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Erdogan is Here to Stay

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The Turkish president has adopted a transactional policy with the West. Washington should respond in kind.

Since the conclusion of Turkey’s presidential elections in May, much analysis has rightly focused on the implications of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s third term from both domestic and foreign policy perspectives. In American and European circles, attention focuses on whether this would be the moment that Erdogan would take the opportunity of his re-election as an excuse to reset his relationship with the West. Ties between Turkey and its Western allies have been visibly deteriorating since 2016. Inside Turkey, nearly half of the population that did not vote for him were despondent at the prospect of another five years of Erdogan at the helm, while the remaining half are curious to see if Turkey’s veteran politician will be able to fix the country’s acute and worsening economic problems. An uncomfortable yet frequently talked about prospect is missing from the litany of analyses: the likelihood of Erdogan leaving office by elections may have passed. We may be stuck with Erdogan until he passes away or is forced out of office by undemocratic means.

Part of the reason rests on the state of Turkey’s political opposition: there isn’t one that voters believe is a credible alternative to Erdogan. Close observers of Turkish electoral politics are split between those who think opposition political parties are simply incompetent and those who are convinced that the opposition is in cahoots with Erdogan and even worked to get him reelected. Depending on your point of view, both scenarios have merits. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, ran a horrendous campaign. If one were interested in losing an election to Erdogan, one would repeat Kilicdaroglu’s strategy. The CHP camp never appeared ready or interested in taking over governing from Erdogan. As a result, much of the Turkish electorate is so thoroughly demoralized that they have disconnected themselves from politics entirely. Put simply, there is no public pressure to constrain Erdogan and certainly nothing like the Gezi Park protests. These demonstrations were the only time Erdogan feared popular unrest. Accordingly, he brutally suppressed them and branded demonstrators as terrorists. Now, Turkish citizens are politically deflated and afraid to challenge Erdogan.

On the other hand, some commentators accuse the Kilicdaroglu campaign of working clandestinely to ensure Erdogan won the election. This emerging view argues that the opposition was not genuinely campaigning to unseat Erdogan but only engaged in the theatrics of electioneering. The main reason for doing so is because Erdogan paid some opposition leaders. Meral Aksener, the leader of the Good Party (IP)—a senior member of the electoral “Nation Alliance,” supposedly created to defeat Erdogan—is accused of receiving $100 million to torpedo their joint campaign. If this accusation is accurate, this is the surest sign that Erdogan can purchase political opposition for a price, and future elections will be nothing but charades.

This doesn’t mean that all opposition political actors are for sale. In a scenario where Erdogan is challenged successfully by a credible and incorruptible candidate, the president would employ likely legal mechanisms to eliminate him. We are witnessing this eventuality with the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu. Having been prevented from being named the CHP’s presidential candidate by Kilicdaroglu, Imamoglu has already set his sights on the 2028 presidential election campaign. For the forgeable future, Imamoglu is the likeliest person who could defeat Erdogan at the ballot box, but he is unlikely to succeed in this venture. Next spring, Imamoglu will try his hardest to be reelected mayor of Istanbul. Erdogan will do everything in his power to oust him. In the realm of legitimate (yet ethically dubious) actions, Erdogan will use the office of the presidency and the mainstream press to try and discredit Imamoglu. He will then see if this moves voter sentiment to favor his candidate. If it does, there is no need for further action: Imamoglu and the CHP lose Istanbul. If voters still favor Imamoglu over Erdogan’s candidate, then Erdogan is likely to call upon a high court to uphold a lower court ruling in 2022 that bans Imamoglu from politics. In other words, heads Erdogan wins, tails Imamoglu loses.

Under such circumstances, if we accept that Erdogan will remain in power indefinitely, should the West just learn to live with him? After all, he is the devil we know. Perhaps we can work with him on a transactional basis since the United States and the transatlantic alliance share security interests. The Biden administration would tell us we value Turkey’s assistance in the Ukraine conflict, its efforts in containing migratory flows to the West, and the role that it could play as a bulwark to contain, even undermine, Iran.

A transactional approach to working with Erdogan would work if the United States government were consistent and steadfast in its approach to Turkey. It is not. We should also be aware that in dealing with Erdogan, we are not dealing with an ally but a budding autocrat interested in leveraging his position with Western security institutions to his own advantage. The Biden administration frequently sanctions Turkish entities for violating international sanctions against Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine. It has issued numerous warnings to Erdogan to instruct Turkey’s banking sector (which proved successful) to stop accepting Russian financial transfers, allowing oligarchs to operate with impunity on the world stage and dodge sanctions. Since 2022, scores of Turkish companies have supplied the Russian military with dual-use microchip technology that helps operate Moscow’s weaponry. Instead of insisting Ankara ends its support of Putin’s war, the White House panders to Erdogan.

Moreover, before Erdogan does the bare minimum of what is required of an ally and approves Sweden’s NATO membership, why is the Biden team quietly coordinating with the World Bank to extend Turkey a virtually conditions-free line of credit worth $35 billion to prop up the dictator’s ailing economy? Would it not be better to insist that Erdogan makes good on Sweden before giving him free money?  Or before Biden asks Congress to remove its objections to selling Turkey new F-16 fighter jets, we could request Ankara to offer guarantees (through an ongoing certification process) that it will not threaten other NATO allies such as Greece, or while we’re on the subject, ask Erdogan to end shipping rocket-making materials to terrorist organizations such as Hamas?

Oscillating between sticks and carrots plays to Erdogan’s strengths. It allows him to manipulate different branches of the U.S. government to get what he wants while remaining noncommittal on the White House’s key expectations. At the recent United Nations General Assembly, Erdogan gave an interview with PBS News, where he announced that he “trusts Russia as much as the United States.” The United States should stand consistently behind its demands from Erdogan before giving him what he wants for one simple reason: he needs the United States more than we need him. Let’s meet his jingoism with consistency and stop him playing us like a fiddle.

Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at FDD and an expert on Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy. He is also an Associate Professor of National Security Studies at Marine Corps University (MCU). Prior to joining MCU, Sinan was the Executive Director of the Institute of Turkish Studies, based at Georgetown University (2011–2020). Between 2008 and 2011, he established the Turkish Studies program at the University of Florida’s Center for European Studies. He continues to serve as an Adjunct Associate Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.