Turkish voters went to the polls on May 28 and opted for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a seasoned autocrat, rather than an untested democrat Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu from Turkey’s Republican People’s Party. The election’s global significance cannot be underestimated given Turkey’s distancing from the West and its own tradition of Kemalist secularism. The election was a further consolidation of Turkey’s illiberalism, nationalism and geopolitical autonomization. As he becomes President for the third and last consecutive term, extending his rule into a third decade, Erdoğan will have to consider the hard economic realities of his country and the legacy of Erdoğanism that will outlast him for decades.
Erdoğan overcame a united Turkish opposition that initially promised to restore Turkey’s democracy and repair badly frayed relations with the West. Kılıçdaroğlu complained that the election was unfair, highlighting Erdoğan’s near total control of the media and manipulation of state resources. Images of Erdoğan handing out cash to voters should be no surprise. They underscore his paternal relationship with the electorate, conflating his persona with the state.
The OSCE raised concerns about numerous election irregularities. Its observers noted that the election was “free but not fair.” Erdoğan defines his “democracy,” a term which he used repeatedly during the elections, on the basis of impressive turnouts in the two electoral rounds, 87.04% and 84.22% respectively, and on the majoritarian outcome of 52.14% vs 47.86% for the opposition. His electoral performance demonstrated the attraction of nationalism among voters who chose to opt for the vision of strong country rather than their own economic concerns. Erdoğan won a commanding victory in 8 of 11 provinces affected by the earthquake. In the closing days of the campaign, even the opposition abandoned its previous calls for democracy and westernism. Its badly staged last-minute nationalist rhetoric was a poor imitation of Erdoğan’s much more convincing rhetoric. In the Grand National Assembly, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party and his nationalist and socially conservative allies secured 323 seats out of 600. The prospects of the Presidential and parliamentary joint tenure are gloomy for the Kurds, refugees, women and LGBTQ+ people.
The opposition may be licking its wounds but will regroup around next year’s municipal election in Istanbul. Forty-eight percent of voters support the opposition, making it a force to be reckoned with in the future. In the next years, Erdoğan will not see any reason to change his nonaligned and muscular foreign policy, pursuing Turkey’s national interests in a multipolar and increasingly competitive world. Erdoğan will advance his neo-Ottoman and revisionist credentials assisted by his hard-core nationalist allies. His detractors in the West have little choice but to accept his reelection and the concentration of power within his executive presidency. The West will work with Turkey where their interests overlap.
Look for Erdoğan to continue to be confrontational and outspoken with some of his western partners. He will also continue to instrumentalize the refugees to gain benefits in his relationship with the European Union, but he won’t break ties. His interests are still advanced through security and economic cooperation with the West. One can expect, however, that EU-Turkey bilateral relations will drift further apart from the EU membership perspective. This may also come as consolation to the EU which has lost any will of advancing accession talks with Turkey.
Erdoğan’s foreign policy will focus on Turkey’s role as a peacemaker in Ukraine. Turkey can prove its indispensable role by mediating an agreement on grain exports via the Bosphorus, which is critical to both Ukraine and Russia, as well as countries in Africa and the southern hemisphere.
Ever transactional, he will seek to expand Turkey’s influence within NATO by exacting concessions in exchange for allowing Sweden’s membership in the Alliance. He will play the West against Russia by expanding relations with Moscow, while touting his credentials as a member of NATO. We could expect Turkey to purchase more Russian S-400 missiles and deepen cooperation with ROSATOM, which exports and enriches uranium as well as builds nuclear power stations around the world. Turkey will continue its carbon acquisitions from Russia, purchasing Russian oil and gas despite objections from the EU and the United States.
Expect Turkey to expand its cross-border operation in northeast Syria, targeting Kurds it claims have ties to the PKK. Turkish citizens of Kurdish identity will also suffer as Erdoğan expands his draconian policies intended to drain the swamp of support for Kurdish nationalism. Normalizing relations with Armenia will occur on Turkey’s terms or be delayed for the foreseeable future.
The eastern Mediterranean will remain a proving ground. Turkey does not see any interest in looking for a solution to the Cyprus problem. It will continue to advocate a two-state solution and take steps to control the maritime and energy resources in the region. On Greece, following the recent earthquake diplomacy, there has been a calming in the Aegean. Its sustainability will depend on Turkey’s domestic pressures, as Erdoğan’s nationalist allies push him in the direction of the Blue Motherland.
The West, for its part, continues to be ambivalent towards Turkey. On the one hand, Turkey’s critics have recommended expelling or suspending Turkey from NATO due to its military cooperation with Russia, its obstinacy towards Sweden’s membership in the organization, and its anti-democratic tilt. But there are also realists who argue that it is better to have Turkey in the tent where NATO can influence it than outside without bumper guards on its behavior.
Despite the mandate Erdoğan claims from his electoral victory, he still faces serious challenges. Turkey’s economy is on the verge of crashing with huge foreign debt obligations. Erdoğan exacerbated Turkey’s financial problems by spending money hand over fist prior to the election and, against economic orthodoxy, keeping interest rates artificially low. Turkey’s woeful economy gives the West leverage through its influence with international financial institutions and the EU customs union. Recovering from the earthquake, which killed 50,000 people, will be a long, painful and expensive process.
The US is still Turkey’s primary security partner. Despite advances in Turkey’s domestic arms industry, Washington has considerable leverage. The Biden administration has suggested that it is ready to provide Turkey with F-16 war planes. However, Erdoğan will need to moderate his autocratic tendencies to gain Congressional approval of the arms transfer. Lifting its veto of Sweden’s NATO accession prior to the NATO Summit in July would be an effective confidence building measure.
Beyond the short or medium-term considerations, Erdoğan’s third term is an opportunity to build his long-lasting legacy. On the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic, Erdoğan has managed to deliver a big blow to secularism which has lost its domination and has become the opposition’s alternative narrative. Turkey is a deeply polarized society. Erdoğan will have to choose what type of legacy he will want to build. He could choose to unify the country beyond the 52% that voted for him, a similar path to the one he followed during the first two terms of his tenure as prime minister during the 2000s. However, his more recent authoritarian and vindictive approach suggests that Erdoğan will continue the road of confrontation and division on which he thrives. Already in his first speech in Istanbul on the night of his election, he vowed to gain back Istanbul from the hands of the Republicans in the next local elections. His supporters chanted “bye bye bye Kemal”. Did they mean Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu or Mustafa Kemal Atatürk?