« At a time of geopolitical shocks and conflict between Russia and the West, it is the unpredictability of domestic politics that most worries Erdogan. Turkey’s relations with neighbors, allies, and rivals are useful to compensate for domestic shortcomings. » Henri Barkey’s analyze in Foreign Affairs on February 3, 2023.
In a year that has brought renewed strength and unity to NATO, perhaps no country has proven more confounding to the alliance than Turkey. For other NATO members, Russia’s war in Ukraine has brought new resolve against a common enemy and paved the way for the alliance’s expansion. Yet Turkey, though it is a NATO member, has not only maintained cordial relations with Russia; it has also threatened to block the NATO candidacies of Sweden and Finland.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government has suggested it might start a new land invasion of northern Syria to take on the United States’ Syrian Kurdish allies, who operate in that area. And even as Turkey repairs strained ties with many Middle Eastern powers, it has continued to have chilly relations with the European Union and has made new threats toward Greece. Perhaps most unexpectedly, after years of seeking to undermine Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Ankara has begun a rapprochement with the regime in Damascus, mediated by Russia.
These moves, though controversial in the West, are generally popular in Turkey. They also have a clear purpose. In May, Turkey’s longtime populist-authoritarian ruler, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will face what will likely be the toughest reelection bid of his political career, and foreign policy has become an effective way to distract voters from multiple crises at home. After years of economic mismanagement, Turkey’s inflation rate peaked at 85 percent in November 2022, declining somewhat to 64 percent in December. This is by far the highest rate in Europe, easily surpassing runner-up Hungary with its 25 percent. Turkey’s foreign exchange reserves are dwindling, and the nation faces a burgeoning current-account deficit. The Turkish population is increasingly disgruntled by the presence of 3.6 million Syrian refugees, which Turkey, to its credit, admitted at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. There is also growing fatigue with Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic 20-year rule; a whole generation has known no other leader.
For Erdogan, everything is now riding on the elections. After 20 years of largely unchallenged rule, a defeat would entail serious repercussions for him, his family, his cronies, and many others in his Justice and Development Party (AKP) who have personally benefited from his rule and could likely face prosecution. An opposition win would also constitute a form of regime change, given that its leaders support the restoration of Turkey’s parliamentary system and the curtailment of presidential powers. Erdogan’s sense of vulnerability has grown so acute that the government has used the courts to try to ban a leading potential opposition candidate, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, from running—an extreme move that could ultimately backfire.
Current polls suggest that Erdogan and the AKP could lose the election, scheduled for May 14. For any other leader, such levels of unpopularity and economic malaise might spell certain defeat. But Erdogan is known for his tenacity and his ability to win elections, and he has managed to steady his poll numbers. Given how much is at stake, he is likely to employ almost any means to avoid defeat. As his recent foreign policy moves suggest, he also has several cards to play, and he may seek to manufacture a crisis—including with the West—to change the domestic mood. Europe and the United States must prepare for such a development to minimize potential damage and must have a strategy in place to counter it. Turkey is far too important a country to be allowed to drift away from Western influence.
All the power and all the blame
Paradoxically, at a time of geopolitical shocks and conflict between Russia and the West, it is the unpredictability of domestic politics that most worries Erdogan. Turkey’s relations with neighbors, allies, and rivals are useful to compensate for domestic shortcomings. Above all is the ruinous state of the Turkish economy. Although the labor market is relatively robust, the high rate of inflation is, in part, due to Erdogan’s insistence on slashing interest rates instead of raising them. As Turkish Finance Minister Nureddin Nebati has openly stated, living with inflation is preferable to a recession triggered by orthodox central bank interest rate hikes. This is what Nebati has termed “the Turkish model,” which, in his fabulist manner, he claims is not just widely successful but also the envy of the rest of the world.
The central bank’s nonconformist policies are indicative of Erdogan’s control over nominally independent institutions. Over the past decade he has consolidated his power by undermining or eliminating the independence of almost every important Turkish institution: public universities, the vast majority of media outlets, the military, local governments—and, most important, the judiciary, which he has wielded as a weapon against his opponents. Turkish prisons are full of opposition politicians, journalists, academics, civil society leaders, such as Osman Kavala, and basically anyone Erdogan dislikes. There is no longer even a semblance of the rule of law.
