BACKGROUND: On March 6, 2023, Turkey’s opposition Nation alliance announced that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP), the leading opposition party, will be its joint presidential candidate, ending a last-minute crisis on the best choice to run against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Meral Akşener, the head of the second biggest party in the Nation Alliance, the right wing nationalist Good Party, objected to the nomination of Kılıçdaroğlu, arguing that either Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, a centrist, or Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş, a right-wing nationalist, both of whom are CHP members, should be nominated. When the other five parties decided to nominate Kılıçdaroğlu, Akşener left the alliance on March 3, angrily denouncing what she described as an attempt by those parties to force her party to choose between “death and malaria.” Despite objections from the hard line nationalists within her party, Akşener decided to return to the alliance following an intense shuttle diplomacy between the six parties’ heavyweights. She did so after Kılıçdaroğlu agreed to appoint Ankara and Istanbul mayors as vice presidents “at a time when he sees fit.” Many believe that it was the reaction from the public as well as from her party’s more liberal flank that prompted her return to the alliance.
This crisis certainly provided President Erdoğan with a golden opportunity to claim that the allied six parties are unfit to rule. Yet the last-minute crisis over the nomination of Kılıçdaroğlu notwithstanding, the six parties of the Nation Alliance – which also includes two conservative parties led by former Erdoğan allies Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan respectively, the Islamist Felicity Party and center right Democrat Party – has agreed on a joint program that was unveiled on January 30. The “Memorandum of understanding on common policies” makes clear that the Nation Alliance is determined to make a break with the foreign policy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The Nation Alliance promises nothing less than a reset: it reasserts Turkey’s place in the West and as Western democracy. The document deems NATO to be of “critical importance in terms of the deterrence it provides for Turkey’s national security,” and emphasizes the importance of the EU as well as of the Council of Europe. While the Nation Alliance remains committed to Turkish EU membership, the emphasis on “the modernization of the Customs Union,” nonetheless shows that the opposition is well aware of the difficulty of a speedy revival of the accession process. Although Turkey’s accession process to the European Union is de facto suspended, the Nation Alliance trusts the democratic reform process it holds forth will break the ice in the frozen relations with the West in general. The opposition alliance reiterates that “our goal is full membership in the European Union.” That explains why the statement that Turkey will comply with the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights appears under the headline “foreign policy” instead of “rule of law”. The AKP’s resistance to amend the law, so as to adapt it to universal democratic standards has been a key obstacle to visa liberalization; the Nation Alliance’s pledge to “prioritize and finalize visa liberalization process with the EU countries,” implies a commitment to change Turkey’s anti-terror laws. Meanwhile, the pledge to review the 2016 migration deal with the EU together with the statement “we will not let Turkey be a buffer,” is clearly intended to appeal to anti-migrant opinion. But it also represents the Nation Alliance’s wish to end the “transactional nature” of Turkish-EU relations.
What the Nation Alliance holds forth is a return to the decades-long principles of the Turkish republic that will be marking its centenary this year. These include, notably, the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of other nations. The AKP abandoned this longstanding principle of Turkish foreign policy when it sought to bring about regime change in Syria. Not only did the Turkish interference inflame the Syrian civil war, it also came at a high cost for Turkey itself, as the country has had to accommodate nearly four million Syrian refugees.
IMPLICATIONS: The Nation Alliance pledges to “put an end to practices based on domestic political calculations and ideological approaches in foreign policy.” This too points to a major break with the AKP’s and Erdoğan’s ideologically driven foreign policy, the result of which has been to undermine Turkey’s relations with its Western allies. The fact that Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was the architect of the grandiose scheme to make Turkey the “master” of the Middle East by sponsoring the Muslim Brotherhood is today part of an alliance committed to a return to the traditional foreign policy of the Turkish republic is ironic; yet it is a telling sign of the bankruptcy of the ideological agenda that Turkey, to its own detriment, doggedly pursued.
Another expression of the proposed foreign policy reset is the pledge to reinstate the foreign ministry’s former weight in policy-making and implementation. In that respect, the emphasis on the role of institutions is repeated in reference to relations with the United States as well as Russia. This reflects the opposition bloc’s wish to depart from President Erdoğan’s personalized foreign policy; his reliance on personal dialogue with foreign leaders has inevitably resulted in a lack of transparency in Turkey’s bilateral relations.
The emphasis on diplomacy and negotiations to resolve problems, which stands in marked contrast to the confrontational, indeed militaristic, Turkish foreign policy of recent years, is on display on the section of the memorandum devoted to Cyprus and Greece. While stating that Turkey’s national interests in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean will not be compromised, the Nation Alliance adopts a moderate language. The fact that there is no mention of a two-state solution for the Cyprus problem (which would make the division of the island permanent), which has been the stance of the AKP after the collapse of peace talks on the island, is yet another expression of the Alliance’s desire to better manage disagreements with Western allies. But it also represents a sense of respect for the Turkish Cypriots’ right to decide their fate.
Implementing the promise to “facilitate solutions” rather than “taking sides” might yield results in regional conflicts in the Caucasus and the Middle East. The commitment to “steadfastly continue to take steps aimed at solving the Turkish-Armenian” conflict, though, could prove easier said than done in view of the bloc’s right-wing parties' close relations with Azerbaijan. Similarly, the proposed, intensified dialogue with Damascus might not deliver speedy results as Bashar al-Assad can be expected to drive a hard bargain.
The Nation Alliance is not calling for a break with the multidimensional foreign policy that Turkey has pursued in recent years, but this is not presented as a search for alternatives to counterbalance the democratic West. Instead, the alliance argues that Turkey’s relationship with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization need to be “realistic” and “sustainable.”
Meanwhile, the six opposition parties refrain from giving explicitly positive messages in terms of Turkey’s relations with the United States. The reference, though, to “place the relations with the U.S. on an institutional basis,” speaks of the opposition’s conviction that the structural nature of the problems with Washington requires increased dialogue between relevant institutions rather than dialogue limited to the leadership level. The preference to use the term “relationship of alliance based on mutual trust,” rather than “strategic alliance,” which was used in the past to define bilateral ties, shows that the Nation Alliance is well aware of the erosion of trust between Ankara and Washington.
While pledging to take initiatives in order to make it possible for Turkey to be reaccepted to the F-35 fighter jet program, the opposition alliance conspicuously fails to make any mention of the purchase of S-400 air defense system from Russia which precipitated Turkey’s exclusion from the F-35 program. This is suggestive of a reluctance to provoke Moscow that the opposition believes has decided to help Erdoğan get reelected. Yet as the emphasis on maintaining relations “among equals” show, it is nonetheless clear that the parties of the Nation Alliance are concerned about the asymmetrical nature of a relation tilted in favor of Moscow, and are notably aiming to decrease Turkey’s dependence on Russian natural gas. The Alliance also promises a review of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant that is currently being constructed by a Russian company.
CONCLUSIONS: While President Erdoğan relies on Russia and the Gulf countries to keep the Turkish economy afloat – a task rendered all the more arduous in the wake of the devastating twin earthquakes on February 6 – the Nation Alliance and its presidential candidate is determined to improve Turkey’s standing in Western finance circles, as Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu made clear during a visit to London last December. In case of victory, the Nation Alliance is likely to orchestrate a careful distancing from Russia and reset Turkey’s relations with its Western allies.
Barçın Yinanç is a foreign policy columnist at the Turkish news site t24