By Altaf Moti
Turkey is a country that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, and has a pivotal role in regional and international affairs. It is also a country that faces many challenges, both internally and externally, that shape its destiny and identity. In May 2023, Turkey held its presidential election, which resulted in the re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a third term.
Erdogan is a controversial and charismatic leader, who has transformed Turkey’s political, economic, and social landscape since he came to power in 2003. He has also pursued an assertive and ambitious foreign policy, which has often put him at odds with his allies and neighbors. In this article, I will examine the urgent challenges that Erdogan will face in his third term, and how he will try to overcome them. I will focus on five main challenges: the economic crisis, the refugee crisis, the municipal elections, the relations with Bashar al-Assad, and the EU accession. I will argue that these challenges will test Erdogan’s leadership and vision for Turkey’s future, and that he will have to make difficult choices and reforms to address them.
One of the most pressing issues for Erdogan is the economic crisis that has been plaguing Turkey for years. The country is suffering from high inflation, low growth, rising unemployment, widening trade deficit and dwindling foreign exchange reserves. Erdogan’s unorthodox monetary policy of keeping interest rates low and relying on currency swaps and injections from allies has failed to stabilize the Turkish lira, which has lost more than 40% of its value against the US dollar since 2020. Many economists fear that Turkey is heading towards a balance-of-payments crisis, unless it restores international confidence and attracts foreign investment.
Erdogan has promised to defeat inflation and build a productive economy in his third term, but he will have to make tough choices and reforms to achieve that goal. He will have to either raise interest rates to curb inflation and defend the lira or devalue the currency to boost exports and competitiveness. He will also have to address the structural problems of the economy such as low savings, high debt, low productivity and dependence on imports. Moreover, he will have to deal with the social consequences of the economic hardship, such as poverty, inequality and discontent among the urban middle class.
Another major challenge for Erdogan is the refugee crisis that has resulted from the civil war in Syria and the instability in Iraq and Afghanistan. Turkey hosts more than 4 million refugees mostly Syrians who have fled violence and persecution in their home countries. While Turkey has been praised for its humanitarian response and generosity towards the refugees, it has also faced criticism and resentment from some segments of the Turkish society who blame the refugees for taking jobs, resources and services away from the locals.
Erdogan has tried to balance between maintaining his humanitarian stance and responding to the public pressure to deport or resettle the refugees. He has also used the refugee card as a bargaining chip with the European Union (EU) threatening to open the borders and unleash a new wave of migration if Turkey does not receive more financial aid and political support from Brussels.
Erdogan will have to find a sustainable solution for the refugee crisis in his third term, one that respects the rights and dignity of the refugees while also addressing the concerns and needs of the Turkish people. He will have to cooperate with the international community especially the EU and NATO to share the burden and responsibility of hosting and integrating the refugees. He will also have to work towards ending the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan.
A third challenge for Erdogan is the upcoming municipal elections in March 2024, which will be a crucial test of his popularity and legitimacy. The municipal elections are important because they determine who controls the local administrations and services in Turkey’s major cities and regions. They also reflect the public mood and opinion towards Erdogan’s policies and performance.
In the last municipal elections in 2019, Erdogan suffered a major setback when his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost control of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and several other key cities to the opposition parties. This was seen as a sign of Erdogan’s declining popularity. The opposition parties capitalized on their victories by providing better services, transparency and accountability to their constituents.
Erdogan will have to regain his lost ground in the next municipal elections if he wants to maintain his grip on power and secure his legacy. He will have to win back the trust and support of the urban voters especially the youth, women, Kurds, secularists and minorities. He will have to address their grievances and demands for more democracy, freedom, justice and pluralism. He will also have to face a united and confident opposition bloc that will challenge him on every front.
Relations With Bashar Al-Assad
A fourth challenge for Erdogan is his relations with Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria who has been at war with Turkey since 2011. Erdogan has been one of Assad’s fiercest critics and opponents since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising that turned into a civil war. Erdogan has supported various rebel groups fighting against Assad’s regime and has intervened militarily in northern Syria to create a buffer zone along Turkey’s border. Erdogan has also accused Assad of committing atrocities against his own people, and has called for his removal from power.
However, Assad has managed to survive and regain most of the territory he lost to the rebels, thanks to the support of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Assad has also regained some international legitimacy and recognition as some Arab and European countries have resumed diplomatic ties with him. Assad has also expressed his willingness to engage in political dialogue and negotiations with the opposition and other stakeholders under the auspices of the UN.
Erdogan will have to decide whether to continue his hostile stance towards Assad or to change his policy and seek a rapprochement with him. He will have to weigh the costs and benefits of each option in terms of security, stability and influence in Syria. He will also have to consider the views and interests of his allies and partners such as Russia, Iran, NATO and the US who have different agendas and expectations in Syria.
A fifth challenge for Erdogan is his aspiration to join the EU as a full member state. Turkey has been an official candidate for EU membership since 1999 but its accession process has been stalled for years due to various political, legal and cultural obstacles. The EU has imposed sanctions on Turkey for its drilling activities in waters in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Erdogan has repeatedly expressed his frustration and disappointment with the EU’s attitude towards Turkey and has accused it of double standards, hypocrisy and discrimination. He has also threatened to suspend or terminate Turkey’s accession talks with the EU if it does not receive fair treatment and respect. However, he has also reaffirmed his commitment to join the EU as a strategic goal for Turkey’s future. He has also taken some steps to improve relations with some EU countries such as Germany, France, Greece and Italy.
Erdogan will have to decide whether to pursue or abandon his EU dream in his third term. He will have to demonstrate his sincerity and willingness to meet the EU’s criteria and expectations for membership.
He will have to implement reforms and changes that would enhance Turkey’s democracy, human rights, rule of law and alignment with EU values and norms.
Erdogan will also have to resolve disputes and conflicts with some EU member states over various issues such as migration, energy, security and regional stability.