Turkey 2030: How did we get here? – Barın Kayaoğlu / MIDDLE EAST INSTITUTE

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To analyze the crossroads Turkey faces in the 2023 elections, it could prove useful to “look back from the alternative futures” and explore how the possible outcomes might play out.   By Barın Kayaoğlu in The Middle East Institute on May 24 mai 2023.

Standing in the future, looking back

It’s 2030 and seven years have passed since Turkey’s critical May 2023 elections. Since then, Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy have played an outsized role in shaping Middle Eastern and global trends.

Back in May 2023, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its partners, the People’s Alliance, faced a powerful challenge from the six-party opposition bloc, the Nation Alliance, led by the soft-spoken Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Many observers summarized the contest as “AKP bad, CHP good,” and that was partly true. After 20 years in power, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP had weakened democratic standards and the rule of law, taking a nationalistic, religious, and socially divisive turn at home.

In the international arena, Erdoğan and the AKP had cozied up to Russia and Iran but kept traditional allies — the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the European Union — at arm’s length. In contrast, the opposition appeared open to dialogue and cooperation with all parties and social groups inside Turkey, and it promised a friendlier and more consistent foreign policy.

Another factor in the Turkish elections of May 2023 was that they took place in the wake of a slow-motion economic trainwreck and the AKP government’s botched response to the twin earthquakes three months earlier, giving the opposition a solid opening to win control of parliament and the presidency.

What could it look like if we look back from 2030 to another victory by Erdoğan? And how might have the last seven years played out had the opposition won?

Erdoğan Rex: The AKP wrecks and rebuilds

As it turned out, the reports of Erdoğan’s political demise were premature, and his bloc secured both the presidency and a parliamentary majority. After his victory, Erdoğan maintained his authoritarian stance at home. Despite pushing his “Turkey’s Century” vision to the public, the centennial celebrations of the founding of the Republic of Turkey in October 2023 featuring Erdoğan failed to excite broad swathes of the Turkish public. Many members of opposition parties and civil-society organizations remained in jail on trumped up charges — despite rulings by the Turkish Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights to release them. Erdoğan’s lawyers continued to press charges against tens of thousands of citizens for “insulting” the president.

The AKP’s deeper dive into authoritarianism had severe consequences for Turkish Kurds. Their main party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was closed by the Constitutional Court in late 2023. The HDP’s successor, the Green Left Party (YSP), had to endure the repeated arrest of its members, forcing the party to boycott the local elections of 2024. The YSP’s later call for a general strike across Turkey mostly fell on deaf ears, even in Kurdish-majority towns in the southeast. The former HDP co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaş, in jail since 2016, stayed there until after Erdoğan’s final term in office ended in May 2028. How Ankara can mend fences now with its Kurdish citizens after decades of political violence remains to be seen.

On social issues, Erdoğan had a hard time: One the one hand, he had to maintain his authoritarian approach to assuage his coalition partners but without completely losing the more “modern conservative” elements of his shrinking base. Before the May 2023 elections, some AKP partners had explicitly demanded banning LGBT symbols, abandoning secularism, and establishing religious law. But Erdoğan was wise enough not to go too far on those issues: Young women (especially conservative ones) continued to avail themselves of educational and employment opportunities. Although LGBT rights remained constrained, Turkey’s social environment did not deteriorate markedly.

Corruption and cronyism, however, were another matter. After 20-plus years in power, allegations of kickbacks and favoritism in public tenders increased further (and many were well-founded) and religiosity now merely served as cover for the elite’s misdeeds. Continued AKP rule meant that Turkey is now on the cusp of becoming the first major post-religious Muslim-majority society as an increasing percentage of Turkish youth have turned to atheism and agnosticism — an ironic consequence reminiscent of how the secularist old guard’s excesses in the latter parts of the 20th century gave rise to the AKP.

