The election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Turkey’s new executive president marks a significant step towards Turkey becoming an autocracy, and further separates Turkey from the West as a strategic partner. Turkey has been an important member of NATO, but it is increasingly doubtful whether it would now act in concert with its alliance partners if push came to shove.
Erdogan’s victory was the result of an electoral process that cannot be said to have been ‘democratic’ in the substantive sense of the term. The election was not ‘free’ as it was held under a ‘state of emergency’ and with swathes of Erdogan’s opponents jailed on mostly questionable charges. It also failed to meet the criteria of being ‘fair’, with Turkey’s media either closed, tightly controlled by, or aligned with, the state.
Erdogan’s new executive powers are sweeping, giving him authority to issue decree laws and to intervene in the judiciary. He has achieved this position by welding together populist support from Turkey’s more rural and conservative Muslim constituents, who have little understanding of, or time for, democratic pluralism.
Critically, Erdogan’s victory also entrenches Turkey’s drift from Europe. Where Turkey long held an ambition to join the European Union, that desire is now tempered by continuing EU criticism of Turkey’s poor human rights record.
There is a point, fast approaching, where access to Europe’s markets become outweighed by perceptions of attempted interference in Turkey’s domestic affairs. Turkey’s failure to meet that threshold requirement for EU membership has further receded with Erdogan entrenching his autocratic leadership.
Erdogan’s leadership of Turkey has seen it move increasingly close to Russia and Iran, both of which Turkey had previously been at odds with. After having supported Islamist groups in Syria’s civil war, Turkey is now content with attempting to control the Kurdish YPG forces along its border, while allowing Russia and Iran to shore up the tattered remains of Syria’s Assad government.
Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria to block Kurdish autonomy placed it in direct opposition to its NATO allies, which support the YPG as the main force that defeated Islamic State in Syria. Turkey’s northern Syrian offensive was facilitated by Russia allowing Turkish war planes to cross into Russian strategic airspace.
Turkey has also been moving closer to Russia, with the purchase of air defence weapons moving closer to completion, and talks over the development of a Turkish nuclear power plant. These moves diminish Turkey’s value to NATO as providing a southern bulwark against an assertive Russia.
There have even been calls within Turkey to remove the US nuclear aresenal from Turkey’s Incirlik air base. The US might now also be considering the wisdom of leaving nuclear weapons at a site within a country that is less trusted as a strategic ally.
From Turkey’s perspective, the US continuing to provide sanctuary to exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen has also damaged their friendship. Erdogan believes that his former close associate, Gulen, was responsible for an attempted coup in 2016.
It may be that Erdogan manages to balance strategic friendships with NATO as well as Russia, and even Iran. But, in doing so, Turkey will by definition no longer be firmly within the Western strategic camp. To the extent that it has been for the past six decades, that may have been, for Turkey, an historical aberration.