Whatever the outcome of Turkey’s June 24 elections, a new presidential system will come into effect and the foreign policy, economic, and social ramifications will be significant.
On June 24, Turkey’s citizens will vote in two crucial elections: one to elect their president, with a runoff held on July 8 if needed, and one to elect members of the Turkish parliament in a single round of voting. Both elections will be held sixteen months earlier than the normal voting schedule and under a prolonged state of emergency. Many view this as a preemptive move by the country’s incumbent, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to win ballots ahead of difficult times for the Turkish economy.
As was the case in Turkey’s 2017 constitutional referendum, the campaigns seem to be substantially biased in favor of the current leadership in terms of airtime, billboards, and public meetings. Some 144,000 Kurdish voters will be unable to vote in their customary ballot stations; in one southeastern province, election-related demonstrations and events have been banned; and the Kurdish presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaș, is “campaigning” from his cell in the Edirne prison (he has been allowed twenty minutes on public television, whereas the incumbent president has had sixty-eight hours in the last two weeks). The forthcoming elections are therefore gearing up to be an all-out battle between Erdoğan, who aims to retain his grip on power, and the opposition, who hope to defeat him after fifteen years of political dominance. The result will have major consequences for Turkey’s role on the international scene and for its relationships with the United States and Europe in particular.
Three election scenarios are theoretically possible: Erdoğan wins, supported by the Islamist-nationalist coalition called the People’s Alliance; one of Erdoğan’s opponents wins, supported by a multifaceted opposition coalition called the Nation’s Alliance; or there is a mixed result, where the president and parliament belong to opposite camps.
Two peculiar circumstances could impact the votes. First, due to the constitutional reform approved in the 2017 referendum, a new one-man-rule system that gives the president expanded executive powers will come into effect immediately, whatever the results of both elections. Second, in the event that no presidential candidate receives 50 percent-plus-one vote in the first round, the runoff will take place two weeks after the parliamentary election, which means the latter’s results could influence the votes in the runoff.
With these elections being an all-out fight, making predictions would be imprudent, especially from a foreign observer standpoint. Further, many external economic, security, and political factors could still influence the voting. Turkey’s recent currency crisis is a case in point. But it is useful to assess some of the foreign policy implications of each scenario.
AN ALL-AROUND ERDOĞAN VICTORY
In this scenario, Erdoğan is reelected and his People’s Alliance—composed of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and Great Unity Party (BBP)—enjoys a substantial majority in parliament. As a result, the new presidential regime, nurtured by Erdoğan since he was first elected in August 2014, comes into full effect; the country’s political regime conforms to Erdoğan’s majoritarian view, the president assumes sweeping powers, and the function of prime minister is eliminated. Consequently, Turkey is likely to be governed well outside the bounds of liberal democracy.
The judiciary, media, and civil society will remain under tight control, and the purge of the “enemies of the state” will likely continue. Although a relaxation of repressive policies could theoretically take place after the election, the destabilization caused by the July 2016 failed coup is liable to stay, therefore making the current purge a standard policy. This situation could result in permanent malaise and tensions among Turkish society, a significant exodus of the country’s intellectuals, and capital flight. Relations with Turkey’s Kurds, in particular, will probably remain tense due to the nationalist segment of the parliamentary coalition. And this will render a relaunching of the 2012 peace process initiated by then prime minister Erdoğan highly implausible.
Regarding the economy, the establishment of a strong executive presidential regime will inevitably have an even greater impact on national and foreign investment and interest rates. On May 14, 2018, Erdoğan explained his intention to take a more commanding role over economic policies. Calling interest rates “the mother and father of all evil,” he has long advocated for a low interest rate policy based on Islamic finance concepts and has notoriously been at odds with his successive vice–prime ministers for economic affairs and central bank governors. The currency crisis has amply illustrated that low interest rate theories are in no way compatible with Turkey’s economic position: the country is in need of short-term money and foreign direct investment and its economy is dependent on the EU in terms of trade, investment, and technology. For the moment, Erdoğan has backtracked (the central bank raised interest rates on May 28) and his deputy prime minister has launched a reassurance campaign. But in the longer term, markets and investors will not be reassured by the tighter grip of a president driven by such uncommon economic and monetary views.
