President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is ushering in a new era for Turkey after weekend elections saw him win a presidency granting him the vastly expanded executive powers he has long sought. But his governing party saw its parliamentary majority slip, leaving him reliant on the support of a small nationalist party.
Critics have reacted with alarm to Erdogan’s victory, saying the results usher in what will effectively be one-man rule, putting someone with increasingly autocratic and intolerant tendencies at the helm of a strategically significant NATO country.
Here is a look at what’s at stake, and what the election results mean for Turkey and its international relations.
The fate of Turkey’s increasingly shaky economy is critical, and much will depend on how Erdogan handles it. In his victory speech, he said his goal was to make his country one of the world’s top 10 economies by 2023, the centenary of the Turkish Republic. But how he will achieve that is unclear.
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Turkey has been hit by rising inflation and a struggling currency, which has lost about 20 percent of its value against the dollar since the start of the year. Although the country’s economy grew by about 7 percent last year, analysts warn this was largely fueled by unsustainable grandiose construction projects.
“There are lots of fragilities. When we look at the overall macro picture, the inflation is high, exchange rate is high, interest rates are high, fiscal deficit is high, current account deficit is high,” said economic analyst Ozlem Derici Sengul.
Fadi Hakura of the London-based Chatham House think tank predicted that Turkey is heading toward an economic crisis in the next five years, but noted there were no signs Erdogan would change course on the economy.
“He will continue pursuing the very populist economic policies that are leading Turkey to economic ruin,” Hakura said. “There are no indications that Erdogan will reverse course in terms of his economic populist agenda.”
“That means loosening the purse strings, restraining interest rates, and boosting construction and mega infrastructure projects, as well as supplying cheap credit to consumers and Turkish business. The very policies that are now degrading the value of the lira vis-a-vis the dollar and the euro,” he said.
Erdogan, Hakura noted, is “obsessed with a super-high growth rate, way beyond the capacity of the Turkish economy. And that’s what will lead to economic ruin in Turkey.”
“He’s pursuing Ferrari growth rates while being a ... mid-sized car,” Hakura said.
Democracy and human rights
The new system abolishes the prime minister’s position, and grants the president power to appoint ministers, vice presidents and high-level bureaucrats, issue decrees, prepare the budget and decide on security policies. Erdogan, who set the changes in motion with a 2017 referendum, insists this will lead to greater stability and prosperity.
But many fear it puts too much power in the hands of the president in a country lacking the checks and balances of other presidential democracies, such as the United States or France.
“Turkey has cut off its ties with democratic values,” said Muharrem Ince of the secular opposition Republican People’s Party, who came in second in Sunday’s presidential race. “It has transitioned to a one-man regime in the fullest sense.”
France and the U.S. have independent judiciaries, a free press, independent institutions and party-based politics, noted Hakura of Chatham House.
“Those kinds of institutional checks and balances are non-existent ... or at least are very weak in Turkey,” Hakura said. “One cannot say that the legal system in Turkey is independent. The national media is completely under government (control) or is loyal to Erdogan.”
Sunday’s elections took place under a state of emergency imposed by Erdogan’s government after a failed 2016 coup. About 50,000 people have been jailed and more than 110,000 civil servants fired in the massive government crackdown. In the run-up to Sunday’s vote, Erdogan had said he would lift the state of emergency if re-elected — something long called for by opposition figures and rights groups.
The candidate who came in third in the presidential election, Selahattin Demirtas, ran his entire campaign from a maximum security prison, where he is being held pending trial on terrorism charges he says are trumped up and politically motivated. The pro-Kurdish HDP party he ran for managed to win enough votes to enter parliament despite nine of its lawmakers, including Demirtas, and thousands of its party members being jailed.
“I think it’s quite clear that human rights conditions in Turkey will probably worsen,” given that the small nationalist party Erdogan has allied with, Devlet Bahceli’s Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, is even more to the right than Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, Hakura said. “There’s no indication that Erdogan will relax the tightening environment that Turkey is now laboring under in terms of media freedoms, human rights and civil liberties.”
How the election results will affect Turkey’s foreign policy will also be a closely watched topic. The country of 81 million people is a significant player on the regional stage, with often tricky, frequently changing relations with neighbors and allies.
The “elections haven’t changed anything” regarding the country’s international relations, said Kerem Oktem, a professor at the University of Graz in Austria, predicting a “continuation of not strategic but tactical foreign policy” in which Ankara veers toward Russia but doesn’t distance itself completely from the West.
Erdogan has frequently taken a combative stance in recent years, particularly against the European Union and the United States following their criticism of his crackdown in the aftermath of the failed 2016 coup. Turkey’s bid to join the EU has come to a stumbling halt, with no indication of renewed efforts to jump-start the process.
Relations with the U.S. have also faltered. Washington has been backing and arming a Kurdish militia in northern Syria to combat the Islamic State group, enraging the Erdogan government, which considers it a terror organization linked to a Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey. More recently, the U.S. Congress raised objections to Turkey’s purchase of F-35 fighter jets after Ankara said it was buying the Russian S-400 missile air defense system.
Ankara is also furious Washington has not extradited Fetullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric who Erdogan has accused of orchestrating the failed coup. Gulen denies involvement.
Turkey’s relations with Russia have seen dramatic fluctuations, with ties recently warming following a long frosty period after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane taking part in the campaign to support Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government in 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Erdogan on his election win Sunday.
Turkey also has a significant stake in neighboring Syria, where it mounted a military operation in the north and now controls about 4,000 square kilometers (1,500 square miles) of Syrian territory.
Analysts Oktem and Hakura predicted a continuation of operations against Kurdish fighters in Syria and northern Iraq, with the latter noting that Erdogan’s alliance with the nationalist MHP party would solidify the government’s stance.
“If anything, the MHP is skeptical of the relations with the U.S. and would support a more robust military adventure” against Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, Hakura said. “It’s lukewarm towards Russia.”
The alliance with the MHP will not bring about “any dramatic changes in Turkish foreign policy, except the bilateral relations with Europe and the United States will continue to be testy and challenging,” he said.