The World’s Most Important Election in 2023 Will Be in Turkey

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Among the many international developments to watch this year are the general elections scheduled for February, the biggest in Nigeria; Pakistan’s by October, will probably be louder. But the most important will undoubtedly take place on June 18, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to extend his rule over Turkey into a third decade.

The outcome will shape geopolitical and economic calculations in Washington and Moscow, as well as capitals across Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. “What happens in Turkey doesn’t just happen in Turkey,” said Zia Meral, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. “Turkey may be a middle power, but great powers have a stake in its elections.”

Ankara’s influence in world affairs attests to Erdogan’s achievements during his long reign. However, both at home and abroad, his electoral prospects evoke mixed feelings. And those who want him gone on June 19 can’t help but think about who, or what, will come next.

Western leaders will be happy to watch Erdogan’s back. He has undermined NATO’s security by acquiring missile-defense systems from Russia, frustrated the alliance by blocking the membership of Sweden and Finland, repeatedly threatened to flood Europe with refugees and, in recent months, hurled increasingly bellicose rhetoric at Greece. Ankara’s ties with Washington have grown to the point where top Turkish officials routinely accuse the US of supporting the coup against Erdogan and collaborating with terrorist groups.

The US and Europe would be better off without Erdogan’s disruptive influence in world affairs, especially as their confrontation with Vladimir Putin deepens. His utility as an interlocutor is limited: Although he helped broker an agreement last summer to ensure the continued flow of grain and vegetable oil from Ukraine, Erdogan has little controlling influence over his “dear friend” Vladimir.

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Not even stopping Erdogan. Although many in foreign-policy circles in Washington and European capitals cling to hope that he can be brought back in from the cold, political analyst Selim Koru says Erdogan’s worldview is “much more radical than many Westerners think.” His ambitions for Turkey’s immediate neighborhood, where Ankara is increasingly influential, are not to complement American and European influence, “it’s to replace and counter them,” Koru said.

If Erdogan loses, said Sinan Ulgen, director of Istanbul think tank EDAM, “his successor will transform Turkey into a different foreign policy actor, more comfortable with its position as a Western country.”

But even if that happens, no one should expect a quick 180-degree turn. Erdogan has spent 20 years seeding Turkish institutions — government, military, academia, the religious establishment and the media — with his radical worldview. If a new president comes in on June 19, the building Erdoğan built will have to be demolished. His AK Party, which has a significant presence in parliament, is sure to strongly resist change, making the task even more difficult.

It should be remembered that it took Erdogan the best part of a decade to undermine the secular deep state built by Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey – and during that time the AK Party had a majority in parliament. A Hercules may be interrupted when he has to clean the Anatolian stables after his departure.

This is all assuming voters turn out Turf Erdogan, which is almost certain. Turks are of two minds about their president and his policies. A Metropol survey in late October put Erdogan’s approval rating at 47.6%, up from 39% a year ago. That’s great for any leader who’s been around as long as he’s been around — in a democracy, anti-authority sentiment grows over time — but it’s especially surprising for someone presiding over an economic mess.

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That chaos is largely of his making: Erdogan’s magical thinking about interest rates has contributed greatly to volatile inflation, a weak lira and anemic investment. That’s why, other polls show, a majority of Turks think their country is headed in the wrong direction.

But why are so many still looking to Erdogan to fix Turkey? In part, they don’t know who will challenge his hold on the reins. The main opposition parties have formed a united front known as the Table of Six, but they have yet to announce their presidential candidate, even six months before election day. The two leading contenders are the leading opposition party, the CHP: Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and longtime party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

The Table of Six has also been slow to come up with a clear strategy to fix Turkey’s economy. Early last month the CHP unveiled something similar to the agenda, but it made promises of big investments and lacked details. (Most notable was the presence of Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Daron Acemoglu at the event. The Good Party, another of the Table of Six, counts Wharton private equity professor Bilge Yilmaz among its leaders.)

Erdogan’s preferred opponent is Kilicdaroglu, a somewhat colorless veteran who has led the CHP for 12 years. Many Turkish political analysts say the younger, more charismatic imams will pose a strong challenge. He ran a spirited campaign and won the Istanbul mayoralty in 2019, despite being re-run due to Erdogan’s refusal to accept the results of the first vote.

The president and his party devoted great energy to keeping Imamoglu at bay. Last month, the mayor was convicted on a minor charge of insulting election officials, but the ruling has united the opposition behind him and boosted his chances of becoming a presidential candidate. “There is now a strong narrative around the Imamoglu,” says Ays Zarakol, professor of international relations at the University of Cambridge. “The momentum is with him.” (Election rules allow the mayor to run for president, but his lawyers challenge the conviction.)

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But Erdogan’s still-strong numbers suggest he can fend off any challenger, especially if the economy shows signs of recovery in the spring. The president is counting on investments and bank deposits from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and Putin promises to turn Turkey into a hub for Russian natural gas exports to remove the gloom. Erdogan has also been talking up Turkey’s own natural gas discoveries in the Black Sea, fueling speculation that the revenues could be wild. Last month, he announced a 55% increase in the minimum wage; Last week, he increased the salaries and pensions of civil servants.

For good measure, he and his party invoke old boozemen of Kurdish extremism and Western betrayal, as well as culture-wars about the dangers of homosexuality to family and Islamic values. Threats to Greece are meant to stoke nationalist fervor.

These tactics have helped Erdogan win previous elections. They may be again. Until the Turks cast their vote, Western leaders will be on tenterhooks.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Erdogan’s ego trip is hurting NATO: Andreas Kluth

• Why Erdogan got over himself and shook Sisi’s hand: Babi Ghosh

• NATO should bring Finland, Sweden and Turkey together: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was Editor in Chief at Hindustan Times, Managing Editor at Quartz and International Editor at Time.

More similar articles are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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