Erdogan’s Last Electoral Card Is Geopolitical

Turkey’s abrupt attempts to block Finland and Sweden’s membership of NATO wiped out the jubilation of those who pass off glorified rewriting of Wikipedia articles as analysis, yet its equally abrupt dropping of its opposition to their accession also befuddled pundits who have made a career of calling Ankara a “bad ally” over the past decade. Certainly, it left Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson confused, telling reporters that “it’s hard to tell exactly why they changed their mind”.

The reason for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s apparent change of heart, however, is laid bare by the adulation for him in the Turkish press for once again demonstrating Turkey’s importance on the world stage. With a series of economic policy missteps at home resulting in polling suggesting that Erdogan now stands to narrowly lose elections scheduled for June 2023, throwing Ankara’s geopolitical weight around is now the only good card Erdogan has in an increasingly bad hand.

The Economy, Stupidly

While cost of living issues and spiraling inflation rates have become a global concern, Turkey’s economic woes predate even the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2018, the value of the lira has collapsed, with inflation skyrocketing to match. The main cause of Turkey’s economic collapse is a series of interest rate cuts based on Erdogan’s beliefs that high interest rates are “the mother and father of all evil”, and that inflation did not actually exist. To achieve his “goals”, Erdogan has erased any pretense of independent monetary policy from the central bank, sacking a series of central bank heads for failing to deliver the lira performance Erdogan wanted. 

Flagging investor confidence has been further crushed by blatant manipulation of official economic data. Turkstat’s official consumer price index inflation data indicates 78% year-on-year inflation as of June, the highest rate reported since the 1990s. However, Istanbul’s Chamber of Commerce reports a 94.5% inflation rate for the same period, while the independent Inflation Research Group reports a 175.55% inflation rate.

As of June, the lira has lost 22% of its value from the start of the year. Combined with the inflation rate, the crisis has all but obliterated the savings of many households, while wages are now barely capable of covering the costs of basic necessities. Trade and foreign trade in particular is hindered by the day-to-day volatility of the lira’s value. Jobs that pay in foreign currencies are unsurprisingly coveted, with those fortunate enough to have one counting their blessings and doing thier utmost to hold on to them.

From Foreign Leverage To Domestic Liability

As the Syrian Revolution turned into the Syrian Civil War, the Assad regime’s brutal tactics of indiscriminate killing and deliberate targeting of services and infrastructure used to support life displaced millions of civilians, many of which wound up making their way through Turkey and on to the European Union’s external borders seeking a chance for a life away from war. The sight of refugees huddled in camps, walking along roads or resting against chain link fences on the evening news in turn spurred a wave of European populist backlash, with right-wing parties pandering to voter fears of the other, making major electoral inroads, if they weren’t outright elected into governmental positions.

The European political establishment took notice, knowing that their time in power would be short if nothing was done. In 2016, the European Union and Turkey struck an agreement, where Turkey would contain the vast majority of Syrian refugees arriving there on the EU’s behalf, largely sparing the EU the inconvenient sight of seeing Greek and other EU border guards push refugees back across EU borders. In exchange, the EU would give €6 billion in grants to Turkey to support the Syrian refugees that had arrived in Turkey at that point.

Since then, Turkey has become home to the vast majority of Syrian refugees that have fled Syria entirely, with Turkish statistics accessed by the United Nations’ human rights office counting 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees as of 2022. In the years since the deal, Turkey has used its “stature” as the world’s largest host of refugees as leverage on European capitals, threatening to unleash a wave of migrants and their political consequences should Ankara not get what it wants.

However, Turkey’s economic collapse has supercharged anti-refugee sentiment. Despite the vast majority of refugees never being fully integrated into Turkey’s society and economy, and subject to ever-increasing restrictions on their ability to work or move in Turkey if not outright deportation to parts of Syria controlled by Turkish proxy forces, Turkish politicians and public figures have sought to make them scapegoats for Ankara’s economic mismanagement. While the average hard-working Turk watches the value of their hard-earned liras crumble every morning, they say, Syrian refugees live like kings on the backs of generous government handouts.

Turkish opposition parties in particular have aggressively capitalized on anti-migrant sentiment to woo voters, with several parties explicitly calling for the refoulement of Syrian refugees to Syria on the campaign trail. A 2019 survey by the University of Kadir Has’ Turkish Studies Center found that 67 percent of Turks polled were against the presence of Syrian refugees. In the years since, Turkey has seen high-profile hate crimes against Syrian refugees, their homes and workplaces, in addition to more “everyday” racism and discrimination.

The Entire Media Circus

With Erdogan’s Law and Justice Party (or simply AK Party) having significant influence on, if not outright control of the majority of the Turkish mass media space, the government has doubled down on the media circus to distract voters from the fact that they can no longer afford bread. Hate the Greeks and their alleged militarization of the Aegean, with some hating Greece so much they can’t bear to use Turkey and Greece’s names in the same sentence. Hate the Syrian refugees, who took your jobs and your children’s school admissions. Hate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or really anyone Ankara accuses of being sympathetic to them. Hate the Gulenists, and think less about how flimsy the evidence is for the “Gulenist terror suspect” of the week being any of the things the security services claim they are. Or indeed the Gulenists’ own role in bringing Turkey to the state it is today through their pre-2016 political alliance with Erdogan.

