As Turkey begins its second century, uncertainty looms

Upcoming Turkish elections will arrive during a period of domestic turmoil, though its foreign and security interests will remain consistent.

Erdogan Turkey rally
November 27, 2022: Supporters of Turkey’s ruling AKP display a giant poster of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a stadium rally in Istanbul. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Deadly earthquakes have jolted Turkey’s election year
  • The opposition has unified against Erdogan
  • Turkey’s neighborhood remains marked by conflict, instability

2023 should be a year of centennial jubilation for the Turkish Republic, and will be one of political decisions, with presidential and parliamentary elections set for May. Notwithstanding war in two neighboring countries and major challenges for its economy, starting with sky-high inflation, Turkey has long planned to celebrate a century since the founding of the republic in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The February 6 earthquakes that killed more than 40,000 people will make the anniversary events more somber occasions, with their impact on Turkey’s coming year still difficult to foresee.

Kemal Ataturk – whose mausoleum now dominates from a hilltop in Ankara, the capital he chose to replace Istanbul – stood for radical Europeanization and modernization. The changes undertaken in the 1920s included a total reform of the Turkish alphabet and language, and an end to public clothing norms such as the fez for men and veils for women.

Today, a century later, Europe’s weaknesses are being laid bare and old certainties loosened. The Turkey of 2023 – or Türkiye, as the country now officially calls itself – has a population of 85 million, a sixfold increase. In recent decades it has undergone major transformations, with several cities growing into huge metropolises. Istanbul has become Europe’s biggest urban agglomeration, and its youthful energy is often likened to New York, another “city that never sleeps.” Turkish military personnel are stationed abroad from Qatar and Somalia to Syria and Libya. The country’s national airline has become world-class and is now the number one operator for African routes.

End of the road?

Few countries in modern Europe have been led by the same person for as long as the Turkey of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Leaving aside Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has effectively remained in charge since 1999, Mr. Erdogan is the continent’s longest-serving leader, set to reach two decades in power this March at the helm of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

President Erdogan’s 20-year rule marks an undeniable expansion of Turkey, not only in population but also in political, economic and military influence. Another notable dynamic is the shift of gravity away from Istanbul and its business tycoons — toward new elites in the east and northeast, where Mr. Erdogan’s roots lie, and a more conservative, religious mindset.

On foreign policy, Turkey’s critics highlight a sometimes unpredictable assertiveness that comes with a politicized use of history. The government has taken up the long-neglected Ottoman heritage, attributing a greater role to religion than in the radically secular Ataturk era. Several years ago, this writer was startled to see an AKP election poster in Ankara referencing the year 1071, with an implicit suggestion to target the 2071 millennium for major achievements. The 1071 victory by a Seljuk army over the Byzantines marked the beginning of the conquest of Anatolia by Turkic tribes. A similar move was made in 1896 by Franz Joseph l, King of Hungary, to celebrate the millennium of the “Hungarian land-taking” in 896 and thus strengthen national identity.

Initially, Mr. Erdogan stood for a close relationship with the European Union and the opening of accession talks in 2005. The 2004 decision by Greek Cypriots to reject the United Nations plan to resolve the island’s status was perhaps the most significant moment for Ankara’s alienation from the EU. Admitting the Republic of Cyprus into the EU, and the strong political influence that this conferred on the government in Nicosia, seems to have caused a traumatic sense of disappointment in Ankara.

Regardless of the results of May’s planned elections, negotiations between the political parties could prove more decisive.

President Erdogan and his AKP are determined to win the coming May 2023 elections to secure him another five-year mandate and a supporting majority in parliament. The new presidential constitution, approved by referendum in 2017, hands the leader wide powers and makes it easy to govern as long as they have parliamentary backing. This could well change after the election in May, which would raise important practical and legal questions.

The double elections for president and parliament will arrive during a season normally associated with optimism, but sometimes also with renewal, reform or even rebellion. Recall the Prague Spring of 1968, or the simultaneous student unrest in Paris and Germany – as well as Turkey’s vaguely ecological but rather undirected Gezi Park protests in May-June 2013. In the decade since, increasingly repressive actions by Turkey have deepened the divide with the EU. That dynamic accelerated in the wake of Gezi Park and peaked after a foiled coup attempt in 2016.

