A New Type of Turkish Foreign Policy

A strong government is needed to address Turkey's challenges, and an AKP-CHP partnership appears to be “more equipped” to deliver this.

Following the recent attack by the Islamic State (IS) in Suruç, there is now a growing understanding that Turkey needs strong political leadership. This is why efforts to form the next Turkish government, and draft a new foreign policy, has acquired additional urgency.

Prior to the attacks, there had been some positive changes to the Turkish foreign policy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis. There are now emerging signs that the Turkish position is slowly converging with that of the United States on cooperation with the Syrian Kurds in the struggle against IS.

The decision on Thursday to open the NATO İncirlik airbase for U.S. aircraft and drones, coming just ahead of the actual IS attacks on Turkey killing one non-commissioned officer and wounding two soldiers, is a very significant development. Coupled with this, the introduction of stricter patrolling along the Syrian border, which includes the building of a “modular wall,” reinforcing wire fencing and digging extra trenches, confirms that Ankara is willing to work more closely with its Western allies.

The larger question is, however, whether the next government to emerge from the June elections will move along these policy lines. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) currently control 258 seats (out of a total of 550)—18 seats short of a simple majority needed to form a government on its own. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has until August 28 to form a coalition, or President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will have the constitutional right to call for early elections. The prime minister is currently exploring this possibility with the Republican People’s Party (CHP). If these talks fail, he is expected to try his hand with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The Kurdish-focused People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is not seen as a potential partner.

To be sure, the Syrian crisis is not the only “crisis” the new government will have to cope with. AKP’s approach to the region has alienated a number of states, and now Iran’s “peace deal” with the P5+1 countries is likely to lead Turkey into further isolation. This situation has driven away investments, and the economy has lost its earlier dynamism. The country’s accession process into the European Union (EU) is at a standstill; the conflicts in Cyprus and with Armenia are far from resolved; there is also the Kurdish “question” that has still not been properly “answered.” One of the coalition constellations will have to tackle this hefty list of economic and foreign policy challenges; it is therefore important to consider which one will prove more equal to the task.  

Partnership with the nationalists

In terms of relations with the “West,” a coalition with MHP is likely to bring about minimal change in Turkey’s current foreign policy. In principle, Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of MHP, supports Turkey’s EU-membership; whether he will deliver on this, however, is debatable. After all, it was disagreements over the EU that had prompted him to withdraw from a coalition government in 2002, which necessitated early elections and brought AKP to power at the end of that year. Furthermore, MHP’s electoral manifesto was much more focused on the Caucasus, the Middle East and the Balkans. Only a couple of lines were allotted to the discussion on EU affairs.

Recently, AKP has shared MHP’s lukewarm attitude towards the EU. Although Davutoğlu frequently stresses the centrality of EU-accession to Turkey’s foreign policy agenda, his government has been apathetic towards implementing EU’s guidelines for membership. For example, it was under his term that Turkey saw the adoption of new legislation that essentially hollowed out some of the earlier EU-related liberal reforms. Under an MHP-AKP constellation, this pattern is likely to persist. It is also worth remembering that both parties will eventually be competing for the same nationalist and Islamist voters base, which is usually unsupportive of Turkey’s EU membership. It is unlikely that such a coalition would push for a revival of membership negotiations with the EU.

The rise of the nationalist tone could also work against the solution of the Cyprus conflict. Bahçeli argues that a solution should be based on accepting the “two regions, two societies and two governments” of the island. This sets Bahçeli at odds with the Turkish president of Northern Cyprus, Mustafa Akıncı, who supports the island’s reunification.

Akıncı’s vision for the island, which includes greater independence from Turkey, has also drawn the wrath of AKP. Davutoğlu is therefore unlikely to revert to supporting the reunification of the island as he once did when his “zero problems with neighbors” policy was in full effect: in 2004, he had lent his support for Turkish Cypriots’ decision to vote for the United Nation’s Annan Plan that had been submitted to a referendum.