June 2023

Triumph of the strongman

Despite a struggling economy and a close run­off vote, Turkey’s incumbent leader has won a third presidential term.  Richard Gregson assesses the possible impact both at home and abroad

The luxurious Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet – once a prison built towards the end of the Ottoman era and renovated into its ultramodern incarnation in 1996 – symbolises the struggle between modernity and conservatism, democracy and autocracy that Turkey has continued to witness since the republic came into being a hundred years ago. The former penitentiary, operational from 1919 to 1969, remained closed for a decade until it was reopened to incarcerate political prisoners, including communist leaders, writers, journalists, artists and intellectual dissidents, by the quasi-military regime from 1980 to 1986.

The building is located on the shores of the strategic Bosphorus Strait, which connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and separates Asia and most of modern Turkey from Europe.

Indeed, Turkey is considered the gateway to Europe, and what made the recent Turkish elections so important for the collective West, embroiled in sanctions and a proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, was the complicated geopolitical circumstances. Western leaders had hoped President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been playing a game of hide-and-seekwith the West on Russia, would notwin a third presidential term.

But that was not to be. Strongman Erdoğan rode back to power, despite the anti-incumbency sentimenthe faced – although only after a tough run-off contest with his rival, who failed to pick up enough votes

In the May 14 election,President Erdoğan, 69,received 49.4 per cent of the vote, while his main rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu,polled 44.9 per cent. As neither of the candidates crossed the mandated 50 per cent mark, a run-off election was held on May 28, in which Erdoğan gained 52.1 per cent of votes amid allegations of widespread irregularities and misuse of the state-controlled media. Kılıçdaroğlu, 74, was preferred by 47.9 per cent of the voters.

Recep Erdoğan looking triumphant after his 2023 election win 1
TRIUMPH: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has narrowly won a third presidential term

Erdoğan’s coalition of his conservative AK Party (AKP), the nationalist MHP and others also won a majority in Parliament. One factor that could have worked in his favour was the endorsement by the third-place presidential candidate, the little-known ultra nationalist Sinan Oğan, who bagged a surprise 5.17 per cent of the vote.He backedErdoğan for his ‘struggle against terrorism’,implying the struggle by Kurds for autonomy and a separate Kurdistan. Kurds make up for about a fifth of Turkey’s population.

Erdoğan,a former professional footballer, entered politics under the stewardship of Necmettin Erbakan, a veteran Islamist politician, some three decades ago. He went on to become the first Islamist to be elected as the mayor of Istanbul in 1994. In 2003 hebecame Prime Minister and has since ruled the country with a velvet-gloved iron fist for more than two decades.

Turkey is considered the gateway to Europe

A shrewd politician and a good orator – albeit with a razor tongue for his opponents – he has pandered to both conservative Islamists and ultranationalist sentiments, especially against minorities such as the Kurds and immigrants, partly undermining the secular path embarked upon when the country was proclaimed a Republic in July 1923, under the leadership of Field Marshal Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

However, Erdoğan is a tactful politician and has never gone overboard in enforcing Islamic norms. Bu he has pursued a hard line against Kurdish rebels and in relation to disputes in the neighbourhood: for instance, aiding and abetting a devastating conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in mid-2020. His foreign policy has also led to tensions with the US and EU member states over issues such as Turkey’s involvement in conflicts in Libya and Syria, as well as its naval operations near Greek islands and Cyprus.

Over the years,Erdoğan has, his critics say, become more authoritarian. In 2017, he got sweeping changes to the constitution ratified through a narrowly-won referendum and was elected President in 2018. He has been criticised for curbing academic and press freedoms, undermining constitutional bodies, and for human rights violations.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

The Turkish lira has plunged to one tenth of its value against the dollar in a decade

Turkey’s high inflation, which he unsuccessfully tried to rein in through an unconventional interventionist approach, and the devastating February 6 earthquake, resulting in over 50,000 fatalities, had given a boost to opposition morale. The Turkish lira has plunged to one tenth of its value against the dollar in a decade, while American sanctions have also hit Turkey’s economy.

Kılıçdaroğlu and his Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, were able to stitch together an alliance of disparate parties to challenge theincumbent. Yet Kılıçdaroğlu failed to regain the momentum of his otherwise enthusiastic campaigning after trailing behind Erdoğan in the first round of the election.

