international analysis and commentary

Erdoğan as President: implications for Turkish foreign policy


With a widely expected outcome, the Turkish people voted for the first time in the history of the Republic to elect the country’s President, who was elected by the Parliament in the past. On August 10, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been the country’s Prime Minister for the past 11 years, thus won the elections in the first round by receiving over half of the votes cast, marking the ninth consecutive electoral victory achieved by his party, the AKP.

Even before becoming Prime Minister, Erdoğan had been the front man of the AKP and his mark on almost every aspect of the country’s policy making has become progressively more visible during his rule. Erdoğan has made it clear that he would not be satisfied with the traditionally symbolic powers vested in the President in the Turkish system and envisions restructuring a presidential system similar to that of the US executive system. Even if Erdoğan does not manage to gain enough parliamentary support to push for this systemic change in the future, the President-elect will try to steer the country’s policies through his influence over the AKP government.

With each successive victory, Erdoğan’s policy making has become increasingly deinstitutionalized and reliant on the Prime Minister and his trusted advisors and ministers – and the country’s foreign policy has been no exception. In addition to Erdoğan’s office, the Turkish National Intelligence Organization has worked closely with the Foreign Ministry in designing and executing the country’s foreign affairs over the last few years.

Furthermore, under Erdoğan’s rule, foreign policy has been utilized to aid the AKP’s domestic agenda on an unprecedented scale for the country. Erdoğan makes a reference to the government’s foreign policy in almost all of his speeches, mostly to consolidate his constituency. Yet, he has little to show in terms of tangible successes.

In fact, over the past few years Ankara has lost all the ground it had gained in the Middle East and has antagonized Iran, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and the Gulf States. Furthermore criticisms of Erdoğan’s increasingly more authoritarian measures, including curtailing the freedom of press and judiciary and harsh crackdowns on political opposition, continue to complicate the country’s relations with its NATO allies. Both vis-à-vis old allies and potential partners, Erdoğan’s remarks have frequently exacerbated tensions instead of quelling them.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is amongst the potential candidates to replace Erdoğan as Prime Minister. A safe assumption is that, in any case, Erdoğan will try to retain his strong direct influence over the country’s foreign policy decision-making.

Yet there are already signs of change with regards to the country’s foreign policy. Seeing that it failed to garner any international support for its policies and that its course left it with few friends, Ankara has gradually toned down its criticism regarding the current governments of Syria, Egypt and Iraq. Furthermore there are signs of downplaying the differences with Tehran over key political issues in the region, including Syria.

This trend is likely to continue mostly because the alternative is not sustainable if Turkey wishes to be a respected partner in the region. Yet under Erdoğan’s leadership there remains the risk for foreign policy to become hostage to domestic politics, especially at times of elections.

Developments in Syria will undoubtedly be the top priority of the administration. Ankara has had to soften its interventionist policy after it failed to convince its allies of the need for a military intervention against Assad, but it is still against any long-term solution that keeps Assad in power. Furthermore the rising threat of ISIS may force Turkey to take serious action to protect its interests. In the Middle East another one of Ankara’s main priorities will be developing and capitalizing on the cooperation with the Kurdish authorities of Erbil on energy, trade and politics – obviously a tough choice, given the historical legacy. Still, Ankara needs a strong Erbil, both to counter the Maliki government and to act as a buffer to ISIS’s territorial expansion.

Erdoğan has been highly critical of the Netanyahu government on several occasions. The latest military operations in Gaza make a comprehensive normalization unlikely in the short term. Even if there is a significant change in the Turkish political scene in the 2015 general elections, it is very unlikely for Turkey and Israel to go back to their strategic partnership of the 1990s.

In his balcony speech after the presidential elections, Erdoğan remarked “today not only Turkey has won, but Baghdad, Islamabad, Beirut, Skopje, Sarajevo, Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Ramallah, Nablus, Gaza, Jerusalem have won as well”, making a clear reference Turkish involvement in these areas, especially in Syria and Palestine. He later thanked the “downtrodden” people of Syria and Gaza for their prayers and blessings, and announced that Turkey would be transferring wounded Gazans to Turkey for treatment.

Relations with Washington are not very bright for a number of reasons, including both the authoritarian winds in Turkey and differences in foreign policy, especially on Israel and Syria. Though Erdoğan’s occasionally harsh criticisms of the US have exacerbated tensions from time to time, his latest remarks underlining the importance of the NATO radar system in Turkey suggest that he understands the indispensability of having at least sustainable relations with the US and NATO in general, especially amidst growing threats near Turkish borders and Russia’s muscle flexing in the Black Sea region.

Relations with the EU will continue to be problematic. Only two acquis chapters have been opened since 2010 and many remain frozen. Furthermore, euroskeptic parties, which are more inclined to oppose Turkish membership, have increased their presence in the European Parliament with the elections in May. Yet even if in the off chance that such political problems as well as the Cyprus dispute are resolved over the next few years, the enthusiasm of both the Turkish government and the Turkish electorate for joining the EU has waned considerably. In the last few years Erdoğan has adopted a more competitive tone with regards to the EU rather than a cooperative one, especially after the increasing criticism from Brussels over worrisome trends of authoritarianism in Turkish democracy, and has even floated around the idea of joining the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) instead. The SCO issue appears to be more rhetoric than genuine intent – although Turkey’s relations with Russia have improved considerably, Turkey is deeply invested in the EU for both economic and security purposes. It is quite likely that under Erdoğan’s presidency, Turkey will continue to focus on more practical ways of cooperation, such as easing visa requirements for Turkish citizens, and neither will be too invested in furthering its accession nor will it abandon its partnership with the EU.

In sum, whether he assumes a symbolic role as President or manages to transform the Turkish political system to gain even more executive control than he already enjoys, Erdoğan will continue to play an important role in Turkish foreign policy. In the short term, Ankara is likely to try normalizing its relations with its partners as well as its rivals, though Turkish foreign policy runs the risk of becoming hostage to domestic politics, especially during until the 2015 general elections.