In the presidential and parliamentary elections in Türkiye this Sunday, its long-standing leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems close to defeat – for the first time in twenty years.
If the opposition, led by the National Alliance candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, wins, it is very likely that Turkey will return to a more classical foreign policy, former Turkish Ambassador to NATO Fatih Ceylan tells LIGA.net.
"Such a new course would put Türkiye’s relations with the West on a healthier footing, but with the support of good neighbourliness in the region," he says.
LIGA.net explains the election campaign in Türkiye and what Ukraine should expect if the opposition wins.
The first decade of Mr Erdogan's rule was based on economic growth in Türkiye, something that has deteriorated in recent years. According to the IMF, last year,
Inflation in the country at average consumer prices in 2022 was 72.3 percent year-on-year, the International Monetary Fund data shows, projected to reach 50.6 percent in 2023.
And now Mr Erdogan's campaign is being built around the idea of a strong and independent state, Yevheniya Gaber, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Türkiye, tells LIGA.net.
In recent weeks, he has opened many infrastructure projects, shown achievements in aviation, defence, drones, the first Turkish electric car, and promised a new aircraft carrier.
On 27 April, he inaugurated the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in Türkiye, built by Rosatom and to be owned by Russia, via video link with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
That was not just a flirtation with Russia before the election: The projects were launched five to ten years ago, Ms Gaber explains.
"Türkiye needs cooperation with Russia to obtain certain technologies and capabilities: the purchase of S-400 air defence systems, Rosatom, gas pipelines," the analyst notes. "On the other hand, it is an opportunity to tell the West: If you do not cooperate with us, we have alternatives."
This lets Mr Erdogan talk about independence and balancing between the West, Russia and Ukraine, she says.
The Turkish government is also trying to show voters that it is developing the country, while the opposition is ‘traitors’ and ‘puppets’ that will be manipulated by the West.
For instance, Turkish interior minister Suleyman Soylu claimed that the West was allegedly going to use the elections for a new coup. Mr Erdogan himself calls the opposition ‘pro-LGBT’, accusing it of having links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which Ankara considers a terrorist organisation.
"Such generalisations are attempts to turn the opposition into a bogeyman for Turkish society. This is increasingly evident in the rallies and statements made by Mr Erdogan and his party," explains Ms Gaber. "They are not based on any real facts, but it is greatly exacerbating the internal struggle."
Türkiye’s ex-ambassador to NATO Fatih Ceylan adds that society is further polarised by the harsh rhetoric of the Republican Alliance leaders, that is Mr Ergodan: "Emotions are running high, and room for common sense has narrowed".
HoweverMr , Erdogan does not shy away from openly populist rhetoric in the spirit of communism – for instance, by promising voters free gas from fields in the Black Sea for cooking and hot water for a year, and for a month exempting them from any gas bills.
Mr Erdogan’s main rival is 74-year-old Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the largest opposition Republican People's Party who has been in politics since 2002. He has been nominated for president by the National Alliance, an association of six opposition parties.
Mr Kilicdaroglu is also supported by Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, which is traditionally an important position in the country. Mr Imamoglu himself is expected to become vice president if Mr Kilicdaroglu wins.
But so far, the opposition candidate’s lead is within the margin of error of one to four percent, adds Ms Gaber. The chances of Messrs Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu are almost equal, and both are actively campaigning.
This, for instance, is what a rally in support of Mr Erdogan in Istanbul looked like. The Turkish authorities claimed that it gathered 1.7 million people.
And this is a rally in support of Mr Kilicdaroglu.
"The opposition is campaigning on the fact that we (Türkiye) need to improve the economic situation," says Ms Gaber, "that we need strong institutions and changes that will allow us to move away from the polarisation of society."
Among other things, the opposition pledges to restore the parliamentary form of government, limit the powers of the president, reduce inflation to 10 percent within two years, and improve ties with the United States.
"Many people in Türkiye are looking for a new era that will strengthen the parliamentary system," Mr Ceylan explains, "where the separation of powers is restored, accompanied by the restoration of state institutions."
But the opposition does not hesitate to use Mr Erdogan's populist tools as well.
For instance, Mr Kilicdaroglu proposes to build a new ‘silk road’ from China to Türkiye through the Turkic countries of Central Asia. He also promised to support the military-industrial complex and the production of drones, in particular, the Baykrar Makina company, which is run by Mr Erdogan's son-in-law.
However, there is still no clarity on the parliamentary elections, Mr Ceylan says.
"It remains to be seen whether the National Alliance will win a majority in parliament. Together with the Green Left coalition, they are likely to have a majority. But it will depend on political bargaining."
It is very likely that Türkiye will return to a more classical foreign and security policy if the opposition wins, its former ambassador to NATO tells LIGA.net. Fatih Ceylan believes that such a course will make relations with the West healthier and improve relations with NATO, but the new Ankara will not neglect good neighbourly relations.
In the context of Ukraine and Russia's aggression, Türkiye is trying to mediate, contacting both sides. Ankara plays an important role in at least five issues.
