Turkish rift: How will Erdoğan's victory or defeat in the presidential race affect Ukraine?

Turkish rift: How will Erdoğan's victory or defeat in the presidential race affect Ukraine?

A third scenario could be a political crisis in case one of the candidates refuses to accept their loss

Turkish rift: How will Erdoğan's victory or defeat in the presidential race affect Ukraine?
From left to right: Turkey's current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu
Photo: DR

This Sunday, May 14th, presidential and parliamentary elections will take place in Turkey. The winner will lead the Turkish Republic until 2028. Ukraine has reasons to closely monitor the course of the electoral process. Turkey is an active participant in remote russian-Ukrainian agrarian negotiations and a guarantor of compliance with agreements in the Black Sea region.

Symbolically, the elections take place a few days before the expiration of the grain corridor or, in other words, the Istanbul Agreement, according to the russian side. Under this agreement, Ukraine gained the opportunity to export agricultural products, support the economy, and ensure the stability of the national currency. Today, 30 million tonnes of agricultural goods have already been exported, which is only 10% less than the pre-war season.

Ahead of the Turkish elections, russia has significantly intensified its blockade of this channel, indicating that its terms of operation may be updated depending on the election results.

There are two main candidates for the presidency of the Turkish Republic. The first one is the incumbent head of state, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been in power for over 20 years, with the last eight as president. His opponent is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People's Party, nominated by the united opposition.

According to current ratings, the opposition candidate is ahead of the current president by a few percentage points – 48% to 45%. This is not enough for an undisputed victory, so the final result will likely only be clear at the end of May, after the second round.

Mind investigated: What should Ukraine be prepared for in case of victory for either candidate?

To what extent was the Ukrainian question prominent in the pre-election rhetoric? The topic of Ukraine was not a key or significant focus during the pre-election period.

Citizens of Turkey are more concerned with practical issues such as record-high inflation (72% in 2022), escalating economic crises, and food prices. Notably, one of the points of contention for the candidates has been the price of onions, which reached $4 per kilogram. Kılıçdaroğlu used them as an example of the current president's failed policies.

Another actively exploited topic is the recovery from the catastrophic earthquake that occurred on February 6, 2023. There have also been heated discussions about the reduction of the president's powers and religious aspects. Overall, the Ukrainian question did not feature prominently.

Since the Ukrainian question was not publicly discussed by the candidates, it complicates predicting their actions after the election.

However, can we forecast how the situation regarding the grain corridor will develop after the elections? It is highly probable that if Erdoğan retains his position, Ukraine will maintain the opportunity for maritime exports.

For the current president of Turkey, the Istanbul Agreement is a matter of prestige, a demonstration of his victory and significance on the international stage. It is perceived as a personal achievement, which it undoubtedly is. Turkish media, in fact, referred to the Istanbul Agreement exclusively as the presidential agreement. Therefore, if Erdoğan remains in power, he will seek to extend the corridor even without taking russia's opinion into account, as was the case in the autumn of 2022.

On the other hand, his competitor is unlikely to guarantee the implementation of the Istanbul agreements from the outset, and it is unlikely to be his unquestionable priority, as it is not a matter he is directly involved in. It is also worth considering that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is unlikely to have direct contact with vladimir putin. On the contrary, he has criticised the current Turkish president for being too close to the russian leader.

Thus, Erdoğan is a more advantageous winner for Ukraine? No, but he is more understandable.

And what about the parliamentary elections? According to polls, none of the parties is achieving a majority, which makes the position of the president even more significant.

So the election outcome is undecided? No, the gap between the main candidates is within the margin of error.

Erdoğan is making all efforts to neutralise it. For example, a week before the elections, he announced a 45% salary increase for civil servants, raising it to a minimum of $770, which will affect 700,000 people in 2023-2024.

There are also promises to increase overtime pay by 70%, night shift pay by 8%, and provide a 10% increase in benefits for veterans. They even resorted to openly communist promises, such as free gas for the population. The 'promotional campaign' has already started: Turkish citizens recently received zero gas bills for April.

Is a third scenario of election results possible? Yes, a representative of the opposition could win with a minimal advantage, and it would allow the incumbent president to claim falsifications, violations, and refuse to accept defeat.

This would plunge the country into a political crisis. Until it is resolved, any Ukrainian issues will be considered on a residual basis.

How likely is such a scenario? The likelihood of this scenario started to be discussed after a statement by the Turkish Minister of the Interior, Süleyman Soylu, saying that the presidential elections could be used by the West for a political coup.

What is happening with the grain corridor while the election process is ongoing? It is operating at a minimum capacity, which has been already low.

The russian part of the inspection group in the Bosphorus has stopped hiding its intention to wait for the election results, and, in fact, blocks the entry and exit of vessels. The bad news is that the pace of 1.5 ships per day is most likely to be maintained until the final results, which is May 28th.

This week, negotiations took place in Turkey involving representatives of transportation and military agencies from three countries, as well as UN representatives. At the moment, they have not produced any conclusive results.

What does russia expect from the Turkish elections? Like Ukraine, the continued rule of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan provides russia with a more understandable scenario for the development of events and negotiation strategies.

However, the grain corridor is secondary for russia. Based on the everyday rhetoric of pro-kremlin experts, the russian government is more concerned about "guaranteeing the security of Crimea" if the figure of the Turkish president changes.

In russia, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is considered 'openly pro-Western', and his rule could lead to a significant increase in NATO presence in the Black Sea.

Regarding Turkey, what does russia want in exchange for the continuation of the grain corridor? The actual implementation of its part of the Istanbul agreements, which means the introduction of a regime of maximum trade facilitation for its (and stolen Ukrainian) grain and fertilisers. It involves unblocking the operations of russian agricultural bank and reconnecting it to the SWIFT system. Another demand is the resumption of the operation of the ammonia pipeline from Tolyatti to Odesa. The importance of this for russia was discussed in an article by Mind.

What other changes are possible in case of a change in power in Turkey? Reduction in the scale of russia's assistance in circumventing sanctions, which Turkey is currently proposing.

Disruption or slowdown in the development of economic ties between the two countries.

Change in Turkey's role as a mediator in military conflicts, not only with Ukraine but also with Syria.

Support for Ukraine during its accession to NATO.

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