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Elections over, time to reset Turkish foreign policy

Turkey should not follow a sectarian policy in Syria and Iraq and an ideological policy in Egypt

Sinem Cengiz

Published: Updated:

Turkey’s nationwide local elections ended with the remarkable victory of the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), on Sunday. Elections were considered as a serious test for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s 11-year-long rule due to the recent political turmoil and the corruption scandal in the country. Sunday’s results were not only a victory for Erdoğan but also a “show of strength” towards its opponents in the country and a message to countries around the region.

Turkish elections were closely followed by the regional countries. Soon after the victory, regional leaders, including Iran’s President Hassan Rowhani, Gaza’s Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leader Massoud Barzani and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, congratulated Erdoğan on the success of his party in Sunday’s elections.

Saudi Arabia, which is at odds with Turkey due to the harsh stance adopted by Ankara over the military coup that ousted Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi, also congratulated the AK Party, but only when Erdoğan called Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to commend him for being appointed as deputy crown prince.

Close relationships

However, no greeting messages were received from the other regional countries, such as Egypt, Iraq and other Gulf countries, with whom Turkey used to enjoy close relationships with not so long ago.

Turkey should not follow a sectarian policy in Syria and Iraq and an ideological policy in Egypt

Sinem Cengiz

The Turkish government, which is suffering from a bad reputation due to its troubled relations with its immediate neighbors and the regional countries, should consider this victory as an opportunity for the betterment of Turkish foreign policy. After Sunday’s elections, Turkey should adopt a new approach in foreign policy towards the region and should work hard to fix its foreign relations with the countries in its neighborhood.

In the past, foreign policy did not used to get a lot of attention in elections; however, as Turkey started to play a greater role in international and regional politics, the Turkish public started to take a more serious interest in their country’s record on foreign policy issues. Aware of this fact, before the elections, the Turkish government acted as if it started to fix its foreign policy with sending positive message to its neighbors. However, this didn’t really work.

The Turkish government, rather than considering the foreign policy as a tool to achieve votes in the elections, should consider the results of the election as a chance to break the walls with its regional neighbors.

It is not a secret that Turkey’s Middle East policy is in urgent need of fine-tuning. Now that Erdoğan has won the elections, what is expected from him is to speed up efforts to normalize Turkey’s ties with its neighbors by reshaping foreign policy.

Government should start to return to a more balanced foreign policy towards the regional countries with moving away from a partisan Sunni Muslim and pro-Muslim Brotherhood line in the region. Turkey should try harder to find another ways to walk a fine in the sectarian and religious divides in the Middle East.

Sectarian policy

Turkey should not follow a sectarian policy in Syria and Iraq and an ideological policy in Egypt. Turkey’s relations with the central government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad is strained due to the energy deals Ankara inked with the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq by bypassing Baghdad. Rather than excluding Baghdad, Turkey should be able to walk a fine line between Maliki government and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

From the other side, Turkey’s harsh rhetoric towards the ousting of Mursi harmed its relations with Arab states, particularly with the Gulf. Turkey was further alienated in the Middle East after bold statements from Erdoğan that the Egyptian government described as an intervention in Egypt’s internal affairs.

The goal of the “zero problems with neighbors” policy was to develop friendly relations with neighbors and not use tensions for short-term domestic political gains. So, the government should give a chance for this policy and get rid of the image of the “odd man out in the region.” Stability and having good relations with neighbors is equal to international prestige.

If Turkish government sticks to its old “zero problems with neighbors” policy and uses soft power methods rather than using the tensions in the neighbor countries as a tool for domestic political gains, its foreign policy will regain its prestige and Turkey will be again welcomed in the region.

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Sinem Cengiz is an Ankara-based Diplomatic Correspondent for Today’s Zaman Newspaper, which is the best-selling and the most circulated English daily in Turkey. Born and lived in Kuwait, Cengiz focuses mainly on issues regarding Middle East and Turkey’s relations with the region. Cengiz is also a blogger at Today's Zaman's blog section where she provides fresh and unusual accounts of what's going on in Ankara's corridors of power. She can be found on Twitter: @SinemCngz

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.