The erosion of liberties and defiance of EU standards and Council of Europe rulings have been harshly criticized by Brussels. But what often escaped Western observers was the bitter, hard-to-grasp rivalry between the “mainstream” conservative AKP and its temporary partner, the religious Gulen movement. Their fierce power struggle accounted for much of what happened in Turkey starting around 2010 and culminating in the clumsy but still bloody coup attempt of July 16, 2016.

After months of mutual recriminations between Ankara and EU capitals, some in various corners of Europe were quietly rejoicing at the prospect of ousting Mr. Erdogan, however undemocratically. What mattered more – and went on to cast a permanent pall over EU-Turkey relations – was the Europeans’ failure to unequivocally sympathize with the coup’s ultimate target, Turkish democracy. This contrasted with the immediate aid and solidarity coming from the British government and, importantly, from Mr. Putin’s Russia, ushering in a steady warming of relations with both countries.

President Erdogan and his government have faced multiple foreign crises simultaneously. While the courtship between Brussels and Ankara sometimes degenerated into arguments or unfriendly behavior, the wars to Turkey’s south (in Syria and Iraq) and north (Russia/Ukraine) have been more lasting sources of danger. Not to mention the migrant crisis – delivering four million mostly Syrian refugees – and tensions with Greece and Cyprus over the Eastern Mediterranean Sea borders, ahead of elections in both Ankara and Athens.

Coming elections

Against this backdrop, the 2023 elections should determine the direction of Turkey. However, regardless of the result, negotiations between political leaders and parties could prove more decisive.

As in past races, Turkish opposition parties hope to gain the upper hand this time around and finally oust Mr. Erdogan. Brandishing the AKP’s conservative and religious profile, he has proven quite pragmatic, when necessary, always good for a surprise both domestically and abroad. There is no reason this time should be different, despite the rise of a unified opposition: the “table of six” parties. Their vanguard – the Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by Ataturk himself – is the traditional torchbearer of secularism, run by a seasoned leader who has already several times tried and failed to dethrone the incumbent.

The wide ideological variety of the electoral bloc recalls a recent failed attempt in Hungary to unite the opposition against Viktor Orban. As in Hungary, government structures and the influence over the media by the ruling party dominate Turkish politics, giving plenty of ammunition to those who claim that its elections are unfair.

At the same time, Turkey’s democracy typically features thousands of election observers volunteering for ballot monitoring, which are usually characterized by high turnout rates. Add to that the volume of social media communications in a tech-savvy nation and there is a strong case that real democracy is at work, despite a framework that is unfair by conventional Western standards.

Earthquake damage
Two massive earthquakes in February killed over 40,000 people in Turkey, and wracked upwards of $84 billion in damage, some 10% of the country’s entire 2022 economy. © Getty Images

The opposition is still determining whether the CHP’s longtime leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who seems to fare well in the polls, will ultimately be nominated. The mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, appear more attractive, even to many CHP supporters.

Meral Aksener, a popular figure in the nationalist camp, has declined to run for president. She hopes to return as prime minister to a stronger parliament after an opposition victory, when the role of president would be limited to more ceremonial functions. It is a bold bet, relying on the victors not to seize the current winner-takes-all constitution for their own gain.

Several small parties, led by former top politicians (like former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu and deputy prime minister Ali Babacan) appear far from reaching even the lowered 7 percent threshold to reach the parliament. The left-leaning, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is doing reasonably well in the polls but is threatened by a possible legal ban on the grounds of alleged collusion with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish militant group. The HDP’s leader, Selehattin Demirtas, has been imprisoned for six years. Overall, the Kurdish vote could be decisive, as the AKP has always been able to rely on a major portion of ethnic Kurds to vote for them.

Turkey’s position is dictated by geography and the reshuffle in relations between Europe and Russia – or indeed, between the U.S. and the rest of the world – now underway.

The AKP’s smaller, nationalist coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), is clinging to power amid internal strife. Some speculate that it might even be ready to tolerate an opening by the government toward left-wing Kurds, especially the HDP, or renewed dealings with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, imprisoned for terrorism.

