Foreign analysts and the media have long asked “Where is Turkey going?” Now, as the country reaches nineteen years of uninterrupted rule by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the rhetorical question has morphed into a vivid domestic debate on Turkey’s future.
Turkey’s direction depends on the votes of its citizens, not on what foreign observers think or desire. However, having engaged in unprecedented military and diplomatic initiatives in 2019–2021, the country’s leadership is subject to strong reactions and condemnations from its partners. Such responses in turn elicit nationalist statements across the political spectrum, making any speculation about Turkey’s political future somewhat hazardous.
After reviewing recent developments and assessing the main drivers of Turkey’s current policies, this article will present three scenarios that European and Western leaders can theoretically expect from Ankara in the short and medium terms, scenarios they should prepare for.
Steady Decline in the Rule-of-Law Architecture
Domestically, Turkey’s rule-of-law architecture has steadily deteriorated in the past ten years. The European Commission’s 2021 report on Turkey, issued on October 19, was the most negative ever, stressing the continuation of democratic backsliding. Although no single event set this downward trend, a few turning points can be identified.
First, 2013 was a crucial year. The Gezi Park civic protests, which started in May of that year, began as a sit-in against the government’s plan to eliminate a park. They quickly transformed into an unprecedented wave of mass demonstrations across the entire country. They remain the largest protest movement against the Turkish government.
Months later, at the end of 2013, a corruption scandal led to the arrest of dozens of people connected to the AKP. Believing these arrests to be a political attack orchestrated by Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, who was until then his political ally, then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered a series of purges. Freedom House estimated that 45,000 police officers and 2,500 judges and prosecutors involved in the investigation were reassigned.
Since 2013, the process of democratic erosion has gone hand in hand with key electoral moments. In the lead-up to the presidential elections of August 2014, the two rounds of legislative elections in 2015, the constitutional referendum of April 2017, and the presidential elections of June 2018, the following developments took place: the rights of the opposition were progressively curtailed; increasingly nationalistic narratives were employed to rally the country around the flag and the leadership; the reconciliation process with the Kurdish minority was abandoned; and, at times, Turkey’s operations in Syria were used to sway public opinion, bolster the country’s mood, and weaken political opponents.
The failed coup of July 2016 marked another inflection point. It not only provided an opportunity to put a definitive end to the army’s political influence but also triggered sweeping purges against alleged enemies of the government. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2020 report on human rights practices in Turkey,
Since the 2016 coup attempt, authorities have dismissed or suspended more than 60,000 police and military personnel and approximately 125,000 civil servants, dismissed one-third of the judiciary, arrested or imprisoned more than 90,000 citizens, and closed more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations on terrorism-related grounds, primarily for alleged ties to the movement of cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom the government accused of masterminding the coup attempt.
According to the latest report from Turkey’s own Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures, dated October 28, 2021, 125,678 people were dismissed from public service.
More recently, the local elections of March 2019 constituted a political watershed. The sweeping victories of opposition candidates in nine large cities, including Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir, reminded Turkish voters of their power. In Istanbul, the government tried to reverse the vote through a rerun imposed by the Supreme Election Council but was ultimately unsuccessful—an episode illustrative of the leadership’s willingness to use every tool against the opposition as well as of the strength of civil society.
An Assertive Foreign Policy
Over the past few years, Turkey’s foreign policy has become increasingly personal, with clear links to the objectives of Erdoğan: managing his complex relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin while building close relationships with two U.S. presidents, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. A more systemic goal was to keep his party in control of the parliament through a two-party alliance.
Turkey’s foreign policy reached turning points in 2019 and 2020. Since the June 2018 election, the formalized alliance between the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has been steering the Turkish government to the right. In late 2019 and then in 2020, this translated to a series of assertive foreign policy initiatives in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya, and Syria.
On the Libyan front, the signing of bilateral deals with the Tripoli government—to revise maritime boundaries in exchange for a security pact in November 2019 and to deploy Turkish military and proxy forces in January 2020—marked an uptick in Turkey’s activism in the Eastern Mediterranean. By the same logic, in June 2020, the Turkish navy opposed controls by both NATO and the EU over suspicious shipments of goods to Libya’s Government of National Accord. These controls at sea formed part of an international consensus reached at the January 2020 Berlin conference on Libya, a consensus that was agreed to by Turkey.
In February and March 2020, Turkey made good on its repeated threat of “opening the gates” to Europe for some refugees living in Turkey. Thousands of refugees were transported near the city of Edirne in northwest Turkey and pushed toward the Turkish-Greek land border by riot police, only to be repatriated after a few days when the EU kept its borders closed. Also that year, Turkey decided to promote a two-state solution for Cyprus, a formula unacceptable to EU leaders.
