Elections in Turkey: US eagerly awaits Erdogan’s fall or return

By Elijah J. Magnier:

On Sunday, Turkey goes to the polls in a presidential election that can shape the country’s future for years to come. Some 60 million Turkish voters will go to the polls, while 3.5 million are eligible to vote abroad, bringing the total number of voters to around 63.5 million. The election will also decide who will fill the 600 seats in the country’s parliament. The world eagerly awaits the return or downfall of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He ruled the country for 20 years and stroked a balance between East and West despite the US and the EU dissatisfaction, the NATO member that has become Russia’s strategic ally. Washington and Brussels have been alarmed by the rise of strongmen like Erdogan and Putin since the turn of the century, and Erdogan’s defeat would not be disliked in the West.

Russia, the US and the EU:

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart have a complex relationship. Tensions between the two reached a boiling point in 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian-Turkish border that Putin considered a ‘stab in the back’. Turkey continues supplying Kyiv with lethal drones despite Russian objections in Ukraine. In Syria, Erdogan is still far from withdrawing. His forces from the northwest he is occupying despite the numerous Russian-Iranian negotiations (and maintaining forces in Iraq against Baghdad’s will). Despite these differences, they share a joint opposition to what they see as a Western-dominated global order.

Despite the challenges in their relationship, Putin and Erdogan have found common ground in their opposition to the West’s dominance and their desire to challenge the existing global order. This has led to a degree of cooperation between the two countries and a shared sense of camaraderie and mutual support. Last month, Russian and Turkish Presidents celebrated fuel loading into Turkey’s first civilian nuclear project. The Akkuyu nuclear power plant, built by Russia’s state-controlled atomic corporation Rosatom for $20 billion, symbolises the flourishing bilateral energy and economic ties forged by the two leaders during their two decades in power. The Turkish-Russian level of cooperation is upsetting the United States, which is fighting Russia in a proxy war on Ukrainian soil.

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Turkey has maintained relations with the United States, notwithstanding serious disagreements. In 2016, Turkey experienced an attempted coup, which President Erdogan blamed on a US-based cleric named Fethullah Gulen, mainly following the US embassy in Ankara’s support of the “revolution”. Following the failed coup attempt, Erdogan agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to purchase Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system for $2.5 billion. However, this decision triggered sanctions on the US defence industry. The US feared that the Russian platform could allow Moscow to gather intelligence on its F-35 fighter jet, which Turkey has ordered and is helping to build.

Many experts believe that Erdogan underestimated the willingness of the United States to impose defence sanctions and felt that he could not simply walk away from the S-400 without damaging his reputation. This situation has led to strained relations between Turkey and the US.

Turkey has also had conflicts with France over Turkey’s intervention in Libya and with Greece and Cyprus over energy resources and maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean. More recently, Erdogan blocked efforts by Sweden (approved Finland’s accession) to join NATO, accusing the Nordic countries of harbouring Kurdish ‘terrorist organisations. 

Syrian refugees:

There is little difference between the government and the main opposition coalition for many Syrians in Turkey. Both have promised to expel Syrian refugees from the country and have stepped up their hostile rhetoric against immigrants and asylum seekers. Syrians of Turkish nationality who are eligible to vote face an uninspiring choice, and those who can vote will be a significant bloc. Although Erdogan and opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu have announced similar plans for the voluntary repatriation of Syrians, Syrian voters still see Erdogan as the lesser of two evils. Erdogan was the only ruling party to establish direct communication with Syrian dual nationals to encourage them to vote for his party, the ‘Justice and Development Party (AKP). The safety of Syrians in Turkey is now uncertain, regardless of who wins the election. Many Syrian voters are unsatisfied with either presidential candidate and may vote for independent candidates. Syrian voters are seen as an important bloc in the upcoming parliamentary elections, as the migration issue has become a driving force in Turkish politics.

Domestic power:

The presidential election in Turkey is a crucial moment in the country’s history. It is a battle between two candidates and different visions for the country’s future and its international alliances. The election outcome will impact Turkey and the broader region, and the world, whose leaders will be watching closely to see who emerges victorious.

Turkey’s presidential election will take place with three candidates on the list following the withdrawal of Muharram Ince, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kemal Kilicdaroglu (leader of the centre-left Republican People’s Party – CHP), and Sinan Ogan (far-right Nationalist Movement Party). The opposition criticised the final order of candidates on the list, who say it was done deliberately to favour Erdogan. According to opinion polls, Erdogan is expected to win around 40-45% of the vote, the same percentage as Kilicdaroglu. Ogan is expected to receive only 2-5% of the vote. The presidential elections are considered more important than the parliamentary elections because most powers are now concentrated in the hands of the president. If no one wins in the first round, the results of the parliamentary elections could influence the presidential candidates in the second round on 28 May.

A total of 26 parties are contesting the elections, including four main alliances. The public coalition represents the parties in power, including the Justice and Development Party and the National Movement Party. The opposition is represented by two main alliances: the National Alliance, which includes the Republican People’s Party and the Good Party, and the Labour and Freedom Coalition, which consists of the Kurdish Green Left Party and the Turkish Workers’ Party. The small Ata Alliance is also comprised of the Victory and Justice parties. 

Erdogan is running for the presidency for the third time on a platform of ‘the right man at the right time’. He promises higher wages and tax exemptions. He directs criticism and threats at the opposition, which he claims is allied with “Kurdish terrorism” and Fethullah Gulen’s “terrorism” and is conspiring with the West to make Turkey smaller and rob it of its “independence”. Turkey’s opposition candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has campaigned on promises of reform and dismantling the system of control that Erdogan has built up over two decades. 

The economy, a key reason for Erdogan’s previous successes, is absent from his current campaign, and citizens’ concerns are focused on their living conditions. The opposition is promising a change from a presidential to a parliamentary system. Kilicdaroglu has the support of the largest Kurdish group, the voters of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, which could help him win. Opinion polls suggest he could win up to 70% of the Kurdish vote, compared to around 20% for President Erdogan. Defections from Erdogan’s party, such as Ahmed Davutoglu and Ali Babacan, who founded the Future and Democracy and Progress parties, could also hurt Erdogan’s chances.

The rival candidates are portraying the election as a war between the Islamic movement represented by Erdogan and the secular movement represented by Kilicdaroglu. If Kilicdaroglu wins, Turkey could see a shift back towards secularisation and away from Islamising the state. Kilicdaroglu’s victory would also be a historic victory for a person from the minority Alevi sect would be president of the republic in a country where the majority is Sunni. Alevis have historically been discriminated against and excluded from influential positions in society. Kilicdaroglu’s presidency would be a significant step towards breaking this taboo and increasing inclusivity in Turkish society.

One of the main issues at stake in the election is the possibility of changing Turkey’s system of government from a presidential to a parliamentary one. The opposition has emphasised this point in its campaign promises, saying that the current system concentrates too much power in the hands of the president. In contrast, a parliamentary system would distribute power more evenly. The election is a chance to change the authority and the system itself. If Erdogan loses, there is the possibility of a foreign policy favouring the US and the West rather than maintaining a balance between the West on the one hand and Russia and Iran on the other. The battle for power in Turkey will not be easy, and if Erdogan loses, the consequences will shift the entire dynamic in the Middle East and the European continent.