Election matters! Global Implications of Turkey’s Presidential Election

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In democracies around the world, every election matters, but some elections matter more than others – especially when they transcend beyond the local or national and have regional and global consequences. The recently concluded presidential election in Turkey is one such. In this article, we aim to unpack what this electoral outcome means for Turkey and, more significantly, the world.

Turkey has long been considered a ‘bridge’ between the East and the West, a geopolitical entity divided between Asia and Europe. Under the current international situation, Turkey is also geo-strategically one of the few pivotal states in the world. It is in this context that the Turkish election needs to be analysed.

The election was initially planned for 18th June, but President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan brought it forward to 14th May, three months after the terrible earthquake that took about 50,000 lives. It was a bold decision since most literature on disasters (Abney and Hill, 1966; Atkeson and Maestas, 2012; Cole, Healy, and Werker, 2012) suggests that disasters have an adverse effect on an incumbent government. Many even considered the election as a referendum on the government’s sluggish response to the earthquake.

For Erdoğan, this election was projected to be his toughest test yet, because it came amidst a plethora of crises. In addition to the earthquake, there was a plummeting economy, growing strains as a result of the refugees from Syria, international criticism of his increasing authoritarianism, and the unified opposition of the largest parties supporting the opposition candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. But, in the much-anticipated two election rounds, President Erdoğan – contesting for a third term as president and more than 20 years in power – emerged as the winner.

Erdoğan’s success builds on specific Turkish foundations, but there are elements of interest to future strongman leaders. However, his position rests on continuously maintaining his image as the nation’s protector, and because strongman leaders thrive on unrest and uncertainty, this creates volatile relations with neighbouring powers. In that context, his exemplary win is bad news for the rest of the world.

Why does this election matter to the world? In the following sections, we will outline some areas where the outcome is of consequence. First, there is Turkey as a pivotal state. The notion of a ‘pivot state’ refers to a nation endowed with political, military, economic, or ideational strategic assets that major global powers covet.

These states are primarily situated at the confluence of great powers’ spheres of interest and often exploit their strategic assets to cultivate relationships with multiple major powers. In certain instances, they may even manipulate these powers against one another to promote their interests.

Any significant alteration in their alliances or partnerships can carry substantial security implications for the equilibrium of power among blocs and global politics. While pivotal states have always been significant, their significance has increased in an era marked by a transition from the unipolarity established after the fall of the Berlin Wall to a more marked multipolarity in the global power balance.

The United States no longer occupies the position of a sole and unrivalled superpower globally, and the ascendancy of China, Russia and others has challenged its leadership. In this context of fluidity and instability, the stance taken by Turkey concerning which bloc to align with assumes heightened importance.

Over the years, Turkish-Western relations have experienced fluctuations even as Turkey has remained an essential member of the Western alliance. More recently, the relationship between the West and Ankara has become increasingly strained, carrying significant international implications, particularly for NATO.

Unlike most alliance members, Turkey has sometimes actively pursued close ties with Russia. While most countries have imposed sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, Turkey has continued to engage in business with Moscow. In fact, President Erdoğan emphasised his “special relationship” with Russian President Putin only a week before the election.

Turkey had previously blocked Finland and Sweden from joining the military alliance due to its concerns about their support for Kurdish militants, which both Turkey and the U.S. view as terrorist organisations. Although Turkey eventually lifted its opposition to Finland, allowing it to become NATO’s 31st member, it has maintained its veto on Sweden’s accession. The newly established diplomatic connections and shared rhetoric between Turkey and Russia have raised concerns in Western capitals.

Over the past decade, Turkish President Erdoğan and Russian President Putin have held many meetings, participated in numerous summits, and exchanged multiple phone calls. In contrast, the number of presidential meetings between the United States and Turkey during the same period has been significantly low.

Second, the repercussions on the regional dynamics. President Erdoğan’s re-election in Turkey is expected to substantially impact the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East, particularly in relation to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Erdoğan’s assertive approach to foreign policy, which combines elements of neo-Ottomanism and pragmatic realpolitik, is likely to persist and have consequences for the distribution of power in the region.