Interestingly, Erdoğan’s 2023 victory and continuing authoritarianism enabled his partial return to economic orthodoxy, reducing inflation and unemployment — mostly because he had few options left. To that end, he rehired some of the smart and able technocrats who had worked for him before. One of them was Mehmet Şimşek, a former economic czar under Erdoğan in the 2010s, who came back to Turkey from London out of a sense of patriotic duty. From 2018 until 2022, Erdoğan went through economy and finance ministers, not to mention central bank governors, frequently. But Şimşek’s tenure (albeit with a limited mandate) helped to elevate competent cadres to higher positions and to restore a modicum of normality to the Turkish economy. Whereas the Turkish lira had suffered from runaway inflation and a never-ending foreign exchange crunch from 2018 until 2023 (reducing Turkey’s per capita GDP by as much as one-third), Şimşek’s second time as minister of economy and finance helped to conclude his boss’s presidency on a better economic note. Erdoğan’s sway over Turkey’s contracting firms expedited reconstruction efforts in the southeastern provinces hit by the Feb. 6, 2023 earthquakes — notwithstanding opposition criticisms that the rebuilt towns may not be resilient to future disasters.

A stable-ish domestic scene helped Erdoğan’s Turkey to continue projecting power in its neighborhood and beyond. A critical area was Syria: Although the AKP had pursued only one goal after the civil war erupted there in 2011 — toppling President Bashar al-Assad — it began to change course in the early 2020s, when Erdoğan accepted Russian-brokered talks with Damascus (an idea that the opposition CHP had called for since at least 2013).

This shift owed much to Turkish public opinion: In the run-up to the 2023 elections, Turkish voters of every political persuasion felt that that the Syrian asylum seekers had overstayed their welcome and had to go back. Although the AKP government had a hard time convincing the Assad regime to allow the return of millions of its compatriots, a “full court press” in tandem with the Arab League helped Ankara to establish a “cold peace” with Damascus and repatriate some of the 4 million Syrian asylum seekers living in Turkey. (As more Syrians in Turkey found opportunities to become citizens, Erdoğan and the AKP hoped to turn them into another component of their electoral base.) The final peace agreement, which gave nominal regional autonomy to Syrian Kurds and attracted Washington’s wrath toward Ankara, satisfied most Turks. For Turkish businessmen, many of them pro-AKP, the reopening of the Syrian market (especially the devastated country’s construction needs) was the icing on the cake.

To be sure, Erdoğan did not leave office with all his wishes fulfilled. In the local elections of spring 2024, he failed to unseat Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, the CHP mayors of Turkey’s two largest cities, Istanbul and the capital Ankara, respectively. In fact, İmamoğlu’s electoral victory helped him to succeed Kılıçdaroğlu as CHP party chairman after a neck-and-neck race against Yavaş and other contenders, while enabling him to defeat the politically motivated court case against him. In the 2028 elections, İmamoğlu prevailed over Erdoğan’s son-in-law and successor as AKP chairman, Selçuk Bayraktar, minister of industry and technology and former CEO of the defense giant Baykar.

Turkish foreign relations during Erdoğan’s final term as president were also a mixed bag. The AKP’s assertive and enterprising policies continued to pay handsome dividends in terms of prestige and trade with the “Global South.” Turkey expanded its commercial ties with neighboring Iraq, the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, and the fellow Turkic republics of Azerbaijan and Central Asia. Rising commodity prices led the Turkic republics to invest in Turkey’s burgeoning defense industries and to buy many of its latest wares, which expanded the profile of the Organization of Turkic States. Meanwhile, thanks to modest economic improvements at home, Erdoğan’s Turkey played a key role along with China in mediating the Russian-Ukrainian cease-fire in 2024, the partial lifting of sanctions against Moscow, and establishing Ukraine’s special partnership with NATO in a manner to which Russia could not object.

On the other hand, Erdoğan’s unwillingness to revive democracy and the rule of law at home continued to bedevil his relations with the West. Ankara’s acquiescence to Swedish membership in NATO stabilized relations with Western partners, but many EU countries and the United States saw Turkish foreign policy under the AKP as bereft of principles or consistency. Tensions with Greece and Greek Cypriots remained stable but uneasy.

