May 30, 2023

IntelBrief: Türkiye Election Runoff Leaves Western Concerns Unresolved

AP Photo/Ali Unal

Bottom Line up Front

  • The May 28 election runoff in Türkiye returned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to office, leaving unresolved U.S., European, and Turkish opposition concerns about many of Erdogan’s policies.
  • The relatively smooth election process and absence of major disputes over the results eased global fears that the election would cause instability and violence within Türkiye.
  • President Erdogan shows no sign of adjusting his controversial economic or foreign policies, even though the opposition came close to ousting him from power.
  • Erdogan’s re-election dashes Western hopes that Türkiye will align its responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with those of Türkiye’s NATO allies.

As was the initial presidential and parliamentary round of voting on May 14, the runoff election between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and People’s Republican Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was orderly and devoid of significant unrest or major disputes over the results. After Erdogan exceeded expectations in the first round of voting by nearly clinching the 50%+ vote total required to win outright, Erdogan’s win in the second round of voting seemed a foregone conclusion. His 52-48 margin of victory over Kilicdaroglu in the May 28 runoff was clear, although not a landslide – undoubtedly aided by the endorsement of hardline nationalist Sinan Ogan, who garnered 5% of the vote in the May 14 round. Erdogan’s re-election dashed the opposition’s hopes that, after 20 years in office, Erdogan could be ousted by Turkish voters. Six opposition groups had formed an unprecedented, unified bloc behind Kilicdaroglu to try to wrest power from Erdogan, and the incumbent’s popularity had seemingly suffered from extremely high inflation, a sharp decline in the value of Türkiye’s currency (the lira), and a perception that Erdogan was progressively institutionalizing an authoritarian form of leadership. The opposition had described the 2023 election as a last stand for Turkish democracy, accusing Erdogan of hollowing out the country’s democratic institutions, eroding the power of the judiciary, controlling virtually all media, and repressing dissent. Even had Kilicdaroglu won the runoff, his ability to return Türkiye to a parliamentary system - undoing Erdogan’s establishment of an “executive presidency” - would have been limited; Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led coalition won a solid majority of seats in the Turkish Grand National Assembly in the May 14 vote. A referendum to return to a parliamentary system would have required a vote of a supermajority in the parliament.

The completion of the 2023 Turkish election process eases some concerns of the international community and the Turkish electorate about Türkiye’s political stability but raises additional questions about Ankara’s future policies. Many in Türkiye and the international community feared that Erdogan would not peacefully transfer power if the vote count showed victory for the opposition. Kilicdaroglu and his coalition partners appear to have accepted defeat and turned toward examining why they did not prevail despite their unity, widespread public dissatisfaction with the state of the economy, and favorable polling in the runup to the election. Despite Erdogan’s stated intent not to rethink his concentration of power in the office of the presidency, the absence of major election-related unrest or infighting has reinforced a measure of international and domestic faith in the integrity of Turkish democracy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken focused on the success of the electoral process in a May 28 congratulatory message to Erdogan; tweeting: “Congratulations to President Erdogan on re-election and to Türkiye’s voters on high turnout, reflecting a long democratic tradition.”

Experts expecting that the significant challenge Erdogan faced in the election might cause him to re-evaluate some of his policies appear to have miscalculated.  In an interview with Cable News Network one week prior to the runoff, Erdogan recommitted to his unorthodox economic policies, arguing that interest rates and inflation were “positively correlated,” adding: “The lower the interest rates, the lower inflation will be.” Most economists within and outside Türkiye have blamed Erdogan’s insistence on lowering interests for fueling, not reducing, inflation, which exceeded 70% for all of 2022. Economic orthodoxy prescribes that reducing inflation requires an increase in interest rates, not a reduction. The Turkish government’s approach furthermore demonstrates that the Turkish central bank is not independent but implements the will of the presidential palace. Many in the opposition are also concerned that the electorate failed to hold Erdogan accountable for the vast damage caused by the February 6 earthquake in southeastern Türkiye and northwestern Syria. Erdogan’s critics assert that loose construction standards presided over by the ruling AKP, which fueled a construction boom since the early 2000s, exacerbated the death toll.

Despite Western congratulatory messages to Erdogan, his victory surely disappoints U.S. and European officials hoping that the election would produce a government more closely aligned with Western policy toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Ukraine. In his CNN interview before the runoff, Erdogan signaled that his policy would not change, hailing his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin as “special.” He added that: “We are not at a point where we would impose sanctions on Russia like the West have done. We are not bound by the West’s sanctions…We are a strong state and we have a positive relationship with Russia.” The extent to which Putin considers Erdogan an ally was reflected in Putin’s congratulatory message, in which the Russian leader called Erdogan his “dear friend.” Erdogan also indicated that his differences with NATO partners over admitting Sweden to the alliance might not narrow any time soon, saying that he would continue to block Sweden’s access to NATO until Stockholm extradites Turkish Kurdish figures that Ankara claims are members of Kurdish organizations that use violence against the Turkish state. Sweden has refused Turkey’s repeated requests to extradite the wanted individuals, arguing that the issue can only be decided by Swedish courts.

In his initial reaction to Erdogan's re-election, President Biden sought to encourage the Turkish leader to move closer to the Western position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, tweeting: “Congratulations to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Türkiye on his re-election. I look forward to continuing to work together as NATO Allies on bilateral issues and shared global challenges.” Some U.S. officials acknowledge that Erdogan’s engagement with Putin has yielded benefits in preventing the Ukraine war from escalating. In July 2022, Erdogan brokered the Black Sea Grain Corridor Initiative under which Russia agreed to allow the exportation of millions of tons of wheat that it had prevented from transiting the Black Sea; the deal averted a global hunger crisis at a time of high global inflation. The agreement was extended for another two months on May 14, one day before it was set to expire. Erdogan also has helped secure exchanges of prisoners of war between Ukraine and Russia. Other diplomats note that Erdogan’s policy has not been one-sided in favor of Russia, describing the policy as “pro-Ukraine neutrality.” Officials who praise some aspects of Erdogan’s policy note that his government has provided Ukraine with critical military supplies, particularly the Bayraktar (TB-2) armed drone that Kyiv used to great effect against Russian forces, particularly early in the conflict. Whether Erdogan, having survived a serious election challenge, will shift policies on regional issues such as Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and other issues, is an open question. But Erdogan’s apparent faith in his current courses of action suggests that Turkish policy on regional issues will not change in Erdogan’s new five-year term.