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Analysis | The most important elections in the world in 2023 will be in Turkey


Of the many general elections of international significance to be seen this year, Nigeria’s, scheduled for February, will be by far the largest; Pakistan’s, expected in October, is likely to be the loudest. But the most important will undoubtedly take place on June 18, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks to extend his rule over Turkey to a third decade.

The outcome will shape geopolitical and economic calculations in Washington and Moscow, as well as capitals in Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. “What happens in Turkey doesn’t just stay in Turkey,” said Ziya Meral, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. “Turkey may be a middle power, but the great powers have an interest in the election.”

Ankara’s influence in world affairs is a testament to Erdogan’s achievements during his long stint at the helm. Still, his electoral prospects arouse mixed feelings at home and abroad. And those who wish for him to leave on June 19 can’t be optimistic about who, or what, will come next.

Western leaders will be happy to see Erdogan’s back. He has undermined NATO’s security by taking over missile defense systems from Russia, frustrated the alliance by blocking the membership of Sweden and Finland, repeatedly threatened to flood Europe with refugees, and flung increasingly bellicose rhetoric at Greece in recent months. Ankara’s relations with Washington are so tense that top Turkish officials routinely accuse the US of supporting a coup against Erdogan and being complicit with terrorist groups.

The US and Europe would be better off without Erdogan’s disruptive influence in world affairs, especially as their confrontation with Vladimir Putin intensifies. His usefulness as an interlocutor is limited: although he helped broker an agreement last summer to secure the supply of grain and vegetable oil from Ukraine, Erdogan has had no restraining influence on his “best friend” Vladimir.

Erdogan is also unstoppable. While many in the foreign policy circles of Washington and European capitals hope he can be lured out of the cold, Erdogan’s worldview is “much more radical than most Westerners think,” says political analyst Selim Koru. His ambitions for the immediate vicinity of Turkey, where Ankara is growing in influence, is not to supplement American and European influence, but to replace and counter it, says Koru.

Should Erdogan be defeated, says Sinan Ulgen, director of the Istanbul think tank EDAM, “his successor will transform Turkey into another foreign policy player, more comfortable with its position as a Western nation.”

But even if that happens, no one should expect a quick 180-degree turn. Erdogan has had 20 years to seed Turkish institutions – the government, the military, academia, the religious establishment and the media – with his radical worldview. If a new president comes on June 19, they will have to dismantle the structure that Erdogan built. The task will be even more difficult as his AK party will continue to have a substantial presence in parliament, one that will certainly resist change.

It is worth remembering that it took Erdogan the better part of a decade to undermine the secular deep state built by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey – and the AK Party had a comfortable majority in parliament. A Hercules might shy away from having to clean the Anatolian stables after his departure.

All this on the assumption that voters exclude Erdogan, which is hardly a certainty. Turks are divided about their president and his policies. A survey by Metropoll at the end of October showed that approval for Erdogan has risen to 47.6%, up from about 39% a year ago. This would be remarkable for any leader who has been around that long – in democracies, anti-incumbent sentiment grows with time – but it is nothing short of astounding for someone who is leading an economic mess.

Much of that mess is his own: Erdogan’s magical thinking about interest rates has contributed greatly to staggering inflation, a weakened lira and anemic investment. And that’s why, according to other polls, a majority of Turks think their country is moving in the wrong direction.

Why then do many still look to Erdogan to correct Turkey’s course? In part, that’s because they don’t know who will challenge his grip on the reins. The main opposition parties have formed a united front known as the Table of Six, but less than six months before election day they have yet to announce their presidential candidate. The two main contenders are from the leading opposition party CHP: Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and longtime party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

The Table of Six has also been slow to formulate a clear strategy for restoring Turkey’s economy. Early last month, the CHP finally unveiled what looked like an agenda, but it was lengthy with light-hearted promises of big investments and a lack of detail. (Most notable at the event was the presence of Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Daron Acemoglu. The Good Party, another of the Table of Six, counts Wharton professor of private equity Bilge Yilmaz among its leaders.)

Erdogan’s favorite opponent would be Kilicdaroglu, a somewhat drab veteran who has led the CHP for 12 years. Many Turkish political analysts say the younger, more charismatic Imamoglu would be the stronger challenger. He won the mayoralty of Istanbul in 2019 by running an inclusive, upbeat campaign, even after a replay forced by Erdogan’s refusal to accept the results for the first ballot.

The president and his party have put a lot of effort into keeping Imamoglu at bay. Last month, the mayor was convicted of insulting election officials, but the verdict united the opposition behind him and may have increased his chances of becoming a presidential candidate. “There is now a strong narrative around Imamoglu,” says Ayse Zarakol, a professor of international relations at the University of Cambridge. “The momentum is with him.” (Under election rules, the mayor can run for president while his lawyers challenge the conviction.)

But Erdogan’s still strong numbers suggest he could hold off any challenger, especially if the economy shows signs of recovery in the spring. The president is counting on investment and bank deposits from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as well as Putin’s promises to make Turkey a hub for Russian natural gas exports, to lift the gloom. Erdogan has also spoken about Turkey’s own natural gas discoveries in the Black Sea, encouraging speculation of a revenue windfall. Last month, he announced minimum wage increases of 55%; last week he increased the salaries and pensions of civil servants.

For the record, he and his party have appealed to the old boogeymen of Kurdish terrorism and Western perfidy, as well as culture war tropes about the dangers of homosexuality to the family and Islamic values. The threats against Greece are aimed at fueling nationalist fervor.

These tactics have previously helped Erdogan win elections. They could again. Until the Turks vote, Western leaders will remain on the hooks.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Erdogan’s ego trip hurts NATO: Andreas Kluth

• Why Erdogan got over himself and shook hands with Sisi: Bobby Ghosh

• NATO must bring Finland, Sweden and Turkey together: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on foreign affairs. Before that, he was editor-in-chief at Hindustan Times, editor-in-chief at Quartz and international editor at Time.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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