Recep Tayyip Erdogan was victorious in the second round of voting in the Turkish election last month. In the first round of voting, neither Erdogan nor his rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition CHP (Republican party established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) received the required 50% of the votes to win outright. Erdogan’s triumph though, was hardly a surprise. He has subjugated the Turkish media and the Judiciary to his will, the military and the police have likewise been under his control, and many of his critics languish in prison. Still, the election this time showed that many Turks, particularly the young and the educated in urban centers voted for his challenger. They yearn for more freedom, a liberal democracy, and a functioning economy.
Erdogan has presented himself as the guardian of Sunni-Islam, and the protector of Turkish nationalism. For most Turks, especially in rural Turkey, and in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Turkey’s major cities, Erdogan’s messages resonated, and they clearly identified with his claims. Now, the younger generation of Turks will have to wait in order to see a change in their country. The 69-year-old Erdogan is not in the best of health and might perhaps retire or pass on.
Early polls gave Kilicdaroglu a clear advantage, but in the actual first round of voting (Sunday, May 14, 2023) Erdogan received 49.5% of the votes to 44.9% for the opposition leader Kilicdaroglu. In the second round (May 28, 2023) according to the state-owned Anadolu news agency, Erdogan received 52.91% of the votes.
Erdogan (and his AK party) has become Turkey’s longest serving leader with over 20-years in power. He has transformed modern Turkey from a secular state to a near Islamist state. He left his office as Prime Minister to assume the Presidency with increased powers that he arrogated to himself. Previously the presidency was more of a ceremonial position, and Erdogan filled it with potent power. Erdogan turned Turkey’s semi-democracy into an autocracy.
Kilicdaroglu’s election platform promised a democratic reset, a return to a parliamentary system of government, and an independent judiciary, which Erdogan subverted to crack down on dissent. Kilicdaroglu also pledged to return Turkey to a more orthodox economic policy and restore the independence of the central bank.
Erdogan’s Turkey lacks checks and balances that can protect the people from arbitrary rule. His critics contend that his government has muzzled dissent and eroded civil and human rights. He has mobilized the state apparatus to promote his candidacy, which was meant to ensure that he will ultimately win elections. Erdogan’s economic policy of low interest rates while inflation in Turkey stands at 43.68% currently, has contributed to the Turkish lira’s drastic depreciation.
On foreign affairs, Erdogan established closer ties with Russia while his relationship with the US and the European Union has deteriorated. Erdogan’s Turkey has brokered a deal between Russia and Ukraine for the resumption of Ukrainian wheat exports from the Black Sea. In recent years, Erdogan has worked to improve relations with former regional foes, including Israel, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to stimulate trade and thus improve the ailing Turkish economy. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia had deposited $5 billion in Turkey’s central bank to shore up its depleted foreign currency reserves.
Erdogan’s relationship with NATO has been difficult. Turkish soldiers have served in peacekeeping missions in the past, in various war zones. More recently, however, Turkey has defied NATO and the US by purchasing military equipment from Russia, including the S-400 missile defense system. Earlier this year, Erdogan refused to vote for the entry of Finland and Sweden as NATO members. Emre Peker, former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and current director of the Eurasia Group concluded that Erdogan “will continue to play an important, but uncomfortable role from a western perspective.”
US President Joe Biden would clearly have preferred Erdogan’s rival Kilicdaroglu, to win the election. As a measure of the Biden administration’s unhappiness with Erdogan, the Turkish president has not been invited to the White House since Biden took office. US Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has previously denounced Erdogan’s dealings with Putin. Menendez pondered in a New York speech whether “Turkey after the election will be a NATO ally, we always wanted it to be, or will it be in turmoil?”
Erdogan’s AK (Justice and Development Party) has had a tense relationship with the Jewish state. Erdogan, posing as the leader of the Sunni-Muslim world, and dreaming of reviving the Ottoman glory has been seeking to burnish his Islamist credentials, including the backing of the Hamas terrorist regime in Gaza, and hosting its leaders in Turkey. In May 2010, the relationship between Erdogan’s Turkey and Israel reached it’s lowest point. The Islamist Turkish group IHH, supported by Erdogan, organized a flotilla of ships led by the Mavi Marmara. It set out to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza imposed by Israel and Egypt, to prevent Hamas from importing arms (rockets in particular) in which to bomb Israeli civilian centers. The Turks on the Marmara attacked Israeli naval commandoes set to stop the ship. Israelis were attacked with knives and crowbars, killing 9 Turks in the melee.
Turkey’s economic vows forced Erdogan to reconsider his relationship with Israel. Israeli tourists make up a significant factor in Turkey’s tourism revenue. Israel too has economic and strategic interest in continuing its rapprochement with Erdogan, albeit, not at the expense of its relationship with Cyprus and Greece. Jerusalem is aware of the fact that in dealing with Erdogan it must employ the Talmudic dictum: ‘respect him and suspect him’.
Erdogan has prioritized strengthening Turkey’s relations with Middle Eastern states, including Israel. Israel’s aiding of Turkey during its recent devastating earthquake earned Jerusalem extra credit, and earlier this year Erdogan warmly welcomed Israeli President Herzog on his visit to Turkey. During the election campaign, Erdogan refrained from using Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians as a rabble-rousing tactic, which is a positive sign of a seemingly moderating Erdogan.
Gonsul Tol, director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute had this to say about what to expect from Erdogan in the near future, “Usually, when autocrats face more instability at home, they tend to pursue a more unpredictable anti-Western nationalist foreign policy.” Hopefully, Erdogan’s domestic economic problems will keep him out of troublemaking abroad.