The message that Turkey’s election can give to democrats around the world

An Erdogan campaign poster on a street in downtown Istanbul (UMIT BEKTAS /)

Beneath the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the homeland of the Ottoman sultans, a monument to another imperial leader has been erected. The Anadolu, the first Turkish-built aircraft carrier, was sent to the Bosphorus last month as the country prepared to vote in the May 14 elections, the most important of the year worldwide. With the display of the warship, which is making a campaign tour of the coast, the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes to ignite patriotic voters. But his charisma, grand gestures, and gifts from him may not be enough. The man who has ruled Turkey since 2003, in an increasingly autocratic style, could suffer a defeat.

As we reported, the elections are on a razor’s edge. Most polls show Erdogan losing by a slim margin. If he lost, it would be a staggering political upheaval with worldwide consequences. The Turkish people would be freer, less fearful, and in time more prosperous. A new government would repair battered relations with the West. (Turkey is a member of NATO, but under Erdogan it has been a disruptive player in the Middle East and has sought closer ties with Russia.) More importantly, at a time when strongman governments are on the rise, from Hungary to India, Erdogan’s peaceful ouster would show democrats around the world that strongmen can be defeated.

Let’s start with Turkey itself, a middle-income country of 85 million people located at the crossroads of Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Like autocrats around the world, Erdogan has entrenched himself in power by systematically weakening the institutions that constrain and correct bad policies, and which his opponents, a six-party alliance with a detailed governance plan, vow to restore.

Of the many negative consequences of barely limited power, Erdogan’s economic policies hurt ordinary Turks the most. In two years he removed three governors of the central bankThe ostensibly independent man made his incompetent son-in-law finance minister and has forced the bank into absurdly loose monetary policy ever since. This has kept growth fairly strong, but has led to a inflation which peaked at 86% last year and is still well above 40% (according to official figures, which may not be reliable). Voters complain that the price of onions has increased tenfold in two years.

If the opposition candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, wins the presidency, has promised to restore the bank’s independence and reduce inflation to single digits; that, hopefully, would also reverse the collapse in foreign investment. But not only the economy will have to be fixed.

Opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu.  Polls show him in a close fight with the current president
Opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Polls show him in a close fight with the current president (MURAD SEZER /)

The democracy He has also received assisted breathing. Like so many other strongmen, Erdogan has neutralized the power of attorney through a legal appointments board. He has gagged the media, partly through intimidation and partly through the orchestrated sale of media to cronies, another common ploy. He has put aside Parliament, through constitutional changes in 2017 that gave him discretion to rule by decree; Kilicdaroglu vows to reverse this situation. Erdogan’s prosecutors have intimidated activists and politicians with false accusations of “terrorism”. Between the political prisoners from Turkey is the leader of the main Kurdish party, the third in the country, threatened with outlawing. The (opposition) mayor of Istanbul faces jail time and a ban on politics. Former government heavyweights are afraid to criticize the president, demanding anonymity before speaking about him in whispers. All of this will get worse if Erdogan is re-elected, but it will quickly get better if he loses.

An opposition victory would also be good for Turkey’s neighbors, and of enormous geopolitical value for the West. At present, Turkey is almost completely cut off from the rest of Europe, although it is still nominally a candidate for EU membership. That may never happen, but President Kilicdaroglu is committed to complying with the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and to start releasing Erdogan’s political prisoners. Europe should respond by reviving a long-stalled visa program for Turks, improving Turkey’s access to the EU’s single market and cooperating more closely on foreign policy.

Without the strong man, Türkiye’s disagreements with the NATO They should start to heal. His blockade on Sweden’s accession to the alliance would be lifted. Relations with the United States, poisoned by Erdogan’s complicity with Vladimir Putin and attacks on Kurdish forces in Syria, would improve. However, a new Turkey would uphold Erdogan’s policy of walking the tightrope over Ukraine. He would continue to supply Ukraine with drones, but would not add to sanctions against Russia, on which it is heavily dependent for tourists and gas.

More important than all this is the signal that an opposition victory would send to Democrats around the world. Around the world, more and more would-be autocrats are subverting democracy without abolishing it outright, eroding the norms and institutions that limit their power. Fifty-six countries can currently be classified as “electoral autocracies”, according to the research institute v-Dem, compared to the 40 that existed at the end of the cold war. The list could increase: The president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obradorhas attempted to undermine the country’s judicial and electoral power.

A beacon for the downtrodden

If Erdogan loses, he will show that the erosion of democracy can be reversed, and suggest how to do it. The democratic opposition parties must recognize the danger and unite before it is too late. In Indiaa fragmented opposition has allowed Narendra Modi, a strongman prime minister, prevailing with 37% of the vote. Now the main opposition leader faces jail. The situation in Poland it is less bleak, but his opposition has also thrown away election after election against the populist ruling party.

The Turkish opposition National Alliance has already done much better. Kilicdaroglu may be a bit bland, but he’s a tenacious consensus-builder and charmingly humble; quite the opposite of his adversary. If he wins, it would be a great moment for Turkey, Europe and the global fight for true democracy. Erdogan did some good things in the first years of his tenure, but the constant accumulation of excessive power clouded his judgment and his moral sense, as often happens. We warmly support Kemal Kilicdaroglu as the next President of Türkiye.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

Keep reading:

The moment when Erdogan left a live interview and was withdrawn due to health problems