In arguably the momentous electoral contest in the world in 2023, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has secured another five-year term in office. Erdoğan won his third term after narrowly winning the runoff vote on Sunday, beating challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu by 4 percentage points, securing 52.1 percent of the vote with a turnout of 84 percent.
The Erdoğan era will continue, and now it will be backed by the most conservative and nationalist legislature in Turkey’s modern history. The People’s Alliance, a ruling coalition led by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), retained the majority in Turkey’s Parliament, which also helped propel Erdoğan to victory in the second round of voting.
This is a remarkable feat, given Turkey’s protracted economic downturn, its inflation rate of 43 percent in April (down from a whopping 85 percent in 2022, but still high), the near collapse of its currency, the lira, and the government’s general slide into authoritarianism. Exacerbating the situation is the continuing controversy over the government’s allegedly sluggish response to two earthquakes in February that killed more than 50,000 people in southeastern Turkey and neighboring Syria.
But in Turkey, James Carville’s adage “It’s the economy, stupid!” does not apply—cultural and religious issues predominate. A little over one-half of the electorate sees Erdoğan as a messianic figure with infallible qualities – especially Turkey’s religious conservatives, who had long felt marginalized under the prior consecutive secular rulers.
Just under one-half of the Turkish electorate, however, sees Erdoğan as the destroyer of democracy and the Kemalist legacy of secularism. His critics at home and abroad claim that over the years Erdoğan has undermined political rights and institutions to such an extent that Turkey can hardly be called a democracy. Kılıçdaroğlu complained of the “most unfair election in years.” Some Western analysts bewailed the likely continuation of close relations between Ankara and Moscow. Turkey is a deeply divided country, Erdogan’s call in his Sunday night victory speech for “unity and solidarity” behind “national values and dreams” notwithstanding.
Erdoğan’s critics fail to grasp that his blend of nationalism, Islamism, and neo-Ottoman visions of imperial grandeur has been an enormously successful mix. His supporters do not care about the alleged erosion of Western-style “rights” – his opposition to the LGBTQ+ psychosis is actually hugely popular. And, despite the recent weakness in the economy, Erdoğan is seen as a champion of economic social justice. During the first decade of his rule, the average per capita income of Turks tripled, while the income redistribution mechanisms introduced by the AKP government meant that the less well-off classes benefited disproportionately from the increase in income.
His re-election means that Erdoğan will be Turkey’s longest-serving leader since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the republic a century ago. He first came to power as prime minister in 2003 and became president in 2014. He presided over two changes to the constitution, in 2010 when the Turkish Army was neutralized as the guardian of the Kemalist political order, and in 2017 when the presidency was granted enormous additional powers. He also used the failed coup in July 2016 to carry out a thorough purge of the judiciary, civil service, academia, and the entire security apparatus.
In foreign affairs, Erdoğan is prone to personalize geopolitically rooted relations with other leaders. His rapport with Putin in particular has played an essential role in Turkey’s ongoing distancing from the United States and NATO. This started well before the war in Ukraine when in 2017, Turkey decided to purchase the S-400 missile defense system from Moscow. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Turkey has not only continued but greatly expanded business ties with Russia. All along, Erdoğan has sought to portray Turkey as a valuable diplomatic mediator between Russia and the West, and he has successfully brokered a key agreement for the shipping of grain from the Black Sea between the warring countries. He has also challenged NATO allies by delaying Finland’s accession to the alliance and blocking Sweden altogether.
Geostrategic independence, as manifested in Ankara’s opposition to the “collective West,” is rather popular even among those Turks who do not approve of Erdoğan’s social and cultural agenda (mainly the young and Turkish leftists). It goes hand-in-hand with the desire of most Turks, which transcends party-political and personal choices, to reaffirm their country’s return to the global stage as a powerful player in its own right.
Turkey’s leaders and elites share the Turkish public’s distrust of America. A 2017 survey found that 72 percent of Turks view the United States as a security threat to their country. As I have recently noted in these pages, anti-Americanism in Turkey is at an all-time high:
The Turks of all political hues blame the Biden administration for unconcealed U.S. support for Greece over the disputed economic zones in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. They are also angered by the U.S. military and logistical support for the Kurds in Syria, whom the government in Ankara regards as being controlled by the PKK, a designated terrorist group.
