Democracy on the line in Turkey

Dr Oliver Hartwich
16 May, 2023

Perhaps he never quite played in the same league as Trump, Putin and Xi, but Turkey’s long-serving President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is cut from the same strongman cloth. Yet after Sunday’s first-round of Turkish presidential elections, there is a chance his time in power may soon come to an end.

If current results hold, Erdoğan and his principal opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, will miss the 50% mark required. This means there will be a run-off vote in a couple of weeks.

It is the first time in years that Erdoğan has faced a formidable challenger. This is because it is also the first time that Turkey’s main opposition parties put their differences aside to gather behind a single candidate.

That challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, promises a return to the roots of modern, Western-oriented Turkey. This would be a radical departure from Erdoğan’s rule, which makes this election so pivotal. The nation’s future hangs in the balance as voters decide whether to continue down the path to autocracy or turn a new page for Turkish democracy.

But the election result will not just be seminal for Turkey. The outcome will also have profound implications for Europe and the trans-Atlantic community as well.

Just as Erdoğan turned Turkey into a different country domestically, so he changed its international positioning. From a country vying to become a member of the European Union – and a member of NATO – it has become something of a free radical within the Western sphere.

 It is hard to fathom today that Erdoğan once entered the political scene with the reputation of a reformer. His Justice and Development Party (AKP), which he founded, was swept to power in a landslide victory in the 2002 general election. Erdoğan became Prime Minister in 2003 and later assumed the role of President in 2014.

Initially, Erdoğan’s leadership brought rapid economic growth, fuelled by an influx of foreign investment. This influx of capital fuelled a construction boom, and Erdoğan’s government invested heavily in infrastructure projects, including airports, highways, and high-speed rail networks. As a result, Turkey’s economy grew strongly in the first years of the AKP’s rule.

However, it wasn’t long before the darker side of Erdoğan’s policies emerged – and not just because Erdoğan’s early economic model was not sustainable.

The longer Erdoğan was in power, the further he moved away from democratic norms and the more he concentrated power. The turning point came in 2016 when a failed coup attempt provided the pretext for a massive crackdown on real and perceived enemies. This led to the arrest of tens of thousands of people and the suppression of any form of dissent.

A year later, and on the back of that failed coup, Erdoğan then successfully pushed for a constitutional referendum. It transformed Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential one. Erdoğan got what he wanted: sweeping executive powers which did away with the checks and balances that had previously restrained him.

One of the most significant casualties of Erdoğan’s rule has been freedom of the press. Independent media outlets have been shut down or taken over by the government, and many journalists have found themselves facing dubious charges of terrorism. Among them was Deniz Yücel, a German journalist who spent more than a year in a Turkish prison in a bizarre legal battle with the Turkish state. His alleged crime: having reported on the Kurdish opposition.

In the same way that Erdoğan destroyed Turkey’s media freedom, democracy and the rule of law, he also ruined the Turkish economy. International investors do not want to be in a country in which courts are no longer independent and the Government takes an activist (and sometimes erratic) role.

It would be comical if it were not so tragic, but Erdoğan appears to be the only “economist” in the world surprised that excessive money printing leads to rampant inflation. This column explained the background over the past years (“Turkey on the brink”, 11 August 2020, and “Do politicians need economics degrees?”, 14 December 2021).

On international affairs, too, Erdoğan turned out to be a wrecking ball to Turkey’s previously established positions.

In the early 2000s, it was not regarded as inconceivable that Turkey might one day join the European Union. And, of course, Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, when the country decided to link itself to the West.

Under Erdoğan, however, these links were tested many, many times. For example, in 2011 he threatened to suspend Turkey’s official contacts with the EU while Greece held the rotating presidency – and he announced that in the Turkish-controlled part of Cyprus.

Last year, Turkey issued a thinly veiled threat of war to Greece (“Why Europe’s next war could be between Greece and Turkey”, 28 June 2022). That was when Greece, a fellow NATO member, pushed for the delivery of new fighter jets from the US.

Meanwhile, Turkey under Erdoğan has had no qualms in dealing with regimes outside the Western alliance. And so, Erdoğan allowed the use of Turkish airports to channel refugees to Belarus in order to create a crisis at the EU border (“Cynically exploiting EU’s divisions”, 16 November 2021). He had no problems attending a summit with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Teheran (“Who needs enemies when you have friends like Orbán and Erdoğan?”, 9 August 2022). We may add Erdoğan’s cooperation with Russia in the military and energy spheres to this list. Or its role in the European refugee crisis of 2015.

With all this in mind, to say that the outcome of the Turkish presidential election matters would be an understatement.

The alternatives are as clear-cut as they come. Erdoğan’s challenger Kilicdaroglu has campaigned on a platform of unity, vowing to overcome political polarisation and bring the nation together. He has pledged to revive Turkey’s economy, combat corruption, and restore the rule of law.

Perhaps most significantly, Kilicdaroglu has promised to reverse Erdoğan’s presidential system and return Turkey to parliamentary democracy.

On the other hand, were Erdoğan to win the election, it would be another step toward authoritarianism, perhaps the final one. And it would be the result that other autocrats and dictators would hope for.

After Sunday’s first-round results (about 49% for Erdoğan and 44% for Kilicdaroglu), Turkey’s future is on a knife edge.

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