Why Azerbaijan is wringing its hands over Turkish elections
Mohammad Salami, The Cradle, April 19, 2023 —
Azerbaijan is watching upcoming Turkish elections with a great deal of concern. An Erdogan victory means continuity for Baku’s hardline regional policies, but an opposition win may undermine its recent gains.
The upcoming Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections on 14 May have generated significant interest both inside and outside of Turkiye.
As president of Turkiye for nearly nine years, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has presided over many controversial policies and their outcomes, which include changing the country’s system to a presidential one, grappling with high inflation rates and a weak currency, pursuing a neo-Ottoman policy in the region, taking a neutral position in the Ukraine crisis, poorly handling the fallout from the 2023 earthquake, and ambitiously seeking to become Eurasia’s major energy hub.
In addition to its domestic implications, the Turkish elections also hold importance for a number of neighboring states, including Azerbaijan. Today, Baku finds itself in a situation of neither peace nor war in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis, and is observing the Turkish election process more closely than ever before in its recent history.
As Azerbaijan’s biggest supporter against Armenian, Russian, and Iranian interests in this conflict zone, Turkiye has been an unfailing ally for Baku in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Azerbaijani government is leaning heavily toward an Erdogan election victory to ensure that Ankara continues that critical role.
Opposition challenges and foreign policy shifts
The Turkish opposition, known as the “Table of Six” – consisting of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Good Party, the Felicity Party (SAADET), the Democratic Party (DP), the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), and the Future Party (GP) – is expected to pose a tough challenge to Erdogan in the May elections. Polls indicate that CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is currently leading by 2.5 to 5 points, and that smaller parties will support him to oust Erdogan and his party’s two decade-long reign.
The opposition made public its 200-page “Joint Memorandum of Understanding” on 30 January, which emphasizes the principle of “Peace at Home, Peace in the World,” and states that national interest and security will be the basis of its policies. While the opposition has not yet reached a comprehensive agreement on its foreign policy approaches, there are signs of a significant convergence among them on shifting Turkish foreign policy to distance it from the Erdogan-era orientations.
These include abandoning personalized foreign policy-making and re-institutionalizing it; recognizing Turkiye’s ‘western’ alignment and forgoing the pursuit of non-western strategic orientations; maintaining balanced relations with Russia and China without jeopardizing western alliance commitments; reaffirming Turkiye’s bid to become a full EU member; and focusing on repairing Turkiye’s human rights record.
Impact of Turkish elections on Azerbaijan
At this critical moment in time, Azerbaijan is engaged in varying degrees of conflict with Iran, Armenia, and Russia following the events of the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Erdogan’s Turkiye was a key, irreplaceable ally in helping Baku maintain its hardline policies against these three neighbors.
Azerbaijani authorities are well aware that if the Turkish opposition comes to power, they are likely to be preoccupied for some years with domestic affairs that will potentially sideline the importance of Baku and its aspirations, as per the opposition’s election promises.
The opposition’s proposed priorities – such as re-converting the presidential system to a parliamentary one, reducing inflation from 50+ percent to below 10 percent within two years, reducing the powers of the presidency, removing the presidential veto power in legislation, and maintaining the independence of the judiciary – are therefore viewed with apprehension by Azerbaijan.
One of the most notable foreign policy changes likely to occur under an opposition government is a recalibrated shift toward the west, with renewed Turkish efforts to join the European Union (EU). This could have implications for Azerbaijan, as the EU may try to exploit Russia’s diminished activism in South Caucasus due to its heavy military engagement in Ukraine, and position itself as a mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Notably, high-level quadrilateral mediation talks took place in Prague on October 6, 2022 between the presidents of the European Council, Charles Michel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
Relations with the EU
These talks were held after an escalation in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan on 13 September, 2022. Shortly afterward, on 17 October, the Council of the EU decided to deploy 40 experts to the Armenian side of the border to monitor, analyze, and report on the regional situation.
The outcome of the Turkish elections and any potential westward shifts in Turkey’s foreign policy could impact the dynamics of the Karabakh conflict and increase the EU’s involvement as a mediator.