Erdoğan rendered great services to Turkey during his 25 years in office. But his divisive rhetoric, tolerance for cronyism and corruption, and disregard for democracy, the rule of law, and principles in general mean that his legacy will always be checkered. By and large, however, the self-confident and robust Turkey of 2030 is primarily his doing.

The CHP lies heavy: What if the opposition had won in 2023?

Kılıçdaroğlu’s victory in the May 2023 elections was bittersweet. On the one hand, he was the first Turkish president hailing from the country’s Alevi Muslim minority — a group that had suffered persecution during Ottoman times, the early republican years, and under the AKP. For many Turks, a genuinely secular leader becoming president on the centennial of the Republic of Turkey was a cause for celebration.

On the other hand, and despite running an extremely positive campaign and strengthening his bloc with nationalists and Erdoğan’s former Islamist allies, Kılıçdaroğlu lost the parliamentary majority to the opposing People’s Alliance. As a result, Turkey’s self-described “Grandpa Democrat” came to rely on the executive presidential powers that he had so detested when Erdoğan used them from 2017 until 2023.

Luckily, Kılıçdaroğlu did not abuse his powers, and his Nation Alliance convinced enough members of the AKP-led bloc to pass new laws to improve democratic standards and the rule of law. Some AKP deputies even joined the Nation Alliance after their party’s defeat in the 2024 local elections. Prosecuting former AKP leaders for corruption and abuse of power without turning their cases into political trials was much harder, however. The Kılıçdaroğlu administration had trouble balancing between electoral promises to restore the rule of law and taking to task AKP officials and their cronies for past abuses.

The new president did keep his campaign pledge to remove “insulting the president” from the legal code and made a point by ordering public prosecutors not to press charges against those who insulted him. Other laws were passed to improve the country’s freedom of expression and human rights practices, reducing social and political tensions. Of course, it was not easy to pass laws to expand women’s and LGBT rights, and Turkish society remains divided on how to treat non-heterosexuals. The country remained arguably less tolerant toward the LGBT community than it was in the 20th century.

The CHP-led administration made a difference in addressing at least some Kurdish concerns by releasing Demirtaş, encouraging the Constitutional Court not to close the HDP, and normalizing the use of the Kurdish language. Even after the 2028 elections, however, a long-term and sustainable resolution to Turkey’s Kurdish question remained elusive. Meral Akşener’s Good (İyi) Party and Sinan Oğan’s Victory Party, leading members of the Nation Alliance, still had trouble shedding their ultranationalist reflexes. Akşener and Oğan continued to express frustration at having to play nice with the HDP because of its association with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been battling the Turkish government for Kurdish independence and autonomy since 1984, and still maintains a sizeable presence in Iraq and Syria.

Indeed, Kılıçdaroğlu and his successor, İmamoğlu, have faced unpleasant choices like those that Erdoğan had to contend with in Syria. The PKK’s Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), remains an indispensable element of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling ISIS and keeping Assad in check. Even though Kılıçdaroğlu approached domestic politics and foreign relations in a fundamentally different way than his predecessor, that was not enough to secure Washington’s full support. Kılıçdaroğlu struggled to normalize ties with Damascus and to fulfill his campaign pledge to send back a majority of the 4 million Syrian asylum seekers in Turkey. And while Kurdish gains in Syria offended the CHP’s nationalist allies, Islamist partners in the Nation Alliance found it just as hard to accept Assad staying in power. Still, the reopening of the Syrian market (especially the devastated country’s construction sector) cushioned the blow for business owners connected to the Kılıçdaroğlu and İmamoğlu administrations.

