AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
On May 14, Turkish voters will cast their ballots in what may be the most important election not just Turkey, but the entire Middle East has seen.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics as Prime Minister since 2002, and as President since 2014, is currently trailing in the polls against the unified candidate of the opposition, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, albeit with both averaging less than the 50 percent support needed to avoid a runoff.
Under Erdogan, Turkey has played a key geopolitical role during Europe’s migration crisis, the Syrian Civil War, and most recently the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine. The opposition has promised to reverse policy on virtually every major issue, sometimes not in the same direction, and a victory for Kilicdaroglu could have major implications for Eurasia.
The foreign policy implications are perhaps the most apparent to American observers. Erdogan has been a fierce opponent of the Assad regime in Damascus, and keeping on the right side of Ankara has played a major role in preventing Washington from cutting its losses and forging a settlement with Assad.
This has left both Turkey and the United States increasingly isolated, especially as Arab countries, many supporters of the Abraham Accords, have moved toward accepting the permanence of Assad’s government . The Foreign Ministers of both Syria and Egypt have visited Damascus in recent weeks, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan timed his visit to Saudi Arabia to coincide with an Arab League summit that voted to readmit Syria to the body.
Sullivan and the Biden administration should rightly be concerned that their inability to promote peace because of Erdogan’s hostility to Assad and the Kurds (who are unwilling to engage in futile efforts to overthrow Assad by force) is leaving the field clear for China to sweep in and “mediate” another long-running conflict.
Kilicdaroglu has promised to abandon Erdogan’s policy and recognize the Assad regime in Damascus. The opposition’s argument is not that Assad is good or that the United States is bad, but rather that the greatest priority for Turkey is allowing millions of Syrian refugees who have been living in Turkey for the past decade to return home.
Erdogan, by contrast, has openly wielded the refugees as a weapon against Europe, threatening to unleash waves of migrants unless he is paid billions in what amounts to protection money. Conspiracy theories abound that Erdogan sees the presence of refugees in the largely Kurdish provinces of Turkey’s east as a means of changing the demographic makeup to one more favorable to his own party.
The U.S. should welcome a resolution of the Syrian conflict that removes the human sword of Damocles that has hung over European politics for the past decade, even if recognizing Assad would be a frustrating admission of the failure of one of Obama’s flagship regional policies.
In general, the opposition has pledged to abandon Erdogan’s international approach, which rather than defusing conflicts, has sought to use them to secure financial and geopolitical advantages for Turkey and himself, even at the cost of worsening them.
While Turkey has provided vital military support to Ukraine, including the provision of hi-tech drones, Erdogan has seen the conflict as a chance to make himself into a geopolitical arbiter. He hosted peace talks in the first month of the war, and by negotiating a Russo-Ukrainian agreement on grain exports made himself indispensable to much of Africa which depended on Ukrainian grain, while also securing Turkey, and companies linked to his party, a cut of the profits.
Erdogan has also used Turkey’s NATO membership to extract concessions, first vetoing the admission of both Sweden and Finland, and then relenting in the latter case after Turkey secured the military equipment and promises of support against his Kurdish critics.
The Turkish opposition has promised a more cooperative approach, making support for Ukraine unconditional, and rejecting the use of Turkey’s NATO membership for blackmail. With the support of Kurdish voters, they have no reason to seek foreign support for a fight they do not expect to have. On the contrary, they have pledged to seek Turkey’s accession to the European Union.
These are all reasons why the United States and most of Europe would welcome an opposition victory. But foreign policy is likely to be secondary to Turkish voters, which may be a good thing for Erdogan’s opponents.
A similar dynamic was at play in Hungary last year, when the perception that the opposition would place pleasing Washington and Brussels over the national interests of Hungary when it came to the Ukrainian war helped Viktor Orban win a 21-point landslide victory. Erdogan’s supporters have already stepped up a similar form of rhetoric, with Interior Minister Sulyeman Soylu suggesting the West was plotting to use the May 14 elections as a “political coup.”
One reason Solyu may be resorting to this rhetoric is that Erdogan is in a far worse position on non-foreign policy issues than Orban. While Orban’s Fidesz party has presided over an economic boom along with an unprecedented fall in crime, Erdogan’s most recent term has been little short of an economic disaster.
The Turkish leader has sought to implement his preferred economic policy of negative interest rates over the opposition of the central bank, pursuing it even after it produced inflation in excess of 80 percent and firing officials when they objected. The Turkish Lira has lost more than 75 percent of its value against the dollar since Erdogan’s last election in 2018. It is a testament to how bad things are that Erdogan’s campaign is promoting the success of bringing inflation down to only 44 percent.
In other countries, 44 percent inflation would be enough to produce an opposition landslide, if not a revolution. But Turkey, if not an autocracy, has seen a major skewing of the political playing field since a failed 2016 coup. Major opposition media outlets have been shut down, while even prominent opposition politicians such as the Mayor of Istanbul can find themselves charged and convicted of defamation for calling a minister a “fool.”
While outright fabrication of vote counts has never been proven, Erdogan has shown a tendency to invalidate results he does not like, forcing a rerun of the Istanbul elections in 2019 when the opposition initially won, and forcing out of office or imprisoning elected Kurdish politicians. There is a widespread belief in opposition circles that the AKP has distributed voting cards to Syrian refugees. Syrians supportive of the ruling party have without a doubt found their applications fast-tracked.
With the election so close, a Turkish polling website has Kilicdaroglu leading 47 percent to 45.7 percent, and the prospect of prison for Erdogan if he loses. Charges of fraud should be expected if Erdogan wins, especially if he somehow defies the polls and hits the 50 percent required to avoid a second round on May 28. Erdogan would almost certainly blame such unrest on a Western “plot,” while the opposition would look to Biden and Brussels for exactly the support Erdogan would allege they already were receiving.
The most likely outcome, and the one all polls are pointing to, is a second round if neither candidate hits 50 percent. That would see high tensions, as Erdogan would seek to engage in provocations, including violence and violations of the electoral laws in order to drive the opposition into boycotting the second round, a strategy that worked for Robert Mugabe after he lost the first round of his own 2008 election in Zimbabwe, and which Slobodan Milosevic attempted in Serbia in 2000.
While Erdogan is likely correct that Washington would welcome an opposition victory, the next month will be a test of whether Turkish institutions can handle the strain, and the Biden team can demonstrate the nuance to navigate a complex situation in which many things can go wrong. The fate not just of Turkish democracy, but the Middle East may be on the line.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.