After all, 10 years ago the AKP took big steps by attracting and incorporating Kurdish votes and Kurdish politicians, some of whom continue to hold important positions in the party. Taboos were broken when negotiations involving the imprisoned Mr. Ocalan led to a comprehensive cessation of all hostilities, ushering in two years of peace (from March 2013-July 2015). At the time, I vividly recall the joyful sense of relief in the air when traveling to Eastern Turkey, which had known decades of fighting, bombings and the recruitment of young people for the underground movement.

Alas, the truce broke down in the summer of 2015, by some accounts because the PKK and its Syrian affiliates (the People’s Protection Units, or the YPG) attempted to profit from the Western military surge against the Islamic State. The Islamist group was occupying large swaths of Syrian territory at that time, culminating in the battle for Ayn-al-Arab (known by its Kurdish name Kobani). It may have been too tempting to try to carve out proper PKK territories along the Syrian border and connect them to contiguous YPG-held territory in Syria. Turkey reacted in a foreseeable way, harshly crushing the effort.



History sometimes produces improbable breakthroughs. As elections are imminent in Turkey, the government has been under heavy pressure to repatriate a substantial number of the four million Syrian refugees, taking account of popular sentiment and opposition demands. Now, the shock and fallout of the earthquake tragedy are superseding that crisis.

Russia-brokered meetings between Ankara and Damascus indicate ongoing efforts for some sort of bilateral restart. Yet Moscow has been Turkey’s adversary in Syria, as has the United States, which supports the PKK-linked Syrian Democratic Forces.

2023 could prove to be a year of surprising turns and escalating wars, especially in and around Ukraine. We may see further “black swan” events. The terrible earthquakes in southern Turkey in early February have made the political situation even more volatile, and could indeed contribute to such unforeseen repercussions. However, the surprise warming of relations with Greece and Armenia amid their offers of earthquake aid is an unexpected and positive development, which has not yet been made permanent. The overall impact of the disaster, already judged to be Europe’s worst in a hundred years, will certainly overshadow the centennial celebrations.

With the specter of the war in Ukraine spiraling out of control, the stakes for Turkey are unusually high this year. Whatever the ballot’s outcome, Turkey’s foreign and security policy will not change fundamentally, based as they are on its security and economic needs and interests.


In one scenario, President Erdogan manages to rein in the widespread desperation and criticism of the government’s failures to anticipate the gravity of the present disaster. Despite the huge challenges on the ground, he is able to regain the initiative and use his personal leadership to unite enough of the public. The government employs state of emergency tools, already implemented for the hardest hit regions, as well as other measures, and postpones the election. In doing so, Mr. Erdogan stays in power, at least nominally for the purpose of managing the precarious post-disaster period.

The hour of the opposition

At the opposite extreme, the opposition – helped by the effectiveness and popularity of major opposition-controlled municipalities such as Istanbul, Ankara, Antalya and Izmir – succeeds in playing an increasingly prominent role in the post-disaster situation, and in discrediting President Erdogan and his government. Political pressure piles up, and the delayed election envisaged by the government proves impossible to achieve. There are widespread protests across the country in support of the opposition, recalling those seen in the 2013 Gezi Park movement. These are joined by the HDP, reaching a dramatic level.

A course of events closer to the first scenario is more probable – albeit recognizing the increased odds of unforeseen volatility.

The foreign policy dimension

Russia’s westward orientation, from Peter the Great all the way to Gorbachev’s “common European home,” is now being delivered a lasting setback – driving a wedge between Europe and Eurasia. If that gap widens and persists, it will become more difficult for Turkey to continue its delicate balancing act between the various antagonists.

Turkey’s position is dictated by geography and the reshuffle in relations between Europe and Russia – or indeed, between the U.S. and the rest of the world – that is now underway. This brings other actors into focus, including China, India and Pakistan; the rest of the BRICS, Brazil, Russia and South Africa; and the “nonaligned” Shanghai, Islamic, Arabic, ASEAN and Turkic groupings, with whom Ankara entertains close or even member relations.

The path chosen by Turkish voters in May will mostly come from domestic considerations. But the country’s size, geographical position and military strength matter for Europe and the world.

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