In the foreign policy domain, Turkey’s approach will continue to reflect the president’s premise that the country is a global power and should deal with all its partners on an equal footing. In this scenario, Turkey’s relationship with Russia will probably remain strong, if only to counterbalance Ankara’s difficult relationships with Western countries. Moscow will likely continue to use Ankara against NATO and the EU. However, the current tensions between Ankara on one side and Moscow and Tehran on the other regarding Syria—particularly the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—will represent one of the most enduring and visible inconsistencies in Turkey’s foreign policy.
Turkey’s relationship with the West will stay problematic or even worsen, especially if Ankara continues to blame other countries for its own domestic political and economic problems, as in the case of the recent currency crisis.
Particular bones of contention with the United States will include the anticipated delivery of Russian S-400 missiles to Turkey. In response, the United States may postpone deliveries of the F-35 fighter aircraft or even levy sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The respective Turkish and U.S. military operations in northern Syria, as well as a Syrian political settlement, will be ongoing sore spots.
The May 2018 conviction of a Turkish banker accused of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran will also continue to have repercussions. Even the lenient sentencing of the Halkbank executive was immediately rejected by the Turkish government. And the revelations made during court proceedings are likely to reverberate and perpetuate anger and political embarrassment in Ankara, especially given the documented involvement of Turkish state and bank officials and the bribing of some Turkish ministers (no longer serving in the cabinet). Further, U.S. Treasury financial sanctions against one or several Turkish banks may still be possible because the sanction-evading scheme was—in the words of the U.S. prosecutor representing the federal government—“monumental in scope,” “momentous in timing,” and helped Iran, “the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism.” Given U.S. President Donald Trump’s firm policy on Iran and the cancellation of the nuclear deal, Washington is unlikely to show much leniency on this sanctions issue. Turkey’s relationship with Iran will continue to raise many questions.
Regarding the European Union, Erdoğan will likely seek to revamp relations to gain some post-election legitimacy and boost national prestige. Yet Erdoğan’s pro-EU proclamations will not impress European leaders, as the statements are often contradicted by his actual policies, which are increasingly diverging from EU governance standards. After Turkey’s new constitution is implemented, Ankara and Brussels will definitely be in different orbits. The European Parliament could take steps to formally stop accession negotiations, but even if it does not, the shift in several EU governments’ positions and the unanimity rule on enlargement matters will prevent any real progress on accession. In addition, resentment stemming from Turkey’s verbal abuse in 2017 and 2018 will linger on in several EU countries. Other elements of Turkey’s relationship with Europe—including policies on the Customs Union, visas, refugees, and counterterrorism—will have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
By contrast, bilateral relations could advance with a post-Brexit United Kingdom—for example, through ongoing talks surrounding joint projects in the defense field. Unlike the European Union, London has no major stipulations regarding Ankara’s rule-of-law, and both countries want to be viewed as global powers.
AN OPPOSITION VICTORY
In this scenario, an opposition candidate is elected (possibly Muharrem İnce or Meral Akşener), and the Nation’s Alliance—composed of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Good Party (İyi Parti), Felicity Party (SP), and Democratic Party (DP)—enjoys a strong parliamentary majority.
If this comes to pass, a massive political change is likely to occur on several fronts according to campaign statements. The new leadership will immediately send strong signals on two policy fronts. They first will seek to eliminate the contradictions in the interest rate policy, but at the same time, safeguard the rational elements of the AKP’s economic policy. The second will seek to promote a return to normalization and tolerance. The new government’s policies will likely aim to address the entire Turkish society after years of polarization and divisive narratives. The policies could include lifting the state of emergency and canceling decrees issued under the emergency rule.