1. ‘Grain deal’. Turkey will support the work of the ‘grain corridor’ through the Black Sea under any government, Ms Haber is convinced. But Mr Erdogan played an important role in it because he can speak directly with Mr Putin.
"Putin listened to Erdogan. If Kilicdaroglu comes to power, he won't have that diplomatic experience," explains Ms Gaber. "He doesn't have the same authority in Putin's eyes and the channels he has built."
Russia will not unilaterally withdraw from the agreement, she believes, adding that it will take advantage of a possible change of government in Türkiye to destabilise the situation around the ‘grain corridor’ and bargain for more favourable terms and sanctions relief.
However, Yoruk Isik, the head of the Bosphorus Observer consulting organisation in Istanbul and a researcher at the Middle East Institute in Washington, believes that
Mr Kilicdaroglu will still have influence on the Russian president.
"The asymmetrical balance, which is slightly tilted in Turkey's favour, won't change."
The situation around the ‘grain deal’ will largely depend on the battlefield, Mr Isik believes: If Ukraine is successful in its spring and summer counteroffensive, Russia could at any time "use food as a weapon and throw tantrums."
2. Russia’s sanctions evasion. While Türkiye officially denies helping Moscow circumvent Western sanctions on dual-use goods, its companies in 2022 exported tens of millions of dollars worth of them to Russia, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The European Union is concerned about the deepening economic ties between Türkiye and Russia as well. According to Mr Isik, Ankara sees no problem in continuing its "not illegal but unethical" trade with Russia, trying to snatch as much Russian oil as possible at discounts.
Ms Gaber says that the fight against sanctions evasion will pick up under any Turkish government: The country is interested in Western investment, the lira needs to be strengthened, and the EU remains its main market despite the growth in trade with Russia.
However, it is difficult to imagine a radically different course for Türkiye in terms of joining the sanctions, Mr Ceylan notes, adding that it will depend, in particular, on the secondary sanctions that the West will impose on third countries.
"There will be no Turkish accession to European sanctions, even if Mr Kilicdaroglu wins, he has also said this," adds Ms Gaber, "because this is not Erdogan's exclusive policy, it is Turkish policy: We are not a member of the EU and we do not use sanctions in our foreign policy."
"But I think the fight against sanctions circumvention will intensify."
3. Peace initiatives. Mr Erdogan regularly tries to bring Ukraine and Russia to the negotiating table and talks about the need for peace. This rhetoric will continue since the opposition supports it as well, Ms Gaber says.
"There is a lot of this in the opposition leader’s statements, not only about Ukraine, but also about Syria and Western partners," she explains. "At some points, there may be even more rhetoric about negotiations, reconciliation and compromise than we hear now."
Talking about peace in Ukraine is also important for Türkiye to maintain its status as a mediator, Iliya Kusa, a Middle East expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, tells LIGA.net.
"If there are no peace talks, then there is no place for mediation," he explains.
4. NATO accession. At the July NATO summit in Vilnius, Ukraine hopes to get a clear membership perspective. The elections should not bring any problems to Türkiye’s position on Kyiv joining NATO. It will be based on what the key members of the Alliance think, Mr Kusa predicts.
While Mr Erdogan was for some time putting on hold Finland’s accession and is still blocking Sweden's membership, this is designed more for a domestic audience, Ms Gaber says. In the run-up to the elections, he was trying to show that he could ‘teach’ Western politicians.
"Türkiye and Mr Erdogan have always supported Ukraine and Ukraine’s membership in NATO. This is not the case of Sweden and Finland," she believes, warning that Türkiye will not be an advocate for Ukraine’s NATO membership, like Poland or the Baltic states.
5. Military field. Ukraine is armed with Turkish Bayraktar drones and Kirri armoured personnel carriers, as well as mortars, electronic warfare tools and other equipment, according to Oryx, an open-source military analysis platform. Türkiye has also built a corvette for Ukraine.
"For Türkiye, it is important that Ukraine survives and Russia has no opportunity to improve its situation, because it would be a threat to Türkiye itself," Ms Gaber tells LIGA.net.
She believes that the elections will bring about no dramatic changes in the military-industrial complex, as Türkiye will not abandon existing projects and will contain the spread of Russian influence in the region. However, a transition period is possible if a new government is elected.
"Many of those projects were Mr Erdogan's willful decision," Ms Gaber explains. "If there is a new team, Ukraine will need to get to know them, and the team itself will need to build these relationships."
Another aspect is the Bosphorus, which Türkiye has closed to Russian warships under the Montreux Convention.
The Russians are trying to find loopholes for civilian vessels to pass through, Yoruk Isik says, but changes are unlikely to be made to the military fleet.
"This treaty is one of the fundamental ones for Türkiye, it is part of the domestic political discourse," the analyst concludes. "As long as Russia’s illegal war continues, the Bosphorus will be closed to Russian warships – no matter who wins the elections."