The EU monitoring mission is the first international presence launched by Brussels since the conflict began in 1988. The role of the EU in the conflict and its likely connection with a Turkish opposition government is being closely monitored by the authorities in Baku.
There are concerns that the EU may exert pressure on Ankara to make concessions to Yerevan and reduce support for Baku. Turkiye and Armenia have already initiated talks to normalize relations, and on 24 March, agreed to fully open their post-1993 land borders. A year earlier, the border was opened to diplomats and citizens of third countries, and direct cargo flights were established.
The issue of Turkish Cyprus
The issue of Northern Cyprus, which is backed by Turkiye, remains a point of contention between Baku and Ankara, and this may become more acute under an opposition-led government in Turkiye.
Erdogan has actively encouraged the governments of Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). However, Azerbaijan, which has the closest relations with Turkiye among them, has refused to do so, leading to friction between Baku and Ankara on this issue.
Baku realizes that recognizing the TRNC could have negative ramifications for Azerbaijan in relation to the Karabakh conflict. If Azerbaijan recognizes the TRNC, it could lead to retaliatory actions from Greece and Cyprus, including recognizing the de facto local Armenian authorities in Karabakh. Additionally, Greece as the main supporter of the internationally-recognized Republic of Cyprus is also a transit country for Azerbaijan’s multi-billion-dollar strategic Southern Gas Corridor project.
Differing views on Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
Another of Baku’s concerns are the variety of Turkish opposition figures who appeared unsupportive of Azerbaijan during the 2020 Karabakh war, such as the deputy head of foreign relations of the main opposition CHP. These include liberal/left parties and others in the national opposition who have little desire to throw their weight behind Baku in a regional conflict.
In April 2021, the Turkish parliament’s Human Rights Committee released a report on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, stating that Armenia was solely responsible for the conflict and calling for Armenia to stand trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged “war crimes” and “human rights violations.”
But major opposition parties such as the CHP and HDP called the parliamentary report biased. The committee’s HDP member, Fatma Kurtulan, disagreed with the report and said it was selective as it only addresses attacks targeting Azerbaijani civilians:
“In the face of Azerbaijan’s allegations that Armenia has committed a crime against civilians, Armenia accuses Azerbaijan of the same charges. In this regard, the committee’s report has been prepared without listening to the eyewitnesses on the Armenian side, without conducting a visit to Armenia, and without analyzing Armenian civilian settlements.”
CHP lawmakers Mahmut Tanal and Servet Unal also voiced their disagreement with the report, arguing that the rhetoric of Turkish extremists places Armenian minorities in Turkiye at risk of being attacked.
The opposition HDP openly opposes the policies of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the Karabakh conflict, and favor recognizing the WW1 genocide of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, opening the border between Turkiye and Armenia without any preconditions, and establishing friendly relations with Yerevan.
Selahattin Demirtas, one of the party leaders, insists that “solution efforts regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan will be supported.”
Ankara’s future ties with Baku
If Erdogan is defeated and opposition parties lead Turkiye’s next government, it remains unlikely that there will be a significant change in the main structure of Turkiye’s foreign policy. The deep strategic ties between Baku and Ankara will continue – whoever wins – under the slogan of “One Nation-Two States” with Azerbaijan.
However, due to external pressures and challenges posed by parties involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis, such as Iran, Russia, France, and the EU, it is equally likely that Ankara – out from under the autocratic decision making style of Erdogan – will tweak specific policies toward Azerbaijan.
This potential shift in Turkiye’s “reliability” is a real cause for concern in Baku. When teetering on the edge between war and peace, every staunch ally matters. Ankara’s uninterrupted weapons supply to Baku has made a qualitative difference in Azerbaijan’s military capabilities and its deterrence posture.
Without those guarantees, Azerbaijan cannot sustain its belligerence in a neighborhood opposed to the constant escalations. After the May Turkish elections, Baku may either breathe easy or be forced to de-escalate considerably.