As many pundits expected, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a historic third term as he overcame his opponent in Turkiye’s presidential runoff on Sunday. His triumph, after a tough first round, is being celebrated by his supporters both at home and abroad, but at 69 the populist Islamist leader, who has ruled for two decades, has plenty to contend with as he begins a new five-year term.
His opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, may have failed to play his cards right in the last round. Xenophobic rhetoric, primarily against the more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in the country, may have backfired and limited his chances. At least 200,000 Syrians now have Turkish nationality and, for the business sector, their contribution to the economy is important. As of 2020, it was estimated that Syrians had invested more than $500 million in capital into the country through the establishment of commercial activities, especially small and medium-sized enterprises.
Kilicdaroglu’s fealty to the West has also not worked for him. Erdogan is admired for his maverick nature when dealing with what many Turks see as a patronizing and pretentious Europe. Still, Kilicdaroglu got more than 47 percent of the votes, which means that millions of voters turned their back on the incumbent.
One challenge facing Erdogan at home is dealing with Turkiye’s 14 million Kurds, who make up about 18 percent of the population. The issue of Kurdish rights was central in this month’s elections and it was interesting that the pro-Kurdish parties voted for his rival. Will Erdogan, who lifted linguistic and cultural restrictions on the community, be in the mood for revenge?
The Turkish elections got much international media coverage, especially in the West, simply because the outcome of the poll will decide what this important country, with vast influence across the Middle East and Central Asia, will look like in the coming years. It is no secret that a majority of leaders in Europe and the US would have liked to see the demise of Erdogan, but not for the obvious reasons. It is not because of his brand of political Islam. Rather, it is because of his politics; the fact that, under Erdogan, Turkiye has become not only a rising economic power, but also a regional and a geopolitical player with controversial ties and alliances. As Turkiye is a founding member of NATO, Erdogan has raised eyebrows because of his special relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, especially over Syria and Ukraine. Ankara is also yet to give the green light to Sweden’s admittance to the North Atlantic military alliance.
Early in his tenure, Erdogan embraced the “zero problems with neighbors” philosophy, but he soon steered away from that path and Turkiye began to make trouble in northern Syria, Iraq’s Kurdistan, Armenia, Libya, Egypt and Israel. He later shifted again, at least on Syria, Israel and Egypt, and is now showing a more pragmatic approach toward the Gulf countries. His alliance with Moscow is also paying off as he tries to make his country a global hub for liquefied gas distribution. The amazing thing is that, despite his closeness to Russia and Iran, he has managed to keep relations with the US alive despite periods of tension.
Erdogan also has a complex relationship with Iran. While the two have cooperated in areas such as trade and infrastructure development, tensions over their differing views on Syria have also surfaced.
One thing that is for sure is that he will not turn against his friend in the Kremlin any time soon. It will be interesting to see if he is willing to change course on Syria and make up with the now-rehabilitated — at least within the Arab League — Bashar Assad. He is expected to push for a final reconciliation with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. He has already distanced himself from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leadership in exile, but Ankara’s backing of the Islamists in Libya remains an issue.
In fact, despite showing signs of adopting a more moderate line, Erdogan’s brand of conservative Islamist politics continues to attract supporters and loyalists from outside Turkiye as well. His victory was celebrated with much fanfare in Libya’s Tripoli and in Gaza City.
But all is not well in Turkiye’s relations with its Arab neighbors. Aside from Erdogan’s support for anti-regime rebel groups in Syria, relations with Baghdad are not good either. Turkiye has made several incursions into Iraqi territory and its ambitious policy of building several dams across the Euphrates and its tributaries has created an environmental catastrophe for Iraq and many parts of Syria.
It is no secret that a majority of leaders in Europe and the US would have liked to see the demise of Erdogan.
Erdogan is a strict nationalist with ambitions of resurrecting the glories of the Ottoman sultanate. It is important to see the world from his perspective in order to begin to understand him.
With this latest victory, Erdogan is likely to continue his signature policies, which could further strain Turkiye’s relations with Western democracies. Even then, he has become a crucial geopolitical player, which means that neither the US nor Europe can afford to confront him head-on.
Domestically, Erdogan has to reckon with the fact that almost half the voters turned against him. A polarized country, with a deepening economic crisis, will not be easy to rule. Again, for the rest of the world, what matters is how Erdogan’s foreign policy will look and if it is likely to change.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010