In the medium term, government leaders will probably launch an arduous process for rehabilitating the constitutional order and democracy. Beyond the cancellation of emergency decrees, they will likely seek to roll back a large number of laws and decisions (for example, the newly passed electoral law or the judiciary reforms). Not every element of the country’s rule-of-law architecture would return at once, and a transitional justice mechanism would probably be needed, especially to address confiscated wealth and public sector job dismissals. Thus, domestic reconciliation, particularly with Turkey’s Kurds, will be a tall order. In the long term, a return to a parliamentary system, if eventually sought, will essentially depend on the size of the parliamentary majority supporting the endeavor.
Regarding the economy, the new leadership will most likely seek to restore credibility. This may involve providing a recourse to some of Turkey’s economic czars during the AKP tenure—a gesture that would signal the absence of a “revenge mentality.” It may also necessarily involve straightening out the government’s discretionary economic policies— including public procurement, a major tool used in the past fifteen years to fund the ruling AKP. In addition, pending a thorough evaluation, the government might consider abandoning or postponing some of the most contentious and politically motivated infrastructure projects, such as Kanal Istanbul or various nuclear plants, as well as rolling back some of the more excessive policies related to the construction and environmental sectors.
Regarding foreign policy, restoring Turkey’s international credibility will be an urgent priority for the new president and government. This will call for a delicate adjustment of the country’s positions along more coherent lines and will make for an extremely crowded agenda for the new foreign minister. The policy review process will need to cover an extensive range of issues, especially those that the Western world views as incompatible with prior commitments or riddled with inconsistencies.
The initial focus will likely be on the country’s Middle East policy; its relations with Russia (including the purchase of S-400 missiles) and Iran; its participation in the coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State; and its arrangements with NATO and the United States on defense matters (such as Turkey’s full participation in NATO’s operational structures and Missile Defense Shield, use of the İncirlik Air Base where the United States has deployed major assets, and the deployment of F-35 aircraft).
Western countries will be particularly interested in the new government’s attitude toward a future political settlement in Syria, especially related to the role of the Geneva peace process versus the so-called Astana process, the status of minorities in Syria (including the Syrian Kurds), security guarantees and counterterrorism cooperation on the Syrian-Turkish border, and the future of Turkish military operations in northern Syria.
Washington will seek clarification on a number of bilateral issues: the situation of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor being held as a state hostage in Turkey; the judicial proceedings against two U.S. consular employees; the extradition request against Fethullah Gülen; and the U.S. Treasury financial penalties against Turkish banks (if in force).
None of the above will prove easy to resolve. Establishment of a new coalition may not change Turkey’s calculus on some issues—especially those surrounding the İncirlik base, Gülen’s extradition request, and the Syrian Kurds. The Nation’s Alliance will have to coalesce around more than its anti-Erdoğan platform and demonstrate that it can govern on an entire range of domestic and international issues.
Vis-à-vis the EU, the new leadership will conceivably state its desire to rekindle Turkey’s accession process unless its nationalist segment raises difficulties. In all probability, the new government will put an end to the recurrent verbal attacks against the EU. If this happens, the ongoing acrimony between Turkey and EU member countries, particularly Austria, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, should subside drastically—at least in tone, if not on substance. The EU should be prepared to react in a rapid and realistic manner.
The range of issues where progress could occur will not be much larger than it currently is with the AKP government, but the spirit in which dialogue will resume could be noticeably different: EU-Turkey meetings could move from photo opportunities aimed at showing apparent normalcy to tangible synergies on issues of common interest—such as selected foreign policy matters, visas, refugees, and trade relations. Assuming both sides desire normalization—an equal challenge for both the EU and Turkey—they should consider issuing, within a short time frame, a declaration stating their mutual intention to resume relations in a positive atmosphere and to hold a summit aimed at establishing a realistic road map.
Further afield, a new coalition in Turkey could—conceivably and within limits—make inroads with the new government in power in Armenia. Efforts toward normalization could include opening the borders and developing infrastructure in northeastern Turkey that are linked to Armenia’s exports and regional infrastructure projects.
A PRESIDENT AND A PARLIAMENT FROM OPPOSING SIDES
In this scenario, the president and the parliamentary majority come from opposing sides. Either Erdoğan is reelected but has to govern with a parliament dominated by a strong opposition to his constitutional reform (Scenario A); or, conversely, an opposition candidate is elected but has to govern with an AKP-MHP-dominated parliament (Scenario B).
