Turkish elections and the outcomes of security and foreign policy

Turkey's upcoming elections and the intense competition that is now going on between Erdoğan and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu,show more than ever the importance of Turkey's geopolitical role as Iran's most important neighbor. These conditions make us carefully examine future trends and scenarios.
28 May 2023
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Mohammad Nik-Khah

Turkey's upcoming elections and the intense competition that is now going on between Erdoğan and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu,show more than ever the importance of Turkey's geopolitical role as Iran's most important neighbor. These conditions make us carefully examine future trends and scenarios.

For more than two decades, Turkey has been trying to adopt a more autonomous policy compared to the West at the same time as its economic growth. Although even before the establishment of the republic system in this country, Turkey more or less tried to create a kind of balance between the West, Russia and the East due to its special geopolitical position. However, in the last two decades, the Justice and Development Party has tried to make these lines more colorful, especially with the Westerners, and to adopt a more autonomous policy towards Europe and America, while trying to achieve economic growth.

During this time, Turkey has developed closer relations with Russia and expanded its regional interventions in the Middle East, North Africa and the Caucasus. The war in Ukraine has also increased the importance and key role that Turkey has played in the border between East and West and the Black Sea for decades.

If we look at their behavior from the perspective of the Turks, all these contradictions have a historical justification. One of the constant elements in Turkey's foreign policy since independence has been the game between the West and Russia to maintain balance and independence. The historical fear left from the end of the Ottoman government, even after Turkey's independence, has always been one of the basic principles shaping the behavior of Turks, because they have experienced at least 15 wars with the Russians from the beginning of the 15th century until the Bolshevik Revolution.

The peak of this fear can be seen in 1945, when Russia's demand not only included the revision of the Monterey Convention, but also enabled this country to establish its own military bases in the name of common security on the coast of Turkey, and it was Turkey's fear of Russia that inspired Turkey to become a loyal ally of the West and become a member of NATO. The belief that Turkey's existence is always in danger has given Turkey's foreign policy behavior a developed defensive mentality over the past decades.

The belief that riding on the narrative of Turkey's greatness and following the domestic policies and gaining power of the Justice and Development Party and the ideas of the ruling Brotherhood at the same time as economic growth as key drivers, has become more intense in the last two decades, and especially after Turkey's disillusionment with its acceptance into the European Union and increasing mistrust of the United States and regional vacuums caused by the outcomes of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, the escalation of tensions in the occupied territories, the nuclear crisis between Iran and the West, the war in Yemen, the withdrawal America from Afghanistan, the war in the Caucasus and most importantly the war in Ukraine, all gave Turkey the opportunity to expand these two-sided policies in its peripheral and even extra-peripheral regions.In addition, Turkey's special view of Central Asia and the political, cultural and economic link with more than two hundred million Turkish speakers in this region are one of the old dreams of Turks, which every government in Turkey pursues.

Simultaneously with this change in Turkey's attitude towards the West, America and Europe have started to look at Turkey differently. According to them, the secular and democratic government, which was founded in 1923 by Kemal Atatürk, is rapidly becoming tyrannical against its citizens and by stepping on the rule of law and violating human rights, it has ignored western norms and it has moved towards a kind of personal autocracy of Mr. Erdoğan, and the president of this country has gradually taken over all the decision-making processes of the country, and most importantly, by adopting the policies of neo-Ottomanism,he has once again raised the concerns of the past centuries for Europe and its neighbors.

Although Westerners do not ignore the fact that Turkey has chosen at least one secular and Western system since a hundred years ago and has been stable with it until now. In addition, it has acted as a key ally for NATO in the sensitive Black Sea region and a mediator between the Western world and West Asia and Russia.They have come to terms with the fact that the policy of pursuing some kind of independence from the West and Russia, emphasizing the narrative of Turkey's past greatness as a historical memory that has now been awakened by Erdoğan's policies in the last decade, will not be easy to leave the Muslim and Turkish community in this country.With all the economic problems that the Turkish society is facing today, especially after the recent terrible earthquake, they do not lose sight of the fact that Turkey is still one of the top twenty economies in the world and it does not seem that any country will be able to damage this position in the next few years. For the west of this country, it will always remain the mainstay of the management of immigrants, and the large number of Turks in this country in the West is not something that can be ignored.

Now, at the same time as the 100th anniversary of Turkey's independence and after two decades of rule, the Justice and Development Party has a strong rival such as Mr. Kılıçdaroğluin a close competition with Mr. Erdoğan. By announcing programs in the field of social, political, economic and cultural reforms, relying on the youth who, if they vote, we will witness major changes in Turkey's domestic, regional and global policies, and its outcomes can change many existing equations between Turkey and America, Europe, Asia and neighbors.

It is clear what scenario will take place in this tight election, whether it is the continuation of the current ambiguity, open competition, good relations or increasing interdependence in Turkey's behavior with the West, Russia and its neighbors, and what things will change with each scenario and what fundamental components will remain, it leads us to a clearer understanding of the future behavior of Turkey's security and foreign policy.However, it should not be overlooked that in any possible scenario, along with all the stable and unstable variables, there are two serious uncertainties, one of which is the level of geopolitical tension between the West and Russia and the results that the war in Ukraine may bring, and the other is the degree of confrontation between authoritarianism and strengthening democracy and the rule of law exist in the behavior of the future government of Turkey, which make it difficult and challenging to predict the future security and foreign policy and the increase or decrease in the geopolitical weight of this country in the future.

As far as the region and neighbors are concerned, Turkey maintains these ambivalent policies even with its important neighbor, Iran, in an amalgam of competition and cooperation from the Caucasus to Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, North Africa, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea and even the type of bilateral interactions with Iran.

Although Turkey is economically far from the golden years of 2010 to 2015, but the crisis in Ukraine and the mediating role that Turkey has taken in it have come to Turkey's aid and made up for this gap, and all of this has more or less increased Turkey's geopolitical weight in the last two decades.

As far as Iran is concerned, Turkey will still remain one of our most important neighbors and Iran's main and important gateway to Europe and one of our largest economic and trade partners, and Iran will inevitably be at the negotiating table with Turkey in many regional cases from the Caucasus to Iraq and Syria, etc.

While Iran and Turkey have gradually, albeit with difficulty, approached a common understanding of competition and cooperation in recent years, the changes in Turkish governance following the recent elections can create new opportunities and challenges for Iran. If the ruling party wins this election, according to the polls, it will win by a small margin. In this case, the current ambiguity in Turkey's relations with the West and Russia will continue but with a lower intensity, and the relations based on competition and cooperation between the two countries will continue.Although these relations may be associated with more challenges in the Caucasus or in connection with ethnic formations, but the two sides will be more or less able to manage these challenges with relative knowledge of each other. But if the opposite faction wins, among the variable components of this outcome, more than anything else, it can improve Turkey's relations with Europe and America, and as long as there are serious challenges in Iran's relations with America and the West, this may not be very pleasant for Iran (and even Russia and China) but on the other hand, these developments may help reduce Turkey's regional interventions, especially in the Caucasus, Syria and Iraq. It can also contribute to the new ethnic formation and reduction of Turkish nationalism in Turkey's domestic scene as influencing variables on Turkey's security and foreign policy. Regardless of which government is in power in Turkey, Iran and Turkey are still two big neighbors that can never ignore each other.

Mohammad Nikkhah, a senior expert of the Institute for Political and International Studies

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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