Turkey’s next chapter

By 2028, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will have been in power for a quarter of a century. What will another five years of his rule mean for Turkey and the world?

May 31, 2023
Women in black wave red Turkish flags at a rally in Istanbul
Supporters of Turkish President and the People's Alliance's presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, attend an election campaign rally in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, 27th May, 2023. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

As the results poured in from Turkey’s run-off presidential vote on Sunday evening, excited supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gathered in the grey drizzle outside his party’s Istanbul office.

Among them was 38-year-old Enes Kırbacı, selling Turkish flags and banners emblazoned with a picture of the man who has led Turkey for two decades. “I come from a religious family and he [Erdoğan] prioritises religious issues. For example, the most important thing for us is building mosques,” Kırbacı says.

The flag seller, from Istanbul’s Okmeydanı district, represents one of the religious, working-class voters who helped keep Erdoğan in power. In a highly divided Turkish society—Islamist and secular, conservative and liberal, traditional and progressive, with high levels of nationalism perhaps one of the few unifying characteristics—both Erdoğan and his proudest opponents have partisans as forceful as each other.

“Half of the country is retarded. We are fed up with 20 years of Erdoğan’s rule,” a woman tells me after voting for opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in Istanbul’s upmarket Cihangir district. A civil servant, she requested anonymity to be able to speak freely.

The reis—the Turkish word for “chief”, and how Erdoğan’s supporters often refer to him—has faced multiple challenges in recent months. They include crippling inflation, earthquakes in the country’s southeast that killed more than 50,000 people, growing resentment towards refugees and an opposition more organised than it has been in years.

Turkey’s divisions were reflected at the polls, and Erdoğan did not win by much—he took 52.16 per cent of the vote, against Kılıçdaroğlu’s 47.84 per cent. Still, the result was enough to keep the incumbent in power for another five years. An alliance led by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and including ultranationalists and hard-line Islamists also won a majority in parliament, although lawmakers’ influence has been much curtailed since a 2017 referendum placed more power in the president’s hands.

Many AKP supporters have brushed off concerns about the country’s economic woes—the IMF expects inflation to reach 51 per cent this year. Hikes in the minimum wage have enabled many Turks to keep buying essentials but have also fuelled its growth. Erdoğan has adopted what the World Bank diplomatically calls “heterodox monetary policies,” keeping interest rates low to fuel borrowing and growth, even as costs have rocketed. Shopping bills are now counted in the hundreds or thousands of lira, rather than the tens they used to be. Turkish friends speak of leaving for jobs in Europe, or anywhere else they can find work.

Pro-Erdoğan Turks have long cited improvements in rail, road and air networks made during his years in government as evidence of the president bringing Turkey into the 21st century. During this election, they also pointed to military manufacturing industries and recent oil and gas discoveries as signs of the country’s prowess. “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made our name known to the world,” says Buğra Avcı, 23, a physiotherapy student, who also stood in the rain to watch the votes come in. “Turkey has started to use its oil and gas resources and if Erdoğan continues as president, these things will continue.”

However, although Turkey started production last month at the Black Sea Sakarya gas field development, the country is still heavily reliant on gas imports from Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran to fuel its national grid.

Opposition voters on the streets of Istanbul this week didn’t buy the lack of concern claimed by AKP supporters. “Those who say there isn’t an issue with the economy must not be living in Turkey,” says Naci Saraçoğlu, a bespectacled, retired engineer. “How can they say that?”

Many other Turks are also tired of Erdoğan’s two decades in power. The continuity that comforts the incumbent’s supporters is the very reason that other Turks want him out. They cite, alongside inflation and increasing poverty, very real clampdowns on civil freedoms and a lack of justice in the justice system as reasons for wanting change. “I need to find someone [a leader] more open-minded,” says coffee shop owner Dilan Ermiş, 33. “I don’t even remember what was going on before him.”

What does another five years of Erdoğan mean for Turkey?

In his victory speech in Ankara, Erdoğan acknowledged his country’s severe cost of living crisis and vowed to make rebuilding in regions devastated by February’s earthquakes a priority.

Some believe him: despite widespread criticism of the government response to the disaster, voters in most of the affected provinces backed Erdoğan—sometimes overwhelmingly so. Perhaps they preferred to know, at least, who they would be dealing with. 

Yet many other Turks are deeply troubled by the prospect of the incumbent remaining in power. Deniz Karaman, an election observer for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), tells me that the result will mean “economic difficulties, polarisation, and emigration of white-collar workers.” Human rights defenders and journalists also fear further crackdowns on freedom of speech, women’s and LGBTQ rights, and minorities.

And what does more Erdoğan, with his strongman stances and special brand of Islamist nationalism, mean for Turkey’s place in the world?

Many AKP supporters and officials express suspicion about western countries’ intentions regarding Turkey, claiming that they want to see it weak. But they stop short of saying that Ankara should not maintain good relationships with Europe, the UK and the US.

“The president thinks the relationships with the US and EU are very important, and he gives priority to them,” says Temel Başalan, a lawyer and former AKP group deputy chairman.

Realistically, and despite its links to Russia, Turkey will not want to abandon links with the EU, which is its largest import and export partner in relation to merchandise, especially textiles, transportation equipment and base metals. But without changing tack on the economy, Turkey will struggle to integrate further with the west, analysts say: Erdoğan’s unorthodox and unpredictable economic policies are frightening foreign investors and leaving the country vulnerable to external factors like fluctuating commodity prices.

“The economic situation shows the worst we have ever experienced,” says Ozer Sencar of Ankara-based MetroPoll, a research firm. “It is not possible for Erdoğan to meet his financial needs from the west by maintaining authoritarian rule.”

However, Ankara will probably continue to oppose, at least for the time being, Sweden’s accession to Nato. It will also continue to trade with Russia, whose citizens bought more property in Turkey last year than any other foreign nationality, followed by Iranians and Iraqis, providing much-needed foreign currency. You can still fly directly from Istanbul to cities across Russia.

Like many other nations in the Middle East, Turkey is looking for closer economic ties with its neighbours. Its relationship with Saudi Arabia, once defined by fury over the killing in Istanbul of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, has since become rosier. Pro-government media outlets, which once published pieces critical of Riyadh, now cover dry stories about trade conferences between Turkish and Saudi businessmen.

Elsewhere in the region, Turkish analysts say that military operations in Syria and Iraq will continue: Ankara frequently strikes targets that it says are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group blacklisted by Ankara, the US and the EU. Erdoğan also has incentive to control and stabilise at least parts of Syria—he made a pledge to send home more of the roughly 3.5m Syrians currently living in Turkey. Erdoğan will likely make moves to normalise with the Assad regime in Damascus, but it will not be a rapid process, given how deep Turkey is involved militarily: it has troops deployed in areas held by Syrian opposition groups, and it needs to coordinate with both Russia and Iran over its southern neighbour too.

For now, Kırbacı, the flag seller in Istanbul, is finding his own way to counter the impact of Turkey’s deep economic woes on his own pocket. His standard Turkish flags cost 20 lira (80p). Those picturing Erdoğan, against a background of gold embellishment and Islamic calligraphy, go for five times that. “They were made specially,” he grins.

Additional reporting by Aylin Çi̇ti̇loğlu and Kerem Yalçıner