Turkish Presidential Elections Bring Stability
Turkish President Recep Erdogan has won his bid for re-election, positioning him to lead his nation for the next five years, and extending his tenure as Turkey’s leader to a remarkable (and unprecedented) quarter century. The next five years promise to be full of challenges as Erdogan navigates a mix of domestic and foreign issues that, given Turkey’s unique geopolitical profile as a bridge between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, will have both regional and global impacts. This is especially true given the central role Turkey plays regarding Nato, relations with Russia, Middle East peace, energy security, and the transition to a more multipolar world.
The May 14 presidential election in Turkey had all the makings of a major political upset, with an alliance of opposition parties, led by the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, challenging Erdogan, who heads the People’s Alliance — of which his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is the main member. When the votes were counted, Erdogan finished a half percentage point shy of the 50% total he needed to secure victory, sending the election into a second round, which took place on May 28. Erdogan won that with 52.18% of the vote to 47.82% for Kilicdaroglu.
Despite the media hype that surrounded this election, where it was widely assessed that Erdogan might lose, the margin of victory was only 0.4% less than that achieved by Erdogan in 2018. Moreover, despite the AKP losing 27 seats, Erdogan’s People’s Alliance still emerged from the parliamentary elections — held concurrently with the presidential election on May 14 — with 322 of the 600 seats in that body. Erdogan and the AKP thus remain the most popular political force in Turkey, and together with their like-minded political allies, enjoy a public mandate to take Turkey forward for the next five years.
This relative political stability contrasts sharply with the broader geopolitical environment that Turkey finds itself in today. Turkey is a long-time member of Nato, with its continued membership deemed to be of strategic importance in securing the southern flank of the alliance. This role, which dates to the Cold War with the Soviet Union, has taken on new relevance with the deterioration of relations between Nato and Russia and the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Nato has aligned itself strategically with Ukraine in a proxy war that is increasingly viewed as existential in nature by the parties involved. Under Erdogan, however, Turkey has taken a middle path, maintaining good relations with Russia while supporting Ukraine with military material.
The dichotomy between these two positions, and the political implications involved, is stark. While Erdogan has, over the course of his two-plus decades in political power, captained a Turkish foreign policy ship that has chartered its own course — independent of and often in opposition to the interests of Europe and the US — he has not sought, nor is he seeking, a divorce from the West. At a time when Nato is promulgating the image of an alliance with “unprecedented” unity in the face of Russian aggression, neither Turkey nor Russia is seeking to cut ties with the other. Turkey’s geopolitical strength is derived from its position as a bridge that connects Europe, the Middle East, and Eurasia, physically, politically and economically — something both Turkey and Nato seek to capitalize on.
Whatever strategic value Turkey enjoys with Nato and Europe as a whole is, however, offset by the often-frustrating policy decisions made by Erdogan during his tenure as Turkey’s chief executive. Military interventions in Syria and Iraq in the name of countering Kurdish separatists (not to mention Turkey’s ongoing domestic repression of Kurdish separatism), along with Turkish military muscle-flexing in Libya and in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean seas, have brought Turkey to the brink of conflict with its Nato allies.
These tensions, combined with Turkey’s decision to purchase S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia, have resulted in sanctions and restrictions on the sale and transfer of military technology from Nato countries to Turkey that are not usually the hallmarks of healthy military alliances. Nor do members of healthy alliances impede decisions made by the collective body that are ostensibly to the benefit of the alliance. The current impasse between Turkey and Nato over Swedish membership is but the most visible and recent manifestation of the widening gulf between Turkey and its Nato allies, which, if allowed to progress, could spell disaster for Turkish-Nato relations.
Turkey under Erdogan, however, is not constrained by political conventions defined by Cold War alliances. Instead, Turkey has repositioned itself as a Eurasian power shaped by its status as a geopolitical bridge. Erdogan has applied to join the Brics economic forum and has approached the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) for membership as well. These actions do not indicate a pending divorce between Turkey and Nato/Europe, but rather reflect Erdogan’s innate sense of realpolitik. This includes a recognition of the realities of a world in transition, where old US-dominated power structures like Nato and the G7 are being offset by new Sino-Russian forums that challenge the so-called “rules-based international order” by emphasizing a multilateral approach toward relations between nations.
European nations are starting to come to grips with this new geopolitical reality. France has taken an increasingly independent track when it comes to relations with China, and its president, Emmanuel Macron, has requested and received an invitation to attend the upcoming Brics summit in South Africa. While relations between Nato/Europe and Russia will continue to be strained for the foreseeable future, Turkey is looking forward to a post-conflict world defined more by global multipolarity than US singularity.
From the Turkish perspective, this future is not a matter of “if,” but rather “when.” By retaining its Nato membership while pursing policies toward Russia built around energy security and normalized relations, Turkey is positioning itself to be the bridge connecting Europe with Russia in a post-Ukrainian conflict world. Likewise, the Turkish moves toward Brics and the SCO are not predicated by a severing of ties with Europe and the US, but rather with the understanding that the bridge being built is a two-way highway that encourages transit in both directions.
Europe and the wider world are going through a period of unprecedented change, and the transitions that occur in the next five years will be inherently destabilizing for most participants. There were many in Europe and the US who were hoping for a different outcome in the Turkish presidential election. Political change in Turkey, however, would have been disruptive not only domestically, but also regionally and globally. Erdogan’s reelection provides some important stability during this time of global transition.