Erdoğan’s authoritarian bargain collapses in Turkey

The writer is author of ‘Erdoğan’s War: A Strongman’s Struggle at Home and in Syria’

Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14 will pose a key question of our time: is it possible to slow authoritarian backsliding and renew democratic progress? At a time of autocratic surge, it has become fashionable to make bleak predictions about the fate of liberal democracies.

Less scrutinised is the future of autocracies. Will countries such as Turkey that descended into one-man rule remain autocratic? Is it possible to depose entrenched strongmen like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan through elections?

Turkey’s opposition parties have never been more optimistic about that prospect, and for good reason. Just like democracies, autocracies die in poverty. Strongmen mobilise popular support behind their autocratic agendas but they must deliver economic growth. Erdoğan came to power in 2003 after the worst economic crisis in three decades. He took the reins of power in the name of the forgotten people, pledging prosperity. He followed through on that promise in his first decade in charge thanks to an economic rebound and a pro-western foreign policy.

But Erdoğan’s reign has since degenerated into corruption, misrule and cronyism. While a few at the top enjoy immense wealth, millions of Turks are below the poverty line. Erdoğan’s authoritarian bargain has collapsed. Turkey’s opposition promises a new contract with society — one that restores parliamentary democracy, pursues a peaceful, pro-western foreign policy and promotes shared prosperity. It might finally have the ear of the people.

Feeding the opposition’s optimism is its united stance. Autocrats do not need majorities to destroy democracies; all they need is a divided opposition. Erdoğan has been blessed with weak opponents. The six-party opposition bloc has recently united around Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s party (CHP).

Boosting his prospects is the bloc’s decision to appoint Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, the popular CHP mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, as vice-presidents should the opposition win. But even more important is the stance of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party. The party, which is the third-largest in parliament but is not part of the opposition bloc, signalled it may back Kılıçdaroğlu in the presidential vote.

Still, beating an autocrat in elections that are neither free nor fair is not easy. Compounding the challenge is an unfavourable international context. The west’s resolve to defend democratic change played a key role in the spread of democracy that began in late 1970s. That surge drew to a halt in the mid-2000s, partly due to the west’s pullback. Autocrats from China to Turkey have a freer hand today to promote their own model. And they help each other out. Cash flows from Russia, China and Saudi Arabia have aided Erdoğan at critical junctures. Once again, they are rallying behind him.

Western countries, by contrast, have long given up on Turkey’s democratic forces, forging a transactional relationship with Erdoğan that has strengthened his hand against his domestic rivals. President Joe Biden pledged to restore democracy to the heart of US foreign policy, but for the sake of geopolitical interests he largely kept quiet about Erdoğan’s assault on democratic norms. The EU, too, looked the other way when Erdoğan dismantled Turkey’s democratic safeguards, instead striking a bargain to shut out migrants from conflict-ridden countries.

But standing up for embattled democrats and defending free and fair elections would not be a distraction from the west’s pursuit of its interests. Quite the opposite, defending democracy serves those goals. Autocrats are unpredictable allies. They pursue destabilising, reckless, militaristic, anti-western foreign policies. Since Erdoğan centralised power in his hands, Turkey has armed radical groups, launched military incursions into Syria, flexed its muscles in Libya, purchased a Russian missile defence system, helped Iran and Russia circumvent western sanctions and threatened to block Nato expansion.

Turkey’s opposition faces an uphill battle. It will be a tight race. If the opposition wins, the country’s authoritarian turn under Erdoğan will be a detour in the long, difficult road to democratic consolidation. If it loses, Turkey will slide deeper into authoritarianism, and elections will not matter. What happens in the upcoming vote will not only determine the fate of the country. It will also decide what Turkey does beyond its borders. Above all, the result will say a lot about the future of democracy across the world.

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