It is baffling that successive administrations in Washington have failed to grasp the tectonic change in Turkey’s foreign policy and long-term strategy which has taken place under Erdoğan. The fundamental change of priorities should have been evident no later than 2009, when the father of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman strategy, Ahmet Davutoğlu, became foreign minister. He advocated diversifying Turkey’s geopolitical options by creating Turkish zones of influence in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Davutoğlu asserted that Turkey had an “order-instituting role” in those regions, quite apart from its links with the West.
With Erdoğan’s reelection, we are witnessing the end of a process that could be predicted with precision. Over two decades ago I wrote in Chronicles (“The Same Old Song and Dance,” April 2003 issue) that the Bush administration was mistaken to pretend that Turkey was “a truly indispensable nation” – as a senior Bush II Administration official, Paul Wolfowitz, called it at the time:
The implicit assumption in Washington—that Turkey would remain “secular” and “pro-Western,” come what may—should have been reassessed after the Army intervened to remove the previous pro-Islamic government in 1997. Since then many voices have warned that “democratization” would mean Islamization, and that America needed alternative scenarios and regional strategies.
Following Erdoğan’s victory this weekend, the old Kemalist elite is likely to suffer a terminal loss of confidence. The change within the Turkish state and society, of its ethos and institutional culture, is irreversible. The secularist elites are paying the price of helping Erdoğan in the crucial early years of his mandate. Turkey’s activist foreign policy had seduced the Kemalists with the vision of Turkey as a resurgent great power. It had enabled Erdoğan to co-opt into the project many senior civil servants, diplomats, and generals who were not sympathetic to the ideological assumptions of his paradigm, but who were ready and willing to support its seemingly “realist” aspects in geostrategic terms.
This was a Faustian pact. For the sake of Turkey’s status as a first-rate regional power – pleasing to their nationalist sensibilities – the secularist elite were prepared to close their eyes to the fact that Islam had always been the all-encompassing denominator of the project. But once the political clout of the Army was broken, it was over.
There is a historical parallel to what has happened in Turkey with pre-war Germany. Officials who were not supportive of Hitler were willing during the crucial early years of the Third Reich to offer their services to his revolutionary project in the name of promoting traditional German national interests and objectives. In early 1938 they were duly swept away, heralded by the removal of General Werner von Blomberg and Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath. After the failed coup of 2016, Erdoğan was finally able to do the same to the remaining Kemalist civil service and army cadres. Their replacements, steeped in Islamism and neo-Ottomanism, had been groomed at the lower levels of the hierarchy.
The Ottoman Empire gave up the ghost soon after World War I, but long before that it had little interesting to say, or do, at least measured against the enormous cultural melting pot it had inherited and the splendid opportunities of sitting between the East and West. Not even a prime location at the crossroads of the world could prompt creativity. The degeneracy of the ruling class, blended with Islam’s inherent tendency to the closing of the mind, proved insurmountable.
A century later the Turkish Republic is a populous, self-assertive nation-state of 85 million. Kemal Ataturk hoped to impose a strictly secular concept of nationhood, but political Islam has reasserted itself. The near-impossible task facing Turkey’s Westernized intelligentsia – long before Erdogan’s rise – had been to break away from the lure of neo-Ottoman irredentism abroad, and at home to reform Islam into a matter of personal choice: in other words, to make it separate from the State and distinct from the society. The Kemalist edifice, always unstable, is largely an empty shell today. It will be completely so if and when Erdogan retires, at the end of his third presidential term in 2028, or even some years later (barring an act of Allah!).
Visionary, boastful, and megalomaniac, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not the leader of the Turks because he wins the elections. He wins the elections because he is the leader of the Turks. Winning the elections did not make Erdoğan a democratic leader, just as the toughening of his leadership does not make him a “dictator.” Like other great Turkish leaders of the past, Erdoğan does not rule against the will of the majority of his people – but that does not make him a democratic leader. The adoption of democracy would undermine the paternalistic relationship which has always characterized the relationship between Turkey’s leader and the Turkish people. In Turkey, the sovereignty of the people must be subordinated to the sovereignty of the nation.