13.01.2023 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

2023 presidential election: Turkey’s fate in the hands of its citizens

Turkey, by virtue of its objective geographical position, occupies an important position in the Middle East, has a key influence on regional developments, remains relevant on NATO’s southern flank and controls strategic communications at the junction of three continents (Asia, Europe and Africa). Consequently, many processes in the international system depend on Turkey’s political choices and its subsequent course.

The next presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey, to be held in June 2023 (the centenary year of the Republic of Turkey), are of high interest to internal and external observers. Such attention to Turkish politics is determined by the peculiarities of the region’s dynamic transformation, as well as by the particular tensions in the internal political struggle between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition against the backdrop of a worsening economic crisis by the 21st year of R. Erdoğan’s rule.

It should be recognized that Turkey has come a long way since World War II in forming a democratic political system, where a streak of stability has been followed by crisis (including three military coups in 1960, 1971, 1980 and one failed attempt in 2016) and vice versa. At the beginning of the 21st century, Turkey witnessed not only the rise to power of a pro-Islamic conservative political force represented by the AKP, but, as time has shown, a more successful pragmatic and nationally oriented team led by the charismatic Erdoğan.

It cannot be said that since the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, there have been no successful and outstanding leaders in the new history of the Turkish state (e.g., the same Adnan Menderes, Süleyman Demirel, Turgut Özal). Each of the mentioned leaders of Turkey in his time contributed a lot to the development of the state, skillfully combining national interests with those of the West and ensuring stability in relations with the USSR (Russia). However, certain mistakes could not be avoided, which tragically affected the personal fate of Adnan Menderes and Turgut Özal.

Of course, the political reform to establish a multi-party electoral system in the mid-20th century was an objective consequence of Turkey’s progression with its membership of NATO. The US, which has strictly monitored political processes in allied countries, has always paid special attention to Turkish internal politics to the exclusion of radicalization towards independence. For all the costs of Turkey’s economic problems, the threat of Ankara’s isolationist foreign policy has been the main reason for the coups that took place and failed. The CIA was quite effective in preventing such tendencies in Turkey through influential positions in the Turkish secret services and the General Staff of the Armed Forces, which resulted in three military coups in the 20th century.

With the dissolution of the USSR, the position of US intelligence in the Turkish power structures seems to have weakened as the military threat to Russia on NATO’s southern flank has diminished in importance. At the same time, for the same objective reasons, Turkey’s monopoly role in NATO’s Middle East strategy declined at the turn of the century, and with the new members and partners of the Alliance (Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Georgia), also in the Black Sea. In the meantime, the formation of five Turkic countries in the post-Soviet space has contributed to the crystallization of Turkey’s new foreign policy strategy.

These external dynamics, combined with the persistent problems of the economic crisis in Turkey, forced the same President Turgut Özal to bet on the development of a free market economy, big business, integration into the world economy and the promotion of Turkish products. In parallel with the economy, Özal sought to strengthen the country’s independent course and weaken the influence of the Turkish military on domestic politics. It is Özal who is considered the initiator and founder of Turkey’s new strategy, dubbed “Neo-Ottomanism”, which was developed and continued in the 2000s by his successor Recep Erdoğan. Neo-Ottomanism meant the political burial of the republican strategy of “Kemalism” with Turkey changing course from a regional state in favor of a super-regional power. Of course, the United States could not be happy with such an arrangement.

According to the famous “Sursuluk scandal” case, it was reported in the media that President Turgut Özal and gendarmerie chief Eşref Bitlis, who advocated non-military (political) methods of solving the Kurdish question, died in 1993 by a strange coincidence. In particular, one died of a heart attack and the other in a plane crash, which some experts link to external interference.

Such a legacy, inherited by AKP leader Recep Erdoğan, has allowed in the early 21st century to focus on strengthening independence and seeking Turkey’s new rise as one of the poles of a multipolar and center of the Turkic world. The phenomenon of Erdoğan’s rule is not only linked to the duration of his two decades in power, but also to Turkey’s achievements in domestic and foreign policy. In particular, he has managed to strengthen the independent course of the country; to build more pragmatic relations with major powers such as Russia and China; to carry out political reform of the government (transition from a parliamentary to a presidential model); to implement major economic projects in the field of transit communications and nuclear energy; to make Turkey a key factor in gas exports to Europe; and to lay the foundation for pan-Turkic integration, based on mutually beneficial economic, energy, political and security interests.

Erdoğan’s independent course was the main reason for the military coup in July 2016 involving external forces (in particular the US and Pennsylvania-based Imam Fethullah Gülen), supported by the Turkish Air Force command (in particular former Air Force Commander General Akın Öztürk and Incirlik Air Base Commander General Bekir Ercan Van). Graham Fuller, a former US intelligence resident in Kabul and F. Gülen’s mentor, was named as the CIA’s coordinator of this covert operation. However, in the summer of 2016, Erdoğan, thanks to the effective action of the Turkish intelligence service (MİT) led by the loyal Hakan Fidan and assisted by his Russian colleagues, managed to preserve his life, quell the coup attempt and carry out a harsh crackdown against his opponents.

