Turkey’s June 24 elections have undoubtedly given birth to a new Turkey— one that is presidential in form and surprisingly more secular in substance. Sitting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the first presidential election under Turkey’s new constitution and now has unprecedented powers to shape the government and its policies. The new constitution has made parliament far less significant; President Erdogan will be appointing vice presidents, ministers and judges, control several agencies directly, and determine the national budget without much input from the legislature. Moreover, Erdogan will likely be president in 2023, the centennial of the Turkish republic. He is likely to enact dramatic changes as he tries to make a larger mark on Turkey’s fate than founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk himself.
Many in the West have voiced concerns that Turkey will become an autocracy. Yet many non-Western allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are already more or less under one-man rule. Even in the United States, since 2016 every branch of government has been under Republican control, and the Republicans have been so obsequious to President Donald Trump that many systemic checks and balances have been undermined by partisanship. In this age of populism, one-man rule is a global reality, and Turkey is reflecting that.
The Election Results
|Candidate||Percentage of Vote||Party||Percentage of Party Vote in Parliamentary Elections|
Erdogan was the nominee for the People’s Alliance, composed of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). He won the presidential election with 52.5 percent of the vote. His main opponent, the National Alliance’s nominee Muharrem Ince of the People’s Republican Party (CHP), garnered only 30.4 percent.
This was the first time Erdogan needed help from a secular nationalist party to win an election. His 52.5 percent of the vote is nearly equal to the sum of AKP’s 42.5 percent and MHP’s 11.1 percent of votes in the parliamentary elections. In 2014, Erdogan won nearly 52 percent of the vote with MHP campaigning against him.
The religiously conservative AKP did not fare as well as Turkey’s secularists and secular nationalists, who together secured 57.5 percent of the vote. Either religious conservatives are losing their fervor, or some of them are turning away from AKP. Perhaps this is the combined effect of the split between AKP and the ruling party’s erstwhile ally, the Gulen movement, which is now considered a terrorist organization in Turkey, and the overtures that Meral Aksener — the dynamic female leader of the IYI (Good Party) — made to conservative voters. Meanwhile, the Kurdish party (HDP) has maintained its presence even though its leader has been in jail since 2016.
|2018||295 (42.5%)||146 (22.6%)||49 (11.1%)||67 (11.7%)||43 (9.9%)|
|2015 November||317 (49.5%)||134 (25.3%)||40 (11.9%)||59 (10.7%)||—|
|2015 June||258 (41%)||132 (25%)||80 (16%)||80 (13%)||—|
Whatever the cause, there is a significant shift away from AKP. If not for MHP, Erdogan would not have won the presidential election, and the People’s Alliance would not have retained control of parliament. It was MHP’s support that helped pass the new constitution that makes Erdogan a very powerful president.In 2015, AKP won 317 out of 550 seats and now it has only 295 out of 600. It needs a partner on every level. Through its partnership with AKP, MHP — a small party — is able to influence what happens in parliament.
Governing the New Turkey
Erdogan has promised growth and glory to the Turks, and now that he has all the power he wanted, can he deliver on those promises? Though there have been significant changes to the constitution, Turkey’s geopolitical challenges remain the same. Turkey’s military intervention in Syria remains its immediate and primary concern. There is growing unrest in the east, there is clear hostility from the West; Turkey is at multiple crossroads. Should it pursue EU membership? Should it remain in NATO? Should it be more aggressive in the Middle East? Should it continue in its current awkward embrace with Russia? Does Erdogan have the answers to these questions?
Meanwhile, Erdogan will have to tangle with the economy. Turkey’s national debt is at about 28 percent of GDP and growing. The unemployment rate is 11percent,and inflation is 12 percent. Turkey has the fourth highest current account deficitin the world. Compounding that deficit is a currency crisis; the decline of the Turkish lira, which now trades at about 4.5 per U.S. dollar, making imports and debt servicing far more expensive. However, that currency decline also renders Turkish exports more attractive. The economy is growing at about 7 percent. These positive factors can help improve other elements of the economy, but it will take smart governance — not rhetoric or identity politics — to stabilize Turkey’s economy.
Washington Must Recalibrate
The United States has to rethink its approach toward Turkey. We have allowed our concerns with Daesh, an assertive Iran, and the needs of Israel and Saudi Arabia to shape our policy in the Middle East while ignoring Turkey’s interests. If we wish to keep Turkey as a friend and ally, we will have to consider Turkey’s fears regarding the Kurds’ growing influence in Syria and Iraq more seriously. We also will have to wean Turkey away from Russia. The first step towards this would be to expedite the delivery of F-35s assuring Turkey of U.S. support but also preserving Turkey’s dependence on U.S. technology for its defense.
The U.S. foreign policy establishment needs to recognize that Erdogan is in the same league with Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi and Rodrigo Duterte: a huge personality with popular domestic support. U.S. foreign policy must consider the personal impact that leaders like Erdogan bring to geopolitics.