This deterioration in bilateral foreign relations has gone hand in hand with increasing divergences within NATO. The purchase of a Russian S-400 missile system by Turkey has led to U.S. sanctions—chiefly Washington’s decision to expel Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program—and to a notable evolution of military agreements and arms sales in the subregion.
Military Reshuffling in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea
From a strategic perspective, Ankara’s procurement of Russian missile systems gave Moscow a considerable advantage on its southern flank. As a result, several Western countries have restructured their diplomatic and military agreements in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea subregion.
One example is the third U.S.-Greece strategic dialogue, a multisector review of all fields of common interest, including economics, defense, climate, disaster preparedness, and counterterrorism, which was conducted in October. The joint U.S.-Greece statement stressed “the importance of respecting sovereignty, sovereign rights, [and] international law, including the law of the sea,” pointing to an ongoing litigation with Turkey on maritime boundaries. A simultaneously announced expansion of the U.S.-Greece mutual defense cooperation agreement featured new infrastructure and arms sales to Greece and will give U.S. forces greater access to Greek military infrastructure.
Similarly, France and Greece signed a strategic partnership agreement in September. It included the sales of three frigates and twenty-four Rafale aircraft, as well as a mutual assistance clause in case of aggression. This latter aspect has been criticized by the Turkish Foreign Ministry and by Turkish scholars.
The U.S. military has also made agreements with Romania on new infrastructure and aircraft deployment at the Câmpia Turzii air base, enabling it to host U.S. Air Force personnel, fighter jets, heavy transport aircraft, and a munition depot, in addition to already deployed drones. Such an upgrade will allow the United States to counterbalance the reduced reliability of Turkey’s Incirlik air base—which is due to the presence of the S-400 Russian missile system in the country—and to deal more efficiently with military contingencies in the Black Sea region.
These changes bring about new power dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean at a time when Ankara is coping with the loss of the massive F-35 order and is trying to persuade the U.S. administration to sell it forty F-16 aircraft and eighty modernization kits for its current F-16 inventory. Short of such a retooling, the Turkish Air Force risks losing its deterrence value, in itself a gain for Russia. Conversely, it has been argued that a U.S.-Turkey agreement on the sale of F-16 aircraft would go a long way toward restoring the bilateral defense relationship. Yet the U.S. Congress is hostile to such a deal, as Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile system remains the main stumbling block.
The Main Drivers of Turkey’s Current Policies
The Crippling Effects of Economic Policies
While Turkey has attractive economic features—including its geography, workforce, an industrial and business culture, and integration in the EU manufacturing sector by means of a customs union—an incongruous monetary policy has wrecked its international reputation. Erdoğan has repeatedly imposed upon the Central Bank of Turkey his concept of low interest rates as a way to reduce inflation. This model goes against prevailing economic theories and has resulted in the Turkish lira plummeting on each of these occasions. The Turkish president has also shown the door to two finance ministers, four Central Bank governors, and several of their deputies since 2019.
Beyond disconcerting international financial circles, this policy’s disastrous consequences triggered a vocal reaction from Turkey’s own business community. In October 2021, Mehmet Ömer Koç, a prominent industrialist, said that “there is no lasting alternative but to bring down the exchange rate, [high] costs and their outcome: inflation,” and advocated a return to the “fundamental reform agenda” of the first years of the AKP’s tenure. Days later, Turkish Industry and Business Association, the main industrialists’ organization, declared: “If monetary policy had been implemented in a predictable way, in line with the goal of combating inflation, it would have been possible to preserve the value of the [Turkish lira] while keeping inflation and interest rates lower.”
An April 2021 World Bank report was highly critical of the country’s prevailing economic policies, highlighting that “Policy frameworks geared toward ensuring a strong rebound in 2020 also contributed to rising price inflation, currency depreciation, a large current account deficit, and a depletion of external reserves.” One key issue beyond its monetary policy is that Turkey’s economic fundamentals will not change in the short and medium terms: to survive and prosper, the country needs to borrow, attract foreign direct investments, and sustain its exports.
Rule of Law Remains the Core Issue
During his first eleven and a half years in power as prime minister, Erdoğan solidified his political base through visible improvements in infrastructure—highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, hospitals, and social housing—and a credit-based consumerist policy. A new generation of young Turks ascended to a “modern” way of life that, until that moment, had been seen as the privilege of urban secularist elites.
