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Turkey on the Brink
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Turkey on the Brink

Next year’s presidential election could reshape how Ankara sees its place in the world.

President Erdogan of Turkey in 2020. (Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images)

ISTANBUL—Ekrem Imamoglu, mayor of this bustling city of more than 15 million, is perhaps the greatest threat to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bid for reelection. The bespectacled 52-year-old also is facing a four-year jail sentence and ban on holding public office after being charged with “insulting” election officials. His defenders say this isn’t a coincidence.

Imamoglu rose to national prominence after beating Erdogan’s handpicked candidate for Istanbul mayor in 2019. After a partisan election commission canceled the results over alleged fraud, he won the repeat election by nearly ten points. The opposition now hopes to translate local wins like Imamoglu’s into success in Turkey’s upcoming presidential election.

It has a real shot for the first time in years, and this could lead to a reset between Turkey and the West in general and the U.S. in particular. But in the meantime, relations could suffer as Erdogan builds on nationalist sentiment. 

An alliance of six opposition parties, led by the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), agreed in February to select a joint presidential candidate to unseat Erdogan. The faltering popularity of Turkey’s sole executive has brought that goal within reach, but the opposition needs to act fast. With the election six months away the alliance has yet to name its standard-bearer, and Erdogan, who spent the past decade consolidating presidential power and solidifying his grasp on civil society, may take drastic steps to stay in power. The Istanbul mayor’s supporters say the charges against their leader are only one example. 

Turkey’s annual inflation reached its highest rate in nearly a quarter-century at 85 percent last month. Yet Erdogan, who exercises unprecedented control over his country’s monetary policy, holds fast to the unorthodox belief that cutting interest rates can tame inflation. The president has championed policies like raising the minimum wage and building affordable housing to cushion the blow of rising prices for voters, but the spending programs only exacerbate the problems they seek to offset. 

“Lowering inflation comes at a price, and it comes at the expense of lower middle income households,” said Can Selcuki, an economist and director of the Turkiye Raporu polling agency. “They’re not going to do that until the election.”

In the absence of a strong domestic economy to flaunt on the campaign trail, Erdogan looks outward. The Turkish president has increasingly elevated his country’s status abroad.

He has scored diplomatic wins since Russia invaded Ukraine in February—most recently negotiating the extension of a deal to keep food exports flowing from Ukrainian ports after Russia’s threatened withdrawal—while simultaneously inflaming long simmering tensions with fellow NATO ally Greece and threatening escalation in Syria. 

The Turkish military conducted airstrikes targeting Kurdish fighters in northern Syria and Iraq over the weekend, reportedly killing at least 45 people including some Syrian army troops. “The treacherous attacks of the scoundrels are being held to account,” Turkey’s ministry of defense wrote on social media in reference to alleged perpetrators of a recent terrorist attack in Istanbul. U.S. defense officials later said that the strikes came within 300 meters of a base housing American troops, who work with the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State and oversee Islamic State detainees. 

Turkish officials said Kurdish militias in northern Syria retaliated Monday, killing three in rocket fire in Turkey’s southern Gaziantep province. If rocket attacks and terrorist bombings become more commonplace, as they did ahead of the 2015 general election, Erdogan may capitalize on the instability to run a campaign based on security issues. 

Erdogan alluded to the possibility of another ground incursion into Syria this week. “I always said we might come suddenly one night. We were not saying this in vain,” he said. “It is out of the question that this would be limited to air operations.” The Turkish military has launched three major cross-border operations in Syria since 2016, and SDF Commander Gen. Mazloum Abdi is urging the Biden administration to pressure Erdogan against a fourth. 

But Washington and Ankara increasingly find themselves on opposing sides of the battlefield in Syria, giving Turkey’s president another target for stoking nationalist fervor ahead of the election. Erdogan on Monday accused the U.S. of supplying “equipment, ammunition, and weapons” to the “terror region” of Syria, referencing American backing for the Kurdish SDF. American support for Kurdish militias is only one of many gripes Erdogan has about his NATO ally.

Taking shots at Western powers like the U.S. has long resonated with Turkish voters. “It’s a very big narrative: They are against us,” said Emre Erdogan, no relation, a professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University.

While the opposition isn’t immune to anti-West sentiment, its leaders tend to favor positive engagement with NATO (of which Turkey is a member) and the European Union (which Turkey isn’t a member of), viewing Ankara’s recent antagonism as self-defeating. 