His involvement in conflicts such as those in Syria and Libya, often in opposition to other regional powers, has already brought about significant changes in regional dynamics. The Kurdish issue is of great concern to the region and is another area likely to be influenced by Erdoğan’s re-election. His stance towards the Kurdish minority within Turkey and neighbouring countries has been a source of tension in the region. The policies pursued by Erdoğan during his new term could either exacerbate or alleviate these tensions.

Third, President Erdoğan’s third term in Turkey is anticipated to significantly impact economic interests and trade connections. Erdoğan’s two-decade-long leadership, now extended for an additional five years, has focused on fostering economic growth, which has influenced the nation’s economic policies and trade partnerships.

Erdoğan’s tenure will likely continue to prioritise economic growth, potentially resulting in the implementation of further contractionary monetary policies. While this approach has successfully promoted growth, it has also contributed to financial instability, as evidenced by significant fluctuations in the Turkish economy in recent years. The Turkish Lira has experienced a substantial depreciation, losing over 90% of its value against the U.S. dollar in the past decade.

Regarding trade relations, Erdoğan’s re-election is expected to strengthen ties with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as it would bring a sense of continuity and strengthen relations between Ankara and the bloc as well as its six members. The anticipated increase in Turkish drone sales to these countries serves as a clear indication of this trend. This closer relationship is viewed as a strategic manoeuvre to counterbalance Iranian influence in the region.

However, Turkey faces economic challenges, including financial instability and the potential for widespread demonstrations, which could pose risks to these trade relationships. Erdoğan’s upcoming term will be a critical period for Turkey’s economy and its international trade connections.

Fourth, Erdoğan’s new term is expected to have significant implications for the ongoing refugee crisis and migration. Throughout his administration, Erdoğan has been known for his open-door policy towards refugees, particularly those from Syria, resulting in Turkey hosting the largest number of refugees compared to any other country. However, due to growing resentment among Turkish voters towards the refugee population, there may be a shift in Erdoğan’s policies.

Under Erdoğan’s new plans, the refugee issue is being placed at the forefront of his Syria policy, alongside concerns about Syrian Kurdish groups. This suggests a potential change in Turkey’s approach to managing the refugee crisis, possibly leaning towards repatriation of refugees back to Syria. However, this course of action could be challenging given Syria’s unstable political and security situation.

Erdoğan’s tenure also marks a diplomatic shift in Turkey’s stance towards Syria. Despite previously referring to Syrian President Assad as a “butcher”, Erdoğan is now reopening diplomatic channels with him. While this rapprochement is progressing slower than that of other regional governments, it could potentially influence the future of Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Nevertheless, the repatriation of refugees raises concerns regarding human rights. There have been reports of refugees being coerced into signing deportation papers and facing arrest upon their return to Syria. This underscores the importance of adopting a comprehensive and humane approach to the refugee crisis under Erdoğan’s administration.

Fifth, there is the question of how Erdogan’s win will be seen by budding autocrats everywhere. In many ways, Erdogan’s victory was clearly democratic. The vote itself was largely free and fair. Erdogan has also previously won many elections over his two-decades-long sting at Turkey’s leader, and most votes have been relatively free and fair.

However, we write ‘vote’ and not ‘election’. Media ownership, state machinery and a series of legislative innovations have all given Erdogan a massive advantage before the vote itself. He had about ten times as much time on television as his opponent, his friends own all the media operations, and serious rivals, such as the popular Istanbul mayor, are held back by phoney court cases.

Erdogan’s own faux pas are not investigated, his family members’ extensive corruption is not investigated, and he uses his office as president for his political campaign. Erdogan is the most successful strongman leader today, successfully shaping the state and its laws to ensure his continued rule. He has some colleagues, such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh. There are also a number of wannabes who failed, such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. They are all nominally elected leaders in nominally electoral democracies.

Erdogan’s success builds on specific Turkish foundations, but there are elements of interest to future strongman leaders. However, his position rests on continuously maintaining his image as the nation’s protector, and because strongman leaders thrive on unrest and uncertainty, this creates volatile relations with neighbouring powers. In that context, his exemplary win is bad news for the rest of the world.

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