Beyond Syria, foreign policy was arguably Kılıçdaroğlu’s weakest point. For one, Erdoğan had left his successor without any easy briefs and much ill will toward Turkey in the international community. While Kılıçdaroğlu did not seek trouble abroad, trouble often found him. Relations with Russia cooled off due to Vladimir Putin’s past relations with Erdoğan and alleged Russian interference in Turkey’s 2023 and 2028 elections. Kılıçdaroğlu’s defense of the rights of China’s Uyghur minority, a Turkic Muslim group, strained ties with Beijing. And while Kılıçdaroğlu did not show as great an interest in Russia and its war against Ukraine as Erdoğan did, he supported Kyiv’s attempts to integrate with the EU and NATO. To balance against Russia, China, and Iran, Kılıçdaroğlu managed to strengthen ties with the Turkic and Arab worlds.

Turning West, Kılıçdaroğlu found it easier to deal with the EU (though full membership remained elusive) than the United States. Anti-Americanism holds strong among Turks — much of it propped up by Erdoğan and the AKP and fueled by misguided U.S. policies in Turkey’s neighborhood. Meanwhile, the anti-Turkish coalition in the U.S. Congress and in Washington’s think tank circles that Erdoğan unintentionally fostered continued to view Ankara with skepticism. And though problems with Greece and Greek Cypriots remained unresolved, Kılıçdaroğlu’s initiatives to bring together Mediterranean countries in addressing climate change removed much of the bitterness in Ankara’s relations with Athens and Nicosia.

In the economy, Kılıçdaroğlu, İmamoğlu, and their allies in parliament have made a difference. During his 2023 campaign, Kılıçdaroğlu had underlined the return to economic orthodoxy. Upon his election in the run-off vote, he brought in what he dubbed “the economy’s champions league” that included some of the world’s leading minds. Among them was economics professor and bestselling author Daron Acemoğlu, who took a sabbatical from MIT to serve as the Turkish president’s chief economic advisor. (Just as Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi background helped Turkey to begin healing one of its biggest social wounds, Prof. Acemoğlu’s Armenian ethnicity helped broad swathes of the Turkish public to come to terms with another historical trauma — the forced deportations and murder of Ottoman Armenians during World War I and troubled relations with the Republic of Armenia.)

Other members of the “champions league” included American economic and social theorist (and bestselling author) Jeremy Rifkin; Ali Babacan, whose small party remains a member of the Nation Alliance and who is often credited with the economic successes during Erdoğan’s golden years in the 2000s; and Turkish academics Refet Gürkaynak, and Hakan Kara, who served successive terms as governors of the Central Bank. Kılıçdaroğlu’s own deputy chairs in the CHP, Selin Sayek Böke and Faik Öztrak, along with other talent from the Nation Alliance, such as İyi Party’s Bilge Yılmaz, have played important roles in handling the economy and administrative reforms.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s bold and impressive vision statements during the 2023 campaign translated into policy when he assumed office. In his five-year rule, Turkey began to move away from Erdoğan’s “big construction”-focused approach that had the country stuck in the middle-income trap. Instead, the CHP administration began to offer subsidies to companies that would create high-paying high-tech jobs. Kılıçdaroğlu’s emphasis on an economy and infrastructure resilient to climate change and natural disasters found a receptive audience among voters, especially the youth, and attracted increasing foreign direct investment.

Perhaps the CHP leader’s most impressive idea was his decision to fulfill a campaign promise to turn the abandoned Atatürk Airport in Istanbul into an aerospace research hub. Although some public squabbles broke out with Selçuk Bayraktar, CEO of Baykar and once considered as a successor to Erdoğan, the Bayraktars were won over. The repurposed Atatürk Air and Space Center helped to compound the successes of Turkey’s growing defense and aerospace ecosystems.

Additional bonuses have come through the initial transition to a post-carbon energy economy, which promises to lessen Turkey’s fossil fuel imports, minimize its current accounts deficit, and alleviate its foreign currency crunch. Although Ankara is not even halfway there, the gains in experimenting with a green economy under Kılıçdaroğlu and İmamoğlu are inspiring other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries to follow suit.

Looking at the picture above, it is not hard to see why many at home and abroad were disappointed by Kılıçdaroğlu’s announcement in early 2028 that he would not seek a second term in office due to old age and his desire to spend the rest of his days with his grandchildren. But his presidency truly helped to restore political pluralism and a more egalitarian economic model in Turkey — in many respects, his rule was a breath of fresh air after 20 years of Erdoğan.