Yet this complete dominance of state and society has also become Erdogan’s Achilles’ heel. Having put himself at the center of everything, Erdogan has given ordinary Turks reasons to fault him for the country’s ills, despite his efforts to blame his economic problems on outsiders, mostly the European Union and the United States. At the same time, having surrounded himself with slavish supporters rather than seasoned policymakers, he is increasingly prone to making mistakes.
The six-party opposition coalition, composed of two larger and four tiny parties, has defied expectations and managed to present a relatively disciplined front. In theory, their combined forces—a new development in Turkey’s usually fragmented political landscape—should command enough of the electorate to defeat Erdogan. In late January they released their unified vision but have yet to agree on a presidential candidate. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the largest opposition party, desperately wants to be the candidate; but he is the weakest aspirant and would likely lose to Erdogan. Earnest and hardworking, Kilicdaroglu, suffers from both a lack of charisma and seems old-fashioned.
Meanwhile, Erdogan himself has taken steps to sideline Istanbul’s mayor, Imamoglu, a member of the CHP. According to polls, he is one of two new opposition politicians—the other is Ankara’s mayor, Mansur Yavas—who could beat Erdogan in a general election. But in December, Imamoglu was sentenced to more than two years in jail on trumped-up charges of “insulting” the Supreme Election Council. Ironically, Erdogan is employing the very tactics that were used to try to prevent his own rise to power; two decades ago, he, too, was convicted and prevented from becoming prime minister when his party won the 2002 elections. Despite the opposition of the then president, the AKP and CHP collaborated to change the constitution, opening the way for Erdogan to become a member of parliament and then prime minister. Imamoglu’s conviction, if confirmed first by a district court and then the Supreme Court of Appeals (and there is little doubt that it will be), will prevent him from holding office and from running against Erdogan for the presidency or for his current mayoral job in 2024. Just to make sure Imamoglu does not manage to wiggle out, the Interior Ministry has initiated two other criminal cases against him, including one on charges of supporting terrorism. By eliminating Imamoglu, Erdogan hopes a beatable Kilicdaroglu will emerge as the opposition’s candidate. The opposition does not have an alternative strategy, preferring to bicker over whom to select as a candidate.
In addition to lacking a clear rival, Erdogan starts off the campaign season with two other huge advantages: he fully controls the state and its resources, which he can deploy at will to support his reelection, and he completely dominates the public space. For the moment, he has tried to buy time and curry favor for improvised measures that mainly serve to bleed the national treasury. He has forgiven the debts of some five million Turkish borrowers. He has directed the central bank to lavish cheap credit on sectors, such as construction, that he thinks will best help him achieve his goals. With the Turkish lira collapsing, the government has introduced a deposit scheme that encourages savers to switch from dollars to liras by promising to compensate them for their foreign exchange losses, dramatically increasing the burden on the treasury. And Erdogan recently granted early retirement to more than two million citizens.
But Erdogan is not always that generous, particularly when it comes to regions under opposition control. Municipalities the AKP controls are an important conduit for Erdogan to dispense perks and make locals dependent on him. By contrast, in large cities that the AKP does not control, the central government does as much as it can to undermine local authority. This is especially true in Imamoglu’s Istanbul, a city of 20 million. In 2021–2022, for example, Erdogan, without offering any explanation, simply sat on a decision to allow the Istanbul municipality to access funds the national parliament had approved to replace its ailing fleet of public buses.
Of course, as the prosecution of Imamoglu makes clear, Erdogan’s most important tool remains the judiciary. Starting in 2013 but accelerating after a failed coup in 2016, thousands of journalists, academics, and opposition members who have dared say anything critical about the government have been jailed. Prosecutions are arbitrary; anyone can be incarcerated for working at a magazine or for a tweet sent years ago that has been suddenly “resurrected.” In 2020 alone, the government launched 31,000 investigations for the offence of “insulting the president”; since Erdogan became president in 2014, 160,000 such investigations have taken place.
