There are presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey on May 14, and many international media outlets have already declared these elections the most important in the world. For example, The Washington Post appeared with the headline “The World’s most important election in 2023 will be in Turkey” on January 9, 2023. (1) British think tank Chatham House, on the other hand, counted the elections in Turkey among the “three most important events whose results are expected in the world this year”. This week, The Economist magazine has declared the 14 May Turkey elections “the most important election in the world” and made it the cover story. (2) The French weekly magazine Le Point used the phrase “On the eve of the election, the world holds its breath” (À la veille des élections, le monde retient son souffle) for the Turkish elections on the cover. (3) So, what makes the elections in Turkey so important? Why does the change of the president in Turkey concern the world and especially the West so much?
TURKEY: A PIVOT STATE
As many experts agree, Turkey is one of the few “pivot states” in the world. The term ‘pivot state’ refers to a nation that possesses political, military, economic, or ideational strategic assets that are highly coveted by major world powers. These states find themselves situated at the intersection of great power spheres of interest and often utilize their strategic assets to maintain relationships with multiple major powers, and occasionally even pit one against another, in order to safeguard their own interests. Any significant change in their alliances or partnerships can have significant security implications for the balance of power between the blocks and world politics.(4) Pivotal states have always been important, but in a period where the balance of world power has shifted from unipolarity to multipolarity, the preferences of states such as Turkey have become increasingly significant. The United States is no longer the sole and unrivaled superpower in the world. With the rise of China and the challenge posed by countries like Russia, American leadership is becoming increasingly controversial. The global balance of power is being reshaped with new elements, and in such an uncertain and unstable environment, the position Turkey takes in which bloc becomes more important than ever before.
Although Turkish-Western relations have experienced fluctuations, Turkey has been a significant member of the Western alliance since World War II. However, over the last decade, the relationship between the West and Ankara has been strained. Recently, there has been a frequent claim that Turkey is distancing itself from the West and getting closer to Russia with each passing day. Despite Ankara’s steadfast denial of these allegations, the deep diplomatic ties and shared rhetoric between Turkey and Russia are causing concern in Western capitals. In the last 10 years, Turkish President Erdogan and Russian President Putin have had over 30 face-to-face meetings, participated in numerous summits, and exchanged perhaps over a hundred phone calls. In contrast, the number of presidential meetings between the US and Turkey during the same period remained significantly low.
DOES TURKEY HAVE AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE WEST?: A QUESTION ASKED SINCE 2007
The official title of the three-day meeting held under the chairmanship of Lord David Hugh Alexander Hannay at the Ditchley Foundation (UK) in January 2007, to which I was invited, was “Turkey: the Road to EU membership”. Even though this was the official title, the secret purpose of the meeting was whether Turkey had an alternative to go if it was excluded from the European Union. All the senior bureaucrats, deputies, think tank directors, ambassadors and journalists I met at the meeting asked me whether Turkey would leave the Western bloc or not. As early as 2007, Western capitals were expressing concerns about the possibility of Turkey moving away from the West and aligning itself with Russia or another direction.
Since 2013, Turkish Western Policy has undergone a radical shift, and in particular, the relations between Turkey and the US have deteriorated like never before. The mutual threats and accusations between the two allies were too severe and inappropriate. Turkey and the USA have taken opposing stances on a range of issues, from Syria to Israel, and from Egypt to Iran. Ankara has accused the Americans of supporting PKK terrorists in Syria, while the United States has been highly critical of the Turkish government on issues ranging from human rights to treatment of minorities. The real rupture in relations occurred after the July 15, 2016 coup attempt when the Turkish side accused the US of being behind the coup. The failure to extradite the individual accused of being the coup leader, who was residing in the United States, and the subsequent arrest and trial of some American citizens in Turkey, eliminated any possibility of reconciliation between the parties. Despite warnings from the United States, Turkey’s decision to purchase and install the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system led to its exclusion from the American-made F-35 fighter jet project.
The Washington administration attributes the problem to the Turkish government’s so-called Islamism and hostility towards the West. In fact, during his presidential campaign, Joe Biden referred to the Turkish President as an “autocrat” in a speech he gave to the New York Times. He also indicated that if elected, he would support the opposition and work towards changing the president of Turkey. The statement undoubtedly sparked strong reactions in Turkey and was viewed as a continuation of America’s policy of meddling in internal affairs. The Turkish government maintains that the root of the problem lies in Washington’s anti-Turkish stance and Islamophobia.
