WHAT DOES FIVE MORE YEARS OF TURKEY'S
ERDOGAN MEAN FOR THE WEST?
After two decades of dominating Turkish politics — 11 years as prime minister and 9 years as president of Turkey — Recep Tayyip Erdogan was recently re-elected for another term. What does five more years of Erdogan mean for the West?
To the European Union (EU), Turkey's largest trading partner, Erdogan's victory means business as usual. The challenges in the relationship are well-known. French President Emmanuel Macron and Erdogan will continue butting heads over the East Med, Turkey-Greece, and Turkey-Armenia-Azerbaijan. Whether Erdogan decides to settle Turkey's differences with Greece at the International Court of Justice or through brute force remains to be seen. This much is certain: A two-state solution for Cyprus is a non-starter for resolving the nearly 49-year impasse. Although EU membership offers the brightest future for young Turks, Erdogan is likely to continue steering Turkey in the opposite direction over the next five years.
To the United States, Turkey's most important strategic "ally," Erdogan's victory means managing an increasingly transactional and chaotic relationship. Nothing exemplifies this better than Turkish Minister of the Interior (and one of Erdogan's likely successors) Suleyman Soylu's consistent anti-American hate speech throughout the election campaign. Will Erdogan actually "wipe out the American soldiers" (presumably in reference to U.S. forces deployed at Incirlik Air Base or NATO Allied Land Command in Izmir) as Soylu suggested? However unlikely that may be, Soylu's anti-U.S. rhetoric must be taken seriously because Turkey previously targeted American soldiers, and threatened to attack, invaded, or occupied almost every state it neighbors.
Erdogan's victory means Turkey will remain open for business with Russia, NATO's top security challenge. Moscow will continue extending billions of dollars worth of credit and gas payment deferrals to Ankara. Turkey will reciprocate by being a Trojan horse of sorts within NATO. This includes helping Russia evade sanctions, welcoming millions of Russian tourists, cooperating in matters related to nuclear power, and preventing Sweden from joining NATO. All this, even as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan support opposing sides in Syria and play great power politics in the Caucasus.
Erdogan's victory changes little for Sweden's NATO application. In principle, the trilateral memorandum of understanding outlined the conditions Sweden must meet to gain Turkey's approval. Sections regarding Sweden's support for Kurdish groups are major points of contention for Turkey. Although Stockholm modified its anti-terrorism legislation accordingly, it is disproportionate and unreasonable for Erdogan to expect Sweden to extradite every Turkish or Kurdish dissident to Turkey. In practice, the U.S. may offer to sell Turkey F-16s to soften Erdogan's stance ahead of the NATO summit in Vilnius this July. While appeasing Erdogan by transferring F-16s to Turkey may alter the balance of power with Greece and Cyprus, it would be devastating for the Kurds in Syria and Iraq.
Erdogan campaigned to continue Ankara's anti Kurdish policy in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, even though the Kurds dropped their separatist stance in Turkey and settled for autonomous regions in Iraq and Syria. Kurdish opposition leader Selahattin Demirtas will remain imprisoned for "insulting the president" despite the European Court of Human Rights ordering his "immediate release" back in 2020. The Kurdish people suffer under Erdogan, as they suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein and the Assad crime family. They fought for survival against the Turkish, Iraqi, and Syrian governments, Shiite militias, Turkish-backed militias, al-Qaeda, ISIS, Wagner PMC, and other groups. They will continue resisting for existential reasons. While the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq is on speaking terms with Ankara, peace between Turkey and other Kurdish groups is unlikely given the nationalist fervor and anti-Kurdish sentiment in the country.
Some analysts argue Erdogan is turning Turkey into Argentina. Others compare Turkey's path to Venezuela. Both analyses have their merits and shortcomings. To be clear: Erdogan's Turkey is a unique experiment in illiberal democracy. Over the years, Erdogan overhauled Turkey's democratic institutions. His previous constitutional reforms consolidated power in the executive at the expense of the legislative branch of government by replacing Turkey's prime ministerial democracy with a presidential system. Under the 2017 constitution, Turkey's president is limited to serving two terms in office. Expect that term limit to be modified to enable Erdogan to pursue a fourth term as president in 2028, extending his political dominance to 2033 and cementing his legacy as Turkey's most consequential leader since Kemal Ataturk.
Ankara faces substantial social, geopolitical, and security challenges. Turkey's economic crisis, characterized by sky rocketing inflation and high levels of youth unemployment, is likely to worsen before it improves. Like Ankara's dysfunctional if not borderline toxic relationships with Washington, Paris, Brussels, Athens, and Cairo, these are often a direct result of Erdogan's decisions over the last 20 years. Despite the colossal odds stacked against challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu, 47.82 percent of the electorate voted against Erdogan's vision for Turkey. While the West would be wise to expect more of the same from Erdogan, Brussels and Washington must not abandon the 25 million Turks who voted for an alternative.
Originally published by Newsweek on May 31, 2023.