The state has more overtly targeted some political parties, especially the pro-Kurdish, People’s Democracy Party (HDP). This left-leaning party came in third in the 2018 elections, winning almost six million votes representing 11.7 percent of total votes cast. While appealing to progressive voters nationwide, it is primarily focused on articulating the gamut of concerns of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. As such, it has been in Erdogan’s sights for years. The HDP’s charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtas, has been in jail since November 2016, and several of its parliamentary members have had their parliamentary immunity revoked and have been jailed, usually for “supporting terrorism,” a catchall charge liberally interpreted by the authorities. Similarly, this January, the Constitutional Court froze the HDP’s state-provided funds on the spurious grounds that the party supports terrorism. The court is considering whether to ban the HDP on similar grounds, and the court rejected the party’s recent request to postpone the ban till after the May elections. Although the opposition coalition has not invited the HDP to join its ranks, HDP supporters will vote against Erdogan. Proscribing the HDP will sow confusion and ensure that fewer HDP supporters, roughly 10 percent of the electorate, go to the polls. Since 1993, some five pro-Kurdish parties have been closed down.
Still, it is unclear whether Erdogan’s efforts to stymie the opposition will succeed this time. Although his overwhelming control of Turkish institutions has allowed him to transform the political landscape at will, his pursuit of power has caused him to make significant mistakes. For example, in 2019, when the AKP lost Istanbul’s municipal elections in a shocking defeat for Erdogan, the president intervened and forced a rerun. But the voters humiliated him by reelecting Imamoglu, the original winner, by an even bigger margin.
It is too soon to assess the popular reaction to Imamoglu’s conviction and the expected banning of the HDP. While waiting for the appeal process to work, Imamoglu has been touring the country and addressing large crowds. When the last pro-Kurdish party was outlawed in 2009—an action Erdogan opposed—it resulted in severe unrest. Given the uncertain effectiveness of such tactics, Erdogan may seek to rally support by other means, including foreign policy.
Taking on the West
For an authoritarian populist such as Erdogan, foreign policy, beyond its traditional functions, serves as an important tool for self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. Turkey’s important position between Russia, the Middle East, and the West has helped feed Erdogan’s insatiable desire for recognition and stature. Turkey’s role in brokering a partial lifting of Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports and allowing Ukrainian grain shipments to reach markets in the developing world, for instance, has initiated demands from his acolytes that he be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
With the impending elections, however, he can also use foreign policy to push Turkey’s nationalist buttons, taking popular positions that are difficult for the opposition to counter.
Already, the six-party opposition has gone along with most of Erdogan’s recent foreign policy pronouncements, whether about the Aegean and Mediterranean regions or the United States, Syria, and the Kurds. Nor have opposition parties challenged his recent U-turn in relations with Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel or his cozy relations with Russia. To boost foreign exchange reserves, Ankara negotiated swap deals worth $28 billion with China, Qatar, South Korea, and the UAE. In what the economist Timothy Ash called “an unconditional surrender,” Erdogan hosted the Saudi Crown Prince, whom he had earlier accused of ordering the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, in exchange for a $5 billion deposit at the Turkish central bank.
In striking contrast to his approach to Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, Erdogan tends to be far more combative and belligerent with his Western allies. Standing up to them is popular at home. He therefore never misses an opportunity to rail against them, blaming them for all the nation’s ills, from the state of the economy to the 2016 coup against him, which he claimed the U.S. was involved in.
Meanwhile, Erdogan has set the groundwork for possible Turkish actions on several other fronts. Turkey and Greece have sparred over the years on issues such as territorial waters, the status of the Aegean Islands, and gas discoveries. He has threatened Greece twice recently, proclaiming, “We can suddenly come one night” and “Greece is afraid of our missiles. They say that the TAYFUN missile will hit Athens; it will, unless you stay calm.” He has repeated his threat to start a land invasion against Washington’s Kurdish allies in Syria, although the Turkish air force has already been bombing them, with shells falling a few hundred feet from U.S. personnel stationed there. Amid this assertive rhetoric about Turkish power, Erdogan has reduced the opposition to timid bit players cheering from the sidelines.
