On May 28, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won re-election, the second such time he has defended himself for that office, the first since the presidency was granted immense new powers in 2017, and, for the first time, he succeeded in a runoff vote against an opposition that at once seemed more organized than ever and fatally flawed from the start. This week FPRI will be sharing a suite of essays from leading analysts tackling different aspects and outcomes of the election—from internal politics to foreign policy, from Erdoğan’s legacy to the shape of things to come. By James Ryan in Foreign Policy Research Institute on June 5, 2023.
Erdoğan is entering his third decade in power, and while he is still a relatively young sixty-nine years old, serious questions were raised during the campaign about his dynamism—he fell ill in the middle of one televised interview, and appeared to fall asleep briefly during another. The lack of an obvious successor throws into question whether and how Erdoğan might engineer his way around the constitutional term limits that would legally disallow him from running again five years from now. In our package of essays, Dimitar Bechev and Selim Koru take a hard look at the political challenges posed by the campaign, as well as the succession question.
More immediately, Erdoğan faces the challenge of a looming economic crisis, brought on by two decades of overheated growth in the construction sector and a steadfast commitment to an unorthodox fiscal policy of lowering interest rates in the face of inflation. The lira is creeping over 20 to the dollar—down from near parity in the mid-2000s—and just days before the runoff election Turkey’s forex reserves hit net-negative figures for the first time since 2002. This weekend, it was announced that former Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek will be returned to the cabinet. Şimşek is a relatively well-regarded figure who was dismissed in 2018 after a dispute with Erdoğan over his policy towards interest rates and his meddling with the independence of the Central Bank. Many analysts have suspected that this may mean a U-Turn is coming back towards a more orthodox interest rate policy. I have some doubts about this—Erdoğan explicitly campaigned on a promise to lower interest rates—but the alternative paths to stabilization seem more and more like wishful thinking as Erdoğan’s leverage to entice investment from the Gulf has waned considerably since generous infusions last fall. As Bilge Yılmaz, Wharton professor and advisor to the opposition İyi Party, told an FPRI audience before the election, “he really has two paths, one path, which is a disaster, is a balance of payments crisis where Turkey becomes a country like Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan without the oil and gas … and Turkey cannot sustain that, and Erdoğan knows that, so more wisely he will make a U-Turn to more orthodox policy, but as soon as he does that you will find out that he will need the IMF.”
Turkey’s foreign policy will be greatly impacted by the path Erdoğan chooses on the economy, and we can expect Turkey to remain in a transactional stance on the major issues it is taking on with its neighbors and beyond. The future of Swedish accession to NATO likely is tied up with a pending sale of F-16s to Turkey in Congress, normalization with Assad may depend on how Erdoğan can manage the return of refugees to Syria in a way that benefits him, and Erdoğan will continue to assert himself as the preeminent peace broker in the Ukrainian conflict. Roj Girasun, Sinem Adar, and Gülay Türkmen have contributed here to our understanding of how these foreign policy problems ultimately tie back to domestic issues in Turkey.
Taken as a whole, these essays underline that however much propaganda from Erdoğan’s camp would claim otherwise, the transactional nature of Erdoğan’s foreign policy is driven by his desire to secure and maintain power, and to enrich himself and his close compatriots. The opposition was rightly criticized abroad for its harsh insistence on returning refugees to Syria in the runup to the second round of voting, making Erdoğan, and by extension his virulently ultranationalist partners in the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), seem caring and moderate in comparison. Make no mistake, however, Erdoğan’s refugee policies have been entirely self-serving and not in any way altruistic—the reason for his moderation on this issue has always been the utility of a large refugee population that has served as cheap labor for the construction projects that have been a core component of the clientelist system he has built over the last two decades, and as a political lever that he has used to wedge billions of Euros out of Europe as payment for keeping the gates to the European Union closed to refugees. Violence and harassment of refugees in Turkey have not and likely will not abate in the short term, and Erdoğan has done little to try to stem that tide. Erdoğan may seek normalization with Assad and a return of refugees in the end – his coalition is even more nationalist now than before – but the prime question in that endeavor, as it is with many others, will be what’s in it for him?
Kurdish politics, too, portend fluctuation and realignment in the near future. Shortly after the election, in a message from prison, Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtaş announced that he was stepping back from formal politics and would no longer attempt to influence and direct the Kurdish political struggle from behind bars. As Roj Girasun has shown in his essay, the ongoing repression of Kurdish politicians, including spurious legal attacks and the unilateral replacement of democratically elected mayors, has taken a toll on Kurdish enthusiasm for elections and formal politics. This may open up a space where the Kurdish movement decides to come back to the table that Erdoğan upturned when he abandoned the peace process following his 2015 defeat in parliamentary elections, or it could decide to pursue a more militantly mobilized path to build pressure on all sides of the political equation. As Sinem Adar also points out in her essay, stoking the flames of the conflict with the PKK was a central feature of Erdoğan’s campaign and that rhetoric is unlikely to abate even in the case that a deal is struck with Assad.
Turkey’s Western partners seem resigned to deal in a transactional manner with Erdoğan for the foreseeable future, but, as Gülay Türkmen argues in her essay, this has real consequences for the future of Turkish democracy. The European Union’s handling of the refugee crisis has fed anti-democratic rhetoric and movements across the political spectrum in Turkey. It has aided Erdoğan in a cynical balancing act with Russia, as well as his rapprochement with Gulf autocracies like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The European Union and the Biden administration have proven willing to downplay human rights and democratization with autocratic regimes in the Gulf in return for lessened conflict and regional stability. The potential for a NATO ally to slide into full authoritarianism, however, should be a security concern of an entirely different order and demands strategic recalibration.