As expected, Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the Turkish presidency and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained a majority in the parliament by aligning with the ultra-nationalist, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the path Erdogan has taken his country since the failed coup of 2016. Turkish society is very much polarized among Turks themselves and between Turks and the Kurdish minority. In his victory speech, Erdogan cried “one state, one country, one flag, one nation” while holding up four fingers echoing his words. This is a direct message to the 20 million-strong Kurdish population inside Turkey, who have been historically oppressed. Erdogan’s rhetoric is clear, Turkey is a state for Turks and no other nation, anyone else thinking otherwise will be dealt with in the harshest terms and will be labeled a terrorist.
Turkey’s shift from being a model state for the rest of the Middle East has slowly pivoted first towards Islamism, then fascism, and now a full-fledged dictatorship. This proves Erdogan’s commitment to his claim that democracy to him is really “like a train, you get off once you have reached your destination.”
It is unlikely that Erdogan will change for the better. He will now hold full executive powers until 2023 and likely after until the 100th anniversary of the founding of modern Turkey. The balancing prime minister’s position will be abolished. Erdogan will have control over the country’s banking and judicial system. No institution is beyond his reach including the media. Turkey under Erdogan is now the world’s number one jailer of journalists, surpassing China.
Erdogan’s win is a blow to democracy, one that the western world had an opportunity to prevent but failed to prevent. Erdogan was emboldened to call for early elections by his multiple military campaigns against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq, by his invasion of Afrin against the US-allied Kurdish Peoples Protection Unit (YPG), and by getting away with his recent threat to attack Manbij, where US forces are positioned.
Why has Erdogan been able to get away with so much with such little consequence?
European Union states no longer have leverage against Erdogan. Before, the EU had the weight to shove Turkey in the right direction and if it failed to do so, then EU accession talks were suspended. Today, Erdogan would still like to join the EU, however it is not a priority. In other words, if it happens it happens. Erdogan has something better than EU accession, a leverage that can swing any state within the economic bloc to its favor, namely 3.5 million Syrian refugees. During the height of the refugee crisis in 2016, Erdogan threatened “You [EU] started asking what you would do if Turkey would open the gates. Look at me — if you go further, those border gates will be open. You should know that.” This week he repeated his threat, “in the past we have stopped people at the gates to Europe, in Edirne we stopped their buses. This happens once or twice and then we’ll open the gates and wish them a safe journey.” In response, the EU offered Erdogan 3 billion euros to prevent the “flooding” of refugees. EU’s response to Erdogan’s threat is preposterous and only encourages Erdogan’s aggressive tactics.
Unfortunately, many US politicians still have a naive understanding of Turkey, treating it as if it is the same country from the 90s when relations were at its peak. US foreign policy has failed to adapt to Erdogan’s gradual shift away from genuine democracy. Erdogan has strong relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and together they have signed a deal to contradict NATO defense systems and have gone ahead with the S-400 missile transaction set to be delivered July 2019. Erdogan is even open to the idea of jointly producing the S-500 with Russia, another missile system incompatible with NATO technology. Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal is to create a rift between NATO partners and Erdogan has taken the bait.
Meanwhile the US Defense Department is keen on selling Turkey US technology such as the F-35 striker jets, a dangerous move that Russia will surely take advantage of. Not to mention Erdogan’s constant threat to NATO ally Greece and its neighbor Cyprus, which still occupies since 1974. The US is tied to Turkey through NATO, but until there is a mechanism of phasing out partners in the security bloc, the US must overlook this barrier and protect its partners like the Kurds, allies in the region and national security interests in Syria, which Erdogan is moving against.
If the United States continues to accommodate Erdogan and his aggressive behavior, then we shouldn’t be surprised where Turkey will end up within the next 5-years. Erdogan managed to invade a neighboring country, force out indigenous populations in Syria, attack his own dissidents all with somewhat limited powers. The US must adapt quickly to Erdogan’s election win, his dream of reviving the old expansionist Ottoman map no longer seems so impossible if he thinks he has the greenlight from major powers.