What can Washington do to increase the chances of a positive outcome for both Turkish democracy and U.S. interests?
1. Communicate clear and principled support for democratic values while avoiding provocative rhetoric that can be exploited by Erdoğan
Washington should make it clear that it will be watching carefully for signs of fraud in Turkey’s upcoming elections. If there are credible reports of manipulation, Washington should refrain from any action that appears to endorse the result. This would include calling to congratulate Erdoğan in the immediate aftermath of a contested election or accepting high-level meetings with Turkish officials in the following months.
At the same time, U.S. officials should avoid giving the impression that they are openly backing the opposition or overly eager for Erdoğan’s defeat. This would be all the more important were post-election protests to erupt. Western cheerleading would do little to increase their chances of success, but likewise Western silence, which could be taken as tacit support for Erdoğan, would do little to help. Most important would be conveying – and ensuring – that a draconian response by the government would have serious costs for the bilateral relationship.
2. Whatever happens, do not expect problems to disappear
Whatever the outcome of the elections, both Turkey and the U.S.-Turkish alliance will face a continuing series of challenges. Hoping that Erdoğan will relax following an electoral victory has not proved a reliable strategy in the past, nor has turning a blind eye toward his authoritarian behavior in search of foreign policy concessions. Erdoğan will undoubtedly continue to make pragmatic compromises as needed but will also continue to operate according to deeply held beliefs that put him at odds with the United States.
Nor should smooth sailing be expected in case of a surprise opposition victory. Turkey’s domestic politics will almost certainly remain chaotic if the opposition wins parliament. Turkey will need support in negotiating economic turmoil that could otherwise play to Erdoğan’s advantage. While both CHP and IYI party leaders have pushed for improved relations with the West, their statements also make it clear that they should not be expected to break with deeply held nationalist positions on issues like U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds.
3. Look beyond elections
Without downplaying the importance of the coming election, it would be a mistake to expect that the battle for Turkish democracy will either be won or lost in the coming weeks. Turkey remains a dynamic society with a long democratic history whose political struggles will continue whatever happens at the ballot boxes this summer. As a result, U.S. policymakers should not assume that, if Erdoğan prevails again, Turkey will simply slide into a period of stable autocratic rule. While bracing for strained relations and trying to minimize U.S. dependence on concrete strategic assets like the Incirlik airbase, Washington must focus on Turkey’s long-term importance to U.S. interests in Europe and the Middle East. Rather than simply writing off Turkish democracy if Erdoğan wins, policymakers must remain engaged with Turkish society and prepared for the moment when democracy can be resuscitated.