Shocking images from Turkey’s parliament, the Grand National Assembly, made headlines last week, as fighting erupted between lawmakers of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). These disturbing incidents, along with a weakening Turkish currency and the decline of the country’s economy, are indicative of high polarization and political instability.
Turkey is currently governed by a political coalition, the People’s Alliance, formed by Erdogan’s ruling AKP, with 286 elected MPs, and the ultra-nationalist and conservative Bahçeli’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), with 48 parliamentarian seats. This coalition enabled Erdogan to maintain his power grip, as his AKP will complete 20 years of continuous rule in November 2022.
From a Western perspective, a post-Erdogan Turkey would usher in a safer regional environment.
However, for the first time, the possibility of an opposition win in the 2023 general elections is gaining ground. From a Western perspective, a post-Erdogan Turkey would usher in a safer regional environment, but to properly assess this claim, a cautious look into the alternative options is necessary.
The Turkish Opposition Political Landscape
When it comes to the main Turkish opposition, the Nation Alliance group showcases the driving forces in a possible post-AKP era. CHP, the Republican People’s Party, is currently the main opposition party in parliament, with 135 elected MPs, and a founding member of the Nation Alliance. Formed in the early 1920s by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, CHP has been the first political entity to form a government in the modern Turkish Republic.
Republicanism, nationalism, and reformism remain the main pillars of CHP’s ideology. Despite the several up and down phases it went through over the past decades, CHP is still perceived as a direct successor to Atatürk’s legacy. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is the current CHP president, and the party’s popularity was highlighted in the 2019 Turkish mayoral elections. Ekrem İmamoğlu was elected Mayor of Istanbul, while Mansur Yavaş won the popular vote in the Turkish capital and once AKP-stronghold, Ankara. Both candidates were backed by CHP and the Nation Alliance coalition.
The second major bloc of the Nation Alliance, with 36 elected MPs, is the Good Party (İYİ Party), founded by Meral Akşener in 2017. The party is promoting a Kemalist, nationalist, and fundamentally anti-Erdogan agenda, focusing on social justice and liberal development. Akşener is self-labeling the İYİ Party as centrist, but it is essentially perceived as conservative. She is adopting a clear pro-EU stance and seeks to re-establish Turkey’s national standing as a reliable Western ally.
The Democrat Party (DP) and the Felicity Party (SAADET) are the smaller factions of Nation Alliance, with only two and one representatives respectively in Parliament. DP currently advocates a Kemalist and liberal agenda, maintaining numerous common positions with İYİ Party. SAADET, led by Temel Karamollaoğlu, follows a conservative and pro-Islamist policy, with common roots with AKP. SAADET joined the Nation Alliance coalition in 2018 and has remained a part of the bloc, albeit with basic ideological differences with the other parties.
Finally, Ahmet Davutoglou’s Future Party (Gelecek Partisi) and Ali Babacan’s Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) should also be taken into consideration when looking into future developments on the Turkish political scene. The power of both parties in the current Grand National Assembly is minimal to none, however, there are two key factors emphasizing their role in the 2023 elections.
First, both parties are already in coordination with the Nation Alliance, foreshadowing a potential cooperation. Second, Davutoglou and Babacan are both coming from AKP, having held key government positions previously. The political significance of these leaders in contemporary Turkish politics is undeniable, and their current electoral reach could expand through a purposeful cooperation with the main opposition groups.
Turkish Foreign Policy in a Regional and Historical Context
A brief analysis of Turkish foreign policy in the Aegean region over the past decades can highlight the intentions of these Kemalist-affiliated political entities. In spite of the alleged, yet insignificant, escalation between Ankara and Athens in late 2020, two landmark events should be considered when assessing the Aegean security landscape in the recent past.
A brief analysis of Turkish foreign policy in the Aegean region over the past decades can highlight the intentions of these Kemalist-affiliated political entities.
The 1974 Turkish offensive operations in Cyprus, leading to the unresolved Cyprus dispute— a crucial point of friction among Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey— and the 1996 Imia crisis, which has created the confrontational and problematic situation in the Aegean Sea which continues today. On both occasions, Turkey’s governments were made up of fundamentally Kemalist parties.
In 1974, Bülent Ecevit’s CHP was the ruling party during the Cyprus conflict, and in 1996, Tansu Çiller, the only female Prime Minister of Turkey to date, was leading the True Path Party government. Unsurprisingly, Akşener’s grand entrance into Turkish politics was through the currently dissolved True Path Party, back in 1995.
Despite the fact that CHP, the contemporary main opposition party in Turkey, and the former True Path Party have had critical differences related to social policy and the economy, they have maintained a crucial common denominator: their Kemalist legacy and their nationalist to ultra-nationalist ideology. Thus, a possible Kemalist coalition success in the upcoming elections could bring immense consequences for regional stability and security.