Despite the media’s work to cultivate a siege mentality within the mind of the “ideal” AK Party voter, there still has to be a reason to vote for Erdogan, rather than vote against what he promises to keep at bay. With benevolence towards Syrian refugees in the spirit of the ummah no longer an especially compelling election campaign plank, and economic carnage removing another electoral mainstay, Erdogan’s aspirations of statesmanship is the sole play he has to remain in power by the ballot box.

One Card Left To Play

While Erdogan’s initial attempts to make Turkey a regional power broker fumbled following the Egyptian military’s coup against Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, it has gone on to play a major role in regional politics, including turning a significant part of the Free Syrian Army into a de facto proxy force for Ankara; helping Libya’s internationally recognized government beat back strongman Khalifta Haftar’s attempt to overthrow it; and supplying the equipment that helped Azerbaijan retake much of its previously Armenian-controlled enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020.

While a major break from former Foreign Minister (and now opposition politician) Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbours” policy given how frequently Turkish-armed, -trained or -funded forces come into conflict with those backed by Russia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates among others, Turkish foreign policy since 2013 has significantly grown Turkey’s regional influence, if not necessarily always generating a net benefit for regional stability. At front and center of news coverage of it, though, are Turkish military manufacturers’ ever growing catalog of advanced weapon systems made nearly entirely in Turkey, with no shortage of fawning or outright credulous coverage heralding systems like the aforementioned TB2 as the future of warfare.

However, the economic crisis has also spurred criticism of these “expensive foreign adventures”, with the opposition questioning the point of spending all this treasure overseas while the Turkish economy slides further into the abyss. Any growing interest in Turkish military exports spurred by success on distant battlefields, it is claimed, is a drop in the bucket compared to the economic damage wreaked by Erdogan’s antagonism to economic orthodoxy.

Let No Crisis Go To Waste

Erdogan has managed to diplomatically capitalize on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to a perversely impressive extent. While stopping short of joining Western sanctions on Russia due to energy and other economic links with Moscow, Turkey exercised its Montreux Convention rights to block the transit of Russian warships from the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea (and incidentally NATO warships as well). While helping to sell Ukrainian grain looted by Russia, Ankara has supplied its much-vaunted Bayraktar TB2 attack drones and munitions for them to Ukraine’s armed forces, replenishing combat losses as the fighting continued. And last but not least, Erdogan threatened to block Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership bids over what he alleged was PKK support by both countries, and is still threatening to block parliamentary ratification of their membership should Ankara’s concerns not be “addressed”.

Uncertain Results

While the signing of the trilateral memorandum of understanding has been reported on triumphantly by the Turkish press, Ankara’s gains from its latest stunt remain unclear, if they even exist at all. Finnish President Sauli Niinisto has stated that despite the expected establishment of an extradition treaty for alleged Turkish terror suspects, any extradition requests would “naturally” be considered in line with existing Finnish legislation. And while Ankara claims to have received assurances from United States President Joe Biden that he would strive to clear the sale of F-16 upgrade kits and F-16Vs to the Turkish Air Force, bipartisan Congressional resistance to the sale limits the extent of pressure the White House can exert if it wishes to retain the legislative momentum it has on the hot-button issues of cost of living, gun violence and reproductive rights through the midterms.

Meanwhile, Ankara has burnt through much of the goodwill it previously had in Stockholm and Helsinki for its apparent backstab and equally rapid knife removal despite decades of support for Turkey’s accession to the EU. No amount of glowing writeups in state-run news agencies is likely to convince either capital to forgive or indeed forget anytime soon.

Unforeseen Consequences

However, the long-term effects of the Russian invasion on the European political order remain to be seen. Inconsistent statements by the traditional European policy twin hubs of Berlin and Paris on Russia’s invasion and atrocities in Ukraine have increased skepticism in Central and Eastern European EU member capitals of the merits of continued Franco-German bloc leadership.

Should other EU members gain more influence in Brussels over the years to come, keeping Syrian refugees out is likely to take a back seat to perceptions of Ankara’s nakedly transactional exploitation of the Russian invasion. In particular, its treatment of Sweden and Finland despite their longtime support for Turkish integration into the EU would be reason for pause when dealing with Turkey and especially in the defense sector, even with Ankara’s traditional defense cooperation trump card of extensive technology transfer.

Here, Hold My Bag

Long term geopolitical pain, however, probably is the least of Erdogan and his cronies’ concerns. Should they fall out of power, they have every reason to fear that any new government is likely to take from Erdogan’s own post-2016 playbook and attempt to purge Turkey’s institutions of most AK adherents and appointees as a clean break from what came before, if not as victor’s justice. As long as Erdogan’s holding the reins of power and in charge of the purging, he is safe and his confidants rich and comfortable for now.

Even if Erdogan willingly and peacefully relinquishes power, it will likely take years for Turkish government institutions to recover from the damage. While not necessarily fully subsumed by Erdogan’s attempts to remake them in a personalist mold, Erdogan’s efforts to bend them to his will has wrecked their credibility, burned bridges with foreign counterparts, and done lasting damage to internal culture. The real loser, unsurprisingly, will be the average Turkish citizen. With all economic opportunities slowly stripped from them, while the powers that be attempt to convince them that they are besieged by everyone and everything not “Turkic”, the future has never quite looked so bleak.

The opinions expressed in this editorial are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of Overt Defense