Turkey Elections: World Watches As Turks Decide Which Path To Take – OpEd


By Andrew Hammond*

This year is a massive one for G20 state Turkiye — and not only because it marks the 100th anniversary of the republic. Sunday’s presidential and legislative elections have key domestic implications, but also big international ones too.

This is because Turkish foreign policy could be at an inflexion point if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been in national office since 2003, is defeated. His foreign policy was predominantly pro-Western during his prime ministership, from 2003 to 2014, and for much of his presidential term from 2014 to 2018. However, change intensified following the 2016 attempted coup, since when he has also had cordial ties with other states, especially Russia, in what he calls his independent foreign policy.

In this context, Turkish domestic politics has recently delayed a number of key foreign policy decisions, including the approval of Sweden’s accession to NATO. Whether Erdogan or opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu wins the ballots, it is likely that Ankara’s objections to Stockholm’s membership of the military alliance will eventually fade away.

Another key international implication of the elections is the looming renewal of the Black Sea grain deal with Russia, Ukraine and the UN, which expires on May 18. The importance of this agreement is highlighted by the fact that nearly 30 million tons of foodstuffs have been exported from Ukraine since last summer, including nearly 600,000 tons of grain for aid operations in nations such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Somalia.

If Erdogan were to retain power, there is a higher probability of the agreement being extended, as his candidacy is backed by Vladimir Putin. However, a renewal of the deal is significantly less likely if Kilicdaroglu wins the presidency. This is, in large part, because he and other key opposition leaders are widely distrusted by Russia, not least because some of them are vocally opposed to the Ukraine war. One particular figure who has been widely criticized by Putin is Ahmet Davutoglu.

While prime minister from 2014 to 2016, Davutoglu accused Russia of attempting “ethnic cleansing” with its airstrikes in northern Syria. Broader relations between Ankara and Moscow also plummeted in late 2015 after Turkiye shot down a Russian warplane on its border with Syria, with Ankara insisting the plane was targeted because it had trespassed into its airspace, which Moscow denies.

So, decision-makers across the world will therefore closely watch these elections. One reason why the outcome remains unclear at this stage is the possibility of further surprises in the coming days. Amid this uncertainty, there are at least four key scenarios that could help illuminate — rather than exactly predict — what might happen. For governments and organizations, including corporations, this exercise can help to build preparedness by stress testing against a range of plausible developments to help mitigate risks. It can also allow them to seize possible opportunities to drive their competitive advantage in a fast-changing landscape.

While a significant number of commentators are predicting the end of the Erdogan era, the incumbent president is resilient and another victory cannot be ruled out, possibly in combination with legislative gains for the opposition, which could see his AKP party lose control of the chamber. Overall, this outcome — which might be termed the “Erdogan’s political challenges grow” scenario — would probably be neutral to negative for the economy.

In this future, Erdogan could be hobbled from day one of his new term. While he would remain the biggest political beast in Turkiye, his power would wane and he may lose the opportunity to define his succession.

With the economic outlook potentially deteriorating significantly, Erdogan is likely to consider serious macro adjustments, including to monetary policy, toward a more orthodox stance. However, he may well lack the power to do so, especially at the speed and to the degree that he might have done with a stronger political mandate.

With the electoral outcome on a knife-edge, it also remains highly plausible that Erdogan narrowly loses the presidential race to Kilicdaroglu. This could be the worst-case scenario for many businesses operating in the nation. This is because it could lead to Erdogan disputing the outcome in a similar style to Donald Trump in the US since November 2020, which could make it very difficult for Kilicdaroglu to hit the ground running.

This scenario — which might be called “Erdogan’s shadow looms large” — will probably be negative for the economy and the new president would likely lack the power to deliver on his goal of returning to a parliamentary political system, with control of economic and governmental activities stemming from the legislature.

While variants of these two futures are the most likely ones to play out, there are other less likely outcomes that would even more radically reshape the nation. The first — which might be called the “Erdogan triumphant” scenario — would see him winning big in the presidential election and his party earning a majority in the legislature too. This could herald a huge change in economic policy, with relatively radical measures brought in, including much tighter monetary policy.

However, the best-case outcome for the economy is the most unlikely one: An unexpectedly large win for the opposition in both the presidential and legislative elections — what might be called the “new political era” scenario. The improvement in investor confidence, buoyed by a potential deal with the International Monetary Fund, would likely be reinforced by a foreign policy shift toward the West.

This is why Sunday’s elections will frame Turkiye’s future for years. While elections are always important, these will be more pivotal than most, with the future of the two-decade-long Erdogan era on the ballot.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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