Another contentious issue was that of immigrants. A country of 85 million, Turkey is the world’s largest host of refugees, with some five million migrants, of whom 3.3 million are Syrians. Both sides harped on the issue. Another nationalist, Ümit Özdağ, leader of the anti-immigrant Victory Party (ZP), had even declared ZP’s support for Kılıçdaroğlu, after he said he would repatriate immigrants. The ZP has won 2.2 per cent of theseats in the simultaneous Parliamentary election.

Lukewarm words of congratulation for Erdoğan emanating from Washington and Brussels reflects the frustration of the West, as compared to the gleeful ‘my dear friend’ message from Russia’s Vladimir Putin, congratulating him on his victory. These are pointers to how things are likely to shape up.

Despite Erdoğan’s strident neo-Ottoman rhetoric at home and his pan-Islamist ambitions abroad, patronising the Muslim Brotherhood globally in his initial days, Turkey’s foreign policy was favourably oriented towards the West and close relations with the US.

Turkish politician Sinan Oğan (left) and opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu
KINGMAKER: Sinan Oğan (l] endorsed President Erdoğan rather than his main challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (r)

Turkey’s high inflation, which he unsuccessfully tried to rein in through an unconventional interventionist approach, and the devastating February 6 earthquake, resulting in over 50,000 fatalities, had given a boost to opposition morale. The Turkish lira has plunged to one tenth of its value against the dollar in a decade, while American sanctions have also hit Turkey’s economy.

Kılıçdaroğlu and his Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, were able to stitch together an alliance of disparate parties to challenge theincumbent. Yet Kılıçdaroğlu failed to regain the momentum of his otherwise enthusiastic campaigning after trailing behind Erdoğan in the first round of the election.

Another contentious issue was that of immigrants. A country of 85 million, Turkey is the world’s largest host of refugees, with some five million migrants, of whom 3.3 million are Syrians. Both sides harped on the issue. Another nationalist, Ümit Özdağ, leader of the anti-immigrant Victory Party (ZP), had even declared ZP’s support for Kılıçdaroğlu, after he said he would repatriate immigrants. The ZP has won 2.2 per cent of theseats in the simultaneous Parliamentary election.

Lukewarm words of congratulation for Erdoğan emanating from Washington and Brussels reflects the frustration of the West, as compared to the gleeful ‘my dear friend’ message from Russia’s Vladimir Putin, congratulating him on his victory. These are pointers to how things are likely to shape up.

Despite Erdoğan’s strident neo-Ottoman rhetoric at home and his pan-Islamist ambitions abroad, patronising the Muslim Brotherhood globally in his initial days, Turkey’s foreign policy was favourably oriented towards the West and close relations with the US.

aftermath of Turkey’s February 6 earthquake
DEVASTATING: Turkey’s February 6 earthquake resulted in over 50,000 fatalities

Heimplemented economic and political reforms to bring Turkey closer in line with EU standards, and the country’s economy grew by 7.5 per cent annually.

Then, gradually becoming more assertive in his foreign policy, he began to aggressively expandTurkey’s military and diplomatic footprint. From Turkey being a pillar of the Western alliance and participating in the NATO campaign in Iraq, Erdoğan began to proactively intervene in regional conflicts such as Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria and Libya, even risking the country’s pending EU membership.

He has also developed a close relationship with Russia and refused to implement the Western sanctions against Moscow. He met Putin, often several times a year, which rang alarm bells across Western capitals. In 2017, he signed a deal, reportedly worth $2.5 billion, with Russia to purchase S-400 mobile surface-to-air missile systems. In retaliation, the then Trump administration imposed sanctions on Turkey.

On his arrival in Ankara after his election victory, an emboldened Erdoğan tweeted:‘Let the Turk[ish] century begin.’Thetweet could not have been more timely, as the foundation of the Republic of Turkey marks its 100th anniversary after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

But let all Turks remember that the Republic was founded on ideals of secularism. Despite chipping away at Turkey’s secular foundations by allowing women to stay veiled in public and converting ancient churches into mosques, Erdoğan has been careful to ‘never completely reject’ Ataturk’s legacy, says French historian Etienne Copeaux, who specialises in Turkish affairs.

It must also be remembered that, Erdoğan’s victory notwithstanding, large sections of Turkey’s population voted against him, choosing secularism over nationalistic Islam. As for what lies ahead, we must wait and see which way the wind blows.

Richard Gregson is a  freelance journalist currently based in Canada