In June, Turkey’s ruling AK Party lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in the 13 years since it came to power. But, following a landslide victory in the renewed elections held on Sunday, it is now firmly set to return to the helm of the country. Backed strongly by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, AKP won 49 percent of the vote with a narrative emphasizing political stability. The scale of AKP’s victory will have significant ramifications for Turkey’s foreign policy.
The strong government that will now be established in Ankara will enjoy a considerable margin of maneuver on its foreign policy options. Compared with many other governments in Europe, it will not only have the luxury of being the exclusive owner of executive power, but it can also take advantage of the absence of any near-term electoral calculations, with the next electoral cycle slated for 2019.
The new government can therefore sign on to new foreign policy initiatives almost in isolation of the dynamics of the local environment. It has little to fear from any domestic backlash especially from the country’s strong nationalist constituency. The victory margin essentially creates an ideal setting for foreign policy-making that has the potential to allow Turkey to win back its diplomatic prestige and re-establish its role as the indispensable ally of the West.
The relationship with the rest of Europe will be among the first to be affected in this transformation. The new Turkish government can now firmly back a settlement for Cyprus at a time when the U.N.-sponsored negotiations between the two communities of the island are nearing their conclusion. The settlement of this frozen conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean will be a significant achievement for a region where other conflicts continue to rage. It will give a significant boost to the Turkey-EU relationship.
On the question of Syrian refugees, Turkey also has a strengthened hand. Ankara is now in a position to deliver what Europe needs. In order to maintain the cohesion of its plan for the resettlement of the Syrian refugees in European countries, the EU wants the long-term collaboration of Turkey with a firm commitment to manage the orderly outflow of Syrian refugees. Yet this expectation can be fulfilled only if the vast number of Syrians currently being hosted in Turkey are given economic prospects. Turkey can now more easily consider a gradual opening of its employment market to Syrians, allowing this large population sound options for integration and employment. In return, Turkey can press Europe for the acceptance of the principle of burden-sharing for the refugees, fast-tracking its demand for visa freedoms and a revitalization of the stalled process of accession.
An equally challenging task facing Turkish policy makers will be the settlement of the country’s Kurdish question. With its comfortable majority in Parliament, the new government should be expected to resuscitate the settlement talks with the representatives of the Kurdish political movement. A resolution will positively impact the quest for peace and stability in Syria. It will also ensure a better cohesion among the anti-Islamic State (ISIS) coalition, with Ankara becoming less concerned with the backing of the Syrian Kurds as an effective ground element against the jihadist entity.
These initiatives will complement the ongoing transformation of Ankara’s foreign policy vision. Faced with the ill-fated consequences of its activism in the Middle East, which has left Turkey with a diminishing influence and a smaller accolade of regional friends, Ankara had initiated a re-calibration of its foreign policy even before the elections. A more realistic assessment of its capabilities resulted in a shift of its policy on Syria, as Ankara dropped its categorical objection for allocating a role to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the negotiations on the future of Syria. At the same time, Turkey agreed to be in the vanguard of the fight against ISIS, eliminating a point of friction with its allies in the West.
But this more optimistic assessment of Turkish foreign policy will very much depend on how President Erdogan and the AKP leadership interpret their large electoral success. The hope is that they shall construe this vote as a support for the more recent transformation of Turkish foreign policy, driven by a more realistic and less ideological perspective on regional dynamics. The alternative is a return to the over-confident AKP policies of the post-Arab Spring underpinned by a romanticized narrative of the Ottoman legacy. It is this crucial choice that will shape the future trajectory of Turkey’s regional diplomacy.
Sinan Ulgen writes for Carnegie Europe and for Newsweek.