Discover more from Andelman Unleashed
Elections 2023: Turkey / Finale
It's Erdogan for five more years in Turkey…celebrations in some quarters…fear and loathing in others. Where this leaves NATO, Putin, and Turks trapped in an economic spiral of biblical proportions
Continuing our pledge at Andelman Unleashed to report and comment on every national election everywhere in the world, voters in Turkey elect their president in an unprecedented second round. Reporting today from Paris.
Five more years
Recep Tayyip Erdogan coasted Sunday to a third term as president of Turkey, a catastrophe for the western alliance where Turkey for a half century has anchored its eastern fringe and for his own nation where he has spent years struggling with an economy spiraling out of control. “You gave us the responsibility to run the country,” Erdogan proclaimed, standing atop a campaign bus, thanking all those who voted for him. To a national television audience and a wildly enthusiastic crowd, he pledged, “We will be worthy of your trust, just as we have been for the past 21 years. Until the end, we will be with you.”
The two decades of Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule have dealt a blow to efforts to expand NATO and curb Russia’s ability to pursue its war in Ukraine, while suffocating Turkey’s free press and vibrant democracy. Now, having pledged that this five-year term will be his last, and with the parliament elected two weeks ago fully in his control, there are really few obstacles for him to work his will as he chooses.
From the moment the very first returns flashed on television screens across the country barely an hour after the polls closed, it was clear that Erdogan had survived against his most determined challenger—Kemal Kiliçdaroglu. With only one race and the entire vote done by paper ballot, returns began arriving with stunning speed. Four hours after the polls closed, some 95% of the ballot boxes had been opened and more than 50 million votes counted.
Kiliçdaroglu snagged most of the major population centers including its sprawling commercial and financial hub, Istanbul; the capital Ankara; the region surrounding the Bosporus Strait; all of Turkey on the western or European side of the Bosporus; and much of the zone that was devastated by an earthquake earlier this year that Erdogan was seen to have given short shrift.
But it was in the deep Anatolian countryside, the stronghold of Erdogan and more fundamentalist Turks, where the president dominated the voting. It was an electoral map that would not seem utterly foreign to most Republican or Democratic consultants in the United States.
It became clear even as the early ballots began arriving that Erdogan actually won the election thanks to the third-ranking candidate in the first round—the ultra-nationalist Sinan Ogan, who urged his ultra-right voters to pivot to Erdogan in Sunday’s runoff. The bulk of his 5% of the vote seem to have gone to Erdogan. Though Kiliçdaroglu did add a bit to his first-round total, it was not enough to bridge this gap.
Erdogan largely failed to capture the imagination of most of the nation’s elite as he pushed an increasingly self-centered rule and an extreme Islam on a nation that had long been a secular model in the Arab world. Erdogan’s wife, Emine, has intensified this drift toward a more deeply religious and anti-secular state, appearing in public with her hair thoroughly covered in strict compliance with Islamic tradition.
She has pressed for, and her husband has agreed to an increasingly orthodox turn of Turkish society and politics, moving the country ever further from the secular model set by modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk. Both candidates for the presidency called Sunday’s ballot a “referendum on Turkey’s future,” coming as it did on the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Ataturk as the republic’s first president from its founding in 1923 after the Ottoman Empire was dismembered following World War I until his death in 1938.
“Erdogan has destroyed everything during the last four or five years,” Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, told the French daily Le Monde in an interview. “When we imagine Erdogan as a powerful person, it is not because of Islam, but of the authoritarianism that he has put in place.”
What’s on his plate ….
His authoritarian streak has led Erdogan to run roughshod over institutions that have long been a treasured part of Turkey’s deeply held DNA. With the 11th largest standing army in the world, it has a larger military force than any other nation in NATO after the United States—larger than the forces of France and Britain combined. But it has sought to chart its own independent course within the alliance, often sidling up to Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the dismay of its western partners.
Turkey also has the 19th largest GDP in the world, behind only five European nations, and the second largest in the Middle East region, outranked by Saudi Arabia and then only by 3%. Though Turkey does not consider itself a part of the Arab Middle East, under Erdogan it has increasingly been building bridges to many of the wealthy Gulf nations.
At the same time, Turkey’s GDP has been falling steadily for a decade since peaking in 2013. Inflation is running more than 40% a year, nearly triple the rate four years ago. And unemployment is hovering above 10%. But it is the Turkish lira that may be the most intractable problem. The currency has just hit a record low, its value having plunged some 80% over the last five years, cementing the runaway inflation and embedding and shattering Turks’ own confidence in their currency.
Since a painful 2021 crisis, the authorities have taken an increasingly hands-on role in foreign exchange markets, to the point that some economists now openly debate whether the lira can still be regarded as a free-floating currency. But there may be a more profound reason at the root of this crisis. In December 2021, Erdogan explained, “They complain we keep decreasing the interest rate [at a time of skyrocketing inflation]. Don’t expect anything else from me. As a Muslim, I will continue doing what our religion tells us. This is the command.” He was referring, of course to the Quran’s prohibition of paying any interest on money. Erdogan’s remarkable admission caused the lira immediately to plunge 12% and it has never recovered. Its daily moves have shrunk increasingly and largely go in one direction. They fall. As Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, said at the time, Erdogan’s “statement shows a subservience to medieval notions about finance, no matter the harm they cause. But medieval religious regulations don’t mix well with modern finance.”
Nor do they mix well with geopolitics. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions imposed by the west have continued to bite on Putin, he has turned increasingly to Erdogan. A Turkish television commentator, with some glee, pointed Sunday evening to comments from Putin that “Turkey will be the center of natural gas distribution,” in other words a lynchpin in Russian efforts to find continued markets, evading increasingly tight sanctions imposed and enforced by European Union and other nations supporting Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself against Russian attacks.
At the same time, Erdogan has blackballed all efforts to admit Sweden as a member of NATO, where unanimity is an essential element of admission. The ostensible reason is Sweden’s refusal to extradite four people sought by Turkey, which says they are connected to a U.S.-based cleric it accuses of being behind a coup attempt in 2016 and continues to harbor supporters of a Kurdish group that Turkey has labeled terrorists.
But none of this is a very new phenomenon. Long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Turkey became the first NATO country to purchase Russian munitions—in this case Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, though the United States had offered its own Patriot systems.
But a lot of this goes down pretty well at home. Many of Erdogan’s voters quite simply like the strongman image Erdogan is projecting, that Turkey can no longer be pushed around any more—a legacy in part of the decades the European Union kept putting Turkey’s application for membership on indefinite hold. Now that whole idea has gone up in smoke. But of potentially long-lasting importance, Turkey is more than likely now to continue spiralling ever-deeper into a morass of Islamic extremism, while drifting away from western-style democratic models.
Thanks for reading Andelman Unleashed! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.