But when the dual shocks of 2013—the Gezi Park protests and the unresolved accusations of massive corruption—hit the single-party leadership, cracks began appearing in the hitherto untainted success of Erdoğan and his AKP. Political control, achieved in part by the dismantling of the rule-of-law architecture, became the leadership’s overriding priority.
The negative implications of such actions became apparent during the 2019 municipal elections and the student protests of early 2021, both of which signaled diminished popular support for the president. The assumption that an authoritarian system was acceptable because of past economic successes did not hold. Similarly, the goal of raising a “pious generation” seemed to face increasing resistance from young people.
Overall, the rule of law mattered much more to the citizens of Turkey than the leadership had assumed.
Internationally, the rule of law also matters much more than Turkey’s leadership would like. Despite a spectacular diplomatic initiative in October 2021 against ten Western ambassadors, the hard reality is that Turkey is still refusing to comply with the December 2019 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, which ordered the release of philanthropist Osman Kavala pending trial. Turkey, a member of the Council of Europe since 1950, is at risk of an infringement procedure.
The Russian Geopolitical Trap
Some Turkish authors have argued that the country’s exclusive defense affiliation to NATO is a thing of the past and that developments witnessed since the fall of the Soviet Union should reposition Turkey away from NATO and toward an autonomous position between Western powers and Russia in a new multipolar order. In one study, a scholar noted: “One of the central assumptions of Turkey’s ruling elites about the international system is that it is no longer Western-centric. . . . From this perspective, Turkish interests will be better served through a geopolitical balancing act between different centres of powers.” In this vein, the dialogue initiated in August 2016 between Erdoğan and Putin was the beginning of an opportunistic convergence of minds, which culminated in 2019 with the delivery in Turkey of the S-400 missile system, effectively allowing Russia to use Ankara to drive a wedge in NATO’s European defense and political architecture.
From this Russian strategic perspective, Moscow scored two points on its southern flank, the Black Sea borderline between Russia’s and Georgia’s exclusive economic zones with Turkey’s exclusive economic zone (roughly 900 kilometers, or about 560 miles, out of a total border of 1,980 kilometers, or about 1,230 miles, with NATO countries). First, it has now eliminated the potential deployment of U.S.-made Patriot missiles (or French-Italian Eurosam missiles), which would have been a logical choice for a NATO member country committed to take part in the bloc’s ballistic missile defense architecture. Second, it has eliminated the possibility of deploying up to 125 U.S.-made F-35 stealth aircrafts as part of NATO air defense architecture.
Seen as a success in Ankara, the Russia-Turkey relationship—an unusual mix of cooperation and managed divergences—has in reality produced a strategic trap for Turkey. Under current conditions, Ankara’s air power is vastly diminished, while, to successfully conduct its operations in the South Caucasus and Syria, Ankara is partly dependent on Moscow. The picture is further complicated by the fact that its first nuclear-powered electricity plant will be built, owned, and operated by Russia, while the TurkStream pipeline will feed Russian gas to a large part of southeastern Europe. These two fixed pieces of infrastructure are now permanent vectors of Russia’s influence on Turkey.
From an independent Western standpoint, such an enhanced Turkish relationship with Russia has made Turkey largely dependent on the Kremlin’s strategic moves vis-à-vis the West and NATO. Simultaneously, Turkey’s drone sales to Poland and Ukraine and its procurement of jet engines from the latter have become new bones of contention with Moscow.
Three Post-Election Scenarios and Their Impact on the EU and the West
Looking at the next round of presidential and legislative elections in 2023, Turkey’s Western partners will be faced with three theoretical scenarios: “more of the same,” “end of an era,” or “the surprise scenario(s).” Western policymakers must be prepared for each possibility.
More of the Same
Despite a recent summary of polls that give the opposition a generous lead, sources close to the incumbent president consider an Erdoğan/AKP win a strong probability—if only because the stakes for the president are so high. A third election victory, the second as executive president, would be the crown jewel of Erdoğan’s exceptionally long career in Turkish politics and would solidify his preference for centralized authority, democracy by the ballot box without checks and balances, frequent religious references in public policies, and assertive foreign policy. In addition, a win in June 2023 would bring his total presidential tenure to fourteen years—following eleven and a half years as prime minister—and would allow him to preside over the Turkish Republic’s centennial celebrations in October 2023. For his followers, this event would elevate Erdoğan’s stature to that of former president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who was in power from 1923 to 1938.
