Associated Press

Erdoğan likely to remain engaged with Russia despite Putin’s war on Ukraine and Turkey’s membership in NATO

Erdoğan says he has been given a fresh mandate by Turkish voters

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reign as first prime minister and later president has brought a diminution of both press and democratic freedoms, say critics in Turkey and abroad.

AP/Emrah Gurel

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — After securing a strong new mandate in a runoff presidential election, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says he has been given a fresh mandate by Turkish voters could temper some positions that have irritated his NATO allies. But observers predicted that the country’s longtime strongman leader is unlikely to depart from his policy of engaging with both Russia and the West.

Erdoğan won re-election Sunday with just over 52% of the vote, extending his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade. He must now confront skyrocketing inflation that has fueled a cost-of-living crisis and rebuild in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people and leveled entire cities.

After failing to secure victory outright in the first round of voting on May 14, Erdoğan defeated opposition challenger, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who had promised to put Turkey on a more democratic path and improve relations with the West.

‘Erdoğan has successfully maintained a multivector foreign policy, which has enabled him to have constructive relations with Russia, China, and countries throughout the Middle East, even if this has been to the detriment of Turkey’s alliances with the West.’

— Jay Truesdale, Veracity Worldwide

A divisive populist and masterful orator who transformed Turkey’s presidency from a largely ceremonial role to a powerful office, Erdoğan won in part due to the backing of conservative voters. They remain devoted to him for lifting Islam’s profile in Turkey, which was founded on secular principles, and raising the country’s influence in international politics while charting an independent course.

From the archives (March 2023): Biden adopts more hopeful tone after lamenting in recent years a global backslide away from democracy

In the run-up to the election, Erdoğan held off approving Sweden’s entry into the NATO alliance — part of a Western effort to isolate Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine. Erdoğan accused Sweden of being too soft on groups Ankara considers to be terrorists, and a series of Quran-burning protests in Stockholm angered his religious support base — making his tough stance even more popular.

With his immediate political future now secure, Erdoğan may be willing to lift his objection to Sweden’s membership, which must be unanimously approved by NATO nations. Turkey and Hungary, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, are the only two countries in the alliance that have not ratified the bid.

From the archives (January 2023): Erdoğan suggests Turkey will not support Sweden’s bid to join NATO

“Turkey will likely signal it is open to some form of rapprochement, such as by encouraging parliament’s ratification of Sweden’s accession to NATO,” said Jay Truesdale, who heads the geopolitical risk consultancy, Veracity Worldwide.
But that doesn’t mean Erdoğan plans to abandon his relationship with Russia, on which Turkey relies on for energy and tourism revenue.

“Erdoğan has successfully maintained a multivector foreign policy, which has enabled him to have constructive relations with Russia, China, and countries throughout the Middle East, even if this has been to the detriment of Turkey’s alliances with the West,” said Truesdale.

That has often put Turkey at the center of major international conflicts and debates: helping to negotiate a deal to restart Ukrainian grain exports and avert global food shortages, intervening militarily in Syria’s civil war, engaging in controversial gas exploration in the Mediterranean, hosting millions of Syrians fleeing violence and then often using those refugees as leverage in negotiations with his European neighbors.

In a reflection of his global ambitions, Erdogan declared in his victory speech Sunday that, with the country marking its centennial this year, the world would see a “Turkish century.”

Erdoğan’s tendency to play both sides — such as purchasing Russian-made military equipment and refusing to enforce sanctions against Moscow while also providing drones for Ukraine — has often irked his allies.

But it also often makes him indispensable, as evidenced by the western leaders who rushed to congratulate him, even as they remain concerned about his increasingly authoritarian turn — including crackdowns on free speech and rhetoric targeting the LGBTQ community.

U.S. President Joe Biden said in a message posted on Twitter, that he looks “forward to continuing to work together as NATO Allies on bilateral issues and shared global challenges.”

The American leader later called Erdoğan to congratulate him, according to the Turkish presidency’s communications department.

Washington ousted Turkey from the U.S.-led F-35 fighter-jet program, after the Erdoğan government purchased Russia’s S-400 air-defense system. Turkey is now seeking to purchase F-16 fighter jets.

Key Words: F-16 characterized as ‘Swiss Army knife of the battlefield’ — and a game changer for Ukraine in its bid to oust Russian invaders

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, said his country and Turkey “have huge challenges to face together,” including a return to peace in Europe. “With President Erdoğan … we will continue to move forward.”

And in a sign that he is also important to the West’s adversary, Russian President Vladimir Putin attributed Erdoğan’s victory to his “independent foreign policy.”

Those policies helped Erdoğan maintain his popularity despite significant challenges at home, including an economy battered by high inflation and a devastating earthquake that led to criticism of his government.

Erdoğan managed victory in 10 of the 11 provinces most directly affected by the earthquake, NPR reported.

The Turkish lira plunged against the dollar Monday, though stocks rallied.

“Who else were we going to vote for but the man who brought our country to this point?” Hacer Yalçın asked during post-election celebrations. “He prepared everything, piled it all in the middle, and now someone else is going to come and eat it?”

Erdoğan is likely to press ahead with recent efforts to normalize relationships with countries of the Middle East after fallouts with several regional powers, including Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Erdoğan acknowledged in a recent television interview that certain Gulf States, that he did not name had given Turkey financial assistance that helped prop up the country’s economy.

Under intense domestic pressure to evict millions of Syrian refugees, Erdoğan has also been trying to mend fences with Syrian President Bashar Assad — after years of backing opposition fighters seeking to depose him.

Erdoğan’s government hopes that rapprochement with Assad can lead to the safe repatriation of the refugees. Damascus, however, has said Turkey needs to withdraw from areas in northern Syria that it controls.

While the U.S. and Europe are likely to seek Turkey’s support on some issues, like Sweden’s membership in NATO, observers said the relationship will be remain difficult in other areas, such as Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Those talks are stalled over democratic backsliding under Erdoğan and are unlikely to be revived.

“Another five years of Erdoğan means more of the geopolitical balancing act between Russia and the West,” wrote Galip Dalay, associate fellow at Chatham House in London. “Turkey and the West will engage in transactional cooperation wherever [Turkey’s] interests dictate it — and it will compartmentalize its relationship.”

MarketWatch contributed.