“Turkey would return to some of its traditional foreign policy positions, there’s no doubt about that,” Suat Kiniklioglu, a former ruling party member of parliament, said of an opposition victory. “Turkey would probably be a more dependable ally within NATO. Turkey would probably re-energize its drive to join the European Union. Turkey would be less aggressive in the eastern Mediterranean or the Aegean islands with Greece.”

Understanding the electoral threat of a united opposition, Erdogan has tried to splinter the disparate groups. Most recently he called for the rightwing IYI party to break away from the “table of six.” Indeed, the various parties are unified by little more than a desire to decentralize presidential power.

A 2017 constitutional referendum brought forward by Erdogan’s parliamentary allies dissolved the prime ministership and elevated the president as the sole executive. Since then Erdogan has governed with near-unchecked power to prosecute and imprison political rivals, unilaterally manage Turkey’s foreign and monetary policy, install his preferred ministers, and crack down on media and human-rights organizations. The opposition alliance hopes to restore Ankara’s former balance of power by winning parliament and the presidency in 2023 and reversing the referendum. 

The biggest outstanding question is who will face Erdogan. IYI has not heeded his call to break away from the opposition, but the party’s leader opposes the candidacy of longtime opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Many operatives think the 73-year-old CHP party chair hopes to take on Erdogan himself despite concerns about his electability. 

A June survey by Metropoll, a prominent Ankara-based polling firm, projected that of four possible opposition candidates, Kilicdaroglu would beat Erdogan by the smallest margin in a head-to-head competition. And Erdogan’s approval rating has already rebounded more than six points since its recent nadir over the summer, making an opposition victory come 2023 far from assured. The ideologically diverse group may also struggle to motivate voters without clear policy positions.

“There are a lot of push effects from the government—bad economy, bad governance—but there is no pull effect from the opposition side. That pull effect will materialize, if it ever will, when the table of six has a common candidate and a policy platform,” Selcuki said. “If they can get their act together, then they still have a good chance at winning.”

While the outward appearance of disunity hurts the opposition, Selcuki added, its delay in announcing a candidate may be strategic. With access to state coffers, a near-monopoly over the Turkish press, and troll armies on social media, the president will be a formidable opponent when the race is in full swing. 

To unseat a leader as entrenched as Erdogan, Metropoll head Ozer Sencar said, the table of six needs to avoid the temptation of coasting on the president’s unpopularity and put forth its top contender. “The opposition has to have strong leadership,” he continued, pointing to Imamoglu, Istanbul’s mayor, as the kind of candidate who motivates voters.

The well-mannered mayor’s political acumen is undeniable. He spent the days after Istanbul’s bombing strolling the emptied-out pedestrian thoroughfare where the attack took place, chatting with concerned business owners and posing for pictures with supporters. But some members of the opposition worry that Imamoglu might be too shrewd a leader. Putting someone with long-term political ambitions of their own in charge of dismantling executive power is doomed to fail, the argument goes. One political analyst said he resembles “the youth of Erdogan.”

Imamoglu takes pictures with supporters on Istiklal Avenue while a security detail stands guard. (Photo by Charlotte Lawson)

Turkey’s presidential elections use a runoff voting system wherein victory in the first round requires a simple majority. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)—which is expected to run its own candidate and usually takes about 10 percent of the vote—complicates the path to victory for the rest of the opposition. Despite the main opposition party’s fraught relationship with the HDP, its candidate has a better shot at pulling in Kurdish voters in the second round than Erdogan. Naturally the incumbent is placing his bets on winning in the first.

A predictable partner has emerged to help him get there. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan have reached a series of agreements in recent months that are expected to soften the blow, at least temporarily, of Turkey’s financial crisis. 

Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company has already paid the Turkish government at least $5 billion of a $20 billion contract to build a power plant in southern Turkey—what some commentators have described as a “financial lifeline” to Erdogan. The two leaders have also touted plans to make Turkey into a “gas hub” as Western sanctions redirect Russian energy exports. The Kremlin reportedly agreed to let Erdogan delay payments for some natural gas purchases until 2024, keeping energy prices down ahead of the election. 

“Russia has become part of this electoral equation already. This is something that should be of concern to the security, stability, and fairness of the upcoming elections,” Kiniklioglu said. “There’s no doubt the Kremlin does not want change in Ankara.” 

Charlotte Lawson is a reporter at The Dispatch and currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to joining the company in 2020, she studied history and global security at the University of Virginia. When Charlotte is not keeping up with foreign policy and world affairs, she is probably trying to hone her photography skills.