Still, while Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu could not be further apart in their personas and value systems, as time passes, their years in office might be seen as more complementary than antithetical. Erdoğan made Turkey powerful again, Kılıçdaroğlu made it respectable again.

What the two scenarios could mean for the Middle East and the world, and how international actors can make the best of both

How would the above futures affect Turkey’s regional and global policies? For analysts as well as outside actors, how similar or different might things look under each scenario?

The items below will likely play out no matter who wins on May 28:

  • A better management of the economy and decent growth rates by the next Turkish administration will translate into a much more stable domestic scene.
  • With greater economic and social vitality and domestic peace, Turkey will assume an even more self-confident and robust regional and international posture.
  • The Turkish government, of whatever political persuasion, will likely become much less tolerant toward asylum seekers and even legal immigrants, despite the long-term economic benefits that both groups could bring to Turkey.
  • A next Erdoğan administration will not gravitate toward Russia/“the East” any further, nor will it simply try to return to the Western fold as it did in the 2000s.
  • Likewise, a prospective Kılıçdaroğlu administration will not just “return to the West.” In fact, it will be just as adamant about maximizing Turkish gains in the region and around the world. Balancing between east and west and north and south will continue, though Kılıçdaroğlu may be a bit gentler and more consistent about the balancing and asserting Turkish national interests than his predecessor.

Several matters are almost impossible to foresee irrespective of the results on May 28:

  • Can Turkey handle and resolve the Kurdish question at home and especially in Syria? Addressing the grievances of Turkish Kurds will not be compatible with attempts to roll back Kurdish gains in Syria. Ankara can perhaps best cooperate with its close regional partner, the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, to strengthen moderate Syrian Kurdish players.
  • Can Ankara rebuild bridges with the West, and, if so, to what extent can it balance relations with Europe and the United States with its interest in its neighborhood and other parts of the world? There will some very hard choices facing Ankara when it comes to a broad range of issues: the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute, the Russian war on Ukraine, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and Iran’s nuclear program are just a few.

Regional actors and international powers can make the best of either scenario as follows:

  • Incentivize Turkish cooperation in as many fields as possible while ensuring that the decision-makers in Ankara have a clear sense of the red lines.
  • For example, with respect to Syria policy and Syrian asylum seekers, rather than trying to block Ankara from re-establishing diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, the European Union and the United States would be better off funding Turkish reconstruction efforts in Syria in exchange for Ankara acquiescing to Syrian Kurdish autonomy.
  • A similar approach would be to ensure Turkish compliance with Western sanctions against Russia’s attempts to acquire “dual use” technologies, but without trying to undermine initiatives such as the U.N.-backed grain deal or future Turkish-sponsored talks between Kyiv and Moscow. Another way to lessen Turkish dependence on Russian energy would be to fund Turkey’s renewable energy projects.

The worst approach for any outside actor to take toward Turkey would be to think that an Erdoğan or Kılıçdaroğlu administration could be “anchored” to the West or the rest. The Turkish desire for peace and prosperity at home and peace through strength abroad will not change, nor will Turkey’s independent bearing to achieve those goals. Ankara will continue to pursue what the Turkish political elite view as an influential role in global affairs. Whether Turkish desires and global actors’ needs and expectations can be reconciled will be up to them.

Barın Kayaoğlu is the Dean of Students and Associate Professor of World History at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) and a non-resident fellow with the Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Middle East Institute. The opinions expressed in his works are personal and not shared by AUIS or MEI. Kayaoğlu is currently working on his book (based on his doctoral dissertation), “The Global Cold War in Turkey and Iran: U.S. Diplomacy, Authoritarian Development, and Anti-Americanism.” He most recently published the article “Turkey-United States Relations” for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. 

By Barın Kayaoğlu in The Middle East Institute on May 24 mai 2023.

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