May 10, 2023

This year hasn’t quite gone to plan for Turkey’s most powerful man. After two decades as Prime Minister and now President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could be about to lose his job. In a country of huge strategic and economic importance, he has presided over a gradual dismantling of democracy. The most important election in the world this year will decide whether the slide continues, or whether democracy in Turkey still stands strong.

The 100th anniversary of the founding of the modern Turkish republic this year was supposed to mark Erdoğan’s crowning moment: the point at which he hoped his muscular regional power would assert its place on the world stage. But his plans for a triumphant centenary re-election were dealt a severe blow as a devastating earthquake ripped through south-eastern Turkey in February, killing more than 50,000 people.

The last time a similarly destructive earthquake hit, it was 1999 and Erdoğan was fresh out of prison, convicted of inciting religious hatred and banned from public office. He was deeply distrusted by the secular elite running the country, but he took the lead in lambasting those in authority for their callousness and incompetence in response to the earthquake. Capturing the public mood, he led his Islamist party to national election victory three years later.

This time, though it was his own authority which was shaken by allegations of catastrophic corruption in construction projects built on the cheap in the earthquake zone, while state institutions which he has made less independent were criticised for failing to respond when thousands of buildings collapsed.

Any government would have struggled to cope with a disaster on the scale of February’s earthquake, but Erdoğan was already presiding over an economy suffering rampant inflation – an annual rate of 85% as recently as October and still above 50% in March – as well as a currency in freefall.

So, he’s under pressure. The Justice and Development Party which he created and leads with unquestioned authority had been an election-winning machine. But now, in the presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14 (with a likely presidential run-off on May 28) he is facing the prospect of his first ever defeat.

And the rest of the world is watching closely. Turkey’s strategic location has always made it important, but it now matters more than ever, with Erdoğan playing both sides during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: last year, Turkey brokered a deal allowing the export of Ukrainian grain, seen as vital for world food supplies; it is a member of Nato with a large standing army, but unlike its allies it maintains many economic ties with Russia.

Turkey is also an important power in the Middle East with a sphere of influence it polices across its volatile borders with Syria and northern Iraq; and its complex relationship with Europe, on issues ranging from migration to trade to its long-stalled EU membership application, is ever-changing and unpredictable.

All in all, this is an election of massive geopolitical significance. The result matters far beyond Turkey’s own borders. And if Erdoğan loses, a smooth transfer of power will be a real test.

After two decades of unchallenged authority, he has become a controversial and divisive international figure, particularly in the West. But it’s easy to forget that this man now widely regarded — with good reason — as an illiberal autocrat, took office in 2003 promising democratic renewal. In his first two years as Prime Minister, he passed more democratic reforms than his predecessors had managed in two decades. He also made the country wealthier, taking control of the economy out of the hands of the armed forces and a small elite based in Istanbul. Across the country the economy grew quickly as obscure provincial cities, which voted for him in droves, developed into global centres of manufacturing. It was levelling up in action. It’s easy to understand his early appeal.

Abroad, too, his reputation grew. As an Islamist politician taking power after decades of secularist rule, he had an approach which many in the West initially welcomed: “Religion shouldn’t interfere with issues of government,” he told me at the time. “But government shouldn’t interfere with issues of religion either. That is the message we are trying to spread.”

With post-invasion chaos engulfing neighbouring Iraq in 2003, he offered an apparently compelling alternative. Tony Blair and other Western leaders saw him as welcome proof that liberal democracy and Islam could co-exist. In 2005, Turkey finally opened formal talks on membership of the European Union. But the West’s warm embrace grew cold — with Europe partly to blame.

Many of Erdoğan’s domestic critics had always been sceptical of his approach to religion, accusing him of having a far more hawkish Islamist agenda than he was given credit for, and of practising “takkiye” — the religiously sanctioned practice of concealing the truth in order to gain advantage for Islam. They watched nervously as restrictions on alcohol sales were imposed, an archaic ban on women wearing Islamic headscarves in public offices was lifted, and religion assumed a far more prominent role in public life.

Erdoğan also began tapping into the nasty side of Turkish nationalism, once it emerged that Europe was not interested in putting his EU application on any kind of fast track. It quickly became clear, early on in the Erdogan era, that promises made by one generation of European politicians were being ignored by the next: Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel were far more sceptical about Turkey’s place in Europe. A divided Cyprus had also become part of the EU, and the Greek Cypriot government was determined to block Turkish membership at every turn, unless it regained control of the self-declared Turkish republic in the north of the island.

The net result was that Turkey’s membership bid had no chance of making any progress, and negotiations ground to a halt. Rejection in Europe angered Erdoğan and wounded his pride. His charm offensive came to an abrupt end. Instead, he adopted an us-against-the-world mentality, increasingly intolerant of any kind of opposition.

