Turkey’s national elections on Sunday could put an end to the 13-year rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which has ruled without coalition partners. Elections results could force AKP to accept a coalition partner to govern the country. That partner, though, could alter the direction of Turkey’s energy policy, threatening deals with Russian, its partner on the major Turkish Stream pipeline deal -- and possibly pushing the country closer to the European Union.
At diplomatic meetings and energy conferences throughout the Middle East, Europe and Asia, Turkish officials have for the past several months promoted their country as a reliable, stable energy conduit in the region, the only one that can provide energy security in a turbulent part of the world. The Turkish government has been making the case that it is best positioned, both geographically and politically, to find a solution to Europe’s energy problem: The continent depends largely on Russian natural gas exports for energy, even as it's locked in a confrontation with Moscow over its role in the eastern Ukraine war.
Turkey is gaining from this Western conundrum. It is participating in pipeline projects that benefit both Russia, the biggest exporter of natural gas, and the West. Some of those projects include Russia and its state-owned Gazprom company, while others bypass Russia completely, indicating that Turkey may be hedging its bets by playing both sides. That strategy could be in peril after the election if a coalition partner were to come onto the scene, experts say. The reason? A new party in the majority could push the government toward once again cozying up to the European Union rather than reaching out to Russia.
“This coalition partner might have a different strategy in terms of Turkey’s overall energy policy,” said Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkish foreign policy at Carnegie Europe, a research institute in Brussels. “It could impact Turkey’s relationship with the European Union,” possibly pushing it closer to Europe and away from Russia. The pipeline will comprise four strings with an aggregate capacity of 63 billion cubic meters per year.
Turkey’s recently renewed relationship with Russia and the partnership between the two on the new Turkish Stream pipeline, a proposed mega pipeline that would carry Russian natural gas to Europe via Turkey and Greece, has pushed the idea that Turkey would become part of the European Union into the far-off future, Ülgen said. Turkey once lobbied for EU membership, before Erdoğan's government decided to look, instead, toward Central Asia for economic opportunity and political influence. Hundreds of thousands of people in Turkey protested against the government in 2013, calling for Erdoğan to join the EU, but the ruling AKP party is now, instead, reaching out to Russia for economic partnerships.
“Turkey is profiting from Russia’s political isolation and Gazprom’s trouble with the enforcement of the European Union’s [sanctions],” said Marco Giuli, an expert on energy at the European Policy Center, a think tank based in Brussels, adding that Turkish deals with Russia were meant mostly to “to cope with Turkey’s domestic gas demand.”
“Erdoğan has tried to transform Turkey to act as a commercial partner of the European Union, looked at it as a client. It has not approached the relationship with the idea that it was a potential EU member state,” Ülgen said. “A new coalition partner might be more [inclined] to adopt a position that is more in partnership with the EU rather than seeing it as a client entity.”
But, Giuli said, the future of Ankara’s energy policy remains uncertain, mostly because the other major parties running in the election, including the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), have virtually no track record of speaking on energy or environmental issues related to energy development.
Polls indicate that AKP, led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, is in no danger of losing power, but they suggest the main opposition parties will do well. This could prevent the AKP from winning the two-thirds of seats it needs to push the constitutional change it seeks -- to give the president executive powers. The moderate-Islamist AKP may even fall below 51 percent, forcing negotiations to form a coalition.
Joost Lajendijk, a columnist for Today's Zaman, a Turkish newspaper, is one of the only journalists in the country focusing on the importance of energy in any of these possible negotiations. "What is, unfortunately, totally missing in this election campaign is Turkey's future energy policy. Do the opposition parties have an alternative view on where the country should be heading?" Lajendijk wrote in a recent column.
That silence from opposition parties is worrying analysts, who say that any new coalition partner is a complete mystery when it comes to energy policy.
“Whatever the electoral result, any energy deal will have to be evaluated against Turkey’s future relations with the EU,” Giuli said.