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The Reign Continues: Erdogan’s Election Triumph and the Future of Turkey

Victoria Jagger


Source: Reuters

Turkish society has never been so politically divided, with many waiting with apprehension as the future of the nation’s politics hung in the balance. Finally, on the 28th of May, the future became clearer, as Recep Tayyip Erdogan passed his biggest test. Securing a majority vote of 52.14% in the Turkish Presidential runoff election, Erdogan received the green light to remain in power for another five-year term, continuing his already 20-year political reign.


Erdogan’s victory was not guaranteed, as he faced substantial public outcry demanding improvements to Tukey’s dwindling economy. The country has struggled to repay debt as the Lira continues to depreciate, with soaring inflation rates that have exponentially increased the cost of living. His government has also faced heavy criticism for its inadequate response to the earthquake in the country’s southeast, which killed over 50,000 earlier this year in February.


Criticism of Erdogan’s government enabled Kemal Kilicdaroglu to emerge as the primary opponent in the election. Kilicdaroglu’s leadership style and policies are completely antithetical to Erdogan's. On foreign policy, Kilicdaroglu advocated for strengthening relations with the West, while Erdogan fixated on a Turkey-first policy that involved prioritising the nation’s interests and becoming more isolationist. Kilicdaroglu sought to introduce conventional economic reforms, including implementing reasonable interest rates to counter high inflation, with the aim of rebuilding relationships with foreign investors to strengthen Turkey's manufacturing sector. In contrast, Erdogan proposed simultaneously lowering inflation and interest rates with no clear policy to manage the fallout. Evidently, the strong support for both front runners mirrored a more divided country than ever before.


The combination of domestic concerns and two opposing foreign policy agendas were key considerations for voters when heading to the ballot. Yet, the people opted to maintain the status quo, a right-winged national agenda focused on pursuing Turkey’s ‘national goals and national dreams’.

So, what will Turkey’s next five years look like and what does this mean for the region?


Erdogan’s victory means that Turkey will remain under an increasingly authoritarian leadership system for the next five years. This has very real implications for the nation’s democracy, the existing alliances that Turkey will strengthen, and future negotiations between Russia and NATO regarding the Ukraine War.


Since the beginning of his reign, Erdogan departed from modern Turkey’s Kemalist foundation. Kemalism originates from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s founding father who served as the nation's inaugural President from 1923 to 1934. Built upon six core ideological "arrows," Kemalism highlights the importance of republicanism, populism, nationalism, statism, reformism, and, notably, laicism. The arrow of laicism is a constitutionally enshrined principle that maintains secularism, the separation of religion and state. However, Erdogan’s conservative leadership, driven by Islamic values has progressively eroded laicism. This has weakened secular institutions, like the judiciary and free media, and restricted civil liberties, such as freedom of speech. Therefore, the rise of political Islam evident throughout Erdogan’s reign has led to the decline of Turkish democracy. This trend will likely continue during Erdogan’s next term.


Erdogan has undermined democracy by reshaping the court system to increase his control over appointing and dismissing judges, along with implementing a presidential system through a 2017 referendum, which consolidated his authoritarian rule. He has also restricted press freedom by imprisoning journalists critical of his government. Importantly, his monopoly over the media also influenced each candidate’s airtime in the lead-up to the recent elections. Researchers estimated that across national TV broadcasters during April, Erdogan accumulated around 32 hours of air time, while Kilicdaroglu only received 32 minutes. Based on this trend, Erdogan is expected to continue to consolidate power and bend democratic norms to benefit his leadership.


The further curtailing of democracy will likely be coupled with Turkey strengthening relationships with other unstable democracies, such as Pakistan, Hungary, and Qatar. While this pivot is part of Erdogan’s agenda to create an axis around Turkey, it is also a deliberate move away from the West. In fact, Turkey’s changing interests and priorities may indicate a potential shift away from the United States as the global hegemon, especially as China-US tensions continue to mount. Regardless, Erdogan has outrightly expressed his desire to forge a united Turkey which is less reliant on the West.


Ankara’s shift away from the West will have substantial implications. Importantly, it will impact how NATO and Russia negotiate the outcomes of the Ukraine War. Turkey is uniquely positioned as a member of NATO with strong economic and trade ties to Russia and has played a key role in mediating negotiations between the opposing camps. Turkey was instrumental in brokering the Ukraine grain deal between Russia and Ukraine, which has enabled Ukrainian grain to be exported from ports in the Black Sea during the ongoing war. Therefore, Erdogan may strategically use Turkey’s unique position vis-a-vis the Ukraine war as leverage against the West to become more demanding in advancing Turkey’s national interests.


Turkey previously obstructed Sweden’s accession to NATO for over a year, only recently deciding to extend their support on the eve of the Vilnius Summit in early July. Ankara’s opposition was in response to Sweden’s decision to grant refuge to Kurdish people, whom Erdogan has labelled as terrorists, a claim that Sweden denies. Accordingly, Turkey’s decision to back Sweden’s accession is a complete reversal of their prior stance. This decision was made after Ankara, Stockholm and the Secretary General of NATO held a meeting where all parties committed to tougher counterterrorism efforts to curb all forms of terrorism. This suggests that Erdogan is still willing to cooperate with the West - albeit while ensuring Turkey’s national interests are advanced. However, it is yet to be seen how demanding or collaborative Erdogan will be in any future negotiations.


Turkey’s shift away from the West has been warmly welcomed by Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. In recent years, the two countries have bolstered their economic and trade partnerships, with Russian nuclear energy company Rosatom recently building the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in Southern Turkey. With Putin expected to visit Turkey soon, both countries will likely strengthen their relationship, which may antagonise the West.


In the pursuit of national interest, Erdogan may also choose to leverage the critical role Turkey plays in managing the refugee crisis in Europe. As part of the EU-Turkey deal introduced in 2016, Turkey committed to taking any necessary measures to stop refugees from crossing to Greece into Europe to seek asylum. In exchange, Turkey received €6 billion to manage the domestic humanitarian crisis, and Turkish citizens were also granted visa-free travel to Europe. In some ways, this has positioned Turkey against Europe, and in the process has created domestic public dissent as Turkey struggles to manage the 3.6 million Syrian refugees they currently host. Erdogan may therefore demand more from Europe as a means of managing the crisis whilst simultaneously leveraging their strategic advantage.


The bottom line


Turkey has always held a unique position as the state that bridges the East and the West, a position it will continue to fulfil. However, over Erdogan’s next term, Turkey may further leverage this unique position to demand more from other states. Additionally, Erdogan will likely tighten his authoritarian leadership in pursuit of his ‘united Turkey’ agenda. This will influence the relationships that Turkey chooses to both strengthen and depart from.


While the world is yet to see what the extension of Erdogan’s reign means, one can safely predict that it will involve the further erosion of Turkish democracy.


 

Victoria Jagger is currently studying a Bachelor of Law and Arts, majoring in Human Rights at Monash University. As a New Colombo Plan Scholar, she is currently located in Singapore interning with the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). She is interested in exploring how international relations and foreign policy decisions impact both individual and collective rights.

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