The big turning point in international attitudes came when a series of peaceful protests about the redevelopment of Gezi Park in Istanbul, which began 10 years ago this month, escalated into national anti-government demonstrations that were violently suppressed. Erdoğan responded by rallying his supporters and cracking down on his opponents. It soon became a matter of routine to imprison any critics, often on trumped-up charges. Increasing prosperity meant he continued to win elections, but the longer he stayed in power, the more confrontational he became.

The relationship with Europe deteriorated, becoming purely transactional, with the EU relying on Turkey to help stem the tide of tens of thousands of refugees and migrants arriving on European shores in 2015. And at the same time, Erdoğan abandoned his efforts to promote peace with the Kurdish rebel movement, the PKK, and launched a widespread military offensive in Kurdish areas. He said he was trying to suppress terrorism, but Kurdish political leaders were also treated as enemies of the state.

If he appeared increasingly paranoid, perhaps he had good reason to be. In 2016, Erdoğan narrowly survived a failed coup attempt led by a faction in the armed forces which claimed to be trying to protect democracy from his rule. Instead, it used air force jets to bomb parliament and sent tanks onto the streets of Istanbul. More than 250 people were killed.

Erdoğan’s response was a widespread purge: more repression, tens of thousands of arrests and a further crackdown on human rights. He also pushed through a change in the constitution, creating an all-powerful executive Presidency which he won with relative ease as his supporters responded to his call to protect the country from its enemies.

And now he sits in his palace of a thousand rooms, surrounded by the paraphernalia of power and reminders of the Ottoman Sultans of old, the great survivor plotting his next move. But he might not have many moves left to make. In the past, where Erdoğan has been ruthless, the opposition has been toothless – weak and divided. This year, though, squabbling opposition leaders have set aside their disagreements, sometimes through gritted teeth, to form a six-party alliance led by the mild-mannered veteran, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu.

It includes liberals, nationalists and ultra-conservatives, while Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party — which could win more than 10% of the parliamentary vote — has also urged its supporters to back Kılıçdaroğlu for President. It’s all part of a plan to replace one man rule with what his manifesto calls “a truly pluralistic democracy”, and the contrast with the bombastic Erdogan could not be more acute. One election advert saw Kılıçdaroğlu sitting in his humble kitchen fulminating about the price of onions.

Opinion polls generally show Kılıçdaroğlu slightly ahead of his rival, but the result will be close. The opposition has to ensure that it gets the vote out across the country, because the election itself – surprising as this may seem – should be relatively free. Ballot stuffing is not a Turkish tradition, and polling stations are closely monitored. Turnout is always impressively high. But while it may be free, it won’t be entirely fair. The President’s complete control of state institutions and his dominance of the media creates nothing close to a level playing field. And while his political base is smaller than it once was, it remains both substantial and incredibly loyal.

So, there is no question that Erdoğan could still win. His supporters are the millions of religious conservatives he has brought into the mainstream of Turkish life. They share his instincts, trust him to look after their interests, and revel in his bull-in-a-china-shop persona abroad. He also leans in to this strongman narrative. After two decades of political supremacy and mounting repression, he likes to play the tough guy and has the power to make things difficult. He has, for example, been holding up Swedish membership of Nato for months, angered by Sweden’s offer of sanctuary to Kurdish dissidents he describes as terrorists.

Equally, a recent video call with a friendly Vladimir Putin at the opening ceremony for a Russian-built nuclear power plant in southern Turkey, and an announcement that Turkish agents had killed the leader of Islamic State in northern Syria, were both designed to bolster Erdoğan’s image among voters at home.

But there is a real choice this time, and Kılıçdaroğlu has made it clear that he would do things differently. He says he wants to improve relations with the West, and restart negotiations on EU membership (although that could prove awkward in Brussels, where Ukraine’s application is top of the in-tray). More controversially, he wants to mend fences with Bashar Al-Assad in Syria as part of a plan to send millions of Syrian refugees back home.

If Kılıçdaroğlu wins, the world will watch to see what Erdoğan will do next. He has accumulated more power than any Turkish leader since the founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and retiring gracefully has never been part of the plan.

That is another reason this election is so important. If a strongman can be beaten at the ballot box, it will send a powerful message that change is possible. Although some do fear a January 6 type protest from Erdoğan’s supporters if he should lose. Or a legal challenge if there’s a close result, in courts whose independence is already under scrutiny.

Erdogan’s interior minister has already spoken darkly about the election as a “political coup attempt backed by the West”. And the President will certainly try to do whatever it takes to win. His final campaign rallies have been littered with blunt patriotic warnings about enemies real and imagined, and belligerence has worked for him before.

But unusually, the election remains up for grabs. History in the making again, a hundred years on.