Nathalie Talkie Director of Istituto Afari Internationale, Future Fellow of IWM, Vienna Europe and a board member of ENI. His new book, “A Green and Global Europe” is out now with Polity.
Turkey and Syria have been hit by two massive earthquakes, with aftershocks ongoing. Thousands were reported killed or injured; Many more remain under the rubble, and the scale of the tragedy will become clearer as the hours pass.
All this is happening as Turkey prepares for elections this spring — and how the government, opposition and international community respond to the earthquake’s devastating consequences will likely weigh heavily on the outcome. This raises the question of how Europe should manage its relationship with Ankara in the rocky months ahead and prepare to re-engage later.
This spring, possibly on May 14, 2023, Turkish voters will go to the polls to elect their new president and parliament. Given Turkey’s strategic importance due to the war in Ukraine, the outcome of this election is crucial. Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the republic, it’s also one that Erdogan, who has been in power for two decades, is determined to win — and the symbolism is huge.
In addition to the centenary, the May 14 election date also coincides with the anniversary of Turkey’s first competitive elections held in 1950, which (ironically) ended Turkey’s one-party rule, with Adnan Menderes dominating the ruling Republican People’s Party. At that time—which is now the largest opposition party in the country.
However, the outcome of the election was not so uncertain. And unlike all others since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, this one is for Erdogan and the AKP to lose.
A year ago, Erdogan polled under 40 percent — and that was hardly surprising. With a stagnant economy, double-digit unemployment and skyrocketing inflation, Erdogan’s obsession with outlandish interest rates has eroded the Turkish leader’s popularity.
He is now bending over backwards to reverse this trend and is succeeding, to an extent, through both fair and foul measures.
So far, the Turkish leader has made remarkably good use of the country’s geostrategic advantages. Instead of being wedged between the West and Russia, Ankara has practically – and sometimes ruthlessly – exploited its enclave to extract benefits from both sides.
It sells drones to Ukraine while tripling trade with Russia; It portrays itself as the sole mediator between Kyiv and Moscow, boasting of brokering grain and prisoner exchange deals; And it won its NATO membership to get F16s from the US, while they waited at the alliance’s door to make concessions from Sweden and Finland. It is doing the same with Russia, using Moscow’s strategic weakness to convince them to green light their activities in Syria.
Some of these moves aim to demoralize Kurdish voters in Turkey and create an ultra-nationalist environment to weaken the opposition. Domestically, Erdogan has stabilized the economy for now with cash flows from Russia and the Gulf. And these, in turn, have been used to finance populist measures, such as a massive housing program, minimum wage increases, and early retirement for millions of citizens.
But beyond strategic acumen and economic populism, Erdogan is also playing foul.
Bringing the election forward to May from the original June date gives the opposition, which has yet to choose its presidential candidate, less time to organize its campaign.
A perpetually subordinate judiciary has moved to ban Erdogan’s main political opponent. In December, a Turkish court sentenced Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu to nearly three years in prison. Pending his appeal, Imamolu remains in office and can still run if he is the opposition’s candidate – but the move is no coincidence. The mayor of Istanbul is the only politician with an impressive track record in defeating the AKP, when he emerged victorious in 2019, despite a politically motivated rerun of the Istanbul election.
A few weeks later, the Justice Department also ruled in favor of seizing the bank accounts of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party. Along with shrinking space for media freedoms and civil society, this means Turkey’s elections will be held in an increasingly undemocratic environment – more so if Erdogan abuses the three-month emergency declaration he declared in the 10 regions most affected by it. vibration
In fact, earthquakes complicate the picture.
A natural disaster should be considered as such, but Turkey is located in a highly seismic area and geologists have long warned of the risk of a new major earthquake. After the country’s last devastating earthquake in 1999, it was clear that Turkey’s building regulations and standards needed a major overhaul. But that earthquake law took until 2018 to pass, and as the rubble settles a question will inevitably arise: how many of the more than 6,000 buildings destroyed and lives lost could have been saved, had the authorities treated it as such? A higher policy priority?
Equally relevant is how the earthquake will affect international relations. We are now seeing an outpouring of international solidarity with countries with complex, if not conflictual, relations with Ankara. Greece and Cyprus are very important in this regard, because in 1999, twin earthquakes in Greece and Turkey spurred a historic reconciliation between the two countries, paving the way for the most promising phase of the Cyprus peace process that culminated in 2004 in Annan. the plan
Of course, we are unlikely to see an immediate turning of the page between the East Med or the EU and Turkey. However, the earthquake and upcoming elections raise questions about how Europe and the West should respond now — and as it always does with Turkey, it will require a delicate balancing act.
On the one hand, there should be full and unconditional support for Turkey and Syria in the wake of the earthquake—politics and geopolitics aside. At the same time, as the country’s political playing field becomes increasingly uneven with the breakdown of democratic principles and the rule of law, European leaders and institutions should speak up. That said, their influence before the election is virtually nil, but the risk is that lambasting Turkey could have a boomerang effect, with European criticism being used and abused to stoke nationalist fervor.
After the election, however, it’s a completely different story, especially if the opposition wins — perhaps in parliamentary elections, which are far more uncertain than presidential races.
If that were to happen, the EU should prepare to rejoin immediately, dusting off ideas that have been repeatedly discussed but never implemented due to the tense political climate between the parties. Issues such as modernization of the customs union, visa liberalization, energy transition, immigration and foreign policy cooperation – there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
What is needed, however, is a conviction across the continent’s capitals that Europe will jump to embrace the change.
Even in this rosy scenario, though, Turkey will remain a strategic challenge.
While an opposition victory would halt and reverse Turkey’s democratic decline, it would not radically change its foreign policy toward Syria, the Eastern Med, Russia, or China. Turkey’s foreign policy will, however, become less personalized and more institutionalized, making it more predictable and amenable to change.
But for this to happen, the EU needs to take a leap of faith and turn the page on its engagement with Turkey.