Of course, the cyclicality of the global economic crisis and the monetarist course, where the growth rate of the money supply exceeds the level of the national economy, could not fail to affect the Turkish economy. Erdoğan, while achieving significant successes in foreign policy, has failed to maintain stability inside Turkey. In turn, President R. Erdoğan’s expressed autonomy (e.g., on the topic of military and technical partnership with Russia) has had a negative impact on the financial and economic support of Turkey by US-controlled global institutions. As a result, Turkey is now experiencing a difficult period of high inflation in excess of 70% (and according to Le Figaro, inflation has crossed the 84% line). Some experts believe that the financial and economic crisis and high inflation were largely provoked by R. Erdoğan himself, who insisted on lowering the Central Bank’s key rate to 14%.

The current situation forces the R. Erdoğan administration to remain highly interested in economic partnerships with major players such as Russia and China, and to consider new regional cooperation projects in the Middle East, the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

The successes of the Turkish army and arms in local conflicts in the Syrian, Libyan and Transcaucasian theatres of war also encourage Anatolian society to support the course of the ruling party, which, in the spirit of traditional Turkish diplomacy, promotes large and small national interests in the foreign arena and reinforces Turkey’s regional leadership status.

Nevertheless, the next presidential election in June 2023 promises to be difficult for R. Erdogan and his party in a situation of growing economic crisis, high inflation, unemployment, the leader’s rating dropping to 35%, the assertiveness of young opposition representatives with a moderate course oriented towards the US and European integration.

Recep Erdoğan’s ruling AKP maintains a coalition with Devlet Bahçeli’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which has 7-10% voter support. The main rivals of the AKP and Erdoğan in the parliamentary elections are traditionally Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Meral Akşener’s Good Party. The main opponents to the presidency are likely to be representatives of the AKP with experience as mayors of the two major cities of Istanbul and Ankara (Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş respectively), although competition from Meral Akşener is not ruled out, despite her statement of desire to become prime minister (perhaps with the expectation of restoring the parliamentary model of government).

By the summer of 2023, K. Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the CHP, will be the oldest candidate (he will be 74 by then) and the main Kemalist’s rating in May 2022 according to SOANAR research organization was only 3.5% against almost 35% for Erdoğan.

Following R. Erdoğan’s June 2022 announcement in Izmir (the city where Kılıçdaroğlu was elected to parliament) that he would run for president, Ekrem İmamoğlu was sentenced in September to 2.7 years in prison for insulting the Electoral Commission and 5 years in prison for political activity. Perhaps the decision will reduce the intensity of the struggle for the presidency for Erdoğan (although the appeal process could stretch to an election date and change the situation). For his part, Mansur Yavaş said he wished to pursue a political career as mayor of the capital. However, in this case too, it is possible that this opinion of Yavaş was motivated by a desire to rule out premature provocations to block his participation in the presidential campaign.

The election campaign in Turkey promises to be tense if the opposition forces, on the recommendation of former Prime Minister and Future Party leader Ahmet Davutoğlu, unite and nominate a single candidate with coordination from a single center. Erdoğan is unlikely to be helped by another victorious local military operation in Syria’s “Idlib zone” against the local Kurds. The fact is that Turkey may clearly clash with the interests of a number of key countries there (in particular the US, Iran and China).

However, Russia, too, does not benefit from weakening its own position in Syria and the cooling of relations with Damascus. Moscow is interested in preserving the balance of power in both Syria and Transcaucasia while building up the Russian-Turkish economic partnership. The meeting of Turkish and Syrian heads of defense ministries, facilitated by Russia, on December 28, 2022, according to Turkish Minister Hulusi Akar, holds out hope of a peaceful resolution of the controversy while respecting Syria’s territorial integrity.

Six months remain before the election, which, given Turkey’s expressive domestic political dynamics, is ample time for new developments to manifest themselves that could influence the election and, more importantly, voter opinion. Of course, the incumbent president aims to achieve important results in the breakthrough interests of Turkey and its citizens. One such landmark achievement in the year of the 100th anniversary of the Republic may be the implementation of General Wehib Pasha’s strategy, noted at the signing of the Treaty of Batum on June 4, 1918, to take Turkey through the shortest route into the Turkic East. However, this project depends to a large extent on maintaining a balance of interests and strengthening Turkey’s strategic partnership with Russia in the same Transcaucasia. An equally breakthrough project for the stabilization and development of the Turkish economy is the idea of turning Turkey into a major gas hub with a concentration of gas from Russia and Turkic CIS countries on its way to Europe. The Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative” project through the post-Soviet south and Turkey to Europe is in the same vein.

Russia has often been accused in the same post-Soviet space of conducting diplomacy with a reliance on the ruling powers and insufficient attention to the opposition. Perhaps the same is true for relations with Turkey. However, to be fair, Russian diplomacy differs from that of the West in its reliability and decency, its respect for the choices of citizens of their leaders and its value of partnership. This does not mean that the Russian competent authorities do not have full knowledge of the dynamics of events, irrespective of geography. The Turkish-Russian partnership is based on pragmatic interests that remain relevant and supported by the two societies.

In all cases, Turkey’s fate is in the hands of its citizens and depends little on foreign experts. Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming elections in Turkey, if they take place, Moscow will respect the choice of the Turkish people.

Aleksandr SVARANTS, Doctor of Political Science, Professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.