as a presidential candidate. With her nationalist background, Akşener is better positioned to attract Erdoğan’s supporters, although she will have problems attracting the Kurdish vote for the same reasons. Akşener has also organized well-attended and lively rallies throughout the country, but she suffers from a tremendous disadvantage as pro-government media gives her literally zero airtime. Given İnce’s solid voter base, it is unlikely that she can make it to the second round — but taking a sufficient number of votes from Erdoğan will ensure that there actually is a second round.

The fourth factor will be the performance of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), but this one concerns the Parliamentary elections. As HDP is not part of any alliance, it needs to pass the 10 percent threshold to make it to the parliament. If they cannot, the People’s Alliance formed by Erdoğan’s AKParty and the nationalist MHP will enjoy a comfortable majority in the parliament, but if they do then the election may possibly end up with a divided parliament. HDP enjoys a dedicated voter base, but the question is if the election day atmosphere in southeast Turkey will encourage all of them to go out and vote.

The final factor is the integrity of the elections, which has become a very big issue in Turkey. Opposition parties claim that there were irregularities in the referendum that took place last year with appeals to the Electoral Commission, but their appeals were rejected by the Electoral Commission. Opposition parties are on high alert for possible rigging on Sunday, but the question is if they have the capacity to place at least one observer at every voting center. Whatever the outcome, these elections have proved that Turkey still enjoys competitive politics and a dynamic society.

-Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Director, Ankara Office​