He is an unpredictable pragmatist, as his policies on Ukraine and Russia have demonstrated. While seeking credit for the Ukrainian grain deal and for providing drones to Ukraine that have proved to be effective on the battlefield, he has, regardless of American warnings, helped Moscow evade Western sanctions and mitigate their damage to the Russian economy. Admittedly, Russian-Turkish relations are complex and intertwine on many fronts, but these moves to help Putin help Erdogan as well. The rubles flowing into Turkish coffers, either from sanction-busting trade or Russian tourists, ultimately help shore up the lira and finance energy imports from Russia.
Sweden and Finland’s formal bids to join NATO have provided Erdogan with an opportunity to flex his muscles to extract concessions from both countries in exchange for Turkish support and to demonstrate, for a domestic audience, his tough stance against the West. In January, Erdogan took advantage of the burning of the Koran in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm by a right-wing Swedish zealot to heighten his opposition to Sweden, threatening that he would never consent to Swedish accession. Both the Swedes and the Finns had understood that he would wait until after the Turkish elections before acting on their request. However, Erdogan’s hardball tactics have already backfired; Sweden refused to extradite “the 120 terrorists” he demanded, and the U.S. Senate has made it clear that if Turkey does not approve these countries’ accession, arms sales to Turkey, specifically F-16s, will not be authorized.
In contrast to his vulnerability on domestic economic issues, foreign policy offers Erdogan various ways to reinforce his leadership at home. The upcoming polls are no ordinary elections; they will decide his place in history. Hence, the age-old temptation to manufacture a foreign crisis to avert a loss will be high. It would divert attention from domestic problems and sideline a timid opposition. As Erdogan demonstrated in 2017 by purchasing a Russian-made S-400 antiaircraft system, despite repeated stern warnings from Washington that made explicit the consequences, he is willing to take risks if he thinks he can get away with them. He did not get away with them then, when the U.S. imposed sanctions. But this will not stop him from trying them in the future, not just because the stakes are too high but because Turkey is devoid of a formal institutional decision-making process. Erdogan is the sole decider.
Faced with the prospect of an increasingly impulsive Erdogan as the election approaches, the United States and its European allies need to begin to prepare for the unexpected from Turkey. Among his possible moves are an “accidental” though minor clash in the Aegean and Mediterranean regions with Greece; a confrontation with the United States in northern Syria; or, more dramatically, a change of the status quo on the Turkish part of Cyprus. Concerning Cyprus, Erdogan could move to open to investors the tourist suburb of Varosha, whose real estate belongs to Greek Cypriots displaced by the invading Turkish military in 1974—a move prohibited by UN resolutions. The hard-line Turkish Cypriot leadership has already been hinting at this possibility. He could also promise that, once reelected, he will engineer a referendum on the independence of the Turkish side of the island. Whether he delivers is immaterial. Cyprus is the third rail of Turkish politics, and the opposition would have no choice except to go along with Erdogan’s gambit.
There is one more unknown factor in the equation: Putin. On a number of occasions, Erdogan has sought the Russian leader’s authorization to conduct major operations in Syria against the United States’ Kurdish allies there, and Putin demurred. Suspicions of Russian involvement in the recent Koran burning incidents, as the Finnish foreign minister intimated, may mean that Moscow could decide to stir the pot by giving Turkey a green light in Syria.
Any of these moves has the potential to provoke more severe crises in the U.S.-Turkish alliance, Turkish-European relations, and within NATO. But, U.S.-Turkish relations are intricate and extensive; the two governments engage daily and extensively with each other at all levels. As much as Washington may need Turkey, Ankara is far more dependent on the United States. Waiting Erdogan out is not a strategy; Washington has to engage him directly, bypassing interlocutors such as the foreign minister, who has negligible influence. Erdogan is a risk-taker, but he would find it hard to ignore a clear message from the United States outlining the consequences he would face if he chose to manufacture a showdown.
HENRI BARKEY is the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen chair in international relations at Lehigh University.
Foreign Policy, February 3, 2023, by Hanri Barkey.