The Nation Coalition would direct Turkish foreign policy towards a much narrower agenda, with direct implications for Greece and Cyprus.
Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman policy has significantly expanded Turkey’s regional presence, establishing a wide zone of influence, with Ankara emerging as a significant player. Through investments in Africa, military operations in Libya, Syria, and the Caucasus, and foreign policy initiatives across the Balkans, Turkey has achieved a considerable international status; though one with too many open fronts. On the other hand, the Nation Coalition would direct Turkish foreign policy towards a much narrower agenda, with direct implications for Greece and Cyprus.
The Great Paradox
Therefore, foreign commentators and especially those from Greece, should be wary of how a post-Erdogan Turkey might look like, even as the current attitude is unthinkingly promoting an anti-Erdogan voice. The following titles from some of Greece’s most prominent media outlets are indicative of the domestic climate: “Turkish Economy collapsing, Erdogan puffed-up over Hagia Sophia,” “Imamoglou’s triumph, Erdogan’s colossal defeat,” “Akşener vs Erdogan: You destroyed the country, serving Putin’s interests,” “Erdogan’s upcoming catastrophe.”
It is apparent that most of the mainstream Greek media are adopting an anti-Erdogan stance at all costs, without seriously considering the reality of a post-Erdogan Turkey. Major international news outlets imply that an opposition’s success in the 2023 elections could enhance regional stability. A recent Al-Arabiya article states that “the region and the world needs a stable and democratic Turkey, which is highly unlikely under Erdogan,” while Marc Pierini, a former diplomat and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, recently wrote about the high costs of AKP’s unpredictable policy.
In fact, if the outcome of the 2023 elections favors a Kemalist coalition government, the current priorities will radically shift. The major parties of the possible governmental scheme will adopt a much friendlier stance towards the US and will considerably limit Turkish involvement in foreign conflicts across MENA. However, their new Turkish domestic and foreign policy will possibly move towards two main axes: the Kurdish issue and the Aegean dispute.
With a looming economic crisis plaguing Turkey, a situation that will probably worsen by 2023, a Kemalist/nationalist coalition will almost certainly shift its focus to the expansion of Turkish influence in the Aegean Sea. Free of the burdens caused by the Turkish political and military involvement in Syria and Libya, and shaky relations with the US, but still boosted by a robust Turkish defense industry from the Erdogan era, such a political coalition will probably leverage the disputes with Greece and Cyprus to promote some of Turkey’s core territorial claims.
Such a political coalition will probably leverage the disputes with Greece and Cyprus to promote some of Turkey’s core territorial claims.
In so doing, Ankara could eventually secure a share of the Aegean energy reserves, scoring a significant domestic victory, as any achievements at the expense of Greece or Cyprus are more than welcomed by the Turkish electoral body. Apparently, such critical goals could be hardly achieved through mere diplomatic means. The likely event of an aggressive Turkish strategy in the Aegean should put into question the optimistic and blissful assumptions around a safer regional environment, in the case of Erdogan’s defeat.
These are not just speculations but rather ideas that have been repeatedly emphasized by some of the most prominent Nation Alliance figures. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu stated in the past that Turkey is willing to take back 18 islands “occupied by Greece.” CHP has also been determinedly pushing the Turkish agenda for Ankara’s involvement in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone, urging the European Union to be skeptical of Greece.
Similarly, Meral Akşener, leader of İYİ Party, has cynically acknowledged in the past that another Turkish invasion in Cyprus could be imminent. In this context, the current mainstream Greek and international attitude towards the Turkish political opposition constitutes an utter paradox.
This complex environment will be ultimately shaped by political developments in the wider region. It is not only the results of the Turkish elections that will drastically affect the regional geopolitical landscape. For instance, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), is currently the third political faction in Turkey and is not expected to be a part of any political coalition. HDP’s power, considering its pro-Kurdish and pro-minority stance, could be a considerable factor for the evolution of Turkish policy in 2023.
Developments outside the Turkish borders could also be fundamental, such as the 2022 French elections. The landmark Greek-French deal is perceived as a containment element for any Turkish assertiveness in the Aegean. However, this agreement was favored by the close relationship between the current Greek PM and the French President. A potential Macron defeat in the upcoming elections could provoke renewed uncertainty for Greece’s interests in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The 2023 Turkish elections will coincide with the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. This historic landmark event, a century ago, signaled the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of the new Turkey. It also sealed Kemal Atatürk’s rise to power and concluded a colossal Greek defeat, in the aftermath of the Anatolia campaign. With all the political and historical correlations considered, Athens might still have time to adopt a wiser and more critical stance towards the Turkish political opposition, compared to its current utopic and unfounded approach.