If Scenario A occurs, illustrating Erdoğan’s popularity but also a desire to limit his absolute power, Turkey will witness a complete clash of political cultures: the president will maintain a majoritarian concept of democracy and a political survival strategy, while the parliament will strive to uphold a parliamentary democracy.
Erdoğan has made his views about such a scenario clear: there is no room for a hung parliament or for a coalition opposed to his presidency. As he stated in a Bloomberg interview, the logic of the presidential system is to have a strong parliamentary majority supporting the president. He went on to say that the situation of June 7, 2015—when legislative elections made a coalition government necessary—constituted a “blockage” that will not be repeated.
Erdoğan’s plan in such a case is to call for snap, repeat legislative elections, as was done in 2015: “We would not allow a development which will not let the system work. In any case, there were some people who clogged the system after June 7. As the head of the republic I opened the blockage and immediately November  elections were called. In November, our people said this can’t happen and brought the AK party back to power again on its own. The system started functioning again.”
This essentially means that, under Erdoğan, a liberal democracy is not in the cards. His notion of governance is that there is only one source of power, which is the head of state. He sees the coexistence of a directly elected president and an elected parliamentary majority from the opposite side—essentially the very notion of a coalition—as a hindrance, not as a balanced check of the voters’ will, as it would be viewed in a liberal democracy.
His ominous warning of a blockage could resonate with voters, especially given the trust Erdoğan enjoys among his followers and the conspiracy mindset that prevails in many circles. But it carries risk. Under the new constitution, the president cannot dissolve parliament and call a new election without undoing his own vote to power, since both ballots—and their results—are tied. In other words, in the event of a parliamentary dissolution, both votes would need to be held again, therefore putting the presidential mandate in jeopardy. Of course, Erdoğan could challenge this reading of the constitution after reelection.
If the June 24 presidential vote leads to a runoff on July 8, and the legislative ballot held earlier produces a Nation’s Alliance majority (possibly joined by the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP), voters may seek to elect a new president on July 8 to spare the country a political crisis. However, this outcome would depend on how effectively the Nation’s Alliance and HDP rally behind the opposition presidential candidate and on a coherent government platform. Further, like in the summer of 2015, a crisis on the security or military front could serve the incumbent president and coalition well.
If Scenario B occurs, a secularist opposition president will be confronted with an Islamist-nationalist majority in parliament, leading to a confused situation, especially if a split occurs within the parliamentary majority on which course to follow—for example, between the AKP and MHP. The key issue in this case will be whether to implement the constitutional reform, which will legally be on the books but will run against the beliefs of most in the coalition. Will the president opt for a pragmatic solution and keep the reformed constitution but implement in practice a French-style rather than a U.S.-style presidency? That is, will the president create a system where he has a prominent role in foreign policy and security matters and the prime minister has a management role in economic and internal matters? Or will the president instead opt for a more radical solution and initiate a reversal of the constitutional reform? Or will this scenario lead to a political impasse, with the president calling for fresh parliamentary elections?
On the economic front, both scenarios A and B would usher in a period of increased uncertainty for the Turkish economy. Foreign governments and economic actors would probably adopt a wait-and-see attitude, pending indications of the economy’s direction. And the resulting prolonged uncertainty will inevitably damage the country’s fragile economy.
Overall, from a foreign observer’s standpoint, Turkey’s forthcoming elections may be biased in favor of the ruling parties. But for the first time in a long while, opposition parties have a shot at putting forward a radically different option for voters. In others words, there is more competition than initially expected. Conversely, this means that there is a higher risk of election fraud.
Despite the electoral campaign’s obvious unfairness, the fate of the country is squarely in the hands of voters and this is a healthy situation. While Western powers are watching, the election observation team from the OSCE and the Council of Europe will be essential to assess the regularity of the ballot. Whatever the outcome, Western governments, and especially EU governments and institutions, will have to quickly evaluate the results and chart a course of action.