Vassilis Ntousas / Jun 2023
It has been almost a month since Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his governing party and allies were given a new electoral mandate to enlarge even further their footprint on the country’s trajectory. As the dust is now settling after a nearly year-long, bitterly fought campaign, political life both within and beyond the country’s borders is readjusting to the new realities. In this new era, three important questions stand out as key—for Turkey, its citizens, and the international community.
How to fix an ailing economy?
For the country itself, its deep and sticky economic predicaments are now roaring back with urgency after the election.
Despite its seeming resilience, the Turkish economy has been long under immense pressure, and this has been keenly felt across huge swaths of the society. A dizzying inflation rate that has proven corrosive both for attracting investment and for the real economy, the continuing erosion of the value of the lira, a large external deficit, depleted central bank reserves, and a stubborn cost-of-living crisis, are only part of this bleak picture.
Despite an overwhelming consensus among economists that Mr Erdoğan’s past unorthodox economic policies exacerbated economic turmoil, the Turkish president succeeded in persuading his electorate a month ago that all these woes had less to do with his government’s handling and far more with external interests that wanted to weaken Turkey. But alas, even with the campaign successfully behind him, these problems abound and persist.
The appointment of Mehmet Şimşek, a respected former deputy prime minister who has stressed the need for Turkey “to return to a rational ground”, to the critical post of treasury and finance minister was a first signal that the Turkish president may be interested in course correcting. The Turkish Central Bank’s decision just days ago, under the stewardship of its new governor Hafize Gaye Erkan, to sharply raise interest rates from 8.5% to 15%, marking a moderating first shift towards more conventional monetary policies, is another. But they are both just that: first signals. The profound question facing primarily Mr Erdoğan—given how tight his grip on power is after his re-election—is whether he will give his new appointments the latitude to act, and therefore the ailing Turkish economy a viable chance for a turnaround.
How to fight against a backsliding democracy?
But Turkey’s economic woes are only part of the picture. An equally uncomforting part is the country’s continuous march away from democratic norms.
The May parliamentary and presidential elections were largely free, but deeply unfair, given how the Turkish president managed to mobilise all the structural advantages he had amassed over time in his favour, from curbing freedoms and controlling the media ecosystem to weakening the practical separation of powers. What is more, this was a long and divisive election campaign, and its outcome clearly demonstrated that Mr Erdoğan—true to his style as a transformative yet divisive figure—was shrewd in firing up nationalism, fuelling polarisation and fanning culture wars to his electoral and political advantage. The days after the election therefore find Turkey even more polarised and divided than before, and Mr Erdoğan with a renewed license to further centralise and consolidate power at the expense of Turkey’s democracy.
In his inauguration speech, the freshly re-elected president offered a more conciliatory tone, vowing to govern on behalf of the entire Turkish society. A month later, no drastic moves have been made either to crack down on dissenting views or further deepen the divides with his opponents. Analysts suggest that this might be due to a strategy to attract conservative elements within the opposition over to his side, already eyeing the next electoral cycle of the local elections in 2024, with a view to winning back control of major cities, especially Istanbul.
Only time will tell whether this will prove a sustainable strategy for a politician who has expertly and copiously worked to increasingly weaponise societal fissures and consolidate his hold on power in his unprecedented 20+ years in office. The real question for the Turkish leader is whether he would indeed choose to use his legacy-defining third and final term (under the current constitution) to double down on his authoritarian ways, or not.
If past is prologue, there is likely a rocky road ahead. This, in turn, pits the equally serious question to the country’s democratic opposition of how to regroup after a devastating loss and prepare for the next important political battles in 2024, and beyond. And of course, there is also the question posed to the country’s Western allies on how to engage Turkey under a continuing Erdoğan rule, if there is a genuine interest in helping buck the worrying backsliding trends that are deeply affecting Turkey’s democracy.
How to engage with a transactional Turkey?
This last point is tightly linked to a much wider question that concerns the international community in this new period: how to navigate Turkey’s posture and policies, now that the country will likely be less democratic, more transactional, and a lot more nationalist and conservative in the future.
In the long run-up to the May elections, many of the thorny, neuralgic issues in Ankara’s fraught relations with its Western partners simply kept being deferred, in large part because of the interest that there was to wait out and see what the outcome would be. With those elections now in the rear-view mirror, Washington, Brussels, and other European capitals will have to recalibrate to the new realities sooner rather than later.
This conundrum already looms large over almost all bilateral irritants between Turkey and the West, from handling the politics around Sweden’s bid to join NATO that Ankara has been blocking for more than a year, to managing President Erdoğan’s strong push for a Turkey that is far more autonomous and non-aligned, and therefore at times more distant in its choices from its Western allies, not least concerning its trade preferences, energy ties, and defence options. Turkey’s international partners know they cannot not engage with Turkey; the important matter now is how to come to grips with doing so in this new era of increased transactionalism and decreased values-based cooperation.
In any case, the waiting game that last month’s critical twin elections served as is now over. Following Mr Erdoğan’s clear win, the three questions analysed here are going to be at the heart of how Turkey, its democracy, and its international partners navigate the next months and years. Despite all the uncertainties ahead, one thing is clear though: the longer these three questions remain unanswered, the harder and more politically painful it will be to answer them.