Get Ready for a More Aggressive Turkey
Erdogan’s new partner in parliament — the ultranationalist MHP — will make Ankara a more belligerent and intransigent ally.
Turkey’s June 24 elections ushered in a new constitutional order with significant ramifications for the country’s international role. Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Turkey’s first popularly elected executive president with 53 percent of the national vote. He will enjoy a range of unalloyed executive prerogatives with full and exclusive responsibility for policymaking. He will be responsible for the conduct of foreign policy as well, unlike in the previous system, where the now vanished office of the prime minister had been entrusted with executive authority.
This systemic transformation will have a huge impact on the conduct of foreign policy. For many years, Turkey’s highly regarded foreign service was composed exclusively of career diplomats who charted and guided the implementation Turkey’s foreign policy. The Foreign Ministry was thus seen as one of the three key pillars of the Turkish state along with the military and the Finance Ministry — institutions distinguished by their allegiance to the nation rather than the ruling party. Since the beginning of Erdogan’s first presidential term in 2014, the Foreign Ministry gradually lost its influence to the benefit of the executive branch. The foreign service also witnessed a growing number of political appointees. Today, 10 percent of Turkey’s ambassador-level representatives in 151 missions are noncareer diplomats.
This trend will accelerate with the transition to a presidential system. The Turkish diplomatic corps is likely to be remodeled along the lines of the U.S. system, with a combination of political appointments and career officers. This redesign of public administration will also replace the top bureaucratic position of the permanent undersecretary in all ministries with politically appointed deputy ministers. One key and near-term challenge for Turkish diplomacy will therefore be the shaping of a new institutional culture that can manage this process of politicization within the diplomatic ranks without endangering the foreign service’s integrity and performance.
In addition to this structural transformation, Turkish foreign policy will also be affected by another electoral consequence: The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its outright parliamentary majority. Even with its diminished role under the new constitution, the control of parliament is critical for the effective functioning of the political system.
The AKP’s new ally in parliament will be its elections partner, the ultranationalist National Movement Party (MHP). But this alliance will not be restricted to parliamentary affairs. The MHP will leverage its position as kingmaker and seek influence over all policymaking. This tacit alliance with the MHP will create a new set of difficulties for Erdogan in foreign policy.
The MHP is defined by its heavy focus on Turkish nationalism. At home, its agenda prioritizes national security concerns over personal freedoms. The party has opposed lifting the state of emergency in place since the July 2016 failed coup (although recent reports suggest that Erdogan may be planning to lift it). The MHP also champions a heavy-handed approach to the Kurdish problem. For the MHP leadership, democratic freedoms can easily be sacrificed for law and order. Its worldview is a Hobbesian one, and it is informed by a firm belief that Turkey has no friends at the international level.
The MHP’s deep suspicion of internationalism is bolstered by a siege mentality that regards Turkey’s national interests as constantly under threat by foreign actors. Unlike the AKP, which traces its roots to political Islam and essentially views the West as the ideological other, the MHP vision is less discriminatory. It nurtures an equal disdain for all foreigners. Erdogan’s necessary partnership with the MHP will therefore open Turkish foreign policy to the influence of the party’s ideology, with significant consequences for Turkey’s relations with its global and regional partners.
An alliance with the MHP will severely constrain Erdogan’s room for maneuver on the Kurdish issue, as a security-driven outlook will crowd out options for a political settlement. The commendable effort by the AKP government back in 2015 to launch a dialogue with the political representatives of the Kurdish constituency — incidentally with the support of the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan — is likely to remain a distant memory. This will further incline Turkey to view Syria from the perspective of containing Kurdish influence. Turkey will want to prevent the emergence of a constitutionally recognized and autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. This overriding objective will also impact Turkey’s relations with the United States. An MHP-influenced Turkish foreign policy will become even more confrontational on the issue of U.S. support to Syrian Kurdish groups, including the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which are justifiably viewed in Turkey as being linked to the PKK, a terrorist entity.
The MHP’s influence will lead to a more reactionary Turkish foreign policy, where disagreements will be more likely to escalate. The party’s hypernationalism, combined with an already acute level of anti-Americanism in the country, will complicate efforts to manage the many existing bilateral disagreements, such as the case of the exiled Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and the proposed U.S. sanctions against Turkey linked to Ankara’s planned acquisition of S-400 air defense systems from Russia. The possibility of a severe fine against the state-owned Halkbank for past violations of Iran sanctions and Ankara’s refusal to comply with the renewed set of secondary sanctions against Iran are other areas with potential for escalation.
Turkey’s relationship with Europe will become more complicated, too. The MHP is deeply skeptical of Turkey’s European Union membership drive. During the election campaign, the MHP leadership even called for an end to these aspirations. Even if the Erdogan government is not necessarily intent on ending EU accession talks, it will nonetheless be hamstrung by the lack of resolve and support for any large-scale democratic reform agenda by its chosen partners in parliament.
Progress with the EU is now conditioned on democratic reform and the full restoration of the rule of law. The most recent EU statement on Turkey, issued on June 26, extended this conditionality beyond the framework of the accession talks to the start of a new round of trade negotiations. Visa liberalization for Turkish citizens visiting the EU will continue to be delayed as Turkey will very likely continue to resist changes to its anti-terrorism legislation, which has suppressed freedom of expression in the country. And the prospects for a settlement of the Cyprus conflict will evaporate thanks to an MHP leadership that views any deal as treason.
Under these circumstances, Turkish-EU relations could become purely transactional, covering only a few areas of mutual interest such as the refugee deal — whereby, in return for the EU’s financial assistance, Turkey commits itself to keeping the more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees on its territory from moving across EU borders — and counterterrorism cooperation, rather than having a basis in any shared values. Narrowing cooperation with the EU will lead Turks to question these ties, and the pretense of Turkish accession will eventually need to be dropped. And in the absence of an alternative framework to structure a collaborative future, Turkey’s political estrangement from the EU will be complete.
The cost of complete alienation from the West would be prohibitive for a Turkish economy that is heavily reliant on international funding to the tune of $250 billion a year. Turkey’s growth is also intimately linked to access to Western markets and inflows of foreign direct investment and technology. So, in many ways, the legacy of past generations of Turkish leaders who consciously chose to advance Turkey’s economic integration with the West may yet prove the strongest factor keeping the country anchored to the West despite a darkening political outlook.
Turkish disengagement from the West is not a foregone conclusion. It is the probable outcome of growing MHP influence on Turkish foreign policy. But ultimately Turkey’s future ties with the United States and Europe will depend on whether the MHP leadership prefers to use its political leverage to achieve domestic or foreign-policy objectives. It will also depend on how Erdogan chooses to satisfy the MHP’s political aspirations. And eventually an uncompromising MHP could compel the Erdogan administration to jettison its partner and seek new alliances in parliament. This unstable equilibrium, caused by the nascent internal struggle for power between Erdogan and the MHP leadership, will determine the direction of Turkey’s foreign policy.