Under this scenario, Western countries would likely face more assertive foreign and military policies, including with Greece, Cyprus, and countries in Africa. They would also face increased difficulties within NATO and continued tensions with the EU. Importantly, Turkey’s ambivalent relationship with Russia and the S-400 missile system deployment, unless terminated earlier, would become a major negative factor with Turkey’s Western partners. In this scenario, prudence and containment may well be the key words on the EU side.
End of an Era
Under this hypothesis, the projected victory of the opposition coalition would be confirmed at the polls, the AKP-MHP coalition would become a minority in parliament, Erdoğan would retire from the presidency, economic policy would be substantially transformed, and a constitutional reform to reinstate a parliamentary system would be initiated. One important note of caution, when considering this scenario, is that in the past Erdoğan has managed to overturn highly unfavorable electoral prospects—similar to those the polls are projecting today. This happened, for example, between the two electoral rounds of June and November 2015.
Some analysts have predicted that “the Erdoğan era . . . is ending”. Supposedly, this scenario would herald an end to Ankara’s disruptive policies implemented in recent years. The tone of a new regime is likely to be more moderate. But it would be hazardous to bet on a complete reversal of current policies, let alone on a clear break with Russia, for the simple reason that the underlying factors of these policies would still be in place: anti-Western feelings will remain, and Russia will not accept an erosion of its strategic gains enshrined in multiple agreements with Turkey simply by the ushering in of a new administration.
In this scenario, intense diplomatic engagement from the EU will be necessary.
The Surprise Scenario(s)
Given the tensions on today’s political scene and the fears associated with a loss of power by Erdoğan, it is not impossible that a number of unexpected developments could take place.
One could be a postponement of the elections by a few months to allow the incumbent president to chair the centennial celebrations, although current legislation doesn’t allow for postponement unless the country is at war.
Another uncertainty could lie with security developments in Turkey’s vicinity: a confrontation with Russia in Syria, war flaring up in Ukraine, tensions in the Black Sea pitting Moscow and Ankara against each other, or Russian interference with the S-400 missile system’s operations.
The tense domestic political debate could also end in a breakup between the AKP and the MHP, leaving the former with around 30 percent of votes, according to current polls, and making impossible an Erdoğan victory in the presidential election.
Finally, a more mundane scenario would see a neck-and-neck presidential race result in a litigation before the Supreme Election Council, itself ending in a cancellation and an election rerun in short succession as a last-ditch effort to boost the incumbent’s chances of winning. This procedure could well last more than the four months between the scheduled June 2023 ballot and the October 2023 centennial celebrations.
In all these scenarios, Turkey’s Western partners would be faced with multiple uncertainties, economic and financial risks, and increased international tensions. Domestically, the dismay of a majority of voters, feeling their choice would eventually be ignored or openly rejected, could lead to serious frustration, including within the AKP electorate. This would not be the first such instance, but, unlike in the 2018 presidential election, the opinion polls all go in the same direction and the opposition is, thus far, strongly united in favor of a change of president and a return to parliamentary democracy.
The EU should be thoroughly prepared for such unexpected scenarios, especially as some may have a heavy security and foreign policy dimension.
Outlook for the EU-Turkey Relationship
Currently, EU-Turkey relations are being handled piecemeal: a new deal in favor of Syrian refugees is being discussed; high-level dialogues are being held in various fields of common interest, including climate, migrations, and health; and specific agreements allowing Turkey’s participation in EU programs such as Erasmus+, Horizon Europe research and innovation, and citizen volunteering in the European Solidarity Corps have recently been finalized. These advances are most welcome. Yet they do not bridge the considerable gap between the EU and Turkey on fundamental issues such as the rule of law, foreign and security policy, and trade.
The strategy followed by Ankara since 2018 is to make issues pertaining to its rule-of-law architecture a “no-go” area for the European Council and to divide EU member states as much as possible on these issues. The EU’s acquiescence to this attitude would not only be detrimental to democrats in Turkey but would also profoundly alter the EU’s strength and credibility.
EU member states have been of two minds in the past few years, with some willing to turn a blind eye on the deterioration of the rule of law in Turkey in order to preserve their economic interests. But others are keener to contain Turkey’s assertive military and diplomatic moves. The result might just be a continuation of a low-key relationship until the results of the presidential and legislative elections are known. But political attitudes might also be largely influenced by the position of the new European governments, too.
Rebuilding an appeased, comprehensive EU relationship with post-election Turkey will be a tall challenge for both sides.
Correction: The piece originally miscalculated the duration of Erdoğan’s tenure as prime minister. It has been eleven and a half years, not thirteen and a half years.