It was billed at the “world’s most important election” — pending the 2024 version, which will likely determine whether Donald Trump returns to the White House. Less international attention would usually attach to Turkey’s presidential race but when critical alliances are at stake, results matter far beyond the Golden Horn.
This vote is a reminder that autocracy is not easily dislodged. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) has channelled regional resentments, Islamic frustration, strongman fantasies, and grudges against the country’s business and cultural elites to consolidate power for the best part of 20 years.
The result — Erdogan won just under 50 per cent of the vote, putting him in pole position in the run-off in a fortnight — is a setback. But it is not terribly surprising in a country where to be an opponent of the ruling party is an uphill struggle. Visiting Turkey for the past decade, each encounter has featured some conversation which provides a glimpse of over-weening power. Newspaper editors and publishers who refused to toe the line are stripped of jobs and assets. Professional groups who raise concerns about unsafe building practices, the backdrop to the country’s recent harrowing earthquake, find their leaders facing onerous “investigations”. The tax system is routinely used as a weapon against companies disfavoured by a corrupt and economically reckless leadership. The 2016 coup attempt was followed by a ferocious reckoning and waves of imprisonment — and a school curriculum bent since with Maoist determination to write history only as Erdogan would like it to be read.
Like many modern power-grabbers he also has support and the combination of that defiant base and the pre-electoral advantages of media domination, corruption and intimidation have won him 49.4 per cent of the vote. His centre-Left opponent Kemal KÄ±lÄ±çdaroÄlu, meanwhile, has underperformed in this election. Now both parties will scrap it out for the three million or so votes of the third party. It looks like a better shot for the incumbent. Erdogan also has a performer’s ability to hold the limelight. Mocking his rival, who had filmed campaign ads in his modest kitchen, Erdogan took to his party HQ balcony boasting, “Some are in the kitchen, we are on the balcony” and singing to the crowd. All this while insisting that Twitter bans opposition and anti-corruption accounts in the run-up to the vote.
In short order, another Erdogan victory would be a headache for both Volodomyr Zelensky and Rishi Sunak, who held talks yesterday to advance UK support for supplying additional weapons to Ukraine to supplement a decisive counter-offensive against Russia — and training Ukrainian pilots to use Nato standard F-16 jets.
Turkey is already the main strategic beneficiary of the war. It serves the Kremlin’s interests by undermining Nato’s unity, helps Russia dodge Western sanctions and reaps dubious construction deals with cash advances to bail out an ongoing financial crisis.
Russia and China are the new “lenders of last resort” in a shaken global system, prepared to spend lavishly to buy loyalty or at least fealty. Erdogan’s prosperity track record is a sham — poor Turks struggle to buy staple goods.
Erdogan has played an advanced game of Risk, leveraging favours from both sides in the war. That is unlikely to change. Crucially, as an early member of Nato, Turkey has a central but often conflicted role in a security alliance on which the Ukraine war outcome depends. The blocking of Swedish accession is a signal of its ability to deploy cunning brinkmanship when its support can command a bidding war for favours and trade deals.
It’s no coincidence that one of the most astute James Bond novel plots, From Russia With Love, is set in Turkey as Soviet-inspired and Western spies battle it out for technological superiority. That fiction has roared back to life, with a 21st-century twist — an authoritarian leader eroding a fragile democracy and a doomed economic model.
That also poses a conundrum for the West — how far to indulge a wayward ally whose values are all wrong but who may re-emerge as key to a vital but vulnerable security compact? The nail-biting election will be decided in weeks. The consequences will resonate across Europe and beyond, down the decades.
Anne McElvoy is Executive Editor at Politico