On 14 May, Turkish citizens will decide on their next president and a new parliament. If the polls prove correct, voters could choose to end the more than 20-year reign of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his conservative-nationalist AK Party. But, as in other nail-biting races in similarly polarised societies, including Israel, Brazil, and, er, the United States, the results could also surprise everyone by defying the polls and giving Erdogan another mandate.
In either case, mark 14 May on your calendar. The Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections are shaping up to be a critical juncture in a country that has become central to geopolitical developments across Europe and the Middle East. Turkey has become a test case for democracy’s resilience against elected authoritarianism. It might also even turn into a rare bright spot for Western investors looking for a positive story as the US and Europe edge closer to recession.
The precarious circumstances of the elections mean that the actions and statements that US and European policymakers make in the run-up to, and immediate aftermath of, the election may well define their relationship with Turkey for the next decade. In some circumstances, they may need to act quickly, with relatively little information; in others, caution is necessary to preserve long-term interests.
To help them navigate this potential thicket, we offer some guides for how they might respond in various circumstances.
Don’t try to influence the outcome of the elections. “The West” has become the bogeyman in Turkish elections after years of unopposed anti-Americanism that has permeated the public discourse. The government is already accusing the opposition of being an instrument of the West in order to weaken Turkey, divide it if they can, and at minimum spread gay marriage to weaken Turkish family values. With so much at stake, some Western governments might want to wade into Turkish politics in various subtle ways. That would be a mistake. The US and most EU member states have deeply problematic profiles in Turkey, a country which is distrustful of outsiders and dangerously susceptible to conspiracy theories. Any intervention, no matter how subtle or skilful, risks a backlash. Don’t even try.
Emphasise consistently before, during, and after the elections the need for a free and fair process. The imperative not to influence the elections does not preclude pronouncing from the loftiest heights of the US and European governments that Turkey’s allies expect to see a free and fair vote. These proclamations should always remain on the level of principles, make references to Turkey’s own constitution and decades of success with multi-party elections, and avoid weighing in on specific controversial issues under debate in Turkey. In the event of a contested election in the days following 14 May, the US and the European Union should simply and consistently reiterate the need for an orderly process and deplore any violence, but otherwise not weigh in.
If the opposition wins, move quickly to recognise this as soon as the Turkish Supreme Election Council declares the results. Turkey’s Supreme Election Council will announce “temporary results” at midnight on 14 May and final results on 19 May. If the opposition wins with a comfortable lead, there is not much risk of contestation. But if the results are narrow, there is a risk that the Erdogan government may repeat what it tried in the 2019 local elections and take measures to overturn the results or ask for a recount. So if the results show a lead for opposition, the US and the EU should move quickly to recognise the opposition win and engage in presidential-level diplomacy.
Keep quiet if there is a second round. In all likelihood, neither candidate will get the 51 per cent needed to be elected president in the first round, thus requiring a runoff two weeks later. The candidates will throw anything they find at each other and this period has the potential to be volatile, as was the case in the summer of 2015 when Erdogan lost the majority to form a government. It is particularly important for Europe and the US to refrain from high-level engagement, to continue to express support for the democratic process, and to stave off any possible provocations in Iraq or Syria that could be used to feed the narrative that the opposition bloc is supported by outside powers to divide Turkey.
Nudge Europeans to rethink Turkey. A government formed of the current opposition will have multiple diplomatic and economic challenges, and both the opposition coalition (the so-called “Table of 6” opposition parties that have come together for this election) and Turkey’s Western partners seem unprepared for a post-Erdogan world. The restoration of Turkey’s broken ties with its Western partners would have to start in Europe, in the form of resuscitating the nation’s moribund membership talks with the EU. Both the US and EU member states should encourage Turkey’s new leaders to go to Brussels swiftly to jumpstart the EU process. Brussels should prepare a substantial package for Ankara’s new leadership, which should include opening at least one of the frozen chapters in the accession process, starting the much-needed modernisation of the Turkey-EU free trade deal, and resuming talks for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in the Schengen area. It is the process rather than the result that matters. In return, Turkey’s new leaders could reassure their European counterparts that they are willing to honour the 2016 Turkish-EU agreement on migration and have no plans to forcefully send refugees in Turkey back to Syria.
Send positive signals on US-Turkish relations. In the case of an opposition win, the US government should publicly signal its willingness to discuss and resolve some of the outstanding issues it has with Turkey, including the sale and modernisation of F-16s to Turkey, Turkish-US divergence regarding the Kurds in Syria, the Turkish possession of a Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system, and the possibility of US and EU economic support for the Turkish financial system. An opposition win would result in a market rally and entice international investors, but eventually Turkey will face economic headwinds. Washington’s support early on would signal to the Turkish public and international investors that the West stands behind the results and that the new government will have a fresh capacity to address Turkey’s problems. It would also make it easier to enter negotiations with Turkey’s next government on the more difficult issues, such as defence sales and Syria.
Pursue incremental normalisation if the Supreme Election Council declares the AKP the winner. Elections take place under a multi-party monitoring system in Turkey and the results have typically had legitimacy in the eyes of voters. If the AKP prevails in the first or second round of the presidential election, Washington should roll out an incremental normalisation plan with the Erdogan government, with which relations have been turbulent for too long. In the event of contested elections, with opposition voters thinking there was fraud, the US and the EU states should slow-walk recognition and wait for the results to be finalised. But eventually they would have to start engagement with the Erdogan government to address some of the knotty issues in bilateral ties. They should think about ways to engage on Sweden’s NATO membership application and consider agreeing to Turkey’s bid to buy modernisation kits for its F-16 fleet.
Overall, while we have emphasised the importance of humility and occasionally masterful inactivity, the role of the US and the EU is important in the Turkish elections. If they play their cards well, the West can serve as a backstop of Turkish stability and, in the event of an opposition win, can help ensure an orderly transfer of power. But doing so will require recognising the limits and pitfalls of Western power and knowing just when to speak up and just when to shut up.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.