To put it briefly, the relations between Turkey and the US and the relations between Turkey and the West are in an openly critical condition. In this context, the elections on May 14th have gained significant importance for Turkey’s global standing.
The world’s major capitals, from Paris to Washington, from Moscow to Beijing, are wondering who will assume power in Ankara. Turkey’s strategic location has always been of utmost importance in global politics. It borders several regions and has the potential to influence the balance of power in some of the most critical geographies. As a nation with the longest Black Sea coastline, Turkey plays a pivotal role in the Ukraine War and in relations between Russia and the West. Moreover, Turkey is not only a Middle Eastern country but also a Balkan, Caucasian, and Eastern Mediterranean country. The Dardanelles and Istanbul Straits, which Turkey possesses, are the only waterways that connect the Black Sea Basin countries to the world. Turkey, being among the 20 largest economies in the world, holds significant importance as an important member of the Islamic world and a natural leader of the growing Turkish world that spans from Anatolia to the heart of China. Hence, no country can devise and execute a policy in this vast region without taking Turkey into account.
CAN ELECTIONS SOLVE THE PROBLEMS?
Certain commentators in Western capitals argue that if there is a change in government in Ankara, the issues between Turkey and the West would be resolved. My perspective differs as I believe that certain issues stem from inherent structural factors, which are independent of any governmental alterations. A prime example of this is the United States’ Kurdish policy in Syria and Iraq.
Although it is foreseeable that a shift in government could potentially ease tensions and provide an opportunity for a renewed relationship between the West and Ankara, it should be noted that any initial positive impact may be fleeting. It is likely that new challenges and conflicts will arise, even with a change in government in Turkey.
A NEW ERA?
Turkey must set new objectives and strive for positive outcomes in its relations with the West. On the other hand, despite Turkey’s aspiration to join the European Union dating back to 1959, the EU has continually delayed the process for over six decades. Over the past 15 years, Turkey has come to accept that its prospects of being granted EU membership are slim to none. In light of this, Brussels should put forth new commitments and promises to Turkey and provide a practical timeline for their realization. If the EU is unable to offer any meaningful assistance to Turkey, it would be unrealistic for Turkey to maintain high expectations in return.
Turkey’s relationship with the United States has been plagued by numerous setbacks and disappointments. Both sides bear responsibility for these failures and mistakes. Therefore, to improve relations, it is crucial that both parties refrain from solely assigning blame. Secondly, if Washington values its alliance with Turkey, it should assist Ankara in fulfilling its national security requirements. While Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 defense system was not a conventional move by an ally, it was prompted by the failure to secure the sale of Patriot missile systems and significant obstacles in the purchase of F-16 jets, leaving Ankara with no choice but to explore other alternatives.
The upcoming May 14th elections will have significant ramifications, not just for Turkey but also for global politics. The aftermath of the elections presents a unique opportunity for the West and Turkey to rekindle their relationship and start anew. Conversely, Russia and China are closely observing the outcome of the elections, and their policies towards Turkey will be influenced by any changes in the government in Ankara.
(1) “The World’s Most Important Election in 2023 will be in Turkey”, The Washington Post, January 9, 2023.
(2) “If Turkey Sacks Its Strongman, Democrats Everywhere Should Take Heart”, The Economist, May 4, 2023.
(3) “Erdogan : l’autre Poutine”, Le Point, 4 mai 2023.
(4) The concept of a pivot state was first introduced by Mackinder in his seminal work ‘The Geographical Pivot of History,’ published in 1904. Mackinder posited that due to their strategic locations, all states, in a sense, revolve around a central ‘pivot state.’ In his study, the term ‘pivot’ referred to a region, rather than a specific state, which was at the time under the control of Russia. Also see: Halford John Mackinder, The Geographical Pivot of History, (Cosimo Classics, 2020); Tim Sweijs, Willem Theo Oosterveld, Emily Knowles and Menno Schellekens, Why are Pivot States so Pivotal? The Role of Pivot States in Regional and Global Security, (The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, 2014); Emre Erşen and Seçkin Köstem, Turkey’s Pivot to Eurasia: Geopolitics and Foreign Policy in a Changing World Order, (London: Taylor & Francis, 2019).