The United States and the Turkish Elections

February 2, 2023
March 9, 2023
Middle East

Turkey has been a thorn in Washington’s side for more than a decade, and dealing with Turkish President Recep Erdogan has been particularly challenging, requiring tact, nuance, and patience – traits often in short supply among American administrations. Nevertheless, handling Turkey is about to become much more difficult over the next few months, as Erdogan faces the greatest challenge to his position in two decades.

It is far from clear that the Biden administration is up to the task of dealing with this potential crisis. If they mismanage the process, and Turkey either plunges into chaos or Erdogan remains in power after protests and unrest which the United States was perceived as supporting, the American strategic position in the Middle East could be damaged irrevocably.

In recent years, Turkey has been both an adversary and ally in Syria and played an indispensable role in supporting Ukraine, while also mediating with Russia over grain shipments and offering to host peace talks.

The latest drama involving Turkey came three weeks ago at a protest in Stockholm organized by a pro-Kremlin figure where demonstrators burned a Koran. Within days, Erdogan indicated that he would block Sweden’s bid to join NATO, and sent mixed messages as to whether he would allow Finland to join.

Separately, on January 22nd, President Erdogan announced that elections for president and parliament, provisionally scheduled for June 18, would instead be held early on May 14. The move was seen by many analysts as an effort to preempt the organization of a broad-based opposition alliance, though this interpretation seems more likely to be a product of the conspiratorial climate of the field. The six-party “Nation” alliance of opposition parties has been in de facto existence since the 2018 elections, and performed well in the 2019 local elections, when its candidates captured the governorships in the critical provinces of Istanbul and Ankara.

There was little organizing to be done other than agreeing on a candidate for president, and here, it is unclear how an extra few weeks would have helped. So far, fundamental disagreements on policies and personalities have prevented the opposition from truly unifying.

Erdogan has dominated the Turkish political landscape since his party won a large parliamentary majority of 36% of the vote in the 2002 elections, when only two parties managed to cross the 10% threshold required for representation. Since then, he has retained power, first as prime minister, then president, with his AKP party winning elections in 2007, 2011, 2014, 2015, and 2018, as well as a referendum in 2017 introducing a new constitution which shifted power from the prime minister to the until-then largely ceremonial position of president.

The tactics Erdogan uses have without a doubt been hardball, including repression of critical media after a 2016 coup attempt, but there is little evidence of any irregularities in voting. This is reflected in election results. While Erdogan has consistently won, he won with only 52% of the vote in his two presidential victories. The 2017 referendum passed with only 51%. His party has occasionally done worse, never hitting 50% on its own.

That has resulted in Erdogan using tough tactics to maximize his odds of winning elections, usually involving generating a foreign policy crisis in which he is presented as the only defender of Turkish interests, in contrast to the gaggle of feuding and unknown professional politicians within the opposition who will sell out to the West, the Kurds, or both.

The same tactics served Erdogan in the one instance where voting did not go his way. In the February 2015 parliamentary elections, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was reduced to 41% of the vote and 258 of the 550 seats in the Grand National Assembly. Erdogan took advantage of the failure of the opposition to unite, refusing to allow the AKP to open coalition talks, and then launching a major military operation against the Kurds to try and eliminate any possibility that Turkish and Kurdish nationalists in the opposition would be able to agree on a government. Then, citing their failure, he called new elections which the AKP won. Even that parliament would keep getting dissolved until the AKP won a majority.

This is not to say that the opposition cannot win this year’s elections, but Erdogan has made clear that his preferred framing is between order with himself and chaos. A situation in which he wins reelection as president, but the opposition controls parliament would simply result in him calling new elections. If a second round is required, as it would be if no candidate, including Erdogan, achieves 50% in the first round of the presidential election, Erdogan will probably do everything in his power to prove his indispensability.

