Erdogan’s victory: ‘Devil’ Turkey knows prevails in an ‘unfair’ election, say experts

In a tightly contested presidential runoff, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan secured his third term in office, extending his rule into a record third decade and positioning himself to go down in the annals of history as the most influential leader in Turkey’s modern history.

While Erdogan celebrates his electoral victory, analysts decry the election as “unfair”, mourn the future of democracy in Turkey and foresee more tension in ties with the West.

How did Erdogan win?

This election was widely considered the biggest challenge of Erdogan’s long political career. Polling stations opened their doors to voters at a time when the nation was still reeling from the aftermath of the February 6 devastating earthquake and the public was angry at how Erdogan’s government mishandled the crisis. The disaster compounded pre-existing nation-wide struggles due to a multitude of challenges, including a severe cost of living crisis, a plummeting currency, and depleted foreign reserves.

Non-resident scholar at Middle East Institute, Howard Eissenstat, told Al Arabiya English that Erdogan’s political astuteness and ability to connect with his base were key factors in his victory. Despite the dire state of the economy and public anger over the government’s mismanagement of the earthquake response, Erdogan successfully channeled his supporters’ hopes and dreams. Eissenstat also highlighted the unfair playing field in which the election was conducted, with state institutions and an overwhelming majority of the media supporting Erdogan.

“The real story is the unfair playing field that the election was contested on, with the full array of state institutions and 90 percent of the media supporting Erdogan. It wasn’t a fair election by any definition,” Eissenstat said.

Adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, Henri Barkey, concurred. He told Al Arabiya English: “The election was not fair as the government controls all the media, and censors opponents, and there is almost no way for the opposition to combat the propaganda against it.”

He added: “That said, Erdogan is the only leader many Turks have known. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” Barkey also acknowledged the role played by Erdogan in shifting blame for the country’s challenges onto foreign powers and leveraging nationalist sentiments against certain groups such as the Kurds and Syrians.

Charles Horowitz, a foreign affairs analyst who writes for online publication Policy Reform Now, told Al Arabiya English that Erdogan enjoyed the ability to frame himself as the sole guarantor of Turkey’s stability, both domestically and internationally. By insinuating that the opposition collaborated with terrorist groups and posed a threat to national security, Erdogan successfully redirected public discourse away from the economy and the earthquake response. Additionally, Erdogan’s campaign subtly exploited the perception that his experience in disaster relief would enable faster post-earthquake recovery compared to the opposition.

What is the future of democracy in Turkey?

Despite Erdogan’s victory, the analysts unanimously express concerns about democracy in Turkey. Eissenstat emphasized that democracy required more than just periodic elections, highlighting the need for freedom of speech, a level playing field, and tolerance for dissent. “The next five years are going to see a continuation of repression,” he said.

Barkey lamented the weakened lifeline of democracy and the potential for increased repression under Erdogan’s rule. “You can say goodbye to democracy which was already hanging by a terribly weak lifeline.”

Horowitz warned: “This is a dire moment for Turkish democracy… Erdogan’s broad authority is likely to simply be bolstered by this election as he becomes the most influential Turkish leader since [Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk himself.”

As Turkey moves forward under Erdogan’s leadership, the concerns raised by analysts underscore the importance of safeguarding democratic principles. The international community’s engagement and support will be crucial in shaping the trajectory of democracy in Turkey and its relations with the rest of the world.

More of the same foreign policy?

Under his leadership, tensions dramatically built between Turkey on one hand and the US, EU and NATO on the other. Erdogan had increasingly in past years employed a more assertive foreign policy aimed at increasing Turkey’s influence in its region and beyond.

Analysts said that Erdogan’s foreign policy is likely to remain contentious and tensions with the West are likely to persevere. Eissenstat said: “[Erdogan] isn’t going to change radically and Turkey’s relations with the West will continue as they have, with a degree of continued cooperation, coupled with a lot of frustration for all sides.”

However, Barkey argued that Erdogan’s third presidential term will bring about changes in Turkey’s foreign policy, primarily due to the impending economic crisis, which is expected to be severe. He highlighted that Ankara desperately needs foreign domestic investment especially in its manufacturing sector and markets for exports and “the only ones who have the means to help Erdogan are the Europeans and Americans.”

Horowitz contended that Turkey’s ties with the West would likely be less strained but still testy. He said: “Erdogan will continue to be a thorn in the side of Western policymakers as Turkey keeps positioning itself in the middle of most foreign policy debates… Turkish foreign policy will cool down ever so slightly, but it will continue to be an area that causes plenty of Western headaches.”

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