Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s campaigning was vintage AKP electioneering: playing a nationalist fiddle; hiding economic realities with creative accounting and cosmetic measures; equating low interest rates (again) with low inflation; accusing foreigners of weakening the currency; threatening the opposition; continuing the crackdown on free speech and dissent; warning the West over Islamophobia; and calling three EU leaders—Federica Mogherini, Johannes Hahn, and Kati Piri—“enemies of Islam.”
Despite a massively unfair campaign that favored the ruling party, the results are a clear win for the opposition. The AKP lost an unexpected number of municipalities, including Ankara. Nationwide, the AKP-MHP alliance won 51.6 percent of the vote and will run about 56 percent of all municipalities. But aggregated numbers cannot hide the sobering message for Turkey’s national leadership: weighted by their economic importance (Istanbul included), the large urban centers won by the opposition account for more than 60 percent of national GDP.
These election results are being minutely dissected and will elicit many recommendations. Already, two messages have rung out loud and clear: bad economic policies have generated an acute discontent among the Turkish public, which has used the municipal elections to blame their president on both style and substance. The frustration is very personal—Istanbul is central to Erdoğan’s political career. I vividly remember my first-ever conversation with Erdoğan, over dinner in 1997, when he was the mayor of Istanbul. He spoke passionately about improving the lives of fellow Istanbulites. In subsequent meetings between 2007 and 2011, Erdoğan—then prime minister—often recalled his achievements as mayor.
The fight over contested election results, including in Istanbul, is not over yet. The executive branch can still acknowledge them, fight them in court, or even cancel some of them. It can also undercut opposition municipalities through administrative measures on tendering procedures. The Council of Europe’s observer delegation stated: “These elections are a chance for the full reinstatement of the principle of direct democratic mandate in Turkey.” Whatever happens, this election does not compel the president to alter his policies or his behavior. But, without an election in the country for another four more years (at least in principle), there is nobody left to blame Turkey’s problems on.
Let’s narrow things down to the bare essentials: Turkey’s president faces four momentous and intertwined challenges.
The economy comes first. With the current economic recession, an unserviceable foreign currency-denominated debt, the Turkish lira under pressure, bankruptcies piling up, domestic savings held in foreign currencies, and capital flight, urgent measures are needed.
This acute economic crisis is largely self-engineered: a low interest rate policy is not working. The finance minister enjoys little confidence at home and abroad. “Crazy” infrastructure projects will sink the economy further. Litigations with the EU and the United States—to whom the country is inexorably tied on trade, short-term funding, direct investment, and technology—are self-destructive. The choice is now between endlessly blaming Turkey’s Western partners or fixing the economy through an IMF program, while letting the Central Bank do its job free of political interference and delaying the craziest projects.
Governance comes second, with a dramatically simple diagnosis: the dismal state of the rule of law in Turkey is wrecking thousands of lives, as well as the country’s international reputation. There is a very narrow pyramid of power, governmental competences have been moved to the presidency, the judiciary and media have been muzzled, and civil society silenced. This means that the internal checks and balances that normally guarantee the country’s international economic and political credibility have gone.
Politically motivated trials against internationally respected civil society figures and organizations have taken a heavy toll on some of the country’s best talents, wrecking its reputation abroad. It is high time for the judiciary to take the proper decisions of dismissing indictments and preventive detentions based on zero evidence and to free all those concerned. Turkey will be infinitely better off with a free and vibrant civil society. With a return to a decent level of the rule of law, frozen projects such as the modernization of the EU-Turkey Customs Union may become active again, and investors would take a more positive view.
On defense—a subject I have analyzed recently from a long-term NATO perspective—Turkey has reached an impasse. To put it bluntly, the choice is to either shelve the S-400 missile deal with Moscow or become a second-league partner in NATO. Turkey’s ambition to become an independent military power is legitimate, but this goal cannot be achieved by remaining in the North Atlantic Alliance while simultaneously acting against it. It is unrealistic to expect that the other twelve NATO nations buying F-35s will accept that Turkey’s stealth fighters will operate daily under the gaze of Russian radar systems. Despite Ankara’s political proclivities, the S-400 missile systems and F-35 fighters cannot coexist within the Turkish air force.
Concerning Syria, Turkey’s political posture is fragile. The need for security along the country’s southern borders is fully understood by its Western partners. There are politico-military solutions available. Yet the temptation for Ankara to launch a new military incursion in, say, Manbij or Tell Abiad is probably high, if only for the sake of diversion on the home front. Such an operation would be costly and short-sighted, even if Moscow was convinced to let it go ahead.
The better option would be to use Turkey’s regional position to help bring the debate to the UN Security Council in order to nurture a balanced political solution to the war. Moscow and Tehran will of course see things differently and weigh on Ankara accordingly. Under the former hypothesis, Turkey will become part of the solution; in the latter, it will become the implementer of a Russian policy.
Presidential answers to these four challenges will shape Turkey’s future. They also constitute major opportunities for the Republic of Turkey during the four years before its centennial. Not least, it is now apparent that a majority of Turks would probably support the pursuit of such opportunities.