In the runup to last week’s much anticipated presidential elections in Turkey, press reports focused on the prospect that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s two-decade-long iron grip on leadership, and his increasingly autocratic style of governance, might be replaced.
The reports highlighted the popularity of the candidacy of a kinder, gentler leader named Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who promised to bolster the country’s democracy, stabilize its economy, reduce tensions with foreign allies and return to consensus leadership rather than the centralized decision-making favored by Erdogan.
The May 15 election results didn’t match the hype. Erdogan got 49.5% of the vote, Kilicdaroglu got 44.9% and a third candidate, Sinan Ogan, got 5.2%. Since no candidate crossed the 50% threshold needed to win, a runoff election between the two top vote-getters is scheduled for May 28. And because Ogan’s right-wing supporters will likely vote for Erdogan in the runoff, Erdogan is projected to win with close to a double-digit margin.
Erdogan has a long history of political success. He first gained national prominence as the mayor of Istanbul, the country’s most populous city, and used that post as a springboard to the position of prime minister and then president.
In the ensuing years, he has become a deeply polarizing figure who has been accused of diluting democracy by using repressive tactics against civil society and the media while concentrating power in his presidency. Critics are concerned with the poor state of the Turkish economy, marked by high inflation, as well as the government’s weak response to devastating earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey and neighboring Syria. Supporters say that Erdogan has modernized the country through massive infrastructure projects and that he has brought Islam back into public life in Turkey.
And then there is the sometimes confusing and fluid foreign policy component of Erdogan’s rule. Through NATO and other historic relations Turkey has been allied with the West. But there are holes in that alliance. While Erdogan condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and sent aid to the Ukrainian government, he refused to join Western sanctions on Russia and instead expanded trade ties with Russia and drew closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Erdogan has also sparred with the United States over Syria policy and regularly disparages Washington in his public speeches. And although Turkey is a NATO member state, Erdogan has used his NATO blackball vote to hamper the alliance’s expansion by delaying Finland’s ability to join and refusing to accept Sweden.
Kilicdaroglu promised to improve relations with the West and make Turkish foreign policy less personal. That potential breath of fresh perspective is not likely to occur. Instead, Erdogan will remain in power. He will further tighten his control in Turkey as he sews uncertainty in the West and further cultivates his associations with other authoritarian regimes.
What that means for what appeared to be improving Turkish-Israel relations is unclear, as the Jewish state will join other Western powers as they wait to see Erdogan’s next steps following what is likely to be a significant reelection victory next week. ■