On July 9th, Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first elected president to hold executive powers in Turkey. His outright victory in the first round has given him a strong mandate to pursue his vision of rolling back the secular legacy of Kemalism. International media and governments have raised concerns that Erdogan will use these new powers to solidify authoritarian rule in Turkey and pursue a more aggressive foreign policy. However, while Erdogan’s new powers are symptomatic of democratic backsliding, the Turkish election will not drastically affect the country’s approach to foreign policy.
Impact of the MHP
The July 9th election saw an alliance between Erdogan’s party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). The MHP is a far-right conservative party that is Eurosceptic and ultra-nationalist. The party received 11.1 percent of the vote and 49 seats which allowed their election allies, the AKP, to win in the first round of Turkey’s multi-round electoral system.
The inclusion and importance of the MHP in government will likely affect the tone of Erdogan’s rhetoric as he will be cautious to ensure that he does not lose their support. If Erdogan decides to undertake new initiatives towards the Kurdish issue, the European Union, or Cyprus, the influence of the MHP might show. However, the AKP-MHP alliance will not affect ongoing foreign policy initiatives. This is because the alliance was formed after Turkey began developing stronger military capabilities and intervened in northern Syria. The MHP supports these initiatives which means its influence will not change the direction of foreign policy but may increase the tempo of government rhetoric.
The next few months will see a thaw in tensions between Turkey and the EU. Turkey is expected to lift its state of emergency and begin releasing certain journalists from prison. In addition, European leaders will have to accept that Erdogan will be in power for the foreseeable future and will have to work with him. This realization coupled with the aforementioned points could cause a decline in negative rhetoric coming from the European Union.
While the coming months will see a thaw in EU-Turkish relations, this does not mean that the relationship is on good footing. Unresolved issues such as visa liberalization (for Turkish citizens entering the EU) and Cyprus will continue to cause tensions. In addition, any efforts to address these issues from the Turkish side will be difficult given the strength of the MHP and a likely veto, particularly on Cyprus. The EU will continue to criticize Turkey’s human rights violations and democratic institutions which could cause a new flare-up. However, these factors represent a continuation of official Turkish policy rather than a post-election shift in Turkey’s relationship with the EU.
NATO Russia and China
Turkey will continue moving towards a more autonomous approach to security. Erdogan has kept his previous foreign and security policy team in place and will continue to become more defiant towards NATO and the West. This is particularly true of security and military procurement such as the purchase the powerful S-400 air defence from Russia. This has caused serious tensions with the United States, where the American administration is re-assessing plans to sell 100 F-35 fighter planes to Turkey. The purchase of S-400’s is seen by NATO as a threat to their own aircraft and is incompatible with their systems. This will further distance Turkey from the alliance, a trend that became more pronounced after Turkey purged hundreds of senior NATO officers in the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup against Erdogan.
In addition to closer ties with Russia, Turkey and China have recently revealed plans to pursue greater military cooperation. On July 6th Chinese Major General Licun Zhou stated that the number of high-level meetings between the Chinese and Turkish militaries would increase in the coming months. These meetings would aim to boost cooperation in areas such as military education, training, the defence industry, intelligence and cyberwarfare. Such announcements will increase existing concerns within NATO about Turkey’s long-term commitment to the alliance.
Turkey Going Forward
On July 9th Turkey transitioned into a new political system that will give Erdogan an array of new powers. The country will continue to face challenges in its relationships with the United States, the EU and NATO due to its continued rapprochement with Russia and China. However, the international community should not expect any dramatic change in the direction of Turkish foreign policy. Turkey will continue to take a more independent approach to foreign policy and security which will inevitably move it farther from its traditional allies. The question remains, how far? The United States and NATO must, therefore, be cautious to ensure that any response to increased Turkish rhetoric is measured and controlled as overly aggressive responses could push Turkey into the arms the alliance’s adversaries.
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