Erdogan will almost certainly do this by generating an international crisis, as he has done in the leadup to past elections. Hence the clash with Israel over a Gaza Flotilla in 2011, an escalation of the Syrian conflict in 2015, the Khashoggi Affair in 2018, and more recently, the attempt to stir up outrage over Sweden’s tolerance of Kurdish activism and the burning of the Koran. Erdogan will use the burning of the Koran to generate a large enough crisis that brings Washington to the table, demonstrating to his electorate that the U.S. is forced to cater to his whims. Such a manufactured crisis allows Erdogan to cast any criticisms of the electoral process, or support for the opposition by Washington or Europe, as evidence of a desire to replace an “assertive” Erdogan who defends Turkish interests with pliable, liberal opponents who will abandon Turkish interests for Western favor.

Washington should expect Turkey to be extremely difficult over the next few months, not just when it comes to things like NATO but also Ukraine. There, Erdogan has a careful balancing act. A Russian takeover of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast would be a geopolitical disaster for Turkey, and the success of Ukraine’s military, aided by Turkish drones, has done wonders for Ankara’s prestige.

Nonetheless, public opinion is divided, with a large nationalist, anti-Western constituency in Turkey. Therefore, Erdogan’s ideal position is to play a decisive role in supporting Ukraine while also defying the United States. Washington should likely expect further Erdogan-Putin summits, offers of mediation, suggestions that the West needs to press for a negotiated settlement, and concerns about sanctions. As Erdogan cannot deviate from military support of Ukraine, the easiest differentiation is to dissent on the meaning and goals of that aid.

Erdogan’s escalation is apt to be particularly high this year given the odds against him. Turkey’s economy was performing poorly even before COVID-19, as Erdogan took personal control of the Central Bank, pursuing radical policies which produced hyper-inflation and capital flight. Polls show his party in the low 30s, and his alliance tied with the main opposition “Nation” or trailing by a few points, sitting at around 40%. Worse, those polls show the Kurds likely holding the balance of power with around 8-9%.

The Biden administration has never been particularly good at managing “difficult” foreign leaders. The Biden team waged a disastrous vendetta against Saudi Crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, as well as the President of Mexico, and they drove the pro-American Jair Bolsonaro out of office only to see their chosen replacement, Lula Da Silva, block ammunition exports to Ukraine. Their inability to work with Netanyahu is legendary. Rather than ignoring or indulging behavior intended for domestic consumption, the Biden team tends to take it personally.

That would be highly dangerous in the case of Turkey. Any perceived Western effort to support the opposition would give Erdogan what he wants: a platform to claim his opponents are disloyal. Worse, it would define nationalism in terms of anti-Western sentiment, which might push Erdogan further than he wishes, such as actually blocking NATO expansion.

The greatest risk is that Erdogan wins reelection after playing dirty, with an anti-Western campaign which the Biden team denounce as “neither free nor fair.” If mass protests break out in Istanbul and other cities by an opposition that believes it has American backing, Erdogan is likely to believe that he was the victim of an attempted color revolution and draw close to Putin and China.

Does this mean the United States should wish for an Erdogan victory? No, it might well be in U.S. interests for Erdogan to lose, and a secular coalition to take power. However, if that is to happen, it requires the opposition to be strong enough to win on their own. As tempting as it might be, U.S. efforts to “get Erdogan” by backing his opponents, akin to what the Biden team did in Brazil against Bolsonaro, are the last thing Erdogan’s opponents need. Such efforts would make Erdogan’s victory more likely, and almost ensure that if and when it does occur, he will pursue a much more hostile line.

Instead, the United States should recognize Erdogan’s behavior for what it is: a desperate effort to grandstand by a political leader with limited options. Erdogan is already backtracking on blocking Finland’s NATO ascension. For his own reasons, Erdogan cannot side with Russia in Syria, the Caucuses, or Ukraine, unless it becomes a question of survival. It is only a U.S. overreaction which will turn his theatrical grandstanding into reality.

Originally published on AMAC.


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